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Who Needs Rules?

The other day, my wife and her co-worker got into an argument about roleplaying. This is really odd since he’s as biker and only sort of nerd-adjacent and my wife doesn’t really understand why this hobby is fun to me. However, she does understand, on an intellectual level, how it all works (probably because I won’t shut up about it, hence the blog). The debate, basically, was centered on the idea that he didn’t understand why roleplaying games needed rules. My wife tried to explain it by saying, basically, “The same reason SciFi needs to be internally consistent,” but he didn’t really understand that concept, either. His assertion was something like, since it’s all fantasy anyway (I’m sure he was envisioning D&D), why do you need rules? It’s just pretend. He then admitted, though, that he’d been kicked out of a game before because he didn’t, “take it seriously enough.” This all got me thinking about rules and why we have them and what purpose they serve.

Why So Serious?

I was struck by that turn of phrase, “don’t take it seriously enough.” I’ve heard it before, of course, in relation to various nerd hobbies. I used to think that it was some kind of hallmark of nerddom that we take our hobbies very seriously, but then I thought about how seriously folks take, say, football. So I’ve come to think that when someone accuses anyone else of taking something too seriously, they’re just expressing (poorly) a difference in priority. So you can sort of re-parse, “You take RPGs too seriously,” as “RPGs are not a hobby I share with you.” Thanks for that observation, Sherlock.

Now, I’m a person who has a hard time taking anything seriously, so I sort of bristled at the idea that I was taking my roleplaying seriously at all. But I think there’s also a misunderstanding between my wife’s co-worker and me with respect to what’s being taken seriously. He imagines I’m taking How An Elf Should Act seriously, but that’s sort of beside the fact. The thing that I, at least, take most seriously is fun. Specifically, I take very seriously the idea that everyone in the group should be having fun. My experience with people who get criticized for not taking a game seriously are focusing most on their own fun at the expense of the group’s fun.

So, to finally bring this section back to the main topic, one of the things that rules do for us is that they give us a framework for negotiating fun, if you take my meaning. The group can use rules to describe things about the play style that they think will be fun. If you’re using the advanced bleeding rules and all the optional close combat maneuvers, that says something about what your group finds fun, or at least is a way that you can have the conversation about what everyone will enjoy because agreeing on that is the key to everyone having fun together.

So What Are Rules For?

I mean, in general, why do games have rules? This is pertinent because RPGs are both a storytelling medium and a game. It seems to me that games can have varying level of structure, by which I mean to refer to the complexity of the rule set. On one end, you have games like one my brother used to play when he was little that he and his friends called Don’t Look Up. There aren’t really rules, per se. The way it works is that you get the bow and headless arrow his friend had. Then you take turns firing it straight up and then standing still with your arms at your side and, well, not looking up. Very simple (and surprisingly low risk, actually).

As you scale up in structure, you run into most sports which, especially at the collegiate or professional level, have whole tomes of rules covering edge cases and exceptions. When you get into this range, I think most games pit players against each other (in teams or not) and the rule set provides a way to moderate the interactions of players who are trying to achieve opposite goals. They might also act as a balancer if one player’s goal is easier than another’s (like pass interference rules in football, or Mario Kart’s last-place-drives-faster thing). These functions are really important in games where players are competing and I think it’s clear that they’re trying to achieve a sense of fairness.

But RPGs are collaborative, right? The players shouldn’t be fighting each other and the GM shouldn’t be trying to beat the players. That’s true, in a sense, but the players are still sort of competing. They’re maybe competing for time in the spot light, or for their plan to be the one the group puts into action, etc. And if, as I said above, we’ve got a goal that everyone has the most fun possible, then we need a way to make sure one player doesn’t sort of run away with every single scene for the entire campaign. So the level of complexity might vary between Savage Worlds and GURPS, but they both provide a structure that allows the management of interactions between all the players (the GM is also a player for these purposes).

How Does That Serve The Story?

So then, if we understand why the game part of roleplaying has rules and the purpose that serves, what impact does that have on the story part of it? One easy answer you might come up with is that is enables suspense. Maybe “micro-suspense” is a better word: I’m thinking of that moment where the goon has rolled well on his to-hit roll and now you have to dodge. Right before you roll the dice, you can’t know what’ll happen. It’s exciting. That’s nice, and all, but that’s going on at a much more granular level than the level of the campaign story.

No, I think a much more fertile line of inquiry is in an aspect of roleplaying that’s absent from other story telling media: the players. In order for the players to enjoy roleplaying, they have to feel that they’re in control of their own destinies. They have to be able to build a model of the campaign world in their heads that’s accurate enough to make predictions about the outcomes of potential courses of actions. If they can’t do that, then they’re just acting (or not) at random and being told a story (or not), which is not really roleplaying except maybe under the most avant-garde definition.

What I’m getting at is that having a system of rules builds a framework for the players that they can use to build their model and know about how to manipulate the world around their characters. It’s a lot like the understanding of basic physics we develop when we’re very young that enables us to predict how things will fall or object permanence so that we know that things don’t just cease to exist when we can no longer see them. So the game part, which requires rules, acts as a foundation for world-level consistency for the story to hang off of. It’s possible to do without it, I’m sure, but I think everyone involved would have to agree to (or build an agreement over) a similarly complex set of assumptions and constants.

My wife’s cor-worker would, I’m sure, consider this entire post as evidence that I was taking it all too seriously, but, you know, this post isn’t really aimed at him. I didn’t know where this train of thought would lead me when I started writing it, but I think it’s led to some interesting places. Have you got an insights to share? Experience with people who took roleplaying too seriously? Not seriously enough? Let us know in the comments.

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