RPG Rules: Guidelines or Roadmap?
Tabletop RPGs have been having a kind of renaissance over the past few years for some reason or another. Maybe it’s the growing pervasiveness of geek culture, or a backlash against all things digital. As much as I write about tabletop RPGing, I don’t really immerse myself in the culture as much as I do with video games simply because you can’t effectively solo tabletop games, and without a regular group it’s kind of difficult to get traction, so I’m only guessing that we’re seeing a resurgence.
But the internet can be leveraged to bring people together to talk about and even to play tabletop RPGs (I’m just calling em “RPGs” from here on in), and that’s where I’m getting my vibe from. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but I’ve seen a lot of people talking about a “right” way to play these games, and a “not quite right” way to play these games, centered around the rules and what it means for mechanical execution.
I’m using the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as the whipping boys because the D&D franchise is probably the best know, and the two editions offer the most stark difference, it seems, in perception. For those who don’t keep up, the 4E rules changed pretty significantly from their popular 3.5E predecessor. The biggest change seemed to be a relentless focus on an almost board-game-like tactical presentation for combat. Previous editions were all about the “theater of the mind” game play, which relied on each player’s imagination to envision the action based on what the DM was telling them. 4E’s rule book goes to great lengths to lay down the rules for distance, line of sight, marching order, and all kinds of things that are far more relevant to playing the game with a map and minis. 5E seems to me moving away from the minis and back to the old school method of pure imagination, but the 5E rules have been promoted as being “modular” by allowing players and the DM to pick and choose which sub-systems they want to use in their campaign, and that includes using or discarding tactical game play.
So a lot of people seem really hung up on the notion that if you’re playing 4E, you must be playing it like a war game, and that there’s no possible way it can be played otherwise. I’ve heard of people who refuse to look at 4E because they’re not interested in tactical game play, and are therefor looking forward to 5e (or have jumped to Pathfinder or the more loosely coupled FATE system).
When I was younger, my friends and I played a lot of RPGs. I fondly remember playing the Ravenloft modules for D&D, Ghostbusters, and Call of Cthulhu, among other titles. When we ran out of money to buy new systems, we created our own. It wasn’t all that difficult, and we didn’t need a Kickstarter to do it. Most of the time, we played over the phone, which obviously precluded the option to play with minis (this was in the late 80’s, way before the Internet). The point, of course, is that we were pretty loose with how we applied rules, even with games that had large core rule books.
The underlying purpose of tabletop RPGs is to present a collaborative and dynamic story. The rules, in my opinion, are there to keep people inside the game world and to model the aspects of real life that govern chance and outcome. Anything beyond that that tells you what you can and cannot do is pretty much fluff, and it should be decided by the group which of those fluff aspects to include, not what to jettison. Take Pathfinder: the core rule book has almost 600 pages of tables, stats, and rules, rules, rules. No one should have to memorize that many pages of information about things like the chance that a crossbow will malfunction in a sandstorm. And no one wants to slow the game down by having to “rules lawyer” every question from a thick tome of small fonts. It just really brings down the whole atmosphere.
If a game system offers tactical combat, and the group doesn’t want to use the system because it talks about tactical combat, then throw out the tactical combat. If the rules focus only on how to resolve combat in tactical terms, then fudge it, or come up with alternate rules. RPG systems are designed around core concepts, and deeper systems are built on top of those core concepts. That means that almost anything can be handled by simply knowing the most basic how-tos and adding a little house-rules spin to it if the specific rules are confusing, too cumbersome, or undesirable.
RPGs are about imagination, and there’s no “right way” to play any of them, even if the rule books dedicate a lot of ink to nudging players in a specific direction. I really think the 4E tactical combat aspects were only designed to sell maps and minis, but in a far less cynical vein, there’s no reason why they have to be used at all.