Some thoughts about RPGs and Rules…

The last few days I’ve found myself thinking about games. I’m not usually one to post random musings, but here’s a few.

Through the big bar that is the internet, I was directed to a post by Joe The Lawyer, who says the following:

I remember a conversation with Rob Kuntz where he described a game, DnD I think it was, that he and a player were so into they continued it at a pizza place, sans dice, books, character sheets, paper and pencils, where Rob had the guy guess a number to determine success or failure.  It worked because there was a trusted conflict or situational resolution system that gave the appearance of stuff not being arbitrary. At its core, isn’t that what all RPG rule systems are supposed to do?

He continues…

The famous quote attributed to Gary Gygax:  “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” maybe ought to be expanded to gamemasters and players, and seems to be the deep dark secret of the RPG game design industry.

Did we really need a Numenara, a game which deals with common themes in RPG’s that have been around for decades, and just slapped a new resolution mechanic on all of it?  Do the rules really enhance the game that much?  Do they ever?  The only time I’ve ever seen rules impact the game is that the more rules you have the more the game sucks ass. 

I heard a number of variations of this basic theme at Gen Con this year… rules get in the way, there’s no need for any new system. I’ve been mulling it over since then. What I love most about roleplaying is that it’s a collaborative storytelling experience. Beyond this, many of my favorite RPGs—Lady Blackbird, Over The Edge, Fiasco—are indeed very simple games, with rules that can be summed up in a few pages. But I also enjoy more complicated systems such as Champions.

Ultimately, one thought sticks in my brain: RPG has two parts…. Roleplaying and game. You don’t need any rules to roleplay. You can roleplay in a pizza place with no books or dice. If you need arbitrary resolution, you can flip a coin or come up with rules on the spur of the moment (“OK, rogue, you need to get two heads in three flips to succeed.”). If all you’re looking for is a story, all you need is imagination. But as much as I love the roleplaying, some of the time I am actually playing for the game. If I just want get together with friends and create a story about superheroes, I don’t need Mutants & Masterminds, Villains & Vigilantes, or Champions. When I play Champions, it’s NOT because I have to do it—it’s because I WANT to do it. I enjoy constructing a character within the Hero System. I love coming up with a snappy one-liner (look, no rules!)… and then I enjoy doing a haymaker and rolling 18d6, and doing enough knockback to knock the bad guy through a wall (rules!). Yes, that scene could happen with any ruleset or none at all… but I like the experience of rolling eighteen dice, of making the choice to do the slow haymaker instead of the regular punch, of rolling for knockback. I like the game as well as the roleplaying. I can have fun telling a collaborative story in a bar without any dice or rules. But I can also having fun playing Champions in a bar without any story—just a random danger room deathmatch—because I enjoy the game.

The same goes for Dread. It’s a simple system with an interesting mechanic—using a Jenga tower instead of dice. When you do something risky, you draw tiles, and if the tower falls, you die. Do you NEED to use Dread to tell a scary story? No. In some ways it can even get in the way, because the tower itself ends up driving the risk. The gamemaster can raise or lower the number of tiles drawn, but if players are clumsy or make bad decisions they may wipe the party long before the GM expected it. It’s not the perfect system, or even the perfect suspense system. But it does create a very specific experience—one I can’t get just talking in a pizza place, unless I happen to have brought a Jenga set. The story doesn’t need Jenga. I don’t need it to roleplay. But sometimes what I want to do is to play Dread… and when that happens, there’s no better rule system out there.

Eberron isn’t married to D&D. I can take an Eberron story and adapt it to OD&D, Dread, Lady Blackbird, or the Hero System. Or I can just run it freestyle at a pizza place. But all five of those will be completely different experiences. When I decide what I’m going to play, it’s not just about the story I’m going to tell—it’s about the entire experience I want to have, and system is very much a part of that.

Over the last year I’ve been working on two RPG projects, Codex and Phoenix. With Codex, I decided that not only doesn’t need a unique system of its own, I want to encourage people to adapt it to whatever system that they prefer. Personally, I like the idea of running a campaign in which we might use a different system each session, picking the system that is best suited to the experience we want to have for that session. Meanwhile, I am developing a new system for Phoenix… because it’s a system that creates a distinct play experience, one that’s specifically suited to the goals of the game and entirely different than you’d get from converting the story to OD&D or playing it systemless in a pizzeria.

There’s more systems than I will ever play—or that I ever want to play. And there’s more books than I’ll ever read or want to read, and more movies than I’ll ever watch. Does this mean people should stop writing books or creating movies that don’t appeal to me personally? Should people only be allowed to enjoy the things I enjoy, and forced to stop wasting their money on anything else? I don’t have any plans to ever play Numenera, but that doesn’t mean the 5,000 people who have picked it up shouldn’t have that opportunity, or are somehow wrong to want to have the experience it presents.