When Not To Rule

The most dangerous thing about RPG rules is that they can be quite fun. That seems like it shouldn’t be much of a problem, and sometimes it’s not, but that is part of what makes it so dangerous.

To unpack this, it is important to lay out my own biases. My instinct favors lighter games (both in terms of character representation and resolution) and my rule of thumb is that any rule beyond that baseline framework needs to earn its place. It needs to explicitly and specifically serve the vision of the game, and if it does not, then it’s unnecessary decoration.[1]

Now, note that I value the rules for their contribution to the vision of the game (which is largely “fiction + intended table experience”), not their fun. Fun is, of course, part of the vision. Well constructed rules enable and drive fun, but they do not need to be fun in and of themselves. Utility is often sufficient.

But as a designer, it is easy for me to fall into a trap. I can be swept away by the elegance or fun of a rule and happily add it to the pile. Once or twice it might not be a big deal, but these things accumulate over time, and eventually look backwards and realize you have created a sprawling mesh of dependencies for what had seemed like such a simple idea.

Now, there are tricks for handling this. The easiest is to make the rules in question into removable bits, so that only a small number of them are in play in any given time. This can be done with GM options, but most often this is done by offloading the complexity onto the players. Feats, Stunts, Moves, Merits & Flaw and other similar rules constructs all serve this purpose, and they do a great job…for a while. But they invite two problems – creep and expectation.

It is always hard to tell when the body of player-rules has transitioned from “robust” to “overwhelming” but it almost always end up happening because micro-rules are the easiest thing to design. Worse, the least interesting micro rules are the easiest to design[2] so they just accumulate as cruft. This creep has its own sort of terrible inertia.[3]

Unfortunately, at that point, there is usually an expectation of more micro rules, so you have to create more (or if you don’t. your players will). It’s a classic vicious circle.

Now, the goal here is not to sound all gloom and doom. This stuff is all an upshot of making systems that invite hacking. Micro-rules are one of the best points of entry for a game designers to dirty her hands on. I am absolutely not suggesting against them.

But I am warning about a danger that comes with them which, if you fine game design fun, you are probably susceptible to. God knows I am. Sometimes you will find yourself making rules for the sheer unadulterated glee of it. It’s awesome and fun and if you’ve ever gotten on a roll with these things, then you know that joy. And if you do that, then don’t stop!

But when you do stop, then take a moment to think. Does your game need all these rules? And more importantly, does introducing these rules create an expectation for other, perhaps less good, rules? It’s great to come up with 10 awesome feats, but soul crushing to punch-card out another 40 out of a need for completion. Sometimes it’s worth dropping those 10 awesome feats in order to keep that door closed.

If this speaks to you, then awesome. I hope this helps. But I confess that I am largely writing this as a warning to myself, for there will be days when I will sorely need it.


  1. This is why I will occasionally double down on rules for borderline situations which the fiction might resolve without rules. It is not that I disagree with the sentiment. I’m actually a big proponent of it. But if I’m going to used this damned rule set, then I’m going to try to use it. And if I can’t, then I am less likely to leave a loophole than I am to largely discard the current implementation.  ↩

  2. So much so that you can save some headaches by standardizing them. Feats that give +2 to two skills or Stunts which grant a +2 in specific circumstances are functionally interchangeable, and it’s hard to justify giving each one a separate entry once you spot the pattern. Unfortunately, once you can see the pattern, it’s often too late.  ↩

  3. The *world system does something fairly novel to keep these things in check, but largely demanding that these micro-rules be tied to a character class, thus raising the bar for introducing a new rule. I think this is admirable, but it’s not a clear win – it creates barrier for good micro rules, and recognizing this, offers a solution in the form of Compendium Classes. Unfortunately, there is no such limitation on Compendium Classes, and they are subject to the same creep as everything else. I think this has been largely avoided so far for social reasons – CC’s are not terribly well supported, in part because I think they are largely viewed as adjacent to the core game. So long as that remains true, and there is friction to rolling out CCs, then they should resist bloat. But at the same time. I know that one of my goals is to make CCs a bit more central to my play, so I may be playing with fire.  ↩

2 thoughts on “When Not To Rule

  1. Greg Sanders

    One interesting force for good from -World and indie games in general are the one to two page rules quick reference sheets, although I suspect that the designer relationship with these can be a bit fraught as they may well cut into sales of player focused books.

    That said, the need to keep the summary of the core rules to a certain size can serve as a nice complexity cap and force trade-offs between potential rules that really add a lot to the system and potential rules that are fun but not central.

    Reply
  2. Travis B

    I very much agree. Been down this road a lot of times with the games I’ve made and will likely go down it a few more times as well cause I never seem to learn this lesson.

    A big warning sign for me is when players or I start to forget bonuses on NPCs’/PCs’ sheets. The day a player forgets to apply a bought-and-paid-for bonus on their sheet is the day for reconsideration of the system.

    Reply

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