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?

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).

Miniatures-Based

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.

“Reasonable” Players?

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.

Chrome

“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!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Imaculata

Adventurer
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.
I don't think this is true. I think boardgames could work really well with inprecise rules. Its just that there are few boardgames that seem to have tried this so far.

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.
I completely disagree. I think videogames actually work great as a form of organised chaos, where not everything is quite so clearly defined, and the players are agents of chaos, poking at the system to see what will happen.

Also, not everything has to be quite so written out to build a computer game. You can just start on one, and see where it goes from there. And I speak from personal experience.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Largely agreed - a board game (or similar) tells you what you can do, and you can't do anything else. An RPG usually just sets some guideline-level outer borders beyond which lie the things you can't do (unless the DM says you can), and more or less leaves everything within those borders open for play.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
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).
Already lewpuls lost me. Not a great start.

For starters, I don't think that it helps to describe Fate as essentially a "non-traditional" game. Fate has been around for 15 years, and it is built on a FUDGE chassis that has been around for 27 years. When does the non-traditional become traditional? In many respects, the game appears fairly conventional. Fate's primary mechanical innovations to Fudge involve its use of Aspects: e.g., aspects, fate point economy, Create an Advantage action, etc. Aspects are essentially narrative tags with mechanical weight that allows for them to enter play (Fate SRD):
In Fate, aspects do two major things: they tell you what’s important about the game, and they help you decide when to use the mechanics.
(1) Aspects provide a generalized rule/mechanic that can have as much precision as deemed necessary by the Table in play.

(2) Aspects often cover a greater breadth of specific rules with a generalized one. This is most commonly done with the Create an Advantage action, where players (or NPCs) seek to establish a new narrative aspect.

For example, a player may seek to disarm their opponent. So while dueling, the PC may attempt to Create an Advantage to disarm their opponent using their Fighting skill. This would likely entail their opponent using an opposed Defend action roll with their own Fighting skill. If the player succeeds, then they may name the new Aspect (i.e., narrative tag) "Sword Flung to the Ground." The opponent is effectively disarmed per the in-game fiction, which confers mechanical advantages for the PC should they evoke it. The opponent can also spend an action to remove the Aspect, essentially the same as dashing for their weapon.

This singular generalized rule for Create an Advantage can be used to cover the same breadth of specific rules in other systems (e.g., D&D 3e/Pathfinder) for various combat maneuvers such as Disarm, Knock Prone, Sunder, Grapple, Trip, etc. And the effect is fundamentally the same. But the power of naming Aspects also permits greater narrative precision or specificity of what is transpiring in the fiction. A generalized rule does not inherently mean that it fundamentally lacks imprecision of implementation.

Contrast the relatively short FATE rules with the vast rules of versions of D&D beginning with Advanced D&D (1e)
I would also like to talk about this generalization as well. Sure AD&D 1e has a lot of individual rules for particularized situations. ("Old School gaming is rulings not rules," my ass.) But as I have been looking at a lot of games that have come out of the OSR movement lately, I think that it is almost abundantly clear that the ascribed precision is not necessarily deemed a quintessential aspect of the game. Admittedly, a lot of OSR seems to prefer OD&D and Basic over Advanced as their source of inspiration. And there has been a tremendous abundance of OSR games that have turned the "vast rules of versions of D&D beginning with Advanced D&D (1e)" into games that are as relatively short as Fate, if not shorter.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
Good point, and props for mentioning Toon... 'cause Toon. I only played it once, and I'm not generally a fan of comedy RPGs, but Bub Hare, Bugs' cousin who munched on parsnips and was from a tougher part of Brooklyn got to fall down more than once.


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.
I'm not sure I'd really characterize that as "rules precision" per se. HERO or GURPS are both examples of very precise systems. They're point buy type systems rather than class/level. Using a class/level system is a design choice that many games make, particularly ones that have an implicit "zero to hero" basis and are trying to keep all the PCs on similar rough power positions. They have their benefits, but introduce some definite rough spots or "proud nails". You're right, the old wizard or old veteran is level 1 is an example. This is really more a property of a level system, though, not a class system, and you'd likely see the same thing happen in a point buy system with fixed point totals unless there was a way for the true novice to leave points unspent or allocated to "good fortune" or something like that.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
For starters, I don't think that it helps to describe Fate as essentially a "non-traditional" game. Fate has been around for 15 years, and it is built on a FUDGE chassis that has been around for 27 years. When does the non-traditional become traditional?
For the kind of grognard represented by his argument style, filled to the brim with "No True Scotsman" haggis, the answer is really never.


I would also like to talk about this generalization as well. Sure AD&D 1e has a lot of individual rules for particularized situations. ("Old School gaming is rulings not rules," my ass.) But as I have been looking at a lot of games that have come out of the OSR movement lately, I think that it is almost abundantly clear that the ascribed precision is not necessarily deemed a quintessential aspect of the game. Admittedly, a lot of OSR seems to prefer OD&D and Basic over Advanced as their source of inspiration. And there has been a tremendous abundance of OSR games that have turned the "vast rules of versions of D&D beginning with Advanced D&D (1e)" into games that are as relatively short as Fate, if not shorter.
I agree. The OSR stuff I've seen appears to be pretty well modeled not on AD&D but on BECMI. Interestingly enough, back in the 2E days a friend of mine took a similar approach: He dumped most of the multiclass system and made things work more like the "elf" class of BECMI, which was a mixture of fighter and magic user. Any race could be any class. It worked great.

I also very much agree that 1E is a system filled with special cases. There's things like the elf or halfling "stealth" checks built on a D6 roll to surprise while thieves (and assassins) have a percentile Move Silently and Hide in Shadows, which vaguely do the same thing, except.... The fact that it started life as a collection of Dragon articles is stated explicitly in the PHB and DMG and it quite clearly shows.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I also very much agree that 1E is a system filled with special cases. There's things like the elf or halfling "stealth" checks built on a D6 roll to surprise while thieves (and assassins) have a percentile Move Silently and Hide in Shadows, which vaguely do the same thing, except.... The fact that it started life as a collection of Dragon articles is stated explicitly in the PHB and DMG and it quite clearly shows.
Indeed. And it only got worse as 1e progressed (hence some of the value of 2e - notice how surprise rules were regularized). It’s one reason 1e could never really be called a rules-light system. I think people tend to get that impression because, due to DM heavy lifting of the rules, players could experience it in a rules-lightish way. 3e shifted the expectation rather than add a lot more rules by exposing the rules in the player book rather than put them in the DMG only. In fact, I’d really say 2e started that trend, 3e just solidified it.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Indeed. And it only got worse as 1e progressed (hence some of the value of 2e - notice how surprise rules were regularized). It’s one reason 1e could never really be called a rules-light system. I think people tend to get that impression because, due to DM heavy lifting of the rules, players could experience it in a rules-lightish way. 3e shifted the expectation rather than add a lot more rules by exposing the rules in the player book rather than put them in the DMG only. In fact, I’d really say 2e started that trend, 3e just solidified it.
Much of the bulk of a system like 1E was in the pages and pages of tables for all sorts of special cases. This was very much in line with the way war-games of the time often worked, so while it looks really bulky to modern eyes, it's how things worked back then. I agree that 2E started systematizing things. Indeed you can see some of those ideas going on in late post-Gygax 1E. (It's hard to know what he would have done so I'm not slamming him.)

I have said this before, but the 2E designers were substantially constrained by business concerns from making more substantial changes from 1E, so they made fewer changes than I think they would have ordinarily wanted to.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
70's games are usually a bad example for rules, as they almost always started small and then grew in an ad hoc manner. 80's rules then decide to have a rule for everything, which meant subsystems often worked poorly, as well as edge case rules could be played by a rules savvy player.

Nevertheless, what is meant by precise in this context? Merriam-Webster gives four different definitions:

Definition of precise

1 : exactly or sharply defined or stated
2 : minutely exact
3 : strictly conforming to a pattern, standard, or convention
4 : distinguished from every other
From the dice rolling results in the first paragraph of the OP, I say it is the first definition: exactly or sharply defined or stated, and this is about players knowing exactly what they are rolling for. I think it is good for some precision here, and tell my players, to tell me what they are doing and then roll. Sometimes I will have them roll against an unknown, or I will throw a random roll of my own out there, usually it is not for nothing, except it also adds atmosphere.

Chrome is just trim in my mind, it shouldn't take away from the game, and also shouldn't be the main focus by definition, talking setting details.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I have said this before, but the 2E designers were substantially constrained by business concerns from making more substantial changes from 1E, so they made fewer changes than I think they would have ordinarily wanted to.
I’m not sure they’d have wanted to. 2e really is a second edition of the same game. It’s largely compatible and consolidates other new rules introduced by other sources. It’s more in a mode like Call of Cthulhu’s edition changes - evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I’m not sure they’d have wanted to. 2e really is a second edition of the same game. It’s largely compatible and consolidates other new rules introduced by other sources. It’s more in a mode like Call of Cthulhu’s edition changes - evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
I do know they indicated there were a number of things they wanted to change, such as getting rid of "lower AC is better" and I suspect they would have cleaned up the stats and gotten rid of things like exceptional Strength, smoothed out the advancement tables (look at how whack the tables for some classes are), etc.
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
Hmmmm...well, the article is indeed less offensive.

But it doesn't really seem to say much.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
70's games are usually a bad example for rules, as they almost always started small and then grew in an ad hoc manner. 80's rules then decide to have a rule for everything, which meant subsystems often worked poorly, as well as edge case rules could be played by a rules savvy player.
While a decade and a half later, 3E seemed to have a rule for everything and had craziness like the grappling and Dispel Magic rules.
 

practicalm

Explorer
I'm not sure I'd really characterize that as "rules precision" per se. HERO or GURPS are both examples of very precise systems. They're point buy type systems rather than class/level. Using a class/level system is a design choice that many games make, particularly ones that have an implicit "zero to hero" basis and are trying to keep all the PCs on similar rough power positions. They have their benefits, but introduce some definite rough spots or "proud nails". You're right, the old wizard or old veteran is level 1 is an example. This is really more a property of a level system, though, not a class system, and you'd likely see the same thing happen in a point buy system with fixed point totals unless there was a way for the true novice to leave points unspent or allocated to "good fortune" or something like that.
It really isn't hard in point buy systems to have characters that are more naturally talented but have few skills and then characters with more points in skills. People's preferences for this sort of thing matter.

I do notice that characters bought to a certain point value in GURPS or HERO are very different than characters that are both to a lower level and then have received xp to spend. I like that dynamic better than leveling up.

And yes GURPS and HERO are very precise systems around character generation and success rolls. Skills default to other skills and there is even a TL attached to skills in GURPS which can matter for time hopping adventurers, but the way that precision is used is important as well. At a certain skill level there shouldn't be rolling for routine tasks, similar to how skills in 5th edition D&D are often used.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Hmmmm...well, the article is indeed less offensive.

But it doesn't really seem to say much.
Agreed. It needs more "precision". Or more cowbell. Heck, anything with a clear, concise thought on whatever he's trying to say!

Good articles don't end with "it depends" as your definitive answer. On the other hand, good relationships will end if you answer anything with "it depends". Try it sometime when you need an excuse to live on someone's couch for a few days.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
I like precision. It suggests simplicity. I can easily get my head around something tactically precise like 4e and be dumbfounded by the rules for role-playing scenes in more modern games. Reading those kind of rules just make me want to throw up my hands and say "just tell the GM that rules don't matter and do what you think is cool and while you're at it, toss these rules in the trash because you don't need rules to tell your story; damage the characters or don't depending on what the story wants you to do. And if the characters succeed or fail is dependent on what points the players spend in the drama pool and if anyone feels sad today."
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
While a decade and a half later, 3E seemed to have a rule for everything and had craziness like the grappling and Dispel Magic rules.
Sure, I don't think "the rule for everything" game era is over, even now; except yes, I agree, it is about how well the subsystems work. Sometimes I think the playtesting wasn't thorough enough, or they did, and then changed things. I have also seen in playtests things get rewritten, but the original rules get put in the final product ...
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Indeed. And it only got worse as 1e progressed (hence some of the value of 2e - notice how surprise rules were regularized). It’s one reason 1e could never really be called a rules-light system. I think people tend to get that impression because, due to DM heavy lifting of the rules, players could experience it in a rules-lightish way.
And this is a key point: only the DM needed to worry about a lot of the mechanics or even know (or care) how they worked. This is still my preference as a player.
3e shifted the expectation rather than add a lot more rules by exposing the rules in the player book rather than put them in the DMG only. In fact, I’d really say 2e started that trend, 3e just solidified it.
And in so doing changed the "feel" of play whether intentionally or not, as players now had to concern themselves much more with game mechanics during the run of play; something I found quite annoying as a player.

As a DM, having the mechanics mostly be DM-side also makes it easier to change or tweak or kitbash something that for whatever reason isn't working.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
And this is a key point: only the DM needed to worry about a lot of the mechanics or even know (or care) how they worked.
Darn kids nowadays! With their fancy newfangled hula-hoops, rock music, and knowing game rules.
I generally fall on the side of "I want to know the rules" but my first experience with Vampire: The Masquerade was with a game where we didn't know the rules and the Storyteller rolled all the dice. I will say this... it really heightened the mystery and tension in a way that knowing the rules probably would have changed. Of course, the players need to have very high trust in the GM, who really needs to have very solid mastery of the system.
 

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