The element of the Checklist Manifesto that really grabbed my attention in regards to RPGs was what wasn’t included in them. A well designed checklist assumes that you already know how to do your job (fly a plane, remove an appendix, whatever) and does not tell you how to do that. Instead it acts as a reminder for the little things that are more work to keep in mind than not.
That assumption of competence is an incredibly rich idea, and when applied to RPGs it raises and interesting question regarding rules. If rules were to provide the same sort of structure – assuming you know what you’re doing and just providing some support fo rthe stuff that’s a pain to keep in mind – then it really upends the cart in terms of how to judge certain games. It’s an argument for why the parts left out of a design are more essential than may be assumed. We’re not talking about a fruitful void here, we’re talking about lots of little voids, about the very weave of the game being intentionally more there than not.
Compare two really excellent games: D&D 4e and Mouseguard.  Both of them have very cleanly established rules for what and how to do things, but there are profound differences in how those things are structured. D&D is designed to provide all the tools you need to handle a situation, but the framework that surrounds that situations (how it ends up intersecting with play). There are guidelines and advice, sure, but it’s all a bit mushy until the fight starts. In contrast, Mouseguard is all structure, all the time – there’s a framework that surrounds everything at every level of play.
Viewed as checklists, I would say that 4e’s checkboxes are “further apart” than Mouseguard. That is to say, there are a lot more assumptions in 4e’s structure than there are in Mouseguard. This is not to say Mouseguard leaves no room to color outside the lines – it absolutely does – but the differing level of structure can make it easy for a player to be more comfortable with one or the other depending upon how much structure they’re looking for. Sometimes you want a lot of structure, because it gives you a solid architecture to build on. Sometimes you want just enough structure to give you more freedom than you’d have without it. Sometimes you’ll fall somewhere else on this particular axis, but wherever it is that you fall, stop and think about how that structure is impacting you, and whether it’s building walls to keep you safe or keep you trapped.
1 – Yes, they are excellent games.