Role-playing games are perceived as complex due to their volume of rules. What really makes RPGs complicated, though, is the relative dynamism of these rules and the degree to which they sit in the text. In other words, the rules of a game you must know in order to play an RPG are not limited to those which are printed in the rulebook.
While this of course varies from game to game, it can be generally stated that a board game will contain all the rules necessary to play inside the box. This is not always true with an RPG. Given the significant breadth of concepts that a game could potentially cover, RPGs have usually needed a GM to establish a more concrete set of boundaries which make up a campaign. The key here is that what the GM is doing, from writing the world to tweaking the mechanics to actually running the game, involves making and enforcing rules which are supplemental to those actually written in a book.
This exploration of the nature of rules was inspired by Aki’s earlier post on freeform LARP. In examining freeform LARP or any form of freeform roleplay, it’s easy to say there are few rules, when in reality the correct statement is that there are few mechanics. The freeform LARPs described in the article arguably have more and stricter rules than the vast majority of tabletop games: the premise is structured such that you cannot write your own characters, and the entire game and how it plays out is bound by the social contract of being an actual person moving around in an actual space.
Talking about rules in contexts beyond the actual mechanics of the game is important because understanding all rules that regulate a gaming session helps to make that session more fun. We have mechanics, which are the actual procedures of the game. We have premise, which is the setting and story of that game and all the assumptions about who the characters are and what they can and can’t do which that implies. And finally, we have social contract, which makes up the rules about how the players are expected to behave, and how they navigate the interface between the game and real life.
Mechanics is the most straightforward aspect of RPG rules. For the most part, mechanics are the procedures which are delivered through the game’s rulebooks and source material, though house rules could certainly fall in this category as well. Regardless of whether a mechanic is part of the game’s design or added later by a gaming group or third party author, mechanics are all procedures that tell you how to determine outcomes in a game. These are the mislabeled rules that people refer to when they call a game ‘rules-light’, and these are the mathematical formulae that people refer to when they call a game ‘crunchy’.
While all mechanics contribute to the underlying simulation of a game, there are two types, which feed into the next type of rule. Diegetic mechanics are those which are seen in the game world, by the characters. Non-diegetic mechanics are those which are entirely ‘behind the curtain’, only available to the players. You’ll find that non-diegetic mechanics make up the core of any system which is ported or adapted for multiple settings: Rolling a d20 for resolution is a non-diegetic mechanic, as are character attributes and hit points. Spells are a diegetic mechanic: One could reasonably assume that the character knows they have the spells just as well as the player, and also that they know how many times they can use them and at what cost. While there is a lot of game design discussion to be had around diegetic and non-diegetic mechanics (here is a great place to start), they’re important here because they allude to the fact that while the mechanics can be categorized separately from the game’s premise, the two aren’t always (and may never be) completely separable.
The premise of the game covers a range of properties, from the very big to the very small. At the top is the setting, the location the game takes place in and all that implies. In the middle is the core focus, a guiding principle around which characters and a story can be built. And finally, at the bottom, is the specific campaign that any given GM is actually running.
The main thing that changes as you step through these properties is the degree to which they’re codified by the game and reinforced by mechanics. Restrictive games allow a relatively small number of settings, foci, and campaigns without altering the rules, while permissive games may give much more breadth. An example of a restrictive game would be Fiasco. The playset defines the setting and focus, while the core mechanics in the book define the campaign. There are tweaks and alterations, but ultimately the game of Fiasco is good at running Fiasco, and that’s it. An example of a permissive game would be GURPS. GURPS provides tomes upon tomes of mechanics which your group can mix and match to suit all the elements of your premise. Those mechanics all hew to a core which makes the game come out a certain way, but there’s a lot of flexibility in what you play in that certain way.
The tricky thing with a game’s premise is that regardless of what system is being used, a good game session will have roughly the same amount of structure in its premise. GURPS is notoriously difficult to set up as a GM because all of the heavy lifting of establishing what the premise is and what can and can’t happen in-game rests on the GM’s shoulders. Fiasco, meanwhile, has the procedures for playing the sort of campaign it’s designed for laid out so well that there need not be a GM to enforce that structure.
With some exceptions like GURPS and other generic systems, the premise of the game is delivered with the game, at least partially. While some games may have specific settings, nearly all have at least an implied setting, a set of world assumptions which guide play. D&D is the standard bearer of the implied setting; the broad strokes of races and classes, inventory, and how magic works lay down the groundwork on top of which more specific settings can be built. Most games have a core focus, though in traditional RPGs this is presented fairly weakly. There are some traditional games with a strong core focus, like Torchbearer, and they usually have additional mechanics to further codify this. There are also of course many indie games which follow the Fiasco model of building around a set procedure that both illustrates and ossifies the core focus. This procedure also tends to narrow down what a campaign can look like, though there are certain exceptions (Microscope comes to mind) that bring both procedure and breadth. Outside of indie games there aren’t many rules cues to tell a GM what campaign to run, excepting a smattering of advancement mechanics.
The tricky thing about game premises is that, especially in the traditional realm, there isn’t a sharp line defining what part of the game premise comes from the book and what part needs to be brought to the table. Communication of premise is what gets players and the GM facing the same direction, and the more freedom the premise implies, the more work the GM has to do. On the other hand, the narrower the premise, the more both the GM and the game’s mechanics can focus on supporting that premise. Apocalypse World is an excellent example of this, with the mechanics turned only towards the implied setting of the game. The best Powered by the Apocalypse games all share this property: Presenting, using moves and playbooks, a narrow set of mechanics which support the premise of the specific game perfectly.
So after you have a well-developed premise and a good set of mechanics with which to run them, you just need to sit down and play, right? Well, sort of. And this third group of rules is ‘sort of’ rules for an RPG, rather being the rules that humans would follow when interacting at a gaming table. Turns out, though, that these rules and having good ones are just as important to having fun at game night as the mechanics and premise of the game.
There are a couple tricky things about social contracts in gaming spaces. First is that most social contracts are unwritten and often dynamic. What was appropriate 25 years ago is not necessarily appropriate now, which can be stressful for people who were primarily socialized then as opposed to now. The second tricky thing is that the social contract of gaming itself includes a degree of permission for escapism. RPGs stereotypically involve magic, gold, and adventure. They also involve a fair degree of violence, coercion, and other antisocial behavior, even (especially) on the part of the players. We have all agreed, usually without talking about it, that the rogue stabbing a goblin in the back is laudable, even if we’d react very differently to that player stabbing someone in the back in real life. This escapism is a real part of RPGs and, for many players, it’s a primary attraction, even a needed release valve from their daily lives. For most people though, there are still lines. When that violence becomes violence against children, or sexual violence, or just too sadistic to ignore, it’s not comfortable anymore and it’s not fun.
There are two ways to keep things fun when considering the many differing ways people react to the events portrayed in a game. One is, through trying to read the table, keeping the content on the comfortable side for everyone. This sounds like a tepid approach but, let’s be honest, all of us who run with a consistent gaming group do this, and do it fairly well. When you’re at home with friends, it’s perfectly reasonable that you’ll know your friends well enough to know where the line is. And, if you’re close enough friends, your friends will tell you when something’s crossed the line. But what if you want to push it? Maybe not even the subject matter, but changing the premise to one where player characters are way more likely to die, or trying to incorporate more romance in your games where there was none before? This is where all groups benefit from approach number two: asking your players where the lines are. This is basically the only difference between a table using RPG safety tools and one not: one table is using a social contract of expressed consent while the other is using a social contract of implied consent. And as anyone in the BDSM scene can tell you, expressed consent makes it safer and easier to push the envelope and do some really interesting stuff. Of course, this ties into our other rules because it’s assumed that an overt social contract will lead into altering the premise of the game.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why the existence of safety tools and other expressed consent mechanisms have caused such a backlash. While the canard is “my group doesn’t need them”, that has nothing to do with the fact that they are useful, and nobody’s being forced to use them. In my experience, safety tools do two things: they let groups push into territory they weren’t previously comfortable with, and they make con games and other games with strangers more comfortable and more fun. There is the unfortunate third benefit: they help you identify players and GMs who won’t respect your boundaries or your desire to have fun in a game, and avoid them.
Rules in the book, rules from the GM, rules at the table. Game mechanics are rules, the game’s premise consists of rules, and the table’s social contract is also a set of rules. You may be playing GURPS, with tons of mechanics in the book, but the premise left completely up to the GM. You might be in a free-form LARP, with no mechanics beyond what room the game takes place in, a strict premise with pre-written characters, and a codified social contract that defines how it’s appropriate to interact with players in the space and how to navigate in-character and out-of-character actions. All games have rules, and all games have a different split between the three kinds of rules that are used. Your classic “big book” traditional RPG may have a lot of mechanics and premise in those pages, but not as many restrictions in how they’re used or what a given campaign premise can be. An indie game can take up a 24 page zine, but in narrowing the mechanics and premise, get as rich an experience as that big book, albeit a more specific one. And by establishing the social contract at the table, those experiences can be fun for everyone. No matter the game, though, the right question to ask isn’t how many rules there are, it’s what forms do the rules take.