Worlds of Design: You're Playing it Wrong!

Does it matter if you play a game “wrong”?

Does it matter if you play a game “wrong”?

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Getting it Wrong in Two Parts​

The question of possibly playing a game “wrong” has at least two separate parts: first, how much must you adhere to the game rules and second, what should the spirit of the game be?

Board Games vs. RPGs​

The “inviolability” of rules is different for board games than for RPGs because there’s no GM in board games. In effect, the board game rules are the GM. There should be no room for interpretation of board game rules, but because they’re written by humans, and read by humans, doubts arise - even the designer may not be sure. RPG rules are much more like miniatures rules, partly a matter for negotiation. The lack of GM or other arbitrator/interpreter of rules is why board game rules must be much more carefully constructed and written than RPG rules.

I don’t play my board games after they’re published, except when I change the rules to try different things for variants or new editions. I design games for other people to play, not for me to play. And when someone asks me about the rules for my games I say “you have to play according to what’s written in the rules” and “I’m not the best person to ask about the right way to play.” Because people who play the game regularly sometimes know the rules better than I do.

Rules as Written (RAW)​

Nonetheless, if you spend much time on social media, you might run into comments from a group of people who are very sure that AD&D must be played exactly as AD&D was written (sometimes called RAW, Rules As Written).

There is no assurance that the game’s rules as written are going to be the best way to play for some players. Here’s the reality of writing rules for boardgame or role-playing games: sometimes you playtest a game and have a choice between two rules, and one seems to be just as good as the other. Which rule you use becomes an arbitrary choice. Some people prefer your choice, some might prefer the one you rejected.

Keep in mind, when someone publishes your game, rather than you publishing it, changes can be made either accidentally or without your knowledge (as my Britannia) or even against your will.

I first watched a published version of my board game Britannia being played in 2004 (it was published in 1986 and 1987, but I took 20 years out from the game industry and only played D&D). I remember exclaiming “no way!” when I saw Jutes floating at sea long after they were required to have landed, in the prototype. But owing to a misunderstanding (I was not sufficiently clear in my rules), Gibsons (the original publisher) had changed the rules so that interminable floating at sea was allowed.

I told people to play the game the way the rules were written, even though I didn’t write those incorrect rules, which were nonsensical historically. But the 1st edition was and is pretty popular even though the Avalon Hill version incorrectly changed several rules from the original Gibsons version (both are regarded as first edition).

Rules as Intended (RAI)​

I think RPGs are written to accommodate many different styles of play, different preferences. As Justin Arman of WotC put it, "The game [D&D] was designed to be house-ruled." That’s certainly true of most if not all role-playing games.

Some boardgame designers have been known to tell people that something that’s legal within the rules is nonetheless wrong because “that’s not what I meant” or “that’s not the right way to play.” - as though even the rules are not enough. This is nonsense.

Consider also, because RPGs are responsible for everything in the entire game world, creators typically don't have or take the time to playtest all the rules, not even once! When Gary Gygax was writing the AD&D rules he had a lot of experience from play of the earlier versions of D&D. Nonetheless, he was adding rules for a lot more situations to the game. IIRC he was also in a hurry.

When a designer changes a rule in a game, this can cause unintended consequences as it meshes with other rules. That’s also true when players change a rule. Even Gygax said he regretted certain rules (e.g. grappling).

Nowadays you can organize massive playtesting for a new edition of very popular games, but that’s the exception to the norm.

RAW vs. RAI​

In the light of many years of play experience it certainly could occur that the rules as written ought to be superseded by changes to make the game work better. (Or at least better according to the preferences of the person doing the revision.) For example, I think the AD&D training rules are nonsense both from a game design point of view and how people actually learn. But others think they’re sacred. House ruling is inevitable, quite apart from the many rules that are open to multiple interpretations.

Speaking as a game designer, I don't mind if people want to play my game not according to the rules; but they must recognize it probably won’t work as well as they expect, and won’t work as the original game works. But they bought the game, they can play however they choose.

Your Turn: Do you adhere strictly to every rule in the RPGs you play?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Thomas Shey

Legend
My only qualification is that any rules set designed as a gestalt (rather than just a set of semi-isolated subsytems), changes can have knock-on effects you may not see when you change them, and fixing that after the fact can have its own costs. As such, I typically make good and sure I understand a rules set before houseruling things these days.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
I never play a game wrong. I just fix the mistakes the designer's made and extend the rules into areas specific to my campaign setting.

I have great respect for rules designers that do a good job. I know they operate under constraints that I don't have to operate under - deadlines, page limits, trying to meet as wide of an audience as possible, needing to finish whatever it they produce to a professional standard, and needing a fixed and immutable text by the time they go to publish. Ultimately what I'm doing doesn't have to be economically sustainable. Ultimately what they are doing is hard work. I'm just having fun and building off of the hard labor they did. I can steal liberally from multiple designers and not worry about copyrights.

But the truth is I can do the work. I can design. I can rule smith. I can write. If I am making changes in the system, I know very much what I'm trying to accomplish and why.
 

Vincent55

Adventurer
I apply the rules as they are written unless I find something stupid and makes no sense then I go back to the earlier parts of the game to help perfect and define what it was intended to be. For example "if held or paralyzed in 5e, you retain all ac bonuses, when really the only bonus to ac should be armour, mostly due to the fact that D&D doesn't use armour as damage reduction. So what i did is went back to an older version and used touch AC in my 5e game in many cases, but in the case of say a roper once you are grappled and paralyzed i only count armour as if it can attack you as it has to get through it to cause damage. I also keep the 5e rule for it being a critical hit every time it gets through the armour and is able to do damage to you. Mind you i do this in my head and for me, it is not hard to do or too complex, but to some who need more simple rules then that is what 5e is for.
 

bloodtide

Legend
No.

I have always seen the "rules" as just suggestions. What is written is a good place to start off from, but those words are not the end all and be all of the game.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's RAW, i.e. what the designer wrote on the page; and there's RAI, which is what the designer really intended to say and-or have the game do; and there's RAP, i.e. Rules As Played in the wild at any given table (and sometimes more broadly). And that's straight out of the box, before any houseruling or kitbashing.

1e D&D is famous for the three of these - RAW, RAI, and RAP - frequently failing to agree (sometimes RAW didn't even agree with itself!), to the point where even the game's designer didn't play it as written.

That said, 1e is a great starting point for building one's own version of the game, largely due to its sub-system based design which when changing things in/about one sub-system really serves to minimize the knock-on effects elsewhere.

WotC-era D&D, with its emphasis on unified mechanics, loses this advantage: you can't change something here without having to deal with knock-on effects there, there, and there...and then miss a couple elsewhere.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
There's RAW, i.e. what the designer wrote on the page; and there's RAI, which is what the designer really intended to say and-or have the game do; and there's RAP, i.e. Rules As Played in the wild at any given table (and sometimes more broadly). And that's straight out of the box, before any houseruling or kitbashing.

1e D&D is famous for the three of these - RAW, RAI, and RAP - frequently failing to agree (sometimes RAW didn't even agree with itself!), to the point where even the game's designer didn't play it as written.

We should note that this is not really a D&D thing. It is true of all writing. Heck, true of all art.

As past writing teachers taught me, there are (at least) three texts: 1) What the author/creator(s) intended, 2) what actually got onto the page (or film - or whatever medium), and 3) what the audience gets out of it.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Consider also, because RPGs are responsible for everything in the entire game world, creators typically don't have or take the time to playtest all the rules, not even once!
This, of course, is the root of the vast majority of badly-made rules in games. Things that never get tested are extremely likely to be bad. That's literally why we test anything designed, whether physical or conceptual.

Your Turn: Do you adhere strictly to every rule in the RPGs you play?
I cannot answer the question in the way it is phrased.

Adhering to the rules of the game should be the presumption, not the exception. This is, in part, because the game itself is part of the "ground rules" between the participants. But it is also in part because you cannot learn to play a game that has no rules, only vague suggestions that can and will change without notice or commentary.

However, there are situations, mostly with games that did not get proper testing, where player and GM alike agree that the rules they're looking at are not right. Or, times where before the game begins, someone proposes a tweak, addition, deletion, or replacement of existing rules. In the former case, you default to a discussion between peers (the GM is no longer particularly special, because this is outside of the rules, by its very nature) and work toward a consensus. In the latter case, the person proposing the change must convince others that the change is worthy of inclusion, at which point it becomes part of the ground rules. In neither case should unilateral declaration be used.

I run DW. I never need house rules in play. I use the existing rules for inventing new moves (very rarely, but I do use them.) The default moves are extremely well playtested and effective. This is part of why I side-eye the excuse that some rules never got testing. If DW can do it, similar projects can too, and big-name companies like Paizo and Wizards absolutely can do it.

I have implemented one house rule, but I did so before the game began (namely, that characters can advance to "eleventh" level, gaining the Legendary move, which turns XP into bennie points. It has been quite effective.) Otherwise? I do no hacking at all of DW's rules. So, in that sense, yes, I do in fact play a game without changing its rules.
 

This, of course, is the root of the vast majority of badly-made rules in games. Things that never get tested are extremely likely to be bad. That's literally why we test anything designed, whether physical or conceptual

Indeed. Much as some react pretty negatively to my ideas when described, I only hold to them because they're working out in practice. My DCC table has nearly been cannibalized by my own game as a matter of fact.

Even before I really started learning game design more deliberately that was something I cared a lot about, as I intuited as a GM that mechanics tend to work best when they feel the best to use, not just mentally but even physically.
 


This doesn't at all reflect my (now extensive) experience of playing nor running Dungeon World. I...don't really know how to respond beyond that. It sounds like you're describing some mirror universe version of PBTA.

Not at all. You can find the evidence in any post, by its fans, that details that these games break down if you stray from their strict focus, especially on the GM side of things.

And Ive also pointed to the biggest sinfle example already; if you're rolling too much, all PBTA games start to break down. Its their single biggest flaw.

And before this erupts into another debate over PBTA, let me remind that I do like Ironsworn/Starforged, and not just like them, but regularly play them. I even hold them up as one of the prime inspirations for my own game, and they are even the reason why my game is going to be soloable.

So don't construe my thoughts on PBTA design as some crusade against these games.
 

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