Thoughts on what rules are and what they're for, part 1

Lately, in the discords, people have been talking about what rules are and what they're for, and I recently came back from Big Bad Con where I played some games with some very different approaches to rules than I usually do, so I had some thoughts on the matter. I've vaguely heard that there might be some drama about this on some social media sites that I'm not on, so if you have opinions on what I have to say, you can reach me on Mastodon and Mastodon only.

I don't know if there will be a part 2, but despite working on this for the past week, it feels incomplete, and I will probably want to revisit it someday. Also you might have noticed that instead of editing this down to a reasonable size, I added in some javascript and some buttons that hides some of my rambling. Click on the buttons if you want more rambling.

What are rules?

Rules, in an RPG, have the following properties

This purpose is not unique to rules: other players, including the GM, also do this. In fact, a key element of what makes something a TTRPG is that other people, and often a source of randomness, are used to help come up with new and unexpected ideas. Some of that material typically comes from rules. In the case of solo games, that is the main contribution from other people, and is what makes it a TTRPG and not writing a novel (I wrote more on solo games here.

This is, deliberately, a broader definition of a "rule" than what people usually use, because I think there are some distinctions made in the way that people use the word "rule" which are not actually helpful for thinking about TTRPGs.

I'm going to go through some examples of rules, starting from the simplest to most complex, and explain what I think they do.

Simple Statements


All of these invite you to respond, and create constraints that help creativity. All of these are also things that could be just a part of regular gameplay: what makes them rules is that I found them written down somewhere.

More thoughts

Statements with choices

You might have disagreed with the statements in the previous section being rules, and start agreeing with me more here. This, I think, is because the purpose of rules is to help the imagination, and these more complicated rules provide more guidance for your creativity. It's hard to start writing with a blank page, and these types of rules fill in the page a bit more.

More thoughts


More thoughts

At this point it's probably less controversial that these are rules, but actually I've used random prompts as a writing exercise outside the context of TTRPGs. It's probably because rolling dice is closely associated with rules in board games and gambling games. "Things that resemble playing a board game" is a possible way to use the word "rule" in ttrpgs, but that isn't a definition that I personally find useful.

Adding more words to your rules

Sometimes, people consider #1 fundamentally different from #2 and #3, maybe because you are expected to apply rule #2 and #3 repeatedly and rule #1 once per table, or because everyone at the table is expected to know about #2 and #3, but #1 is for the GM's eyes only. Or maybe it's because #2 and #3 more often come in standalone books, but #1 sometimes comes in a book where you also refer to other books to understand how to use it.

This might be a useful distinction to make, or it might not, but I think this distinction is taken for granted more often than it needs to be. I don't think making games and making adventures are that fundamentally different. There are some practical differences. For instance, game systems might need more rounds of playtesting. But if you start thinking about other types of games, like solo journaling games, games meant to be played once, games you end up playing just once in a one-shot, etc then the distinction gets blurrier.

On definitions

There's a sort of a game people play where they argue about what is and is not a sandwich. It annoys me sometimes, because obviously there is no objective truth: "sandwich" is just a useful word that makes it easier to make food or buy lunch and know roughly waht you're getting. A sandwich is what everyone agrees a sandwich to be.

Similarly, a RPG is something where you can go to a game store, or an Internet forum, or search for online, or talk about with your friends, and you all kind of agree that you're talking about the same thing, and that word is useful to find what you're looking for.

In that case, why am I being so particular abut the definition of a "rule"? My point isn't that other people's definitions are wrong. I'm asking instead if your definitions are helpful. Are you using them as a wall to separate things you like from things you don't like? Or is it the other way around - to demarcate things that intimidate you, where you feel like you need to ask for help? These aren't wrong answers, but it's worth thinking about.

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Written October 8 2023