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  • Writer's pictureJames Shade

Rules were meant to be broken…or were they?

As a 40-year veteran of the games, I have seen, read and written a lot of rules. A LOT. There are games that are rules-lite and games with rules that would tax the abilities of a supercomputer! Some rules are broad and some have exhausting detail. There are quite a few board games that come with encyclopedic rules but nothing has more rules than a roleplaying game.

Most people in the hobby adhere to the phrase “they aren’t so much rules as guidelines”, an axiom I believe in wholeheartedly. Another oft heard saying: “story is more important than rules”. Again, for me this is truth. But one needs to understand the specifics of the concept before one can judge for oneself.

Roleplaying games are by their very nature a unique creation and a unique experience; they combine storytelling with the challenge and competition of a game, with similarities to board games, card games, strategy games and even video games. The core of the experience is of course the interaction between the player-created characters and the world/campaign/scenarios presented by the gamemaster. How do they react to their encounters? What path do they take? How do they treat their in-game companions? It is fascinating to see how each player attempts to overcome the in-game challenges based on the limitations of the characters they have developed. And no two players will ever react quite they same way. To this day I am still astounded by the methodologies some players come up with in order to be victorious over their foes and the odd situations they inevitably find themselves in.

But to simply say “I kill the dragon” wouldn’t be much fun. There isn’t much story in it and no one would be impressed since the utterance of those words isn’t all that difficult. One may as well just sit around the campfire making up tales of heroic deeds and trying to one-up your friends. Hence the game has rules and characters have limitations.

In the past four decades or so I have run and played games that run the gamut where rules are concerned. I have seen strict adherence to the rules (including such esoteric gems as “weapon speed” and “encumbrance”) as well as so-called free-form, diceless systems, the latter of which was for the most part as described above (“I do this” and it happens). As with all things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and the key, as usual, lies in balance. One cannot simply discard the rules on a whim since this can lead to inconsistency and even an abuse of storytelling powers. On the other hand, any game with voluminous, encyclopedic rules tends to be so heavy on the number-crunching and exacting details that it puts a terrible drag on the story, interrupts the flow of gameplay and wastes valuable time as players and GMs alike look up rules, cross reference charts and bicker about the interpretations thereof.

A good GM, regardless of whether he is a good storyteller, should be familiar with the rules of the game and know them like the back of his hand. He should decide which rules he is going to use throughout the game (including house rules) and make sure the players are aware of any changes before the game starts. This allows them to be more confident in their actions by knowing exactly what their characters are going to be capable of achieving through the ruleset and their own limitations.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for any rulebook to cover every single occurrence that will pop up in a roleplaying game. Thus a GM has to be flexible and have the ability to improvise a ruling on the spot given the current game mechanics, making sure to objectively judge the situation in relation to the players, the characters, the story and the game itself. This is where consistency comes in, as he is making it known that future game situations that are similar will likely have the same judgment.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle as far as rules are concerned. I have an advantage when I run games that I have written as I know the rules by heart. As such, I know exactly when and where to utilize them properly, when to modify them accordingly and when to give them a pass for the moment. Do I think a player needs to roll a skill check every time they walk, run, swim, climb, drive, breathe, eat? Of course not. Only if the situation presents difficulties (performing skills during combat, in darkness or during inclement weather, for example) or could lead to a dramatic moment (falling off a cliff, crashing into another vehicle, insulting the king) would I insist that a player roll some dice to accomplish an otherwise mundane action.

The games that I design tend to have very simple, streamlined rules. And some of them use only a single die type. For example, GALAXY PRIME utilizes a percentile system for its game mechanics, which is an easy and familiar form for most gamers to recognize and understand. The core combat rules are basically limited to a single page! POWERS BEYOND uses only 10-sided dice and all resolution rolls fall under three numbers: 5, 7 & 9. That’s it! This simplicity makes the game flow so much faster and keeps the focus on the characters and the story. It also saves time, which is good for those of us who only get a block of 4-6 hours of play every 2 weeks or so.

In short, rules are necessary for running a good game but don’t be a slave to them. Or in other words: keep it simple, keep it consistent and keep it balanced.

The game guru hath spoken.

Hallowed be thy game!

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