RPG Rules: Guidelines or Roadmap?

Tabletop RPGs have been having a kind of renaissance over the past few years for some reason or another. Maybe it’s the growing pervasiveness of geek culture, buy or a backlash against all things digital. As much as I write about tabletop RPGing, this I don’t really immerse myself in the culture as much as I do with video games simply because you can’t effectively solo tabletop games, and without a regular group it’s kind of difficult to get traction, so I’m only guessing that we’re seeing a resurgence.

But the internet can be leveraged to bring people together to talk about and even to play tabletop RPGs (I’m just calling em “RPGs” from here on in), and that’s where I’m getting my vibe from. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but I’ve seen a lot of people talking about a “right” way to play these games, and a “not quite right” way to play these games, centered around the rules and what it means for mechanical execution.

I’m using the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as the whipping boys because the D&D franchise is probably the best know, and the two editions offer the most stark difference, it seems, in perception. For those who don’t keep up, the 4E rules changed pretty significantly from their popular 3.5E predecessor. The biggest change seemed to be a relentless focus on an almost board-game-like tactical presentation for combat. Previous editions were all about the “theater of the mind” game play, which relied on each player’s imagination to envision the action based on what the DM was telling them. 4E’s rule book goes to great lengths to lay down the rules for distance, line of sight, marching order, and all kinds of things that are far more relevant to playing the game with a map and minis. 5E seems to me moving away from the minis and back to the old school method of pure imagination, but the 5E rules have been promoted as  being “modular” by allowing players and the DM to pick and choose which sub-systems they want to use in their campaign, and that includes using or discarding tactical game play.

So a lot of people seem really hung up on the notion that if you’re playing 4E, you must be playing it like a war game, and that there’s no possible way it can be played otherwise. I’ve heard of people who refuse to look at 4E because they’re not interested in tactical game play, and are therefor looking forward to 5e (or have jumped to Pathfinder or the more loosely coupled FATE system).

When I was younger, my friends and I played a lot of RPGs. I fondly remember playing the Ravenloft modules for D&DGhostbusters, and Call of Cthulhu, among other titles. When we ran out of money to buy new systems, we created our own. It wasn’t all that difficult, and we didn’t need a Kickstarter to do it. Most of the time, we played over the phone, which obviously precluded the option to play with minis (this was in the late 80’s, way before the Internet). The point, of course, is that we were pretty loose with how we applied rules, even with games that had large core rule books.

The underlying purpose of tabletop RPGs is to present a collaborative and dynamic story. The rules, in my opinion, are there to keep people inside the game world and to model the aspects of real life that govern chance and outcome. Anything beyond that that tells you what you can and cannot do is pretty much fluff, and it should be decided by the group which of those fluff aspects to include, not what to jettison. Take Pathfinder: the core rule book has almost 600 pages of tables, stats, and rules, rules, rules. No one should have to memorize that many pages of information about things like the chance that a crossbow will malfunction in a sandstorm. And no one wants to slow the game down by having to “rules lawyer” every question from a thick tome of small fonts. It just really brings down the whole atmosphere.

If a game system offers tactical combat, and the group doesn’t want to use the system because it talks about tactical combat, then throw out the tactical combat. If the rules focus only on how to resolve combat in tactical terms, then fudge it, or come up with alternate rules. RPG systems are designed around core concepts, and deeper systems are built on top of those core concepts. That means that almost anything can be handled by simply knowing the most basic how-tos and adding a little house-rules spin to it if the specific rules are confusing, too cumbersome, or undesirable.

RPGs are about imagination, and there’s no “right way” to play any of them, even if the rule books dedicate a lot of ink to nudging players in a specific direction. I really think the 4E tactical combat aspects were only designed to sell maps and minis, but in a far less cynical vein, there’s no reason why they have to be used at all.

To Use Or Not To Use (Minis in RPGs)

On Wednesday, thumb a friend put forth a general question, re: Pathfinder and minis. Was it required? He claimed that a lot of the presentation of the Pathfinder material was leading him to believe that the game was intended to be played with minis.

Originally, tabletop RPGs weren’t so designed. They were all played in the “theater of the mind”, where players were expected to visualize the action. I remember Back in My Day(tm), we didn’t even care for distance or movement rules, except where it would really screw us up or provided noticeable benefit. The GM would simply keep track of rough estimates of who’s in range of whom and if a player wanted to hide, they’d ask if there was something to hide behind. The GM decided that there was or there wasn’t, and if the player said that they were hiding behind that object, it was so. Otherwise, they were out in the open. It was a lot more cinematic in that regard, because each player had a vision of his or her own scenario in mind, and the game was more personal.

Minis were in the realm of wargaming, where position and quantity are everything. But then computer games showed up, and suddenly everyone wanted visuals. Taking a cue from both wargmaing and video games, RPGs started pumping out official minis because people seemed to like the idea of replicating the idea of known space and relation in their tabletop games. This lead to an industry where mini creators were producing not only characters, but obstacles and terrain and accouterments meant to litter the field with everything that players used to simply imagine.

Are we poorer for using minis? Yes and no. Minis make the game literal. There’s no ambiguity to what we see, and while that’s great for cleaving to the rules, it also limits us in what we can accomplish in a game that’s really about the “suspension of disbelief”. Minis also make things difficult for the GM. He needs to come up with maps that are to-scale, and not only needs to keep track of where the players are, but where the NPCs are. If the game uses minis only for combat (no one can sanely use minis in an entire city, for example), then the immersion comes to a screeching halt when the game transitions from an RP situation to a combat situation, notifying the players that there’s a fight coming up. On the other hand, minis bring tactical elements to the game. It lets players know their limits and exploit their strengths, and to use the unambiguous terrain to their advantage. When using a virtual tabletop software solution to play over the Internet, a lot of the burden placed on the GM is alleviated by the software itself. Playing with minis gives players something to look at other than each other.

Minis are a matter of choice. The purpose of an RPG is to engage the imagination, and the decision to use minis or not is merely a matter of where you want to put the needle along that scale. If you want to have the visual aides, to adhere to the rules as faithfully as possible, then minis might be the best option. If you want to be able to improvise or not be bound or limited by the materials you’ve bought or made, then relying on imaginative description is the best option.

The one thing that I think any new GMs need to understand is that no RPG system is absolute or complete. You pay big bucks for a thick and glossy rule book, but the game is ultimately played with a sheet of paper, a pencil, and some dice. Much hay has been made about the “modularity” of the new D&D 5E system which will allow you to pick and choose the rules you want to use in your game. That’s pretty fantastic, but it’s nothing new; with an RPG, you’re always free to pick and choose the rules you want to use or not use, to follow the rules to the letter, or fudge them for convenience. How you play is totally up to you, the players and the GM in agreement, and there’s no “right way” to play.

Dungeons And Dragons 5th Edition

I went through the D&D Starter Kit, information pills  5th Edition over the weekend. The boxed set comes with a generic “instruction book”, sick a larger-than-the-instruction-book pre-made adventure, five pre-made character sheets, and a bag of dice. When they say “starter kit”, they mean it in the most unambiguous way possible. You can hit the ground running with this thing in about 30 minutes; less if you have a history with D&D.

I have to say, I am exceedingly pleased with the tack that Wizards has taken in their presentation of the material this time around. I’m not talking about the rules (I will later, though), but their instructional leaflet uses very straightforward language, copious examples, and writes the document in plain English.

One of the issues I’ve always had with RPGs, and D&D in particular, is that they seem to be written for people who already know how to play. They make a lot of assumptions, although they also spend a lot of time explaining how the dice work and such. But character creation always seemed like one aspect that was way more dense than it ever needed to be. As a reference book, neither the DMs Guide nor the Player’s Handbook were organized well enough to let a DM or player find info quickly.

The starter kit’s intro guide doesn’t really cover character creation (it’s a starter kit, and the official guides are coming in a few months), but it does a stellar job of explaining the core of the game in a way that easy to understand. Part of that, I’m sure, is the streamlining of the rules. Obviously, with fewer and less complex rules, explaining things is going to be a breeze. A good 1/5th of the starter guide is spells, 1/5th is gear and equipment, and the other 3/5ths is the meat and potatoes of the experience.

5E seems to be the bridge between the 3.5E and the dreaded 4E that was always missing. It’s more modular, and less about “The Rules” than it is about getting back to the roots of the genre. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll get to play it, but I’m very happy with I’ve seen in the starter kit and look forward to the official release of the DM’s Guide, Players Handbook, and the Monster Manual.