On the Rules of the Game

Hi guys. Kickstarter went well, like 1,100 backers. Took some time off. Got a cat. Back to work.

Holy schnikes, guys, did you know Role Playing Games have rules? Strap in!

Aggressive Denial

It's hard to let go of your preconceptions. Like, it's giving up an addiction hard. I know this will be a bitter pill for some people, and others will find themselves amazed that it's still news. People will go to aggressive lengths to avoid facing facts. So I'm going to break it down as clearly as possible.

A role-playing game is a game in which you play a role.

Look, clearly you can define whatever kind of activity in whatever way you want. But if you're going to play a role-playing game it requires those two things. Here are the reasons that combination of things is special.

Tactical Infinity. Because you are playing a game with human peers, there's no arbitrary limits.
Emergent Gameplay: Because it is a game, outcomes are unknown and develop during play.
Group Cohesion In-group Valuation. Because it is a regular activity engaged in with a peer group, task commitment increases the relative value of in-group experience.

I know, that last one sounds complicated.

Look, we form social groups. I'm not telling, I'm just saying, we do. And role-playing games involve a social group that often solves problems together. A group of people with shared interests that solves problems or engaged in problem solving activity together show stronger interpersonal relationships and stronger social identities. (Cohesion and Performance in Groups) This activity thus leads to greater motivation, performance, life satisfaction, and better emotional resilience

You know this in your heart, because you are reading a blog about role-playing games in 2019. You know that feeling I'm talking about. That "Oh god, isn't role-playing just wonderful" feeling we all have. It's specific and quantifiable. ALL players (everyone involved in the game, including the Dungeon Master, who is a player) engage for this valuation.

It's got Rules! It's not a Cult!

Here is the line of demarcation. If everyone isn't playing-if one person is trying to manipulate other people or engaging in some passive-aggressive behavior to control or alter the natural outcome of a game, that isn't a group of people solving a task and increasing cohesion.

See, believe it or not, all role-playing games have rules. Now am I saying you can't change the rules? No. Of course you can. The specifics of the rules are unimportant. The rules of the game are rules, and there is a procedure (and always has been). It's a game like chess or monopoly. It has rules.

I don't think that's a contentious statement. Some of those rules are social rules. A lot of these statements I'm making seem logical, until you recognize your own negative behavior as "magical exceptionalism" and somehow different. 

All of these are some variation of the same behavior:
  • "I didn't think that death was fair, so I had the monster miss"
  • "I didn't want a player to die to a 'bad die roll'"
  • "I change the hit points of all the monsters because I felt that the combat didn't go on long enough"
  • "The player was wrong so I killed his character"
  • "I fudged the dice to make the game more 'fun'"
This argument is commonly misinterpreted. You do get to decide things as a Dungeon Master. You're not destroying player agency by skipping the last encounter check at the end of a long night. The game is open and depends on player consensus at the table.

The danger is in creating non-open subjective metrics
You can of course have rules that are hidden or rules that are not player-facing. But inconsistently deciding some rules change for subjective reasons-well, think about that in the context of any other game.

"I don't care that you broke through as red rover, you go back to your side because I said."
"Well, now this is the hill, and I'm king of it."
"You can't go that way, the only way to go is into the forest!"
"That one doesn't count. I meant to fold"

David Sirlin has a book called "Playing to Win". It talks about Scrub theory. Basically the rules of the game are the way they are; creating some 'imaginary' set of rules that people are supposed to follow instead of the actual rules of the game impair that players ability to not only compete professionally, but truly know their own limits and take responsibility for their own successes and failures. As opposed to calling someone's tactics "cheap" because their legal play doesn't fit your own conception of what is "fair" instead of the reality of the game. (This isn't the full argument, his book is the full argument.)

His point is, by creating these safeguards from consequences people never get to experience their full potential. They can never compete at the highest level.

Role-playing isn't usually competitive, it's almost universally cooperative. That includes the Dungeon Master. Much like if I were to cheat at Arkham Horror or Pandemic it would reduce the meaning of playing the game as a group, the same goes for redefining the rules of an role-playing game based on subjective feelings. 

The Secret

All roleplaying is procedural. If you're running a game and deciding things arbitrarily, that's a sign of an unskilled Dungeon Master. (Not that they know they are unskilled or will admit it, but they will talk about how hard it is to get a game together. This is serious Dunning-Kruger territory.)

Let me explain. Much like in any other kind of game in the world, there is a sequence of actions. At no point does someone wave a wand and there's a free-form interpretative dance component to chess. 

Role-playing games are the same way. Familiarity with some of these steps can make them pass instantaneously or invisibility at the table. Different games have different steps. But they are all procedural steps, there's no magical tea parties

A short example.

Players gather.
Play begins.
The Dungeon Master describes the scene. 
The players ask questions.
The caller confers with the players.
The caller reports the action to the dungeon master.
The dungeon master reports the outcomes.

Depending on the setting, Wilderness exploration, Dungeon Exploration, or Downtime, various other procedures are described, as well as methods to switch between them. The players get a 'turn'. they must spend one 'turn' in six at rest. They can move X' a turn. 

Let's not be aggressively stupid here. Let's say you want to add a procedure for having the players talk to each other at the camp to flesh out character relationships. Can't you do that? 

Of course you can. Look at The Dying Earth (if you can find a copy) or my own On the Non-Player Character, if you'd like to see some of the ways you could handle something like that. But if you're creating new game procedures, you should do that and then present them to the players.

Because of the fact that role-playing groups form such strong bonds this boundary can get a little blurred. It's the line between engaging in an activity freely with your friends, versus acting in aggressive and passive ways to meet your needs at the expense of theirs. Often we take advantage of people once we grow used to them. You no longer think about their experience or the group experience being a priority, but rather in your individual superiority over it. You know better, so it's ok to invalidate their choices in the group experience. You cease to approach them as valued humans who are sharing your time. 

Let's put it this way. If you're not willing to roll right out in the open and say "I'm ignoring or changing that roll because I don't want you to die." why not? 

If you only "prevent people from unfair deaths", then you've created a room full of people, ostensibly your friends,  who have to figure out what you, personally, consider unfair. And when someone dies, it's because you decided, and not because it happened in the game.  

The Hard Truth

People have a fear of confrontation and consequences. Players don't die to bad die rolls. That's a lie people tell themselves for comfort. The player is always in charge of deciding to put themselves in the way of that random die roll. 

The reason people railroad and subjectively change outcomes due to whim is all about fear. What if things really matter and they don't go the way I want them to?

Well the truth is things really matter, and they might not go the way you want them to. Just deciding which rules to follow when they are convenient, that's something that allows you to feel safe. And it's at the expense of the the other human people.

My first adult player death was in Keep on the Borderlands, where they hired the evil cleric. The fighter backed out of combat seeking healing, and the cleric cast 'inflict serious wounds' killing the character. The players chose. They chose to hire the cleric, the player chose to put himself out of sight of the party. None of the specific particulars were in question because they followed the rules and procedure in the game. It wasn't what he wanted to have happen. It was hard to do. I was afraid.

I faced my fear and moved through it. 

The people were successful in that campaign, not because I made them successful. But because they were. I didn't have a 'story' in mind, but I could regale you with tales of their adventure for days. A real adventure, risking real danger, and real loss.

You see? No one is saying you can't decide things, or streamline some stuff, or whatever. What's happening is people who have been around the block know this as fear. As anyone can tell you, having something to lose makes life worth living. 

Holy Schnikes it's good to be back. 

Join the team if me being back makes you happy! 


  1. As an aggressively stupid person I still agree with you

  2. While your case is reasonably argued, I'm not convinced that what works for you works for everybody. I'm still investigating the "magical tea party" concept, and haven't decided one way or another on that front.

  3. It's good to have you back!

    Venger: I don't think cheating can logically work for everybody at the table. If everyone at the table agrees to circumvent a rule you are effectively just changing the rules and and not cheating/circumventing. If, on the other hand, someone at the table would disagree it follows logically that it does not "work for" everyone.

    1. Since rule-zero exists, GM authority is not cheating. It's part of the game.

    2. Which is another lie we tell ourselves to feel better about lying to the players . . .

  4. Very well stated. It's hard to give your best to a campaign that rewards you even if not providing your best. Once a group understands, even if this is not stated, that the success path is to stay within what a DM has anticipated and supports because they're loathe to disrupt that dynamic with Bad Things(tm) then creative, out-of-the-box thinking withers on the vine.

    I make all possible rolls public (excepting secret doors, thieves checks, etc). Making combat rolls public clarifies to a player that the math is undistorted; when to run or push. I've found in many discussions that DMs believe player uncertainty is the key to their DMing - I find the opposite. By putting as much of the system as possible out transparently, the players become more assertive, confident, and creative.

    1. Isn't some of that player assurance just metagaming?

    2. Venger, your post didn't necessarily state out-right that "metagaming is bad," but it seems to imply that, which is a common argument. If that's not your intent, I apologize for using your post as an outlet. Either way, the argument in general is misdirected.

      Metagaming is what human brains do. We find patterns in order to predict consequences. We try to get better at the game.

      If a DM tells a player, "don't metagame," then the DM is merely adding another game to meta. Instead of the player only having to think, "how do I get better at playing this role-playing game?" they also have to think, "how do I hide my growth from the DM?" This extra game leads to unhealthy interactions between the humans at the table.

    3. This.

      Absolutely, all of this.

      The meta-game is inevitable. About the only thing we can do, if we want to "avoid" it, is to create a set of rules that explicitly call it out ~ and even then, it becomes different. It's no longer the "meta-game," as it is "metagaming."

  5. (Not that they know they are unskilled or will admit it, but they will talk about how hard it is to get a game together. This is serious Dunning-Kruger territory.) That one stung a little on self reflection

  6. I think I’d have to mainly agree with this. If you think of an RPG as a game-simulation-narrative triumvirate, then the group I run for is definitely more tuned into the game aspect. So, I’ve naturally developed a habit of being honest and consistent with the rules. I have also come around to rolling in the open, since recently running DCC RPG. I used to like the idea of concealing enemies’ attack/save modifiers but I think the game may actually be better served when the players are able to discern these stats.

    I don’t think the line is always so clear though. Codifying game aspects with procedures may increase the game’s skill cap and it may give the DM something to point at if a player calls foul, but it doesn’t connote fairness. One could run a completely procedural game that is completely unfair. What if your mistakes were made when you wrote your monster’s stats, or populated your encounter tables, or ported an adventure? More generally, what if you made your mistakes doing whatever it is you do to avoid “deciding things arbitrarily”? I think DMs can develop the sense that they’re constructing the broad strokes anyway, and so why shouldn’t they correct a “mistake” in real-time. In many cases this may become moot if the party can avoid the situation by their own game sense. Other times the DM may feel that they’ve inadvertently tricked their players into a devastating situation that’s just disproportionate to their experience in the campaign thus far.

    It’s easy to imagine how a game degrades to a waste of time as a DM changes results all the time to help guide a story or some such. I’d also agree that a lot of issues can be resolved by simply exposing more to the players (procedures, details like %HP and foe’s bonuses). Nice post, and I also love On the NPC, by the way.


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