Whenever someone suggests that sometimes its ok to ignore the rules, someone else inevitably asks why you should even bother to use rules if you're not going to slavishly follow them at all times, apparently to make sure that the discussion is safe from crows. A super-secret project that I'm currently working on required me to answer that question in some depth. This is what I came up with:
Due to a combination role-playing’s wargaming roots and an early focus on combat and puzzle-solving that led to an adversarial relationship between players and GMs, the first few generations of RPGs were played like strategy games. The “win conditions”--which usually involved survival, overcoming obstacles and increasing your character’s power--were more open-ended than for a board or card game, but early RPGs were still mostly about finding ways to optimize or exploit the rules in your favor. These early games included elements of storytelling, but telling stories wasn’t the main focus.
Storytelling games have more in common with party games in which there’s really no way to win purely through mastery of the game rules. No matter how well you understand the rules of Pictionary, you’re not going to win if nobody can figure out what you’re trying to draw. Also like party games, “winning” has more to do with having fun with your friends than achieving victory conditions, even if those victory conditions are just a vague notion of character success. In fact, since the goal is to tell a good story, some games are more fun when characters suffer dramatically interesting failures. Storytelling games have more in common with Who’s Line Is It Anyway? than Risk.
Rules play a very different role in storytelling games than in RPGs rooted in strategy gaming. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game isn’t to reward players who master the game system or to satisfy some vague notion of fairness or to settle interpersonal conflicts so players don’t have to talk to each other like grown-ups. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game is to help the players tell the story. The following sections explain how.
The Rules Provide Structure
Collaborative storytelling without rules can be awkward for a lot of people. While childhood imagination is viewed as acceptable and even positive, engaging in imaginative pursuits as an adult is considered a little weird, at least when there’s no secondary motive like personal growth or monetary gain. Even players who don’t feel self-conscious or silly are sometimes intimidated by free-form storytelling due to lack of clear expectations. The game format provides an aura of purpose that makes pretending to be a fictional character seem more acceptable and the rules themselves provide guidelines and set expectations by defining characters and other story elements.
The Rules Improve the Story
Predictable stories are almost always boring stories. It’s the twists, turns, and complications that keep the audience interested. Through the randomness provided by the dice, the game rules add an element of unpredictability that can send the story in unexpected directions. This both improves the story and provides more challenge to the players, since they have to react to these deviations from the obvious path.
The Rules Help Fill In the Details
Scenes that rely heavily on character interaction are natural to GM and play because we get a reasonable facsimile of what the audience would experience. We hear the characters’ dialog and in most cases see at least some approximation of their emotional reactions through the other players’ facial expressions, vocal cues, and body language. Our acting and dialog might not be ready for prime time, but it's usually good enough to ensure that everyone understands what’s going on in the scene.
When it comes to action scenes, things become considerably more difficult because more of the important details only exist in the imaginations of the players. Since everyone’s brain works differently and most players aren’t mind readers, it can be difficult to make sure everyone understands what’s going on, which in turn makes it hard to make sure that the scene flows in a dramatically satisfying way. On top of that, players have to verbally describe scenes on the fly that they’re used to experiencing visually or through carefully written (and re-written) prose, which can make it hard to decide what should happen next. The rules provide some structure to help ensure that everyone’s on the same page and the dice rolls themselves provide a sense of the ebb and flow of the action by organizing the flurry of activity into discrete actions that we can interpret and react to.
The Rules Settle Questions of Credibility
Orson Welles once said of James Cagney, “No one was more unreal and stylized, yet there is no moment when he was not true,” and the accepting the difference between realism and truth is an important step in understanding story-drive role-playing. Stories don’t have to be realistic, they have to be credible, and what is and isn’t credible has more to do with genre conventions and dramatic resonance than scientific fact. A good super-hero movie can make you believe a man can fly, but the exact same scene would completely ruin the credibility of most buddy cop films.
In RPGs, like in most fiction, establishing credibility is mainly about storytelling: making sure the story follows its own rules, the world is consistent, and the character’s actions and decisions make sense. Game mechanics usually come into play when there’s a question of whether or not it’s believable for a character to do something. In most fiction, convincing an audience that a character’s actions are credible is a function of the way in which the audience experiences the story; an author does it with words, an illustrator with pictures, and a filmmaker relies on the actors’ performances, special effects, and assorted Hollywood magic. Whether the scene is credible is obvious in the finished product.
Since RPGs take place completely within the imaginations of the players, we don’t have the kind of experiential clues that most audiences use to determine credibility, and the fact that we’re the creative team as well as the audience makes our judgement suspect anyway. We use dice and game rules to fill in that gap. Since RPGs are created and experienced simultaneously, we also don’t have the luxury of re-writing scenes that aren’t credible. Instead of writing things that aren't credible out of the story, we treat them as attempts that didn’t succeed and try to make the story work in light of the consequences of those failures. It’s one of those dice-motivated challenges we mentioned earlier.
Some character actions, like walking across the room, are obviously possible. Others, like ascending to a higher plane of existence and becoming a being of pure energy, are clearly not possible (at least in most games). For these kinds of actions, you don’t need to bother with the rules. For actions that fall between the two extremes, you may need to roll some dice. Some common situations in which rules are used to settle questions of credibility are described below.
When There Are Extenuating Circumstances
If Robin Hood is practicing archery, he hits the bullseye every time. There’s no need to roll because the character’s skill with a bow is so well-established that failure would actually be less credible than flawless success. If he’s trying to make the same perfect shot to win a wager that will save Little John from execution using a warped bow while Guy of Gisbourne screams insults into his ear, his success isn’t quite so inevitable, so the rules come into play. Common extenuating circumstances include:
- The character faces direct opposition from or is competing with another character
- The character is trying to perform the action under difficult conditions or without the proper resources and equipment
- The character is under pressure due to severe consequences for failure, time constraints, or other distractions
- When how well the character succeeds is important; for example, if the character is trying to impress someone or is being judged on how stylishly or skillfully he accomplishes the action. In this situation, the roll isn’t so much used to determine success or failure (unless there are other extenuating circumstance) as to provide a metric for determining the quality of the character’s performance or the quality of finished product (if the character is rolling to create something).
When There’s a Gap Between Player and Character Knowledge, Competence, or Experience
John “Bluto” Blutarsky is a pretty skilled motivational speaker, so he should have a decent chance of rallying the troops even the the guy playing him has trouble finding the right words and stumbles over his lines. On the flip side, the English major in the gaming group can almost certainly name the characters in The Great Gatsby with no problem, but is it really believable that the Larry the Cable Guy-inspired character he’s playing would recognize the name Nick Carraway? Rolling the dice allows the GM to decide whether the character’s incompetence cancels out the player’s ability (or vice-versa), whether the character knows something the player doesn’t, and whether the character shares a particular piece of knowledge with the player.
The experience gap refers to situations where the outcome is based on things the player can’t fully experience. For example, the player’s only indication of what the character sees and hears is what the GM describes to him. If it’s uncertain whether or not the character would notice something, the GM either has to make an arbitrary decision or roll some dice. Character memory is another good example of the experience gap, since the character probably remembers details that the player has forgotten or never knew in the first place.
When Something Seems Out of Character
Every character has thousands of skills that they had to learn at some point. They also have brains full of information that they’ve picked up over the course of their life. For example, most 21st Century Americans know how to do basic math, drive a car, and use a smart phone, among other things. They also know the rules to half a dozen or so sports, a random smattering of history, science, English, and other things they remember from school, and the lyrics to hundreds of pop songs and commercial jingles.
Since trying to translate everything a character knows or can do into game mechanics would require months of player time and a character sheet several hundred pages long, and it would still be incomplete, we have to assume that the character knows and can do a lot of things completely unrelated to the abilities described on his character sheet. Usually, a character’s assumed abilities and knowledge are obvious from the character concept and other things we know about the character, so there’s no need to bother with the dice unless there are extenuating circumstances. However, if a player wants to do something that’s so far outside of his character’s wheelhouse that it stretches credibility--for example, if a hedge fund manager wants to operate a backhoe--he should have to roll.
Rolling Dice Can Be Fun
Whenever you roll a die, there’s a moment of anticipation. When combined with good storytelling techniques, this anticipation can make things more exciting, create tension, or even make the players nervous (especially if the GM asks them to make a roll without explaining what they’re rolling for). Relying solely on dice rolling to set the scene is a terrible idea, but if the players seem bored, coming up with an excuse to let them roll some dice can sometimes get them back in the game.