Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 20, 2014
When the rules are not the game

It is very difficult to get an idea how popular pen & paper roleplaying games are today. Sometimes you can get some limited sales numbers, but nobody knows how many people are still playing with old books or using downloaded pdf files of rulebooks. It is said that Dungeons & Dragons is in decline and that Pathfinder is the new top dog, but given how much longer D&D has been around it is impossible to say how many people are playing some version of it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that game stores selling role-playing material aren't doing as well as they did 20 years ago. And certainly pen & paper roleplaying game lost a substantial part of their potential player-base to computer games over the last three decades.

But I was wondering whether apart from these factors, the decline of pen & paper roleplaying games also has to do with a change in attitudes towards games. Games as a whole have developed from something which was considered to be "for children", over something which was part of geek culture, to something everybody does. The current prime minister of the UK mentioned playing Angry Birds in an interview, and it is hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher talking about playing a game for relaxation. Technology has made computers ubiquitous, and that in turn has made games ubiquitous. Get into a bus or subway today, and you are basically guaranteed to see somebody playing Candy Crush Saga or something similar.

Now computer games have a lot of advantages, primarily that they allow you to play when other players are either not available at all, or available only in distant locations. But computer games also have disadvantages; and when I read some modern comments or blogs on Dungeons & Dragons today, I sometimes wonder whether younger people who grew up with computer games maybe sometimes fail to understand some aspects of pen & paper roleplaying games which are radically different from computer games.

The main limitation of a computer game is that in the game only that is possible that has been foreseen by whoever developed the game. If the devs haven't foreseen you going in some direction, you will hit an invisible wall when you try. And only what is allowed in the rules is possible, the rules are the game. To "cheat" a computer game, you need to change the rules by modifying the code. Or you cheat with a cheat code, at which point you are back to doing only what the devs allow you to do. If you play a lot of computer games, it is easy to think that this could be true for every form of game, that the rules are the game. And approaching pen & paper roleplaying games with that attitude results in a rather inferior game experience.

The rules of a pen & paper roleplaying game cover at most half of the game, and it is the more technical and less creative half. You *can* play a game of Dungeons & Dragons doing only things that are listed in the rules, and I am very much afraid that is what some people do. But then you get series of combat encounters and skill checks, resolving every situation by the rules, which usually call for rolling some dice. Roll-play instead of role-play. I've seen comments on 4E adventures where somebody said "I played it, and it was just a series of combat encounters". And I think that was just a case of inexperienced players and an inexperienced dungeon master trying to play the game completely inside of what is printed in the rule-books and the adventure modules.

For me the combat encounter gameplay, which is the part best described by the rules and thus also the part that differs most from one rule-system to the next, is held together by the "glue" of actual role-playing. And this role-playing is not covered by rules at all. In a printed adventure module the role-playing is covered by text describing for example the motivation of the arch-villain, but there are usually no detailed descriptions on how to translate those motivations into actual game-play.

Contrary to popular belief, 4th edition D&D does not in fact have less instructions on how to role-play, or is otherwise preventing people from role-playing. The "problem" of 4E is having a well-balanced and rather complete set of rules for combat encounters plus some selective non-combat situations (skill challenges). It is thus relatively easy to fall into that trap of believing that the 4E rules are all there is to a game of 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Earlier editions had less complete rules where improvisation was more obviously necessary.

While I would think that the 4E rules would make for a rather good computer role-playing game, my personal experience with 4E is the same as with previous editions: The part not written in the rules is more important and more memorable than the part that is written in the rules. My current adventure in my current campaign is all about how the players over time come to think of the artifact they are collecting piece by piece, and what they will in consequence do with it. It is a grand interactive story with a very open end. The two booklets full of combat and skill encounters set the scene and are fun by themselves, but they aren't what this adventure is about. If we did just the encounters without the role-playing in between, the adventure would be rather boring, and I'd probably rather play a turn-based tactical computer game. But because in Dungeons & Dragons the rules are NOT the game, and there is so much more to it, the game is so much better than that.

Back in the day... the early 80s... my gaming group at the time swapped from AD&D 1.0 to Tunnels & Trolls primarily because of the rules.

The primary reason was because it was just easier to get people up to speed on T&T and we really needed a few more players. (Plus the single book was much cheaper than any of the big three AD&D books and you only need half a dozen six sided dice per player at most.)

But the sparsity of rules, which basically covered gear, combat resolution, and a guideline for saving throws, yielded a lot more role play and a lot less rules lawyering.

In the end we returned to AD&D 1.0. People liked the modules more, as T&T could be a bit whimsical. Also, I am pretty sure a couple key members of our group quite enjoyed arguing over the interpretation and application of specific rules. Your example of garrotting an ooze would have derailed us for quite a while back in the day.

But for a stretch we had some very interesting campaign starts with the T&T rules.
I started running a game for my teeanged kids and their friends. They were all players of computer RPGs and came at the game from that perspective.

But they surprised me by doing the opposite of what you described. Not only did they not "play the rules -- they especially didn't play combat by the rules. Instead of using their obvious attack abilities they tended to try to come up with creative solutions often using the environment. Instead of bashing the glass golem, for example, they would try to push it off a cliff.

I realized that they had been conditioned by WoW-style boss battles to view all combats as a puzzle to be solved. What they didn't understand was that I was also modifying the encounter so that the most entertaining and creative "solution" was the "correct" one.

Honestly, those games have been more fun to run than my adult gaming group that tends to come at the game more traditionally.
Yesterday I found a discussion in Twitter about people claiming Vin Diesel taught Judi Dench D&D and she now DMs for her grandkids.


While I agree with your definition of game cheat, unfortunately, there is a segment that is quite liberal in what they define as an exploit.

One of the reasons I went from pro 4E to eventually turn my back (reluctantly) on it was the consistent poor player experience I had. As GM I ran 4E like I did any other edition and it was great. But time and again when I got to play the experience was horrible...worse than a cheap computer rpg...because the groups I played with had no idea from the rules how to actually role play. Worse yet, 4E had packaged the game in a manner where there was no wiggle room to make decisions off the cuff, no encouragement to do so, either (well, it was there but invisible to those who didn't know what to look for in the first place). So these players and GMs I was trying to game with were running it in the crudest, most mechanistic way imaginable. They did have fun....for what they sought out....but it paled in comparison to a game with a more traditional level of depth. So I stuck to GMing it until we all defected to Pathfinder.

It was those play experiences that helped me realize where 4E had gone off the rails, basically.
This is one subject where demonstration videos speak more than words.

Using the Dark Heresy ruleset, iNcontroL, TotalBiscuit, djWHEAT and JP McDaniel with GM Steve demo a decent campaign set in the Warhammer 40k universe.

Their style is fairly crunchy: a lot of dice rolling to determine success/failure of whatever option the players want to take, combat encounters that take up a whole video, but sneakily and inexorably, roleplaying creeps in. Which, imo, are the most entertaining bits and carry the story forward.

Or for an extreme swing in the roleplaying and story narrative direction, a ruleset like Fiasco which pretty much sets it up for you, especially when you involve actors that are used to improv.

Wil Wheaton, Alison Haislip, Bonnie Burton and John Rogers play Saturday Night '78 Fiasco.
Is there software available to automate the mechanistic parts of the game while allowing DM overall freedom to direct what hap
pens? I have never participated in a pen and paper rpg but I have this vision of constant interruptions as you roll a dice ten times each time someone tries to swing a sword.
Restrictions breed creativity. That's why we have all those genres, literary conventions, rhyming meters, tropes and RPG rules. One can't think outside the box if there's no box to begin with.

The part not written in the rules is more important and more memorable than the part that is written in the rules.

More memorable? Certainly. More important? That's where I have to disagree.

Without the unwritten creative part, we turn the RPG into a tabletop wargame with puzzle elements. It may be boring or predictable, but it's still a game.

On other hand, without the written part, we have a group of people telling each other stories. It's a fun way to pass time, it may even constitute art - but it's not a game.
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