Missing the Point of Rules

By | February 7, 2015

Hello again!

I have recently read some arguments that rulebooks should not contain certain rules.  There are two major camps that do not want these rules in their rulebooks, and their arguments run roughly along these lines:  You are too independent and small to need to define “roleplaying,” because only people already into the hobby are going to even be aware you exist, and Social Contracts are unnecessary because you shouldn’t tell people how to act or how to play.

These are foolish arguments.

The first argument begins with an edge of cruelty by implying that the rules themselves will never find broad success.  This frames the first argument as an attack, which in itself defines the character of the statement.  But let’s have a look at what it’s saying outside the attack: it is saying, specifically, that the rulebook should not explain what it is providing.  A roleplaying rulebook contains rules which provide an adjudication method for roleplaying.  But there are several different types of roleplaying:  wargaming-based (D&D), metastory-focused (anything from White Wolf/Onyx Path) and interplayer drama-focused (Fiasco) among others.

So the focus of the roleplay changes from game to game.  Whether you’re playing one character or many changes from game to game.  The point of roleplaying changes from game to game.  And a rulebook defining roleplaying allows the author or authors to identify the focus of their game and the technique of roleplaying they will be engaging.  Explaining the difference between a regular game (Parcheesi) and a roleplaying game is essential to the reader understanding the experience.  And explaining the difference between the default definition of roleplaying (“assume a role, collaboratively generate a story”) and the specific function of these rules (“collaboratively generate a story of a heist gone wrong,” “collaboratively generate a story about hairy barbarians invading monsters’ houses”) is essential to setting the player’s expectation and understanding of what they are reading.

Rulebooks are instructional manuals.  They exist specifically to encapsulate the information a player needs to play.  Arguing that the definition of the thing the rulebook is about should not be included in the rulebook is to first presume too much about the knowledge and understanding of the reader, and second is to gut the purpose of the book.  An instructional manual that doesn’t identify what it’s instructing people to do is a faulty instructional manual.

And handing people a faulty instructional manual and telling them that it contains everything they should know only serves to make the hobby opaque by turning away those potential players who could understand gaming if they had a decent damn manual.  But that’s not all faulty instructional manuals provide:  they also provide a cultural elitism for those players already in the hobby.  By requiring potential players to reach out to existing players in order to play (by not having decent manuals, thereby requiring someone who can explain it), the roleplaying industry (such as it is) creates a required master-apprentice relationship.  And we know how well that worked out for the Sith.

It is through those master-apprentice relationships that certain ideas about roleplaying are passed on, and roleplaying in general stagnates.  How can I say that?  By looking around and seeing all the D&D clones, games which offer various hues of the same color.  By reading all the adventures that have the the same basic story: go into bad guy’s lair and kill him to get his loot and stop his plan.  Looking back and looking forward are two different things, two polar opposites.  You don’t get a focus on tradition, a focus on trying to recapture the experience of the 70s and 80s, from a sector that is innovating.

Innovation requires new blood.  Fresh ideas, fresh perspectives.  It requires people to say, “I don’t care if that’s the way it’s always been done.”

But you don’t get new blood, fresh ideas and fresh perspectives when you place barriers to entry.  And an instructional manual that doesn’t provide instructions is exactly that: a barrier to entry.

But I would argue that that’s exactly what’s desired by those who would make that argument.  The master in a master-apprentice relationship has power.  And power is seductive.  Mocking new players for their lack of skill or knowledge is another of those time-honored traditions among roleplayers.  So not only are we to create rulebooks that are unhelpful, we are to create rulebooks that specifically funnel new and interested players into a gauntlet of verbal hazing.

Is it any wonder the industry has only shrunk over the years?

The second argument is ostensibly present to protect a player’s right to behave appropriately within his social group, rather than having a method of behavior imposed from the outside.  The argument is that appropriate behavior is implied by the social group, and the game rulebook should not contain rules which bridge the gap between the in-game experience and the out-of-game experience.  This is almost a reasonable argument, until you look a little deeper.

How is the new gamer supposed to understand the social dynamics?  Some people don’t pick up on implications – either because they are from a different culture, because eyebrows weren’t waggled enough, or because they simply think differently.  The number of times I’ve seen on forums that “Just talk to the other players!” is not only solution, but the solution that worked, demonstrates quite plainly that there are many players who actually need the assistance of taking the implied social contract and making it explicit.  Defining things, having them out in the open, is never a bad thing.

Unless you have something to hide.

Like, for instance, that the implied social contract is another way to enforce the master-apprentice relationship between new gamers and experienced gamers.  That this implied social contract requires new gamers to learn how to behave like the gamers who are training them if they are going to be accepted into the group and allowed to game.  Social pressure is a powerful force.  Most people do not realize how much it acts on them.  And so long as social rules are kept hidden, then social pressure can continue to act insidiously.

Again, helping the hobby to shrink instead of grow.

So when I write rules, I’m going to include a definition of what roleplaying is.  And I’m going to include rules to help people understand the social contract they’re getting into when they sit down at a gaming table.  Because I want the hobby to grow.  And to my mind, that means getting it out into the open and into the light.  And writing a rulebook that means a damn.