Rules for what?

I have this cunning plan to write an RPG system and setting. It’s been a plan for about 20+ years, and never really happened. Due respect to those who have done this, especially if that writing includes actually getting a book into market. Published game writers are Gods among dreamers.

Recently I got interested again and in the pursuit of that lofty and torturous goal I’ve been trying to reconcile the the need for rules light vs rules heavy RPG systems.

It took to me to a question:

In RPGs what do we actually need rules for?

To take a light approach one GM I knew used the rules only for actions directly involving the PCs against each other. All other activity was based upon their stats, but heavily weighed by discussion and story.

In another way – Rules may be used for different purposes according to the system, need, and goals of the group. I think there is a continuance for every mechanics to be written in RPG systems, where rules light discussion and story drives outcomes are in one direction, and the fully calculated results for each proposed micro-action taken within a mock physics engine are hanging in the extreme of the other. Within that range the systems are as complex as the designers felt they needed to be, so that the players are granted the ability to be entertained while role-playing.

That is, the players are supposed to be entertained by the game, and the system helps in that delivery. I am not sure mechanics for the sake of mechanics are beneficial at all, but they sometimes have a place (see desired clunk below)

So to take a more abstract view – I think “the rules” form the basis by which a group of people can resolve and agree the outcome of an action, sequence, or circumstance. Aww, how bloody fluffy.

But then I see rules for which the outcome is slightly divorced from the method, where the method itself is as much part of the elegance (the desired clunk) of the system itself. A mechanic which represents the lore is actually quite a wonderful and rare thing. If you know the horde mechanics in DeathWatch, that is what I’m thinking of. The lore of the game has these huge hordes, and the hordes have their own way of “moving” around the setting, being shot at, and defending. I guess any unit based controls in may systems probably have the same potential (except the old BattleSystem rules which were about as clear as the 1st Ed DnD DMG, after being translated into janglish).

So in amongst the paradigm of events for which rules help, here area few of the classics I thought noteworthy points to be differentiated from a direct answer; which is everything.

(a) Firstly combat. We as players sitting around a table cannot resolve a battle any more than we can experience the weightlessness of space. It is hopefully well beyond the group dynamic to try to really smash heads in.

(b) Inter-player social leverage. Like combat there are times when the characters will interact and behave differently from the players, and the character’s limitations or abilities far exceed our own. That leads to events where players will need to manipulate and interact with each other “inside” the story. Being intimidated by another player is probably not possible often, but two characters might have a relationship based upon intimidation, whereby the players use rules to resolve how often and how well the ongoing manipulation occurs.

It is where many “lite” systems just start having the players act and drop the dice altogether.

(c) Cohesive character generation. A game as a shared experience works best when the goals and expectations of the players match. Mix a bastard lying prick in amongst three noble hearted characters and you’ll have some dramatic tension in the short term , but eventually the nice guys might leave the bastard by the roadside. Or a team full of bastards implodes well before the plot is found.

Keep the toons within a respectable range of similar ethos, power level, and story tone. No point having a silly jokester in a game based in a grim-dark setting.

(d) Wealth, travel, and the burdens of life. This deals more with having parity and consequences.

In the list above I have left the interaction with NPCs off the critical list, as I think they are secondary to the interaction between the players, and also mirror the dynamics that are used between player characters. Once the rules for PCs are resolved the NPCs just re-use them. Yes, the King might be an impressive guy, but he’s no different from any other NPC in the setting – a lever to move the story, and a few stats to support it.

(e) Ignore the rules? As group dictates?

There is also a point at which all the talk of a good or bad, or even the right rule-set becomes irrelevant, which is when the players switch around with it within the game. Deciding to ignore the rules for the benefit of the story is something that I support, but there is also the players who will support the rules as a final arbiter over the story – and either is fine depending on what the players want.

So yes, it is darn tricky. Once those areas as sussed the rest of the mechanics are likely resolved in the same manner with slightly different stats.

When I get around to posting what choices I make, and thrashing them – you’ll see it here.

6 thoughts on “Rules for what?

  1. You said toons. What are you talking about. I was following along and liking the article when wham! What was that? I googled it and it still doesn’t make sense. Are you calling player characters “car-toons”? And if so, why? I feel that I am missing a major theme to your article without understanding why you are using that word.

  2. You should go should go read over on and read up on “One Minute of Play.”

    It talks about first determining what the core element of play is for a game, and then determining how to do that in the most entertaining/elegant/robust way possible. It also talks about dissecting the core moment of play from several other games, like D&D. It was a very educational post for me and might be useful for you with this goal in mind.


  3. hi Jim,
    Toon is a term I use for “character”, often when describing online games. It is not meant impart any special meaning about actually having a cartoon themed game.

    Used there because I use terms interchangeably.

  4. I coudn’t find One Minute of Play either. And thanks for explaining your use of Toon. Keep the articles coming! Good stuff.

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