Thursday, 3 October 2013

Workday Ramblings - Rules and Rulings in RPGs

This post is my long response to a comment on a blog post; I also thought about many things during writing it so it became somewhat incoherent and it does not have that nice structure I crave for. Nevertheless, I though it deserved its own post.

Over Monsters and Manuals, there is a post dealing with how different it is to enter the role-playing hobby to entering some sports game (i.e. to become familiar with the rules and how they are played). I am actually not that interested in the main discussion but in something Lucky said in the comments:
Where the analogy breaks down for me is that in sports, the devil is in the details. The rules are not an abstraction in sports the way they are in RPGs, where you're trying to collect a multitude of things into a smaller set of rules. In sports, those things ARE the game. The challenge and enjoyment of sports is in trying to accomplish a simple goal under a complex set of dos and don'ts. At least for me, RPGs are about trying to accomplish (sometimes) complex goals under a simple set of rules. In sports, it pays to know all the rules, because you're bound by them. In RPGs, both the DM and the players can hand wave to their hearts content.

First, let me be a jerk and say this: you can play against the rules of any game inasmuch as you can ignore rules in any RPG. Obviously, with the assumption that everybody play as they like is less than unfruitful, we now discard this idea; if we do so, however, we must agree that altering or ignoring a rule in an RPG is exactly like doing so with the rules of a sports game.

Second, there are numerous instances of players' and GMs' steering the fiction towards situations for which there are no explicit rules. I believe the following four cases sum up all the possible methods of resolving such situations:

  1. The GM "borrows" a rule from another sub-system or extends its use (e.g. when a player states he would like to hit the sand golem's ruby heart instead of its body, the GM says it has has AC X and Y hp; or when it becomes important to decide if the prison guard believes a lie, the GM rules it is like a Reaction roll with Z modifier, and adjusts the possible outcomes according to the situation).
  2. The GM creates a new rule from scratch (e.g. the players would like to knock out the hill giant, and the GM says it is successful on a damage roll of 6+ with no actual damage dealt; or the players lead a small army and engage in a battle with a couple dozens of orcs, and the GM makes up some simple wargame to handle the situation).
  3. The GM says it only works on a roll X or higher on a Y-sided die with no modifiers. It is almost the same as No. 2 above but with one key difference: this roll determines if it is entirely possible or not and the result applies to all further situations (i.e. instead of an arbitrary "yes" or "no", he leaves it to chance, passing the judgement on); admittedly, this is the rarest case.
  4. The GM says "it works" or "it doesn't work" and apply changes to the situation that correspond to other existing rules (e.g. the players blow up the room and the ceiling falls on their enemies, so the GM rules they die; or the players blind the giant and the GM applies some penalty to its AC and to-hit rolls).

Now, imagine a situation where there is a guardian standing in a door beyond which treasure can be found. The players go up to him and try to convince him to let them pass. The GM (going with option No. 4 from above) says "okay, he lets you pass". They go in, grab the treasure and leave. Next room, new guardian. They try to convince him too but he is stubborn. The players complain, "How come it worked before and now it doesn't?".

It could either be GM fiat or the internal logic of the fiction. In the latter case, it is actually a "rule of the fiction", so to speak, that stubborn people cannot be convinced of anything (or perhaps only of a limited number of things). Although this may not look like it, but it actually is a rule: you can convince people but not stubborn ones.

Leaving the discussion of similarities and differences between "game rules" and "fictional rules" for another post (something more consistent and well-written), what I am trying to say is the fact that RPGs are incomplete in their structure (I am using this word a bit different here than Justin does; I actually mean that the game allows the occurrence of situations it has no rules or guidance for) does not mean the game is about engaging in situations where the rules do not apply.

So much rambling for today...

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