Too Much Talk, Not Enough Rule?

By | February 20, 2016

One of the most commonly-repeated words used to describe roleplaying lately is that it is a “conversation.” This has a lot of interpretations. Like, a looooot.  But I’m only interested in addressing one specific interpretation today.

What I’ve seen, and I don’t know if it’s primarily influenced by the “conversation,” the classic “do-it-yourself” nature of the hobby, or some interaction between them both, is that this can lead to rulesets which act as “conversation-starters” but provide little in the way of what I would consider actual rules to engage play.

For instance, I recently picked up a game which seemed interesting because it promised some degree of society-crafting rules. This was only one aspect of play, but of the whole ruleset that was the aspect that engaged me the most: I wanted to see how this game created civilizations. When I read through the game, I was dismayed to find that the society-crafting rules largely consisted of “pick some words, then have a conversation about what they mean.”

That’s barely a rule. To my mind, that’s a game under only the broadest of definitions.

Speaking as a consumer, and I think this is true for most consumers of tabletop roleplaying games, if I’m going to buy a game I expect there to be something more within it than “use these keywords to start a conversation.” Mostly because I’m 38 years old and already know how to have ideas and talk about them. It’s one of my skills. So when I buy a game and get effectively nothing new for my trouble, I feel pretty cheated.

And this echoes something I encountered this week in my day job, where I learned we did not have a formal definition for a rather significant business process. The idea was that we would get about three to five people together in a meeting when there was a question about whether this business process should occur, and we would have a 15- to 30-minute conversation about whether we all thought or felt that business process should occur in a given situation.


See, when you provide no rules structure to a rule (or formal definition), then what you get is people making stuff up on the fly. You get a lack of consistency and you get a lack of efficiency: you spend your time talking about the thing rather than getting the thing done.  And I’m personally all about getting the thing done.

So, now we have a definition for that business process. If there is a question about whether it needs to occur, the questioner can look at the definition and its criteria and it becomes (with the exception of any possible edge cases) obvious what should occur. And we get a little more efficient, spending our time doing the thing rather than talking about whether we should do the thing.

I firmly believe roleplaying rulesets should provide this same benefit. If I wanted to talk about roleplaying when I sit down to play a game, I wouldn’t have purchased a roleplaying product to use – I would try to make a roleplaying game up on the fly. Instead, I want to roleplay when I sit down to play a game, and the way I’m going to do that is by having more structure than conversation-starters. Rules need to guide, they need to project the style and function they are trying to impress upon play, and they need to be something significantly more than I can get somewhere else.

Other folks feel differently, certainly. The great thing about having a big, wide, wonderful, diverse world is that we don’t all have to agree. But as a rulebook writer myself, I always ask: what am I giving the consumer? Is this what would want if I was the consumer? Is this enough? And. . .am I offering something more than the consumer can already do on their own?