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

Vanveen

Villager
The distinction here is that board games consist of a finite decision space. Board game rules must be capable of managing any state the decision space produces, *and must be agreed upon by all players before playing*. That agreement is necessary owing to the finite decision space. Precision is usually very useful in this regard. While it is not strictly necessary, it is such a powerful design method that it has become internalized in most game design attempts.

In a game such as chess, novel and unpredictable decision states are still managed by a very small rule set; this is one of the reasons why chess is played as often as it is, for as long as it has been. Truly enduring games often offer "more than your money's worth"--in other words, an unbelievable amount of novelty and surprise for a low "cost," that of learning and applying the rules correctly. Again, chess and Go are immediate, probably cliched, examples.

The real issue here is that nobody, in this thread or elsewhere, seems to have realized that RPG rules are very different from a common-sensical definition of "rules." From a structural or rhetorical perspective, they have some very peculiar features. I would go so far as to say that *RPG rules are indissolubly part of the RPG experience*, on a par with *actually playing the game itself.* In some important ways, they are *equivalent* to playing the game itself.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The distinction here is that board games consist of a finite decision space. Board game rules must be capable of managing any state the decision space produces, *and must be agreed upon by all players before playing*. That agreement is necessary owing to the finite decision space. Precision is usually very useful in this regard. While it is not strictly necessary, it is such a powerful design method that it has become internalized in most game design attempts.
I'd certainly agree with this---a board game is a finite (though sometimes extremely large) decision space.

In a game such as chess, novel and unpredictable decision states are still managed by a very small rule set; this is one of the reasons why chess is played as often as it is, for as long as it has been. Truly enduring games often offer "more than your money's worth"--in other words, an unbelievable amount of novelty and surprise for a low "cost," that of learning and applying the rules correctly. Again, chess and Go are immediate, probably cliched, examples.
One way of thinking about this is to consider a game like chess and go as taking only a bit to learn the basics but for which there is an extraordinary amount of depth. While chess is likely to fall to AI soon, humans can still play it and a definitive determination of who wins by backwards induction is still a long way off, assuming it's not something that falls to quantum computers (I don't know enough to know).


The real issue here is that nobody, in this thread or elsewhere, seems to have realized that RPG rules are very different from a common-sensical definition of "rules." From a structural or rhetorical perspective, they have some very peculiar features.
I'm not too sure I'd say that nobody here or elsewhere didn't have those thoughts. TTRPGs are vastly more open-ended than really any other game one might contemplate, and this is something many posters here have noted before, although possibly not on this particular thread.

Much of what people were discussing was the tendency for some games, such as 3.X and 4E D&D (but not limited to them) to provide very comprehensive sets of rules, in many ways trying to make things much more like a complicated board game (although still open ended). This was quite evident in the way 4E tended to approach combat, at least in terms of the way modules were written, which clearly were modeled on skirmish game scenarios. (Of course, not everybody played with that strict a locked-down set of rules. For those taking offense at this, I'm really not looking to give it.) Games like White Wolf's Exalted are even more detailed.

I would go so far as to say that *RPG rules are indissolubly part of the RPG experience*, on a par with *actually playing the game itself.* In some important ways, they are *equivalent* to playing the game itself.
I'm not 100% sure what you mean by that. Elaborate?
 

Vanveen

Villager
I'd certainly agree with this---a board game is a finite (though sometimes extremely large) decision space.



One way of thinking about this is to consider a game like chess and go as taking only a bit to learn the basics but for which there is an extraordinary amount of depth. While chess is likely to fall to AI soon, humans can still play it and a definitive determination of who wins by backwards induction is still a long way off, assuming it's not something that falls to quantum computers (I don't know enough to know).




I'm not too sure I'd say that nobody here or elsewhere didn't have those thoughts. TTRPGs are vastly more open-ended than really any other game one might contemplate, and this is something many posters here have noted before, although possibly not on this particular thread.

Much of what people were discussing was the tendency for some games, such as 3.X and 4E D&D (but not limited to them) to provide very comprehensive sets of rules, in many ways trying to make things much more like a complicated board game (although still open ended). This was quite evident in the way 4E tended to approach combat, at least in terms of the way modules were written, which clearly were modeled on skirmish game scenarios. (Of course, not everybody played with that strict a locked-down set of rules. For those taking offense at this, I'm really not looking to give it.) Games like White Wolf's Exalted are even more detailed.



I'm not 100% sure what you mean by that. Elaborate?
Still working it out myself, honestly. The best answer so far: reading RPG rules, for the reader, provides an experience equivalent to participating in--playing--the RPG.

Reading the rules of chess, the player may imagine various moves and countermoves. But this experience is best described in terms of sheer mechanics--a rook moves so, a queen reacts so. In essence, a player is encouraged to experience aspects of the finite decision space.

RPG rules provoke an experience outside the purported decision space.
That is, a player reading combat rules is invited, even compelled, to imagine that combat inside a context larger than the combat rules cover or CAN cover. To wit: who is fighting? Why? What do they look like? What are the physical, emotional, and social contexts of the encounter? Etc., etc.

The very act of reading RPG rules creates an RPG context, at the most immediate level that of the RPG one is reading. More experienced RPG rules readers--and let's not forget, there are far more rules readers than players--will begin to create their own highly notional RPG, a Platonic RPG. Perhaps not coincidentally, most long-running tables--especially those with stable DMs and relatively stable player bases--begin to resemble this in actual play.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'm not sure I buy that [MENTION=6874262]Vanveen[/MENTION]. In my opinion, a better way to phrase it is that RPG rules tell you how, other games tell you what. The combat rules for D&D, sure, are very detailed, but, in lots of other games, are nowhere near as precise. So, it's not like you need extremely lengthy combat rules to have an RPG.

But, where the rules differ for RPG's is that in RPG's the rules tell you how to adjudicate certain player actions, and then basically tell you to extrapolate from that for actions not specifically called out by the rules. In board games, OTOH, any player action that is not specifically called out by the rules is illegal. You flat out can't do anything that isn't covered in the rules.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
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.
That's what I was reminded of, too.

A more precise(!) portrayal of the Star Wars/Genesys dice pool should probably mention that the result of a roll has both precise and narrative results. Different dice are used to represent a character's skill, an opponent's skill, environmental effects, and in the case of Star Wars 'The Force'. The basic outcome (failure/success) is determined by counting one set of symbols and is indeed precise. Only the other set of symbols isn't clearly defined and can interpreted in different ways to represent complications or a lucky coincidence.

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.
Ah, no. In fact, imprecise rules would quickly kill any interest in me to continue playing. I also can only imagine co-op games to work at all without clearly defined rules. E.g. I have recently played the board game implementation of "This War of Mine". It doesn't come with a rule book, per se. There's a story book that you keep reading paragraphs from to add some flavor to encounters. And there's a Diary/Journal that presents the game's different phases and gives examples what you can do. For some crazy reason you can 'unlock' additional rules by reading certain paragraphs in the story book. The game is also annoyingly random, using plenty of card decks and dice rolls to determine what happens next. Personally, I hated every minute of it. But at least some of the players seemed to enjoy it.
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.
I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. Generally, videogames are scripted. Even if there's some randomness involved in the order and composition of sections of the game, it's still impossible that anything happens that hasn't been programmed.

But perhaps you are referring to procedurally generated (rogue-like) games? I've heard stories about games like 'Dwarf Fortress' which contain so many random elements that players can end up with truly weird combinations that the developers didn't really think of. This can indeed be quite fascinating, but it's also often frustrating because the openness of these games also means that plenty of the 'worlds' that are generated are largely unplayable.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
Ah, no. In fact, imprecise rules would quickly kill any interest in me to continue playing.
Doesn't that depend on the implementation?

I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. Generally, videogames are scripted. Even if there's some randomness involved in the order and composition of sections of the game, it's still impossible that anything happens that hasn't been programmed.
Naturally, but games can be coded in a way so that they don't detail every single interaction, but instead provide a broad framework within which various parts are free to interact with one another in unpredictable and not-predefined ways.

But perhaps you are referring to procedurally generated (rogue-like) games? I've heard stories about games like 'Dwarf Fortress' which contain so many random elements that players can end up with truly weird combinations that the developers didn't really think of. This can indeed be quite fascinating, but it's also often frustrating because the openness of these games also means that plenty of the 'worlds' that are generated are largely unplayable.
I wasn't referring to rogue-likes specifically, but they are a good example. Keep in mind though that imprecise rules does not mean no-rules at all. The scope can still be limited, while allowing elements within to be randomized. For example, Diablo creates randomized dungeons that feature some areas that are always included, such as an entrance and exit, and maybe a boss, treasure and special locations (depending on the level). Minecraft also has very large randomly generated worlds, that can have strange and unpredictable outcomes.

But Dwarven Fortress is perhaps the best example. Everything in that game obeys logical rules, but not every combination is predefined. This means that all things in the world obey the rules laid out by the game, but can create very unexpected interactions.
 
When does the non-traditional become traditional?
Only when the old, traditional model no longer is prevalent. I do not see that, not by a long shot. GURPS-style Ads & Disads (see below) are still king, especially with the ascent of boardgames.

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
It's not conventional. FATE's Aspects resemble GURPS' Ads & Disads a lot, except that here the mechanical effects are uniform. This uniformity in turn allows a more flexible, on-the-fly creation of Aspects. And you don't need long lists of all possible Aspects because literally anything goes due to the uniform effects.

The drawback is of course Aspects being more samey.

A generalized rule does not inherently mean that it fundamentally lacks imprecision of implementation.
Depends on what you mean by that. It definitely means lack of precision in modeling specific properties. GURPS can reflect more precisely certain Ads or Disads, make them closer to their real life or fictional equivalent. In FATE, it's all the same, only the trigger condition is different.
 
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Aldarc

Adventurer
Only when the old, traditional model no longer is prevalent.
That position is too hardlined for my tastes. There is not a singular traditional model of play; there are traditional models of play. You mention GURPS a lot, so should I assume that's your pet system? It was first published in 1986. That date is after much of the old school play that the OP generally regards as traditional RP. So GURPS would hardly qualify as traditional either. Yet here you are suggesting that Fate can't be traditional because "GURPS-style Ads & Disads...are still king," implicitly occupying a traditional position.

It's not conventional. FATE's Aspects resemble GURPS' Ads & Disads a lot, except that here the mechanical effects are uniform. This uniformity in turn allows a more flexible, on-the-fly creation of Aspects. And you don't need long lists of all possible Aspects because literally anything goes due to the uniform effects.

The drawback is of course Aspects being more samey.
I would argue that the main FUDGE chassis for Fate is conventional. It operates as a GM-set ladder difficulty scale or through opposed rolls. There are skills. You can use your skills to Attack, Defend, and Overcome opposition. And that propels a solid chunk of the game. That is the conventional part of Fate I was discussing. Much as I said before, the main unconventionality of Fate as you seem to suggest here as well is the addition of Aspect-related add-on features. It's unquestionably a big feature, but there is nevertheless a lot of conventional design behind Fate. Its unconventionality does not erase its conventionality.

Depends on what you mean by that. It definitely means lack of precision in modeling specific properties. GURPS can reflect more precisely certain Ads or Disads, make them closer to their real life or fictional equivalent. In FATE, it's all the same, only the trigger condition is different.
It seems as if I already provided an illustrative example that explained what I meant by that. :erm:
 
Personally I feel that games are too precise these days. I also don't like the "Robot" language used. RPGs are too often written like a boardgame. And frankly that just breaks the immersion.

For instance, so you are describing a spell. The text will refer to Condition Z (like Staggered) or Weapon Quality X (like Knockdown) and use key terms like Blast or Cone. Why not just describe using proper sentences and common sense words (everyone knows what unconscious or asleep means for instance) rather than terms or acronyms which refer you to another page ?

Its one of the reasons I fell out of love with the 2d20 system by Modiphius, every frekin thing references something else. It just bogged down everything unless you somehow knew all the rules by heart. Same with D&D 5e, the text is so robotic. It used to be fun reading 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, the new editions may have less up to interpretation, but it so god-awful boring to read.
 
That position is too hardlined for my tastes. There is not a singular traditional model of play; there are traditional models of play. You mention GURPS a lot, so should I assume that's your pet system? It was first published in 1986. That date is after much of the old school play that the OP generally regards as traditional RP. So GURPS would hardly qualify as traditional either. Yet here you are suggesting that Fate can't be traditional because "GURPS-style Ads & Disads...are still king," implicitly occupying a traditional position.
Nah, I'm a d100 guy. But GURPS is a poster child for the Ad/Disad approach to character customization. GURPS-type of games are an extension of the old-school games - first by a skill system and then later Ads/Disads or Edges/Flaws. It's a road that RPGs in general have been taking and that continues to this day. But if you insist we can consider the games of the 90s (and late 80s, I suppose) Middle School. It has become a standard model of gaming. I think its main property is character customization with handpicked skills and Ads/Disads that confer a variety of different mechanical benefits. And, for a time, a plethora of circumstantial modifiers. But that has fallen a bit out of favor (Shadowrun still practices it though).


I would argue that the main FUDGE chassis for Fate is conventional. It operates as a GM-set ladder difficulty scale or through opposed rolls. There are skills. You can use your skills to Attack, Defend, and Overcome opposition. And that propels a solid chunk of the game. That is the conventional part of Fate I was discussing.
I agree that FUDGE is more conventional than FATE.

Much as I said before, the main unconventionality of Fate as you seem to suggest here as well is the addition of Aspect-related add-on features. It's unquestionably a big feature, but there is nevertheless a lot of conventional design behind Fate. Its unconventionality does not erase its conventionality.
Well, we're talking about degrees here and that is always subjective and I am not very inclined to quibble about that. But let me just point out:

  • rolling Attributes and Skills into one,
  • range bands; and,
  • the damage system
are all more or less unconventional.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
That position is too hardlined for my tastes. There is not a singular traditional model of play; there are traditional models of play. You mention GURPS a lot, so should I assume that's your pet system? It was first published in 1986. That date is after much of the old school play that the OP generally regards as traditional RP. So GURPS would hardly qualify as traditional either. Yet here you are suggesting that Fate can't be traditional because "GURPS-style Ads & Disads...are still king," implicitly occupying a traditional position.
Whether you agree or not, it's got a certain persuasiveness. There may be subcultures within the broader RPG culture in which other traditions may dominate, but as long as those subcultures are a small proportion of the broader RPG culture, their niche traditions will never be viewed as traditions of that broader culture - no matter how old they are.
 
And there we go. It has become a standard model. We are now talking about multiple models, standards, and traditions.
We can do that but if we evaluate the ICv2 charts, we got to concede that the Middle School model is kinda the prevalent one.

D&D 5E might make concessions to the OSR with its toning down of Skills and Feats but it's still not Old School. And if I was hard pressed to find any concessions to the New School, I'd probably pick 5E's Inspiration and Advantages/Disadvantages, having a very vague semblence to Aspects.

Are you misreading me on purpose?
No. Correction: I think that FUDGE is more conventional than FATE.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
We can do that but if we evaluate the ICv2 charts, we got to concede that the Middle School model is kinda the prevalent one.

D&D 5E might make concessions to the OSR with its toning down of Skills and Feats but it's still not Old School. And if I was hard pressed to find any concessions to the New School, I'd probably pick 5E's Inspiration and Advantages/Disadvantages, having a very vague semblence to Aspects.
I don't think I am having the conversation with you that you think that I am having. :erm:

No. Correction: I think that FUDGE is more conventional than FATE.
I don't dispute this. However, I am also not arguing whether one game is more conventional than other. I argued that Fate's core, underlying chassis is fairly conventional.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Personally I feel that games are too precise these days. I also don't like the "Robot" language used. RPGs are too often written like a boardgame. And frankly that just breaks the immersion.
I get where you're coming from. The more transparent and simple the mechanics are, all other things being equal, the more they can get out of the way.


For instance, so you are describing a spell. The text will refer to Condition Z (like Staggered) or Weapon Quality X (like Knockdown) and use key terms like Blast or Cone. Why not just describe using proper sentences and common sense words (everyone knows what unconscious or asleep means for instance) rather than terms or acronyms which refer you to another page ?

Its one of the reasons I fell out of love with the 2d20 system by Modiphius, every frekin thing references something else. It just bogged down everything unless you somehow knew all the rules by heart. Same with D&D 5e, the text is so robotic. It used to be fun reading 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, the new editions may have less up to interpretation, but it so god-awful boring to read.
This can be an issue with both games you cite and I do think there's a real tradeoff between clarity of rules and fun to read. Still, ultimately games are meant to be played, although I do recognize that a lot of the enjoyment comes from the savoring. However, the John Carter 2D20 rules are likely to be lighter than, say, Conan, which would help a lot in the respect of stripping off the things that make Conan rather crunchy. I really like 2D20 in general but it does have a few too many bells and whistles in spots. I found a good bit of the special effects can simply be ignored or altered a bit and it sped up.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Still working it out myself, honestly. The best answer so far: reading RPG rules, for the reader, provides an experience equivalent to participating in--playing--the RPG.
OK, I think we part company there. IMO good rules often don't actually read all that well in terms of sparking the imagination but they play well. This is where good art and a few good fictional examples of play can really help, though. Also, lots of times, the part that's the most fun and interesting is the world building, at least to me, although too much of that can be a real burden.


Reading the rules of chess, the player may imagine various moves and countermoves. But this experience is best described in terms of sheer mechanics--a rook moves so, a queen reacts so. In essence, a player is encouraged to experience aspects of the finite decision space.
But this ignores the emotional aspect of a game like chess. A human player has an emotional experience. Good competitive players are generally skilled at reading other people's emotions and keeping cool to play a stratagem through.


RPG rules provoke an experience outside the purported decision space.
That is, a player reading combat rules is invited, even compelled, to imagine that combat inside a context larger than the combat rules cover or CAN cover. To wit: who is fighting? Why? What do they look like? What are the physical, emotional, and social contexts of the encounter? Etc., etc.
100%. It's a rare person who imbues chess pieces with a characterization, whereas the ideal in a TTRPG is that this happens. There is a fictional secondary reality to it that's generally absent from most board games.
 

Hussar

Legend
We can do that but if we evaluate the ICv2 charts, we got to concede that the Middle School model is kinda the prevalent one.

D&D 5E might make concessions to the OSR with its toning down of Skills and Feats but it's still not Old School. And if I was hard pressed to find any concessions to the New School, I'd probably pick 5E's Inspiration and Advantages/Disadvantages, having a very vague semblence to Aspects.


No. Correction: I think that FUDGE is more conventional than FATE.
Really? 5e is chock a block with new school type mechanics.

Fighter's Second Wind, various reroll mechanics (Lucky Feat, Halfling's Luck), encounter design being set to xp budget, lack of save or die, heck, even the concept of bounded accuracy is very much a New School approach to game design.

5e is mechanically very much a new school game. It's miles away from an Old school game. The only really old school thing about 5e is how it's written. And, even then, it's still very much grounded in story creation and creating character in play. The whole "test the player" thing is virtually absent from 5e play.
 

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