The Role of Rules in RPGs

This post has been a long time in coming and it is still terribly incomplete. What can you add to it?

1. Rules prevent or assist in resolving player conflicts. (GMs are players for this rule.)

I am sometimes asked about RPGs by people who learn how I spend my free time but know nothing about the role-playing games. Nearly everyone has heard of D&D but they don’t know what it is. So I start simple.

“Everyone has played role-playing games as kids. You may have played Cops & Robbers, for instance. Them main difference between that and Dungeons & Dragons is that you have a few simple rules to avoid ‘BANG! BANG! I HIT YOU!’ ‘ NO YOU DIDN’T!’.”

The explanation can go on from there, but I want to focus on this statement because it illustrates something I don’t think that I truly got until recently. The rules prevent or help resolve Player conflicts, not Character conflicts.

Rules for character conflicts are there for simulation. If they are unclear, unfair, or otherwise up for interpretation, then players can come into conflict. Player conflict can limit enjoyment of the game.

Rules for character conflict may not be necessary so long as the players can agree upon what the outcome should be. These rules can help reinforce genre and setting but I feel that creating reasons for players to invest and explore that space for themselves is a better route. Players makes better, more fun decisions when they are informed and invested in the story. Rule that simulate can stifle that effect if they are followed too rigidly.

Rules for player conflict, on the other hand, help move you past arguments on how to resolve character conflict. Sometimes this is resolved by an arbiter, like a GM, or left up to chance. Sometimes this is a matter of currency, like Fate or Plot Points which can be spent to influence the outcome. Rules addressing player conflict can even touch upon the often unspoken social contract between all participants. “We’re here to have a good time, but when we disagree, here’s how we’ll move past that so we can get back to what we find enjoyable in the game.”

2. Rules help move the game forward.

Rules define and lend focus to player activities during the game. When you invoke rules is important. This is an issue of pacing. The time it takes to invoke and apply rules can affect the “flow” of activity at your game table. What good pacing is, is unique to your game. This is also an issue as to what activities are important to playing your game because players tend to seek out opportunities to invoke the rules.

For an example, let’s talk about D&D for a minute.

Dungeons & Dragons has deep roots in war gaming where combats are rarely over in a single exchange. Tactics are an integral part of the experience and, as a result, D&D characters have well-defined combat abilities. In every round of combat, players roll dice to see if they inflict damage, how much damage they deal, and to determine the outcome of other related tasks while under fire. Because combat abilities are so important, players spend a lot of time on choosing them and will probably seek opportunities to use them so that effort pays off.

These rules can help you determine who wins the battle, but what does the battle mean? If your group is more interested in the latter, then rules simulating tactical combat may not be suitable for your game because they put too much emphasis on that activity and don’t move the forward by answering that important question.

For another example, lets look at Fate.

Who wins in a fight, Batman or Superman? Discussions like this occur all the time in RPGs. Phrases like “I should have succeeded because… ” or “That shouldn’t have happened because…” are heard all the time. In Fate, the supporting facts in these debates are called Aspects and you have a limited pool of currency that you can spend on invoking them.

The use of currency places a limit on the number of arguments that can be made, which limits the length of the argument. It also forces the players to choose which Aspects of the story are important to them. This is a great tool for determining what the answers to questions like “How is this conflict important?” and “How do we move on from here?”. These answers help move the game forward.

I also talked about rules defining important moments in the game and moving the story on from there when Random Thoughts: Apocalypse and Revelation.


Only two rules? Friend, it has take me years to come to these conclusions by myself. It’s a never-ending quest to be a better GM and player that led me to them. If I unearth more, you’ll be the first to hear about.

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~ by Hunter Rose on August 22, 2015.

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