Arguing About Rules

There is a certain big-name game designer who seems to hate D&D. Doesn’t seem to matter what edition – he just seems to hate D&D. One of his oft-repeated points against D&D is that it is a combat game. And you know it is a combat game because the only thing it has rules for is combat. (to be clear, I’m certain that he’s aware that there are other rules in the game – but combat-related rules do make up a significant portion of the rule documents.)

In other words, the rules you write dictate what the game is about. I guess it’s the “if all you have is a hammer” argument in D&D form. And I’m not saying he’s entirely wrong but I’ll get back to that later.

I made the mistake of bumbling into this argument and getting dog-piled by fanboys when I suggested that maybe this was not a good argument. Sometimes, I’m a little thick that way. My point was that the rules don’t tell players what to do at the table… the reason there are so many combat rules is because the players need rules to model that action; they don’t need rules to model talking among themselves, for example. I was told that game designers design their games along the principal that you only write rules for what’s important. A direct quote, “Why would I write rules for something that I [the designer] don’t think is an important part of the game?”

And I see where they are coming from. But I’m not saying that combat isn’t important in D&D. It certainly is. I’m just saying that when Gygax/Arneson/whoever was actually involved back in the 70s created D&D rules, they may not have considered that you needed rules for the players and the GM to talk to one another. You didn’t need rules to roleplay. You needed rules to model the parts of the game that the players couldn’t physically act out. So, things like shooting, magic, how long a torch lasts, and how much you can carry – matters of praxis – got rules. Talking to the kobolds didn’t. The players just needed to talk to the DM. Searching a room didn’t need rules either. You could simply narrate your character’s actions as you attempted the search. Quite a few early adventures had GM notes to the effect of “If the characters look under the table…” which suggests that the writers were aware of this type of table behavior.

I don’t necessarily see a set of rules for a tabletop roleplaying game as a set of guard-rails telling me what I should do in the game or what the game designer thinks is the important part of the game. I see the rules as a tool-set used to model the parts of the game that cannot be easily adjudicated at a dining room table and which include a high degree of chance (such as combat). And that’s where I think the conversation about D&D goes off the rails. Because if you perceive the rules as a set of specific permissions to do things that have rules and not do things that don’t have rules then it really changes the way you think about gaming.

Now, I did mention that I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. I see a strong argument to be made that many people also interpreted early D&D the way he did and that by the time 3rd and 4th edition came along (and Pathfinder) that the game did entirely center itself on combat. There is little argument that the game evolved into – and many tables embraced – a combat-centric D&D experience. And the evolution of the loot-and-level, character-optimization style of play that was embraced by the video game RPG industry certainly contributes to that perception. So, I can absolutely see how this became a talking point and a belief that makes sense.

But tabletop RPGs are not computer games. The Long Dark won’t let my character climb things. That’s hard programmed into the code of the game. There is no climbing function except at very specific “rope” points in the game. But my character could absolutely climb some of the areas that are not climbable in the game. And it is endlessly frustrating to be staring at a tiny little ledge that I cannot traverse because the game doesn’t understand what I want to do. But in a tabletop game with a DM; this is a discussion. It’s part of the experience of play. It’s part of the back and forth whether the game specifically has detailed climbing rules or not.

And that leads into a much bigger question about just how many rules do you need and how detailed do they need to be and what should be the method for handling something when it goes outside the available rules. That question is way too large, has been endlessly debated, and is beyond the scope of today’s post. (My personal belief is that there isn’t a best answer; just what works for you.)

One area that I will mention though is social exchanges. In the decades since D&D became a thing, many games have tried to craft detailed rules governing social interactions between characters, NPCs, etc. I have read, run, and played many, many games that tried this. I have yet to encounter one that actually does it well. (don’t @ me). Because this actually gets into the territory of trying to legislate player behavior vs. fully in-character actions these simulations always come up short.

So, at the end of the day, I will never agree that D&D was a game built only on combat and I think to assert that games only have rules for what’s important is a fairly silly idea. For me, the rules will always be about attempting to model behavior that needs mechanical modeling at the table. It’s two very different ways to look at writing rules for a game.

As always, thanks for reading.

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