The General Function of Rules in RPG (a partial description)


(He, Him)

Reason for Posting​

700-odd posts into an interesting discussion in this thread I proposed a general function for rules in RPG. I felt it could have wider value to folk studying or designing RPGs so decided to extract and repost it here. For brevity, I'm not going to explain why this proposal is as it is. Such explanations are found in the concepts of others, elsewhere.

The General Function of Rules in RPG*​

In a nutshell, it's this
So far as pre-existing norms extend, participants can often agree that a description D will have the consequences C. Rules supersede pre-existing norms and extend beyond them. During play it can be decided if any D has the consequences C by matching that D to a norm or rule that explicitly states or implies that C.

Along the D → N|R → C chain are a number of tasks –
  1. Supply a candidate description
  2. Match that description to a norm or rule
  3. Read off the norm or rule the stated consequences, or propose consequences fit to it
  4. If more than one consequence is possible, select one
2. is not always a trivial task. Unless a description exactly matches some game-text there is room for ambiguity. The AW game text calls attention to this (p10 in the 2nd edition.) D&D gives DM the job of matching descriptions to rules.

3. can get pretty nuanced. PbtA moves are compound rules that do a good job of directing toward the system and fiction consequences connected with any description that matches the move. D&D spells in most cases spell out the exact consequence. D&D skills on the other hand define scopes of effect that can imply a wide range of possible consequences. Again, D&D gives DM the job of fitting consequences. What to read off a norm or rule will be explicitly stated more often for change to system and implied more often for change to fiction.

4. in many games is down to a dice roll that selects between some or all of – progress, progress with complication, no-progress, and no-progress with badness. The word “progress” should not be read too literally here. Candidate descriptions are usually supplied with an ends in mind ("I climb the wall"... to get to the top. "I swing my mace"... to deal damage to the squirrel.) Progress generally means toward that ends.

More on Matching
The above positions rules as a sort of function, mapping D to C. However, rules also do the job of inviting candidate Ds - making descriptions possible and reasonable that would be impossible or unreasonable without them. (This is just a restatement of one facet of the well-known concept that game rules are constitutive.) An example may be found in rules for gaining a level. What have in front of mind are cases where there's no natural experience to suggest any description of the sort that "I climb the wall" (to reach the top) or "I swing my axe" (to deal damage) seem to be. Level gain is sometimes worded as an automatic mechanism and sometimes as a metagame move. To me the latter is the better framing as any supposed automatic mechanism still requires a participant to enact it (falling into what I've labelled “description” ... what do I do, ludically speaking.) Game rules gain sophistication over time, meaning that where there might once have been no obvious pre-existing norm for level gain, there now are pre-existing norms for level gain on account of game texts.

So, as much as there are rules that supersede or extend norms for mappings from descriptions (Ds) to consequences (Cs), there are those doing similar work for candidate Ds. Inviting (ruling in) or excluding (ruling out) some Ds. The chain of tasks is still needed, now with the clarification that 4. - supplying a candidate description - is itself shown to be subject to norms or rules.

*Note that rules set up to model things - simulations - can be made to fit what is proposed here, but it doesn't say enough about them. Likewise meta-rules - rules addressed to rules. Procedural rules – such as a procedure to select among consequences – can be made to fit too, but perhaps still require separate treatment. It's one lense, not the only lense... hence I position it as a partial description.

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