Tuesday 19 June 2012

Rulings, not Houserules

Overly Casual Gamers
I mentioned in the cleric post that I "hate houserules".  One reason for that is that I often play with casual gamers - ie, people who play games in general rather than being specifically roleplayers (and sometimes not even gamers) who care, or want to care, about Systems. When we sit down to play, it's enough work for them to get their heads around the parts of the PHB that are important to their character. Giving them a houserule document of more than a paragraph is not usually their or my idea of upping the fun levels.

But there is a deeper reason - roleplaying is not about rules. In fact, it is very specifically not about rules and all about rulings at the table at the time.

The RPG designer who tries to write rules to cover every eventuality is a fool (I learnt this the hard way). They're a fool to themselves and a fool to their players. Every new rule adds a loophole and every aspect of the characters' lives which are covered by a rule begs the question of why some other part isn't, so that the whole process feeds on itself if you let it.

Some game designers, particularly Robin Laws as an example (I've just done a preview and I see Zak's latest post is about Laws - must be something in the air), drew a line in the sand over this and instead looked for all-encompassing "unified" rules. The idea being that by finding a brush that is broad enough, it is possible to cover all actions in one or, at most, a few swipes. No gaps are left and there is no massive pile of rules to memorize. Lovely.

Kate Moss: the
Role-Playing Game
The only problem with this idea is that it doesn't work for any sort of complicated characterisation either of the characters or their world. We all know that the real world is complicated and inconsistent. Putting a single mechanic over it makes everything feel like one of those strange models that appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan - initially inviting but on closer inspection devoid of any substance other than class-A drugs. Well, most RPGs don't include hard drugs, but the point stands.

In Laws' case, the rules become totally abstracted from the gameworld (and tend to be associated instead with some aspect of the setting that the players respond to, in contrast to the characters) and are essentially themed board- or card-games. Well designed ones, but totally unable to carry a campaign with any but the most dedicated fan of the settings.

The so-called third edition of D&D is a strange system which manages to apply the unified mechanic idea and yet be mind-bogglingly complicated at the same time, but even when designed by someone who isn't an idiot the UM comcept creaks all over the place as the one-size-fits-all quickly shows why people pay good money for tailor-made clothes.

Which is where the DM comes in (or the GM-this isn't really a D&D point). The DM is that tailor, and the tailoring is done during play, not before it. The rulebooks give the baseline "if nothing special is going on" guide of how things work. The DM decides when those guildelines need bent or discarded, or when new ones are needed.

It is a classic mistake to write down these decisions in the name of consistency. Even writing them down in the name of "that's a good rule" is often a mistake, in my experience. And my experience is of being the sort of person who can fill boxes with print outs of rules and "good ideas".

In the long run this tendency strangles the DM and the game. The best thing about playing with non-RPGers is that it has forced me to scrape everything back to the bone. No written-in-stone houserules, no charts of new weapon speeds or skill difficulties. I've restricted myself as much as possible to re-writing some of the more badly worded rules into a more intelligible or faster form which doesn't to change their actual meaning in terms of the game world.

Apart from my notes, the only thing I actually use at the table now is my re-written combat tables which I've laminated for play.

I do aim for consistency in decisions that effect the party. If I decide that a certain wall needs a d% roll against Dex x 3, then that's the rule the whole party uses at the time (thieves get a by in the case of a wall that other people can climb). But it says nothing about what I'll rule at the next wall. I might use 3d6 (something of a habit, in fact); I might use d20 or 4d6.

This does not bode well for
a night of wild adventure.
Running a role playing game is a learning experience for everyone - hopefully the players are learning about the gameworld and their characters, while the DM is learning how to run a fun game. Tying yourself to years of precedent is a bad idea and you should always allow yourself to go back to the rules and start from scratch when you feel the need. It both frees you to apply what you've learnt and  gets you away from bad decisions.

Obviously, many things about the rules of any roleplaying game annoy someone enough that they never want to play with some aspect of the game. The economic system of AD&D is a good example. Anyone who is interested in some level of economic reality in their gameworld will quickly see that the objective of throwing heaps of gold at the players and then taking it off them again does not sit well with a study of the English wool trade of the 13th century.

These cases are where the booby traps really lie for the unwary. AD&D is actually quite well put together in terms of its objectives and it can be surprisingly hard to make permanent changes to the system which stand the test of long term play, but it can be done.

In the end, though, role-playing is what happens when the rules get out of the way and if they're to be out of the players' way they must also be put beyond the DM's reach and s/he must instead "wing it" rather than be constantly cracking open a book to look up some table or other. This is where the real fun is for both sides.


  1. Most of my players are casual gamers as well, but rather than stick close to the rule book, what I aim for is the simplest rendition of the game that I can manage.

  2. This is a great post and something I am doing these days... Trashing 30 plus years of house rules, short cuts and rules I never grokked and getting back to the books.