Rules are the story

A common sentiment appearing too often is ‘Story is more important than rules’ or some derivative. Frankly, I find this baffling. I see rules as integral to player empowerment and player empowerment is one of the unique features tabletop RPGs can offer over other media. By player empowerment, I mean that players (including the GM) have significant control over the events of the game. Before I get started, I would like to stress that you should keep playing however you like. This is another strength of RPGs. But I hope that this short post would give some food for thought.

Let me first elaborate. In books, films, etc. (BFetc) you are at the mercy of the author. Even in the most open video games, you are limited by what is programmed in, no matter how much control you have on your character’s actions otherwise. RPGs, however, are radically different: the intention of the author is replaced by that of the players.

In a way, RPGs are closer to rigorously speculative nature of certain brand of science fiction than random fantasy.  Consider it:  A player declares an action and the outcome is then determined. The question is of the form “Suppose…”.

“Suppose a strong barbarian tried to bend the prison bars…. ”

“Suppose a skillful fencer tried to feint an opponent…”

In BFetc, the answer is whatever the author feels should follow by their logic – which might be different to what you feel is appropriate. Astute readers should note that freedom to declare actions is not yet sufficient to have actual power over the story. The game master – or other players, if you’re feeling democratic – might strike your idea down. They don’t even have to be biased against you but rather they might have different ideas on what should happen next or they might evaluate the variables of the situation – i.e. capabilities of the characters involved and other circumstances – differently.

What really separates RPGs from other media, is rules: After the situation is set, the resolution is found by applying whatever rules are appropriate in the situation. No matter how ‘rules-light’ the system is, its rules nevertheless  model the world. In a very real sense, rules are the story. 

Ideally, a player has a good idea of the possible outcomes so that they can make an informed choice on what outcomes they wish to incorporate in the game/story – for example, by attempting to sneak past guards, the player chooses to have consequences of that action included in the story, and the rules – i.e. the model for the world and the character – determine which outcome is selected. In this case, the player needs no permissions. Naturally, there are still considerable degrees of freedom, but I would argue much less so than without any rules.

I would also like to draw attention to Brandon  Sanderson’s nice essay about magic systems where he introduces Sanderson’s first law of magics which I’ll reproduce here.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

The core idea is that if magic is limitless, you can’t solve many problems with it. If you handwave a problem away with magic, then you’ll have to explain why each subsequent problem  cannot be solved just as easily. But if your magic has rules and if the readers are aware of them, they already know why the solution wasn’t magic this time and the story can continue.

Similarly, when the rules are bent or ignored, there is no certainty that they will work in the future and the players’ ability to choose what outcomes to include in the story becomes compromised. Without rules, there is no consistency. Take an example: Without rules, you previously argued successfully and your character managed to pick a lock. But for every new lock, you have to jump through the hoops again. With rules, however, you can simply refer to appropriate accept the outcome without a second thought.

I would like to pit this against possible gains from bending or ignoring the rules. You might get to follow a premade story, but is that really worth it? Every single piece of other media is already offering that. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But I really do think that there is a cost involved and that cost is too often overlooked- there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch! Think about it. Perhaps the best stories are told by following the rules wherever they might lead.


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