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Thursday, 1st November, 2012, 02:24 PM #1
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Rules, Rulings, and the Paradox of Choice
Why do we want rules in our RPGs? What rules do we want, and what rules can we live without? When does the DM make the call, and when do you roll the dice? How deeply do you want the DM to get involved, and how much support should the player get to do their own thing without the DM’s intervention? Come along with me as I help uncover what makes a rule useful, and what makes it intrusive in your games.
Kings of Nothing
One of the central conceits at the core of any tabletop RPG is that you can do anything you imagine. You make a character, and they will confront obstacles, and how you respond to those obstacles is entirely up to you. No one is going to make you do a particular thing. You can do whatever you dream up.
RPG’s have someone to sit in judgment of your actions: a GM or DM is the arbiter of what works, and what does not. The DM describes the consequences of your proposed actions. You have infinite power to create any solution you can imagine, and the DM has equally infinite power to shut it down, cause you problems, and otherwise present you with a challenge.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an RPG. Two or more people sitting in a room with an endless world of imagination in front of them. What else do you need? There are a few RPGs, and probably more than a few sessions of any given RPG, that have been exactly that. If one was looking for the purest expression of role-playing game awesomeness, one would sit down with a friend or two and just imagine. One does not really need anything else.
And yet, those games and those sessions are not common. They're not what we think of when we think of sitting down to play an RPG with some friends. We feel our games are not complete without dozens of pages of detailed math and dice-rolling all dedicated to the very important purpose pretending to be a magical gumdrop elf, or an imaginary investigator, or a made-up person.
That seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Here we are, with hours of entertainment with any number of people in any number of settings with any number of stories, all without any outside influence, and yet we actively give some company money to put some rules in there. We have an open market of ideas, and we clearly want rules and regulations to tell us how do play. We value these limitations, at least in raw monetary terms. Why do we want to pay anonymous nobodies thousands of miles away to tell us the “right” way to pretend to be some sort of imaginary creature?
Well, it's true that some of us don’t. Some of us are very happy without any of those rules. But enough of us do to support an entire (if small) industry around it. This probably doesn’t just spring from the wallets of a handful of fabulously wealthy people who irrationally love rules, so what gives? Why, when I ask you to join a night of free-form roleplaying, are you probably not as interested as when I ask you to join my Pathfinder game? And why, even in the midst of my Rolemaster game, is it important for me to be able to ignore that library of rules?
They See Me Rollin’
If you and I sat in a room free-associating a narrative, it might be a pretty fun time, but it is, perhaps paradoxically, more effort to do that than it is to roll some dice and check a table. Barry Schwartz lays down some gospel on the issue here:
While Barry’s talk is a bit more far-reaching than just what freeform interactive narrative lacks, it’s also true that freeform interactive narrative falls into this problem: there’s too much choice. When anything is possible, nothing is significant, and it’s not a very satisfying time. The meaningful, real distinctions are few and far between. We're all very aware that it's artificial choice.
So we seek out limitations to that freedom. We want constraints. It’s more fun to play within those constraints than it is to boggle at the infinite void – they give us specific tools to use to help our imaginations along, imperfections in the vast smooth sphere of our infinite imaginations that can lead to constructive chaos.
Hence, we roll the dice.
There’s other ways to add rules to the game, too, but in D&D, we roll the dice. And because an RPG is also a game, those dice help us determine whether we “win” or “lose,” at least in the moment. We don’t just roll the dice to add some color to our descriptions (though we do that, too), we roll the dice to determine the fates of our avatars. Can my hero slay the dragon? Can my champion take the kingdom? Can my rogue kidnap the princess and ransom her back to the royal family? The answer may be yes, and it may be no, but the place where we find out the answer, as a group, is in the dice.
This is true in every attack roll, in every saving throw, in every skill check: it is a chance to win, or to lose, and to demonstrate your character’s competence or their lack thereof. While the fates of entire fantasy worlds often don’t rest on the shoulders of a single die roll, ultimately, they rest on the shoulders of several of them.
Rolling dice is fun for reasons aside from constraining our choice, too. Unpredictability adds surprise and discovery to our games, and makes them more engaging. When our hero fails to strike the dragon, we’re surprised, and tension goes up because the dragon gets closer to victory. When our hero strikes the dragon, we’re surprised, and we get closer to ultimate victory. The rules also provide a shared set of instructions for the game, improving trust between the DM and the players, ensuring that the bounds of “anything you can imagine” are limited by rules agreed-to in advance.
Of course, the DM always has the authority to break these rules. More than that, they have a responsibility to break them -- the DM and the Player come long before any dice-rolling in the RPG hierarchy. However, the DM also has a responsibility to uphold the rules that they do include in their games. Breaking the rules can ruin that unpredictability, it can violate that trust, and it can open up the imaginary world to a degree where we feel paralyzed by its overwhelming possibility and unpredictability. The rules add something valuable to our games, that we want. So breaking the rules should always be within the DM’s power, but it should be a power employed with caution. If the players can't have confidence in the rules themselves, the game is significantly less fun.
To see the truth of this for yourself, imagine your next D&D game, dropping all combat rules, and just going with “DM rulings” instead. You say your character attacks, and your DM says if you hit, and how much damage you do. You say you move 30 feet to the left, your DM says what happens. If you want to use a spell or special attack to hit an enemy, the DM will tell you what it does when you launch it. If this doesn’t sound like much fun to you, you’re probably not alone. We don’t need rules, but we want them. They’re fun, they ensure fairness, and they give our imaginations some guidance.
Combat And Everything Else
The example with combat above makes for an interesting distinction, because if someone proposed doing the same thing with, say, an encounter where the party thief was trying to sneak by some orcs, or an encounter where the party cleric was trying to persuade the king to act against the goblin menace, or a room where the party may or may not discover a secret door, it might not seem as bad to many D&D players. Take away my attack roll, and we have a problem. Take away my Diplomacy check…and maybe we like it even better?
Why this division occurs is a thorny problem of authority and gameplay style, but I think the following can be said with reasonable confidence: having unpredictability, trust, and limitations are more important to us in a fight than in any of the other two “pillars” of D&D (namely, exploration, and interaction). At least for most groups. It is likely that one reason for this is because failing at combat is one of the only things that, in D&D, can directly cause your “ultimate failure,” and that there’s more leeway involved in the other pillars. Being neutral is important when it might remove you from play entirely, but it’s less important when it’s just about avoiding a temporary set-back on your ultimate quest. Don’t convince the king, or fail to sneak past the orcs, or don’t notice the secret door, the game continues on. Get killed by the dragon, and you’re rolling up a new character.
We have seen, though, that rules aren’t just about fairness. They’re also about fun. Rolling dice is fun. Being able to roll an attack roll is more fun than saying “I try to hit the goblin with my sword” and waiting for a response. It removes the burden of decision from the DM, it keeps the game flowing, and it’s an enjoyable constraint.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to…but not required to…add that elsewhere?
Putting Things Where They Don’t Belong
If the rules for combat represent a more necessary addition to the rules because of their neutrality, they also represent a useful addition to the rules for the agency and unpredictability they add to the game. It’s not just important to use the combat rules to stay neutral, it’s also fun to use the combat rules, because they’re fun rules!
As the game has moved over time to a less-lethal, more-character-centered kind of game, the need for neutrality on even non-combat issues has become more urgent. Thus, we have rules like secondary skills, non-weapon proficiencies, skills, and skill challenges, all hoping to add some level of granularity to this side of the rules. Adding these elements has been somewhat controversial since day one, often being explicitly optional. Even when only implicitly optional, they have remained fairly abstract and subject to DM interpretation.
However, even at their most complex, these rules have never been much more than “roll to see if you win.”
In comparison, the rules for combat, after having more than 30 years’ worth of development, can be complex, multifaceted, engaging, deeply varied, and remarkably dynamic, all from the base of the rules themselves, with little in the way of DM decision-making involved. The rules for combat started off very similar to where skills are now: “Roll a dice and see if you hit.” However, by the advent of 4e, the rules for combat were so varied and dynamic they arguably overshadowed the other areas of the game. A 4e PC has a stack of specific attacks and defenses to use via their powers, but relies much more on DM interpretation and “roll dice to see if you win” for their skills. This is likely spot on what they want for some tables. For others, this might be too many combat rules, or even too many noncombat rules. For still others, this might be not enough combat rules, or not enough noncombat rules. Some DMs might want more variety and dynamism in their sneaking rogues, or their persuasive bards. Others might want to make judgment calls for things handled in 4e by Diplomacy checks or Bluff checks or powers like Come and Get It, relying on player skill over a roll of the dice.
Clearly, this is a place where modularity would come in handy. Right now, the 5e rules don’t include many non-combat abilities more detailed than “roll dice to see if you win.” For those who want the unpredictability, options, and fun that can come with additional rules in these areas, it remains to be seen if 5e D&D can deliver. Hopefully I’ve made the case that, as an option, as something a DM could opt into, I believe it should.
But what do you think? Where do you want rules, and where do you want rules to get the heck out of your way? Where is freedom welcome for you, and where would you like to be able to roll some dice and consult a table and not have to make so many decisions? Where do you need trust? Where do you need unpredictability and excitement? Let us know in the comments!
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