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”?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay

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 think about Monopoly in this context, and how EVERYBODY I met used the same Free Parking rules that weren't in the printed rules. (And nobody used the auction rules.)

In the 90s, I didn't know anyone who used D&D'S XP rules as written.

I think the only thing that's really important is that folks agree to house rules before they start. Especially in RPGs, you don't want to build a character and find out 10 weeks later that one of the cool moves you've been looking forward to has been house ruled into oblivion.

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I think agenda and principles are brilliant and at the same time I'll never think of them as "rules," per se. The interpretive latitude that one has with "be a fan of the pcs" or "think offscreen" or what-have-you is of a extremely different order than the other three categories you list. Yet, I often see claims of "you're not following the rules" applied to a (necessarily) qualitative interpretation of what a specific principle might look like in a particular context. Granted, these sort of claims might be intentionally blithe and sarcastic, a way to call attention to the existence of specific GM advice and give that advice weight by calling it "rules." But then other people (like one of the co-creators of dungeon world) tend to take principles-as-rules very literally, so I don't know.
Yeah, and that's a very fair observation. I emphasize their 'rules-like nature' because I find that they are a core element of play. If you don't follow the agenda and play by the principles of Dungeon World, you are really not playing a game that has the sort of outcomes and play experience that DW produces by design. Many people will try to call these things 'advice' or 'guidelines', but they are far deeper in terms of their significance to DW (or AW for its version of the same) than a bit of GM advice in your typical D&D book is. Even if you don't follow all the advice in 5e, and honestly I doubt anyone COULD follow all of it at once, you will still probably be pretty much playing 5e and nobody will raise an eyebrow. OTOH if you ignore DW's agenda, you are basically playing a different game entirely. So it seems like more than 'just advice'.

Anyway, there's certainly some wide grey area in things like "Be a fan of the characters" but it has a constant effect if you keep it in mind. Others of the principles are a bit more concrete and you can at least say "yeah" or "neigh" I am following them/not.

That last is such a weird trend. Most of the principles and agenda items are so wildly open to interpretation that trying to call them rules, or treat them as such, is doomed to failure.
I think they are actually pretty solid in terms of understanding what they're saying. Yes, some of them like "Be a fan..." is pretty open to interpretation and is pretty situational, but I'd guess there are few GMs who actually cannot understand what it means.

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