What are role-playing games, in reality?

This article is really my attempt to understand what purpose the mechanics serve in any RPG. I hope to explain why by the end of the article.

One of the best explanations of RPGs I’ve ever found is “cops and robbers with rules.” However, since finding that explanation, I’ve also seen the explanation “cooperative storytelling.” The thing is, I’ve only once or twice had such a pure roleplaying experience that I felt would truly qualify as “cooperative storytelling.” (And one of those will be a fairly major part of another post, sometime later.) Almost every game I’ve ever played or run has included some conflict which required the conflict resolution rules be referenced, including while LARPing. Even most White Wolf games have an extensive section of the rule book devoted to combat, let alone simple conflict resolution.

So, if we’re engaging in “cooperative storytelling,” why do we need this bulk of rules?

Recently, on the Wizards of the Coast website, Mike Mearls wrote that he believed that the rules of D&D (and by extension all role-playing games) exist to aid and restrain bad DMs and players.* Personally, I think that’s somewhat short-sighted. I think the rules of the game serve a far deeper role.

Now, the first question that may spring to the reader’s mind is “Why do you need to understand the purpose the rules serve? Aren’t they there to (fill in the blank)?” Well, I’m doing this because I think most of the discussion on the subject misses the boat. I think most of the discussion is very focused on particular games (like Mearls’ article are focused on D&D), and aren’t “meta” enough. Usually, the discussion is on game balance: The rules exist to make the game fair to all the players. I think that’s only part of the equation, because no matter what, some player will either find a combination that will yield a good deal more power to his character than any of the rules intend, or someone will build a powerful character whose power will never see the light of day because the player doesn’t realize the power of his combinations, and any of a number of possibilities along that spread.

Ultimately, conflict resolution is really the point of any RPG. We participants don’t actually want cooperation, but challenge. The activity is called “a game.”

Interestingly, it is a game in which one player usually eventually loses. The DM/GM/ST is often refereed to as a “referee” in older books, but they’re not, really. From a purely game perspective, the DM is the designated loser. The DM’s characters must be overcome for the other players to “win.”

But RPGs aren’t considered games of winners or losers. In fact, the mature DM considers their job well done when everyone at the table has fun, even if that fun is their players’ temporary defeat. Note that it is rarely considered a good thing to achieve the dreaded “TPK” (“total party kills,” for the uninitiated). Many DMs and players consider TPKs to be in bad form. A hold over from the teaching of board games, TPKs are considered bad form because the player learns nothing from the defeat when facing a superior opponent. I know I’ve left a number of board games feeling rotten and never returning to the game, because the person teaching the game trounced me, seemingly to boost his own ego.

On the other hand, many DMs have less fun if they aren’t skirting the edge of that dreaded TPK. That’s our challenge. To get close to killing off a party, but not quite do it. We want the heroes of the story to have to scrape and wrestle and claw their way to at least some of their victories. So, we need limits on the players’ powers, too. We don’t want the players to ride roughshod over the opposition we set before them, so the rules we use theoretically limit the power of actors on both sides of the conflict.

So, we are returned to the question “why do we need conflict resolution rules in RPGs?” Because even the “9 to 5 dungeoneering” that my High School play consisted of was telling a story (no matter how much infighting it also included), and stories revolve around conflict. In these conflicts, either someone loses, or the impersonal forces of nature must be overcome.That’s where the rules come in.

But what do the rules truly do? If we break them down to their most basic “atomic” structure, what are they?

I think I’ll give you reason to come back by saying “That’s a discussion for another post.” 🙂

* Legends and Lore, articles http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20110906 and http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20110913

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About docryder

I'm an experienced table top gamer with an open mind to new game systems. I'm looking to explore ideas I've got. Some are pretty meta, some are pretty mundane. Welcome to my world.

Posted on October 19, 2011, in Metagaming. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Aw, no! A cliffhanger! Dammit, karma, why must thou plague me so!

  2. Isn’t conflict an aspect of cooperative storytelling? Does not society create rules and laws for the real world?

    Not too sound too pessimistic, but I believe us humans are inevitability selfish in our outlook. One could say we are naturally selfish. But, there also appears to be a point in which a person’s self interested can be mitigated. Rules seem to do this. Never mind that we might be the ones who created the rules to begin with, for some reason, when humans are faced with rules, most of us will set aside our selfish yearnings long enough to follow them. Right up until we run across the next rule.

    Rules exist to allow us to twist our selfish natures towards a common goal, but they only work as long as we believe they are fair to everyone. Once enough people stop believing that the rules of society are fair, they riot.

    • You’re going a bit deep, Eric. I’m only referring to rules in regards to role-playing games. Although I believe some of what you’ve written here applies, I’m not sure all of it does.

      Conflict is a necessity for any storytelling beyond “This is what I did the other day.” Even the old parables of Aesop and Jesus have some measure of conflict. Without conflict, it’s less a story and more a rambling description of events.

      In an RPG, the conflict becomes the test of the player’s abilities, and those of the characters, as limited by the rules of the game. The rules support that, or at least should.

      I think role-players, by default (the good ones, anyway), are more adept at putting their selfish natures aside to create the cooperative atmosphere the game requires. Otherwise they tend to fall apart. However, I also know I largely have a very exceptional group of players, and I try to surround myself with such.

  1. Pingback: What are role playing rules, systematically/mechanically? « Doc Ryder's Wyrd Science

  2. Pingback: Back to Metagame Ideas « Doc Ryder's Wyrd Science

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