Worlds of Design: How "Precise" Should RPG Rules Be?

I was watching a game played with a dice pool, and could see that the GM was waiting for the dice roll and then deciding by what felt right, rather than having any kind of precise resolution. How precise are the RPG rules themselves, and what are the consequences of imprecision?

I was watching a game played with a dice pool, and could see that the GM was waiting for the dice roll and then deciding by what felt right, rather than having any kind of precise resolution. How precise are the RPG rules themselves, and what are the consequences of imprecision?

But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck anymore. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

In answering this question, I thought about FATE and its fudgable (by design) rules. It moves far toward storytelling aid and away from traditional game. Contrast the relatively short FATE rules with the vast rules of versions of D&D beginning with Advanced D&D (1e).
[h=3]Miniatures-Based[/h] From a board gamer’s point of view, much about miniatures rules is open to negotiation, a reason why there are referees at so many miniatures battles. Fantasy RPGs derive from the Chainmail miniatures battle rules, not from board games.

Board games must have precise rules. There’s no GM (in almost every case) to interpret or to be rules arbiter. RPGs can get away with vague or incomplete rules because there is a GM (in most cases). On the other hand, an RPG is trying to cover “everything” that might happen, so naturally the rules tend to be much longer than the rules for a board game.

Precision in rules is important to a game’s GM philosophy. If the GM is merely a rules arbiter, then precise rules are vital. If the GM is a god-like guide who is above the rules, less precise rules work. It’s easier for a GM to be a rules arbiter, and that expands the potential pool of referees. We saw this especially clearly in 4e D&D.

Video games must have precision underneath, for programming purposes. Video game design documents (or whatever system is used) must be explicit and complete, so that programmers and other game developers can do what the designer intends.

It’s very difficult to be both precise and concise. When I’ve playtested a board game solo several times, the rules I then write will mostly cover the basics. By the time I’m done with the game (likely years later) there have been questions that required additional explanation, and even though my philosophy is to simplify a game rather than add things to it to solve problems, the final rules will be half again as long as the early ones in order to provide clarity and precision.

"Legalese" is an example of rules-writing gone way too far to the side of precision. But one person’s legalese is another person’s precision.
[h=3]“Reasonable” Players?[/h] The writer of the following comment epitomizes the “rules don’t require precision” attitude:

"[Game] Writers tend to be too wordy and explain everything in excessive detail when in fact their readers are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions from just a bit of input." --anonymousmagic

This advice may work for RPGs, where you have both a rules arbiter/god and a group of players who can restrain the rules lawyers in the group. If you're designing a game where people won't be very competitive (no "rules lawyers") then this can work. But it’s bad advice if you're designing a competitive game.

I like rules that are similar to technical writing (instructions), that attempt to be exact rather than "reasonable". Because there are *lots* of unreasonable game players, especially for two-player games where there might not be a majority of reasonable players to rein in the unreasonable one.
[h=3]Chrome[/h] “Chrome” is exceptions or additions to the basic rules to provide much of the color and flavor of historical games and fictional games. But as exceptions/additions to the basic rules it adds to the length and complexity of the rules.

Take the simple example of leaders in a wargame. Standard Risk has just a single kind of unit, the Army. There are no leaders. In Britannia there are a number of leaders, even though most armies are of one basic type, with the leaders adding to the dice roll in combat. Simple enough, but leaders provide a human element in a game about a thousand years of history. In Diplomacy, a faceless World War I game, an epitome of simple that relies on player-to-player negotiations for most of its interest, there are no leaders.

In RPGs, which are the opposite of facelessness, almost every designer will want lots of “chrome” to help represent a “real world” experience, even if it’s a fictional world.

How precise should RPG rules be? “It depends.”

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
How precise should RPG rules be? "It depends."

There. I just saved everybody a few minutes of reading so we can get on to the important things, like asking "why does ENWorld keeps such low standards for writers?", "who does this guy think he is anyway?", and "how grognard can a grognard get?".

Torches, check. Pitchforks, check. Popcorn, check. And.... go! *munch munch*


No game can have mechanics for every possible situation. The advantage of "large" (or, more precisely, "broad" games) is that, if a new situation comes up, you might likely be able to adjudicate it by extrapolation from a suitable subsystem.

"Oh, you want to calm this angry horse? Well, there are no rules for that, but this is basically a Diplomacy interaction, so let's use that subsystem."
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No flips for you!
I started reading this and was wondering why [MENTION=3285]talien[/MENTION] had written an article like lewpuls -- was he trying to rehabilitate the last set of articles (poorly)? Then I got to the byline at the end and the strange terminology, lack of understanding of games like FATE, and random video gane bashing made sense. As did the article never going anywhere.

While less overtly insulting than the last set, this article continues to show that lewpuls doesn't grasp the subject matter he keeps trying to articulate. And that he's a disorganized writer, by that's forgivable.


Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
Is this an article or a set of bullet points for use in writing an article later? I can't tell.

Well, while I don't subscribe to GNS theory overall, I do subscribe to the 3 different modes of play (and even those not necessarily by the original definitions). Simulationist players tend to need a greater degree of Chrome than Gamist or Narrativist games - because of a greater need of fidelity to what is being simulated. Gamist rulesets may or may not have a need for an elaborate set of options (in character building or in combat strategies). And while Narrative games do not have to be rules-light, they tend to off-load much of the detail work to the narration (see Apocalypse World, for example - it doesn't even have circumstantial modifiers for basic tests).

So, yes, it depends - on the specific aspect of role-playing that you're prioritizing in a given scenario/campaign.


Rpg rules should be as precise as the players want. Different games for different people. I don’t want simulationist rpg’s. And I am fine with abstractions like hit points. And I don’t want a game where my chance to hit and armor class get worse as my hp lower. But it is fine for those that want that. That’s what other games and optional rules are for. I loved how the ad&d pub and dmg were written. Almost everything was an optional rule. There was t even an official way to do initiative. Just multiple options for it. Few cared about being canon or orthodox. It was choose what u want. But that is not for everyone.


RPG rules also have to mesh with their settings. First edition Paranoia was overly complex and didn't mesh with the expected style of play. Toon has very good rules for the setting because it's designed to be comfortable with imprecise rules.

One helpful part of the d20 rules set is the GM can always ask for a d20 roll (or do it behind the screen) and then decide which of the options she should follow or relate to the player.

The opening paragraph was terrible because if you are going with a dice pool game you want to see how successful the roll was before the GM rules, otherwise why roll at all?

One area of rule precision for me is around character classes. I hate character classes in anything other than fantasy games (and really would prefer not to have them there either). I like HERO or GURPS for character building. I probably should support Dungeon Fantasy for my next campaign. More precise rules around building characters lets people build their characters from the start having different kinds of options.
There's something breaking immersion in having a old wizard character be level 1 and not having any more skills than the youngster just starting out.

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