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
I've always been a rulings over rules type when it comes to RPGs, but I start with a healthy respect for the rules as written. When I go off script its often because I find the RAW to be tedious and of little value. Im more likely to horseshoe something than devise my own equally complex version. Though, the fact that the games boundaries in an RPG are much more expansive than a board game is something that has always been attractive to me. I think you will always need a bit of flexibility with the ruleset to take full advantage of that aspect. YMMV.

I am similarly inclined towards rulings over rules (primarily with the aim of making the most actions possible in the game), but begin with a healthy respect for the baseline rules. For me the key thing about an RPG that makes it work is the ability of the GM to flexibly enable any attempt the players want to make. I started in the mid-80s, so that was a key thing that separated it from say King's Quest (where you could do an awful lot and try a lot, but you were limited to what had been programmed in advance).
 

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Dire Bare

Legend
I don't know if there is a wrong way to play D&D . . . .

But certain playstyles can lead to mismatched expectations among players and cause tension or strife. But ultimately, if you find the way a group plays as "wrong", then you need to find another group. Which isn't always easy to do . . . .

There are definitely playstyles that I personally find "wrong", often folks who are either inflexible with the rules, misunderstand the rules, or have weird hang-ups and arbitrary house rules, but . . . is that a "them" thing or a "me" thing . . .

As a teacher running an after-school D&D club, I definitely push for specific playstyles for the young DMs and PCs . . . I help them correctly interpret rules, encourage them to run house rules by me first, and to avoid restricting player options without strong reasons . . . no inter-party conflict and we practice respectful social interactions at the table . . .
 


pemerton

Legend
In the case of PbtA games, I think this shows a lot: it explains why they're hard to hack effectively
This doesn't seem right to me. My copy of AW is the original, and it has a chapter called "Advanced F*****y" which is full of example hacks, including moves that "cross the line" (to use John Harper's phrase), and changing genre to parkour and to D&D (the earliest iteration of Dungeon World). And all of this is accompanied by extensive commentary.

The idea that AW is hard to hack doesn't seem right to me.
 

pemerton

Legend
In my Torchbearer game we follow the rules, but I reckon - as GM - that I'm a bit lighter on consequences than the designers (Thor and Luke) intended. As far as I can tell this doesn't affect playability at all, but makes the tone just a shade less grim than what is intended.

In our Prince Valiant game, again we follow the rules, but as GM I probably hand out a bit more fame than Greg Stafford intended, which means the PCs grow in power more quickly than he envisaged. Given my group doesn't play all that frequently, and juggles multiple ongoing games, this isn't a problem.

Classic Traveller (1977) seems, in its rules, to mostly suggest "exploration"-oriented play, based around a star map pre-drawn by the referee. But there are hints in the text of the possibility of a more "responsive", "just in time" approach to play. Since I returned to this game a few years ago after a 30-odd year hiatus, I've picked up on those hints, and drawn on my reading of Apocalypse World, to approach the game in a more PbtA-ish style. I think it's been great. Traveller is good for this, because all its different subsystems can be read and applied as PbtA player-side moves.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
Classic Traveller (1977) seems, in its rules, to mostly suggest "exploration"-oriented play, based around a star map pre-drawn by the referee. But there are hints in the text of the possibility of a more "responsive", "just in time" approach to play. Since I returned to this game a few years ago after a 30-odd year hiatus, I've picked up on those hints, and drawn on my reading of Apocalypse World, to approach the game in a more PbtA-ish style. I think it's been great. Traveller is good for this, because all its different subsystems can be read and applied as PbtA player-side moves.
I have been running Mongoose Traveller 2E, but to much the same effect. Couldnt agree more.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
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.



While I generally agree with your post, I must point out that unless Dungeon World is much more extensive than the other PbtA games I've looked at, it has the advantage that most of its rules are very broad and schematic. Its a lot easier to playtest that than rules that drill down into more detail, and want that detail to have actual mechanical teeth.
 

I apply with rules the same approach I use with cooking recipes: I always try not to change them before trying them a few times unmodified.

I think your analysis is missing an important chunk. On one hand I agree with you that ultimately what matters is that people have fun playing the game. If you're having fun as a group, you shouldn't feel ashamed of playing the way you do.

But if you focus on what you think is best and disregard what the game is trying to do you can end up playing only one game: "Let's play Traveller, but I don't like the dice system, I'd rather have d20 like in D&D. And the random character creation is stupid, I want players to build the characters they want to play. I'll just write some D&D-like classes based on the common archetypes you find in traveller. And what's that about being in debt for the ship? That doesn't sound fun, let's just get rid of it." etc etc. Does that mean you're going to have a bad time with your players? No. But at that point are you really playing Traveller anymore? Or are you just playing D&D in space? That example can seem obvious, but it can come in more subtle flavours when considering games that aren't D&D.

D&D is a game that doesn't really care about how you GM it. There's some guidance, very generic advice not to hard railroad your players and ensure everyone is having fun… But overall D&D is a game that leaves it up to the DM to find the style of GMing they want to use. This is in line with the fact that D&D is a game that's made to be hacked. But when you consider something like Apocalypse World, that's another beast entirely. Apocalypse World cares deeply about how you GM, and is so convinced that there is a DMing style that fits the game best and will produce the best experience that this GMing style is codified as rules. And frankly, yeah, it does fit the game very very well, and it's not a style that is very common among D&D GMs so you can't just assume people will use it naturally.

But here the idea that it's perfectly legitimate to ignore the rules push many GMs to ignore these DM rules and rule the game as they would any other (by which I mean, generally whataver their D&D style is) and often these styles don't make the game shine and people end up frustrated and not understanding how anyone can like that game that just doesn't work properly. I take Apocalypse World specifically here because it's a clear example where we can see many such complaints and many people being annoyed to be told that they're playing the game wrong when often (not always of course - plenty of people very legitimately dislike PbtA games after giving them an honnest try) they are indeed playing the game wrong. And by that I mean they are changing rules in a way that prevents them from experiencing what the game is designed to let them experience and that is harmful to their enjoyment of the game.

So all in all what I'd say is:
  • Fun is paramount. If you have fun, don't let anyone or anything shame you for it.
  • If you change the rules, you're doing it at your own risk. If you don't have fun, it may be that the game is bad, or it may be that the rule change you made is bad. Don't take it out on the game, you haven't actually played it yet.
  • For that reason, it's better IMHO to try playing the game on its own terms first. That way you also avoid essentially always playing the same game with different flavoring.
  • Different games can be more or less tailored to a specific experience. Some games do care about how you GM them. Some games do care about how you roleplay them. Some games do care that you use minis. Not every game has the same stance as D&D that essentially everything is optional and you shouldn't approach all games with that mindset.
  • But if you tried a game and made a change and found it awesome, that's great! Talk about it, share it, play it. You shouldn't be afraid to tinker, you should only be afraid to judge something you haven't actually experienced.
Yeah, and consequently my idea in playing RPGs is generally to stick to what the game says and try to play it in what seems to be the way it was designed to be played. That may mean I don't like the game and stop playing it, but there's a billion RPGs out there, I don't really understand the sentiment that seems to be common (especially with D&D) that it MUST be bent, twisted, and mutilated into whatever shape of game it is that is wanted today. If you want Dungeon World, play it! If you don't, then don't! I mean, sure, by all means, apply a tweak or two once you have a good handle on what the game is and how it really works. You might then increase your fun. Like we pretty much ignored XP in 4e once we played a bit. It just didn't add much to play, so we dropped it. But we definitely played with it for at least a few months and understood what it was for, and THEN dropped it, and honestly our 'lets wing it' level progression rate was probably not all that different from if we had counted XP.
 

While I generally agree with your post, I must point out that unless Dungeon World is much more extensive than the other PbtA games I've looked at, it has the advantage that most of its rules are very broad and schematic. Its a lot easier to playtest that than rules that drill down into more detail, and want that detail to have actual mechanical teeth.
I'm not sure what you mean by that. I mean, PbtA (and DW specifically) has basically 4-ish classes of rules:
1. Basic constitutive rules - this is the 'onion', conversation, moves (in a general sense), playbooks, and who is responsible for handling which things.
2. Moves - these are generally very specific rules, though some of them can be nearly generalized, like Defy Danger. Each move is a specific rule of its own within the constitutive 'here is how you resolve a move' type 1 rule.
3. Supporting mechanics - this includes things like equipment and tags, encumbrance, hit points, money, and maybe certain supporting moves that are really more general than specific, like Carouse and such.
4. Agenda and Principles - this is the 'what are we doing and how' in the sense of what is the game about and how do apply the rest of the rules in order to get that.

Some of these rules are quite narrow and specific (IE certain spells and other class moves). Some are very general (the agenda), rules in the first category generally. I think the more general ones are actually the hardest to get right, and you will note that most PbtA games don't muck a lot with those! DW draws heavily from AW here, BUT it does adjust the agenda somewhat. Likewise DW changes the playbooks and the moves greatly, though certainly there's a good bit of commonality with AW there.

The two games have wildly varying supporting mechanics, with DW's gear system and hit points being rather different from AW's, though not as much different as later PbtAs often are.

If I want to hack DW or AW, its not THAT hard! Making additional playbooks, while it could be tricky in some sense, is fairly straightforward, no more difficult than writing a class would be for D&D, and probably easier. Creating a whole new PbtA with its own agenda, yeah, that's going to be work, but so is any game design. Its no less profound than writing a whole new d20 game using 5e as a basis.

And I don't think DW is any more extensive than other PbtAs that I have encountered. AW (2e at least) is in the same ballpark, and Stonetop has similar heft (though it is still not a finished game). Not sure about other PbtAs, but I get the feeling they're in the same league, at 200-ish pages (but generally a lot less typographically dense than say D&D is).
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
While I generally agree with your post, I must point out that unless Dungeon World is much more extensive than the other PbtA games I've looked at, it has the advantage that most of its rules are very broad and schematic. Its a lot easier to playtest that than rules that drill down into more detail, and want that detail to have actual mechanical teeth.
Most of the rules are broad, yes. I'm not entirely clear on what "schematic" means in this context. Individual class playbooks, however, tend to have pretty specific rules, and usually do have some degree of mechanical teeth.

Edit: Per @AbdulAlhazred's analysis, I have done a small tweak, not strictly to the Agendas, but how I interpret them. I have included intrigue and guile alongside the more obvious violent/aggressive stuff. For example, due to both concerns the party has about keeping their activities under wraps, and the fact that they had locked down Undertake a Perilous Journey, I added a fourth role: Stealth. Choosing not to conceal your journey can have consequences, if it matters to you that others can know where you're going. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn't; for the vast majority of their early career, it never mattered if anyone knew because they weren't big enough to be worth following, and by the time they were big enough, they were doing things in places that weren't easy to track. This and other features (the more political side of intrigue) have made for interesting and challenging situations as the players figure out how to respond to these things. Still portraying a fantastic world, just one where secrets and alliances matter as much as tactics and thews.
 
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