What is the nature of the rules in an RPG? In a previous post we argued for quasi-sacrality of the rules: except for in a few places (e.g.: behind the DM screen), rules should be violated sparingly. How should we understand the rules, then?
Rules as voluntary contracts. It could be agreed that, in general, rules are a sort of contract, a binding agreement between parties. This holds true also, and especially, for games. Rules in a game do not have external validation; they only hold firm when, out of their own individual free will, all players agree to abide by them.
The voluntary nature of the agreement is highlighted in that the rules of a game can hardly be forcefully imposed, even in the presence of a theoretically all-powerful figure as a DM. After all this power is part of the rules; and a player may simply decide not to acknowledge it.
Strict contracts vs loose contracts. Rules in a boardgame tend to be very strict and well defined. Boardgames usually deal with a limited set of situations in a very abstract way; a proper ruleset is normally expected to be logical, clear and unambiguous. FAQs are often concerned with troubleshooting rules in order to find out the correct version. Boardgame rules are thus strict contracts which must be subscribed exactly by all participants; violation of this contract implies cheating or the subversion of the game. New rules, or house rules, are similarly strict contracts subscribed by all the present players.
RPGs have frequently the more ambitious aim of telling a story and modelling a large world, embracing a wide variety of events and situations, far beyond a rigid systematization. This confers to RPG rules the feel of a framework or a work in progress, a prototypical set of mechanics supposed to be more exemplary than exhaustive. We are presented with a loose contract which sets well-defined signposts and parameters, but which has to be extended once the players move beyond its original domain.
Rules for creativity. In this sense rules in RPGs are akin to creative constraints or creative architectural principles that the participants agree to take upon themselves in order to make the game and its development possible. We make rules to harmonize a collaborative creative effort.
Like narration itself, rules in an RPG give rise to creative moments: unforeseen situations have to be addressed by relating them to known cases, standard mechanics have to be extended, original consequences have to be summoned out of numerical results. Everything, though, has to happen within the limits and boundaries set by the standard rules.
Positive contributions to creativity. Rules can then act as a launching pad for creativity. Their pre-existence does not act as an absolute limitation, but, on the contrary, it can open well-defined spaces of possibility. Two important and well-known contributions are the following.
First, as in the case of narration, given rules provide form to the unbounded domain of possibilities. The space of potential rules is vast, and coming up with a consistent and reliable set of rules could be challenging. Moreover, pre-existing rules provide references and support for generating new ones. Again, it is easier to summon ideas and rules given a structure, given concepts, and given examples, than from the pure void.
Second, set rules constitute a shared workbench for all the players. They provide a feeling of objectivity and reliability to the conjured world. This, in turn, allows players to reason and to make predictions about their place and their actions in the world. This is an important aspect of our acting in reality: we can set expectations (not always right) about the success and the outcomes of our actions, and decide on the basis of these forecasts. This sense of being immersed in a world in which we can have some degree of control is guaranteed by the rules. Thanks to existing rules that the player may check, she would know that the success of her actions would not be due to the whim of a subjective entity (DM), but to an objective (although fictional) reality.
Excess of rules. Yet, the sprawling quantities of rules may transform what is supposed to be a working framework into a labyrinthine bureaucracy that can stifle creativity and fun. A proliferation of rules, which may be not completely consistent, runs the risk of bogging the players down into tedious sessions of legal research and debate. The danger here is that the focus on the rules on themselves shifts the focus of the games: from tools to support the creativity, rules and their right interpretation become the aim of the debate and take an undue centerstage.
Absence of rules. On the other hand, the complete absence of rules may leave players lost and uncertain. No rules means no immediate way to imagine how the world and the action of its inhabitants will evolve. Of course, such a game may still work by virtue of pure storytelling and the skills of a DM. Yet, the likelihood of success is limited, and completely dependent on the acceptance by all the players of a story which can arbitrarily turn and change.
Consistency and elegance. A degree of rule is desirable. The length of the ruleset is a common parameter to assess whether rules will be a hindrance or not. However, I believe that length in itself is not all-important: the amount of rules that can be accepted, managed and enjoyed depends on the group of players; more simulative-minded players may take better advantage of detailed mechanics, while more narrative players may prefer breezing through tables and dice.
A more important quality is, in my opinion, (internal) consistency, that is a correspondence between the expectations in the mind of the players and the mechanics of the game. Notice that this does not mean that rules should reflect our reality or, even, deterministically behave always in the same way. It means rules should reflect the shared imagined reality and and behave consistently with respect to the logic and the dynamics of the imagined world. Apparent inconsistencies (e.g.: a changing physics) is acceptable as long as it fits the imagined world. Inconsistent rules that violate the expectations of the setting lead to failure in the shared suspension of disbelief.
Equally important is what we could call the elegance of a ruleset, that is the ability of defining rules that may be at the same time simple and widely-embracing. Such rules would be easy to remember and apply, while at the same time covering many realistic situations. The challenge lies in hitting the best trade-off between complexity and triviality: too few rules runs the risk of reducing everything to pure chance or DM discretion, too many rules may lead to a large expenditure of time just to apply the specific rules. Elegance requires having a few simple rules that straightforwardly takes advantage of mechanics and randomness while, at the same time, easily taking into account for the specificities induced by the situation and the characters.
At the end, we all want good rules that strike a balance between coarse approximations and minute details. Rules that provide ropes and framing, not chains and obligations; those which smooth the creative process, not slow it down. After all, rules offer the prime shared ground on which to develop a story.