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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


I think the dice pool rpg lewpuls is talking about might be a FFG game, either Star Wars or Genesys, where the symbols on the dice act as a springboard for the narrative. This lacks the precision lewpuls talks about, but then he says that's okay for a rpg, so not sure if he's criticizing the dice pool game or not?

The idea that in fuzzier, less precise rulesets in rpgs, the GM is more God than arbiter is a problematic claim. Technically, I guess? The GM is making more independent decisions away from the dice. Mechanics are broader, and are used for more situations, as games get away from individual rules for a variety of situations. On the other hand, having a mountain of rules, in hopes of simulating reality, has not worked. Aftermath, Rolemaster, Bushido, had some good ideas, but designers realized that too many fiddly bits actually made things slow down so much, reality was lost. The other problem is that the role of GM in the lighter games, and even in a lot of the crunchier games, is neither neutral arbiter or god. The GM now often serves as guide, a fan of the players, but one who wants to still challenge them, and even let them go crazy or die, depending on the system. There is still enough rules to avoid being a pure storyteller, but there is collaboration between players and GMs. So, I don't think you can just use precision of rules as guide for how the GM behaves, without looking at the changing role of GMs over the past many years.

Overall, I'm not sure if this article is just saying you need more precision in board games because no GM, but less in rpgs? But then, he seems to say rpgs benefit from more precision too. Then it ends with, all depends. Can't argue with that, I guess.

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Victoria Rules
It boils down to the relative ratio of "rulings" (by the GM) vs "rules" a system is trying to achieve (or, in the case of very early games before such things were major considerations, achieves regardless).

The shortest way to put it is that the more hard-coded rules a game has the less need - in theory - there is for rulings. (note that "rules" here includes houserules and system kitbashes - a rule is a rule no matter its origin)

3e and 4e D&D carried in their designs a strong sense of rules over rulings. Each acknowledged that sometimes rulings would inevitably have to happen, but the focus was on rules. 5e D&D by contrast came right out and declared "rulings, not rules" as one of its basic design philosophies, though it still has a lot of rules. :)

As for the article itself, the issue is that rules precision is needed (or has certainly come to be expected) in some aspects of most RPGs but not necessarily in others, coupled with some systems placing more emphasis on different aspects among these:

Combat - highly precise in many systems, a high focus in all D&D versions but variable focus elsewhere
Exploration - some very precise elements in some systems e.g. 1e D&D but precision - and focus level - otherwise highly variable across other systems
Social interaction - low but generally growing precision, focus level all over the place and often driven by each individual table's preferences (and setting in use) as much as the system's
Downtime - very low precision in many cases, and generally very low focus.

Which means the areas of discussion that'll arise from people answering the headline question here will be based on how precise they prefer rules to be for exploration and-or social interaction, as that's where (most of) the variability lies.


I think it's important to notice that there are two different axes that have to do with rules' "precision". One of them is the amount of detail, the other is strictness of the rules.

Strict rules work well when used as written; making choices where the rules prompt them, but not ignoring any rules nor overriding by GM fiat. A strict ruleset needs not model every aspect of the characters and what they do - it may only cover what is important for the game. PbtA games are a good example of systems that are strict, but not detailed.

On the other hand, detailed rules cover a lot of activities, situations and circumstances. Small things matter; they are not glossed over, but modeled in some way. On the other hand, high level of detail does not imply strictness. D&D3 is very detailed, with an enormous amount of content to cover nearly everything, but it requires a lot of GM interventions to work.

A game may be not strict, not detailed and still work. OSR games are like that, with their "rulings, not rules" approach.

It may also be both strict and detailed, like D&D4 or Burning Wheel - such games work great when everybody knows the rules and engages them fully, but very poorly when played casually.


It may also be both strict and detailed, like D&D4 or Burning Wheel - such games work great when everybody knows the rules and engages them fully, but very poorly when played casually.

I found that the Pathfinder 2 playtest was very much like this, full of strictly detailed jargon that works great if you can understand what is going on but man was a real pain to groke at the start.


That's pretty precise!

I wouldn't call it precise, we don't even know if that grog comes in drams, pints, quaffs, kegs, hogsheads, old whiskey barrels, etc.
With out the unit measurements, it's kind of meaningless, unless you are just after a ratio with something else measured in the same units.

(I so couldn't resist pointing that out, and no, I don't have a propeller beanie. :lol: )


There is also something of an issue with the notion of "precision" in a rule. Lots of RPG systems have broad "rule of thumb" systems that are meant to cover anything that's not covered in the rules. I've mentioned Savage World's Rule of 4 before in these threads. Any time you make a check, if you score 4 or higher, then you succeed whatever it is you are trying to do. ((Now, there are obvious modifiers - the size of the die you are rolling, situational modifiers, etc - but, at the end of the day, so long as you score 4 or better, you succeed))

Now, as far as board games go, well, of course they need precise rules because, unlike an RPG, the rules prescribe EVERYTHING you can do.

I'm going to sneak this idea back in here, but, I do truly believe that what differentiates RPG's from other games is that RPG's do not have rules that prescribe everything you can do. Sure, they have some rules that tell you you can do X or can't do Y, but, by and large, there's a huge grey area in RPG's where the actions that the player takes at the table isn't actually covered by the rules.

In any other game, this would be cheating. Taking some sort of action that is not permissible by the rules in any other kind of game would be cheating. In an RPG, OTOH, it's expected and encouraged.

The role of the rules is, in my mind, what differentiates RPG's from all other kinds of games.

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