(Un)written rules of play

I tend to design relatively short RPGs because I’m more likely to get them done, and because the intended audience (myself, my personal friends, and fellow longtime hobbyists) doesn’t need much more than the basics. I’m working on a couple longer games now, though, one of which is explicitly written to welcome newcomers both to playing and to hacking the rules. I think we might be past the historical moment when we need to write a section titled “What Is a Roleplaying Game?”—but I do think there are a lot of assumptions built into GM’d games, especially those with “old school” D&Dish sensibilities, that are worth presenting as best practices for play, sometimes even as part of the rules text itself.

I’m still working out what that looks like in my game in progress, trying to strike a balance between clarity and brevity. I realized today, though, that I’ve spent so much of my free time working on games (or getting over winter illnesses) that I haven’t blogged in quite some time. And that led me to a draft of this post, most of which is several months old, and which I’d totally forgotten about. What’s written here leans more toward “clarity,” while the game draft I’m working on leans far more toward “brevity,” but I figured I’d share this now as a peek into my attempt to make the implicit explicit—and maybe even invite people to tell me that what I thought was implicit doesn’t match their expectations at all.

So, here are some things I’d consider spelling out for a newcomer in an old-school, D&D-inspired adventure game:

This is a roleplaying game. Most of the time, this game is basically “let’s play pretend”—much like you did when you were a kid, but seated around a table or talking online via video chat, so you describe what you’re doing in the story rather than acting it out. (But feel free to act stuff out if you’re into that and have enough space to move around in. Either way, I recommend affecting a voice or speech pattern just because it’s fun and memorable.) This is often called “freeform roleplaying” because you can describe doing pretty much anything you can imagine, provided a few limitations, described below.

Each player controls their own character. Most players at the table get control over a single character, and they’re the only one who gets to decide how that character thinks, feels, and acts. (Within reason—sometimes you have involuntary reactions to things, like hesitating when confused or throwing up when dizzy. But you get to decide how you think, feel, and behave about even that—nobody else.) You’ll use a printed-out or digital record, called a character sheet, to track details about what your character is like, what they can do, and their relevant possessions. Then, as you play, describe what you attempt to do, being clear about your intent, but leave some room for things to go unexpectedly. Your character’s personal history is likely largely undefined until it’s explicitly relevant, but if something relevant does come up, you might add some detail to the world at large as you write your own character’s back story (e.g., visiting your hometown, you might suggest that you already know where the best bar was when you were last there).

The GM controls everything else. One player, typically called the referee or GM (for game master, game moderator, general manager, or whatever) decides how all the supporting characters and antagonists act, how the environment acts, and so on. They’re typically the one who comes up with a setting to play in and some specific conflicts to engage with, but ideas for that stuff can also come from the other players or this book. If there’s ever a moment in play where it’s unclear from the rules what to do, they’re also in charge of deciding how to add or interpret a rule on the fly. It’s helpful if a GM can be consistent about rulings like that, but if a ruling turns out to be frustrating or hard to apply consistently, bring it up during a break, and chat as a group about how to handle things better going forward.

Players say what they do; the GM says how much they can accomplish. Much of the time, you can just play with the players and GM taking turns describing what they do, and what the results are. The key requirement is that the actions you describe have to make sense in the fictional context: You can say “I cook some eggs” if your character is in a kitchen, or “I fly into the sky” if your character has wings, but there might be some question about these claims if you were deep sea diving. Following that model, if a player wants to do something, the GM either lets them know that they can do it no problem (“the door’s unlocked, so you open it and see the room beyond”), or that there’s some requirements that need to be met first (“you can bash down that door, but you’ll need something sturdy to hit it with”), or that there’s some limitation to what they can accomplish with what they have on hand now (“you can pick the lock, but it’ll take a long time”).

The default assumption is that unless there is an obvious external pressure (like someone attacking you, or walls closing in on you), the characters are being cautious and observant, so the GM should give them information that cautious and observant people would gather (and not say, “you didn’t specify that you tapped on the floor with your ten-foot pole in this room, so you fall into a pit trap and die,” because the kind of description that demands from players would be tedious and boring). 

Follow the rules of social etiquette. Be explicit about them if you need to. Like a game of “let’s play pretend,” this is mostly a conversation between friends, and requires some mutual trust and respect. It’s not a competitive game, but a cooperative one. Unless you’ve established as a group that you want to really lean into roleplaying a group of people who are jerks to each other, the default assumption is that you’ll strive to give every player a chance to shine, you won’t interrupt or talk over the other players, you won’t attack or steal from the other protagonists, you’ll embrace the spirit of the game by playing adventurous characters who eschew a safe life at home, and you won’t undermine everybody else’s intentions, act in a way that makes it impossible to be seen with your character in public, or otherwise frustrate everybody else at the table just because “that’s what my character would do.”

It’s also helpful to establish before playing if there’s anything that anybody wants to make sure doesn’t come up in the course of play. (I personally usually veto “on-screen” descriptions of sexual violence and violence against children because these disturb me so deeply that they’d make it impossible for me to have fun. Different people have different preferences, though, and sometimes exploring difficult content can be cathartic and empowering. Just don’t trample anybody else’s feelings for the sake of a night’s entertainment.) It’s helpful to read up on and use some safety tools, even in games with friends you’ve known awhile. These games can bring about a sense of closeness, camaraderie, and accordingly, vulnerability, that I feel like you don’t get as much from other entertainment, like catching a movie together. Yeah, it’s “let’s play pretend,” but being adult about it means being more courteous than you were when you were a little kid.

Use the dice for troubleshooting when things go wrong. The dice rules offer prompts for unpredictable events, or help determine what happens when things go wrong. You’ll notice from above that you don’t roll the dice to check whether you succeed at most things, or to establish who narrates a scene, as some other roleplaying games do. Rather, the dice come out when the GM is at a loss and needs inspiration (like when you find treasure chest and need to know what’s inside, or meet a character that the GM didn’t plan for in advance and doesn’t want to improvise on the fly), or when the protagonists are in trouble and their capabilities—rather than your creative problem-solving skills as a player—are put to the test. You only ever roll dice when it’s consequential—if the result would be “it didn’t work, but you can try again no problem,” then you didn’t need to roll the dice. (That kind of thing is more appropriately resolved with “you can do it, but it might take you a few tries.”)

Hack the rules as needed. The rules above—rules about style of play—are the real heart of this game. The rules presented below—the dice-and-numbers rules—are a lot more mutable. I present you with these rules because they’re pretty simple and easy to remember at the table, they’re broadly compatible with decades of material made for similar games, and they’ll probably be more or less familiar if you’ve ever played (or seen anyone play) the most popular roleplaying game on the market. You are free to alter either kind of rules at your table just like you’re free to alter the ingredients in a recipe you make from a cookbook—and, much like cooking, it becomes easier to know whether you’re going to ruin anything by doing so the more you familiarize yourself with the basics and experiment over time. The key thing to remember is that everybody needs to have access to the rules, and everybody should be on board before making any radical changes. It’s really easy to confuse and frustrate your friends by pulling the rug out under them to try new things too often, so just be careful and communicate often about how and why you want to mix things up.

… And that’s where I’d get into the stuff that most games put under “rules.”

I’d ask what I was too wordy about that could be trimmed back, but I’m already well aware this is wordy as hell. (Hey, it’s my design notes blog.) But I will ask: What did I miss that ought to be spelled out? And what might I be dead wrong about?

Just don’t tell me I can’t encourage people to do funny voices. I love the funny voices.

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