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Howling Tower: Rules Are Your Frenemy

Howling Tower: Rules Are Your Frenemy

HowlingTowerThis is the final installment in a series of six articles for players hoping to get the best possible experience from their time around the RPG table.

Roleplaying game rules are wonderful things. I’ve spent decades pulling them apart, refining and polishing every piece, and putting them back together so they purr and growl like a Jaguar V-12.

The comparison to an engine is not random — like oversized engines, too many RPGs have more horsepower and more moving parts than they need for their jobs. All of that intricacy is enormous fun to dissect intellectually and to analyze mathematically, but what does it do for you as a player who wants to get the most out of the roleplaying experience?

Three schools of thought have developed around this question — or maybe only two, depending on how you count them. The first holds that weighty rules don’t interfere with roleplaying at all. Just the opposite; a hefty tome filled with minutiae allows a character’s capabilities to be defined with precision so that they truly matter when the player makes decisions for that character during the game. The difference between +24 and +25 can be a big deal, and so can the difference between Trailblazing skill and Wilderness Navigation skill. The second opinion holds that rules need to be simple so the game can be fast. The focus is on quick decisions and in-the-moment roleplaying without needing to double-check a thick rulebook or a complex character sheet. The difference between “knows a lot about the forest” and “knows a lot about sailing ships and the sea” might be important, but skills shouldn’t be subdivided much finer than that. The third attitude can be summed up as, “who cares, let’s kill some orcs!” — but you might consider that nothing more than the second approach without the navel-gazing.

This issue bears some resemblance to the Stormwind Fallacy, but fundamentally it’s a different question. I don’t want to delve into the question of whether min-maxing and roleplaying are mutually exclusive — they can coexist fine, from where I’m standing.

What can’t coexist happily with immersive roleplaying, in my experience, is a fixation on the mechanical aspects of the rules. Whether your preferred rules are detailed or sparse, they should fade into the background during play. The great charm of roleplaying games is that they transport players to an imaginary time and place unconnected to the dice, character sheets, and rulebooks. Every time you confer with a character sheet, search through a rulebook, count squares on a battle mat, or even roll dice, your imagination is dragged back to the mundane reality that you’re sitting around a table strewn with dice and paper, the same table where you prepare your taxes or cajole your children into eating their vegetables.

This isn’t a concern only for games with complex rules. Even games with simple rules can pull players out of the moment if they’re excessively “gamey” — which is to say, they continually force players to make decisions that have more to do with manipulating the game than with living inside the characters and the story.

Simple RPGs with a high level of “gaminess” in their approach have been something of a fashion in the indie RPG community for several years. Some of them are outstanding games. But in more than a few cases, what’s gained in cleverness is lost in player immersion. Players can cooperatively weave amazing stories, but they’re having a storytelling experience rather than a roleplaying experience.

The game that can seamlessly meld immersive roleplaying with this type of structured storytelling is an elusive bird. I have yet to meet it (but I look forward to reading the comments on this article!).

I’m not saying you should favor one type of game over another. I have my own preference, but a preference is all it is. I am saying, be conscious of how much table time you and your friends spend discussing the rules, flipping pages in the rulebook, manipulating the story mechanically, and generally conversing in game terms versus the time you spend talking, making decisions, and thinking as your characters would. There’s no magic number here, but if more than half your time is devoted to crunching numbers and interacting with the rules, then consider whether you’d like to raise the roleplaying quotient. A different approach – or a different set of rules entirely – might be in order.

Understand the Point of Experience

Most RPGs allow characters to become more powerful over time. (That was the defining characteristic of computer RPGs for many years, a fixation that I found both puzzling and distressing.) Experience points exert a powerful pull on gamers; I’ve watched people play D&D as if gaining the next level-up was the sole reason they had for sitting at the table, and without that lure, they’d be just as happy playing Farmville or watching “Hawk the Slayer” for the 12th time.

Maybe that’s overstating the situation; nobody can watch “Hawk the Slayer” more than six times. But there’s no denying the power of XP.

Partly that’s human nature. We all look forward to a better future by telling ourselves “everything will be grand once…

  • “I graduate;”
  • “I lose 20 pounds;”
  • “I get the new iPhone;”
  • “I start a new job;”
  • “I land a date with Robin;”
  • “I reach 8th level.”

The appeal is easy to understand, I suppose. In real life, “gaining a level” takes months or years of dedicated effort, and possibly a sizable sack of cash. In an RPG, it takes just a few nights of fun with friends instead of hard work.

But the point of an RPG is not to reach the top of the ladder, especially when the ladder itself is so artificial. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, like life, an RPG is a journey, not a destination. A level-up is not a shot of morphine, a career promotion, love, the respect of your peers, or the approval of your parents — even if it sort of feels like one of those things. It’s a pat on the back for steering your character safely through another 10 or 20 hours of imaginary adventure. But another +1 attack bonus or another spell added to your spellbook is just a footnote in the story; the memories generated by a thrilling, challenging adventure experienced through the eyes of your alter ego is the ultimate reward. That, I hope, is the reason you and your friends gather round the table with dice and character sheets. If it’s not, you should try it; roleplaying is best when it’s done for its own sake.

4 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Rules Are Your Frenemy”

  1. Interesting thoughts. You know, RPGs often attract people for whom the immersion is based on their character doing amazing things specifically because of what’s on that character sheet.

    Disdaining the counting of squares on a battlemat when you have built the guy that can move like lightning, or the guy who’s taken the skills to shape his lightning, is kind of undermining that very joy.

    Indeed, it poses the very real risk of the classic “I can describe opening locks better than the guy playing the rogue, so I get to do that just as well” problem that some systems can endorse.

    I think the principles of have fun, share the time, keep it fair, and don’t be a drag on play can be more widely applied than this premise.

    Thanks for making good stuff!

    1. Mike, if that’s what someone wants out of the game, I’d be the last person to stomp on their joy. But the question is, is that roleplaying? I tend to think not, or at least, it’s roleplaying in its very shallowest form. If a person’s chief experience of an RPG is balancing numbers and counting squares, many other non-roleplaying games deliver that sort of play, and often in a more coherent form than your typical RPG. The unique offering of an RPG is roleplaying, and players who don’t engage in it fully aren’t getting the maximum the game has to offer.

      1. Fair point, in that there are many war/strategy games out there. Thank you for replying! I guess I just hesitate to adhere to this idea that you need the books full of the rules for the creative aspects.

        What I guess I’m trying to say is that if I spend the two efforts: 1.) The creation of my character’s narrative, story, and personality 2.) The establishment of numbers or such as dictated by the game to say, Be The Best Jumper Ever For Reals, then disregarding half of that (2) makes me wonder why one would bother with such a system like D&D in the first place, right?

        Also, a lot of these words are because I have sat at tables with new people, or people just trying to have some fun with their own unique character, and watched them sidelined by narcissists who see that and must have it, because, well, they’re narcissists :) I use the view above to offer an objective hedge against that, although it’s obviously imperfect and double edged.

        So, um, thanks for letting me ramble on about my opinion in the comments section of your article – I hope this isn’t tedious :)

  2. An excellent article Mr. Winter. The over abundance of game mechanics is typically one of the reasons I shy away from games such as Pathfinder and D&D 3.0/3.5 and compounded by the fact that I’m not much of a math person. Those games are so complex and flooded with mechanical minutia that the game can, and often does, come to screeching halt to look up a rule, or build a summoned monster. Only with the advent of computers has this problem been somewhat alleviated. I prefer the story telling and the immersion. D&D fifth edition did a good job of reigning in a lot of this game mechanic waste, and put control back into the DM’s hands so he can tell and awesome story that the players can be a part of. Complex isn’t always better.

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