When I played my first tabletop role playing game it was an experience that I instantly enjoyed. I and my friends immersed ourselves into a world of imagination that I still to this day find intoxicating. We spent all day telling a collective story of our characters exploring a dungeon, and although the storyline was clichÃ© compared to the RPG sessions that I am involved in today the experience was much more satisfying than many games that I have played since with more experienced groups. My friends and I had all of the excitement and enthusiasm of youth for our new hobby, and it has taken me two decades to understand why I enjoy RPGs so much.
Unfortunately I spent about nineteen of those twenty years thinking that what I enjoy about tabletop RPGsÂ are the games themselves. I do enjoy reading a well crafted game system, and I can easily spend hours upon hours determining how the underlying mechanics for a set of rules works. Interesting settings and supplements can be mesmerizing to a veteran gamer when well done. Yet the games themselves are not the point of this hobby nor should they be.
The games are the medium through which we the gaming community interact. The games are a type of conduit that allows each of us to connect into a social activity. As the saying goes “All roads lead to Rome.” A tabletop RPG should lead to a gathering of friends enjoying the experience of playing the game together.
The paradox is that occasionally the rules of the game are an obstacle to the group’s fun, such as when a player superbly roleplays a negotiation and then fails a dice roll for a skill check. If your group wants to see that player’s roleplaying rewarded, then forego the rules and skip the dice roll altogether. Go straight to the reward and move on to the parts of the game where the rules accentuate the fun.
As a GM keep this in mind with every session that you choose to run. Your sessions will be moreÂ enjoyable if your priority is on the group’s funÂ and not the game. A great game system that no one enjoys playing should be ditched for a bad game system that your group will spend hours indulging in. There are many gaming groups out there that play poorly designed systems, ignore rules that they do not enjoy, and have a wonderful time because they play the style of game that best suits their group. This hobby is subjective, and no rules book can prepare you for that.
You should make every GMing decision by asking yourself “What would be best for this group?” first before asking “What do the rules say?” Sometimes you might find the answer to the first question to be “Ignore the game. Address the gamers.”
That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!
Definitely agree. I make decisions based on, “What would be an awesome story?” which is very nearly always the same as “What would be the most fun?” and in those rare cases that it isn’t immediately the same, adds to the fun down the line.
I think most of the common house rules are to give DMs and groups that option. Take drama points, fate points, or whatever you call them – they’re all about bypassing rules to make good story and fun times happen.
Part of the fun comes from playing within the rules, so having specific tools to bypass them when you need to, instead of just doing it by fiat, helps. (Fudging dice doesn’t count as fiat if the group doesn’t realize you’re doing it.)
Agree 100%. I still think certain systems work really well for certain types of groups because of exactly what you’re talking about, but of course any game can be fun if folks have the right attitude and the GM is good.
Why not just play a game with rules that match up with your preferred play style?
I also agree. The game allows for fun, but it can also impede fun. Fun and satisfaction > being rules-strict.
I definitely agree with the “roleplaying outweighs dice rolling” comment. There’s nothing more disappointing than having a great interaction and then… rolling a 2. Especially with new gamers, this can cause a strong “who cares then?” sentiment. I’d much rather encourage good roleplaying than rollplaying.
I agree with the OP and further with Tim Jensen; for me, there’s little reason to use rules that need to be ignored. Handling such rules is extra burden with little reward.
One of the things I love about this site is its uncanny ability to introduce topics that are very, eerily relevant to the issues I am pondering in my own experience as a GM. Case in point: I go about getting ready for the day, thinking about running some D&D after a long holiday hiatus. It occurs to me that all too often I visualize upcoming sessions not in terms of story or setting or even ‘cool stuff that can happen,’ but simply as collections of monster stat blocks called encounters. During the game these stat blocks have a tendency to absorb way to much of my attention. I worry that I have to turn off the part of my brain that knows what makes a game fun in order to focus on things like recharge rolls, and the crucial contrast between Burst and Blast, and wondering how I will fill my next treasure parcel. My next thought is that ‘Why the Game(system) can sometimes get in the way of a game’ would be a great topic for a blog post. Twenty minutes later I log on to gnomestew and voila! Patrick has anticipated my concerns and already has a lively discussion going. My delusion that the universe revolves around me continues unchallenged.
@TimJensen- Changing to a less rules intensive system would be an ideal solution, but has to be weighed against the amount of investment the group has in the current system. Sometimes ignoring a rule here and there will have to do.
I agree with the gist of the article, but sometimes getting everyone on board with changes, even small ones, can be daunting. My group is almost hostile about trying new systems. They’re heavily invested in the one system we regularly play and don’t want to buy new books, especially if we only play the other system a few times. (I, on the other hand, am a gaming graybeard who’s played so many systems that the mechanics rarely get in my way and who enjoys a change of pace now and then.)
My wife has been running the game to give me a break this past year and she pretty much sticks to the rules (this being her first extended stint DM’ing), which drives me crazy! However, since a couple of the other players are relative newbies, I’ve gone along with it, not wanting to rock the boat. Now that they’ve had several months to learn the rules, I think they’re ready to break a few of them. I’ve been subtly hinting that I might return to DM’ing later this spring, but that the campaign would be low magic and involve several other house rules (limited healing availability, enhanced skills, regionalization and differentiation of monsters, etc.) So far nobody has howled about the injustice of it all, so I just might be able to pull it off. We’ll see…
As for the point that the game should be the means, and not the end, to the enjoyment of the players, I couldn’t agree more. Two examples from my convention days illustrate this point:
One year I noticed one of our regular DMs had brought a huge amount of D&D books and modules to auction (his entire collection, as it turned out). When I asked him how he could part with all of it, he replied that his group was playing the game out of habit more than enjoyment. To prove his suspicion, prior to their previous gaming session, he scripted out the first twenty-five comments he anticipated his players would say when they went through the adventure and damned if they’re words didn’t bear him out. That predictability sucked all the joy out of the experience for him. He said he might try a different system later on, after a hiatus, perhaps with a different group, but the old group was dead.
Conversely, I had a singularly pleasant experience during that same convention. At the beginning of a masters’ tournament, all of the players went around the table and introduced their characters (in character). The character backgrounds were quite detailed and the players all roleplayed well. We began playing off of each others’ comments, since our backgrounds provided the hooks we needed to establish our relationships with each other, and soon were progressing the storyline with no DM intervention at all! About 20 minutes later someone commented on it. Ken, the DM, just sat their smiling. He said that he’d never gone this long without having to roll the dice or steer the group in a certain direction and was having a wonderful time simply watching our little drama unfold. I think in that entire four hour block we rolled the dice perhaps a half-dozen times and the DM only intervened to set the scene. The players did all of the heavy lifting and took it upon themselves to ensure the adventure moved along. We were still going strong when the next group showed up for the table and told us our slot ended 10 minutes prior.
That’s the synergy and social interaction that can happen when everyone understands that the point is to have fun and not worry about who makes a required dice roll or gets the most treasure.
I very much agree with this article. As a rather inexperienced DM, I find it much easier to eschew dice-rolling for interaction and let the players do their best. In my sessions, the players usually have the most fun when they are reliant more on their wits and improvisational skill than at the mercy of the dice.
My gamemastering experience is a story of this very struggle. I am a “fluffy” GM, in that I try and make things run as rules-light as possible, but I honestly love some of the systems that are brought to the table by different RPGs and their rules. I hate playing “against” a rule system — I don’t like to bash my head against what is clearly the central concept of a game’s design — but I don’t mind making small tweaks to get the experience I want out of something, especially when the materials are already part of the game or the expectations of the players.
@pseudodragon: The way you describe watching your wife run a game is something I’ve just gone through with a friend of mine who just grabbed the GM/DM/Storyteller reigns. He went through a transition from running straight to the rules, stopped running, started another game, did the same thing, stopped running, started another game, etc. The last game he started to run (the current one I’m playing in) he has completely run roughshod over the rules and decided he would ignore or make up new ones to fit players attitudes.
It has been completely broken, but great. The system (white wolf) supports this style of play and that makes it easy. I think the next game he runs will swing back to a nice middle ground with more leniency in rules interpretation but more adherence to balance.
I agree with the main thrust of the article… but also with the “sometimes” part of the title. I’m not shy about dropping rules or changing systems, but you have to accept that there are long term consequences to these changes.
For example, if you adopt the popular position that “if you convince me, your character convinces the NPC,” that’s often a fun change. It gives people an incentive to stay in character and to play to the extent of their skill. But… it also means a hesitant or non-persuasive player can’t have the wish fulfillment of playing a cunning conman, that character skill distributions will change (no reason to spend points on social skills if player aptitude is what matters), etc. None of these things are necessarily bad, but they’re often unintended consequences.
Great comments all around!
@Tim Jensen – That is a good point, but from my experience rarely has an RPG system been a perfect fit for any group. I’m a big fan of Fudge and that system strongly encourages tweaking and fiddling with the rules (hell, I’d say that it is a requirement of Fudge at times). No matter how much I’ve tweaked the rules with that wonderfully flexible system there is always something that doesn’t quite fit for a particular group or genre. Luckily Fudge also encourages ditching the rules in order to keep the fun. You should find the system that is the best match for your play style, but this hobby is subjective as a fellow gnome-who-might-be-named-Kurt likes to say. That means what you think is a fit might not be what the rest of your group thinks is a fit.
@itliaf – Actually we gnomes influence your thoughts and situations to better fit the articles that we would like to write. This universe revolves around us and our felt hats. 🙂
@pseudodragon – Introducing changes or new systems can be difficult. One of my sneakier tactics is the ‘reverse psychology’ approach. I’ll read that new RPG or I’ll be writing out those proposed house rules at the table and wait for someone to ask “Watcha’ doin’?” and reply with “Nothing, just checking out this really awesome new RPG that you wouldn’t want to play.” or “Nothing, just coming up with a completely better approach to combat initiative that you wouldn’t like.”
And yes, that really works. Generic deity help me, it absolutely works with some very smart and intelligent people. I’m sure that someone has used the same cheesy tactic with me and that it worked just as well. We gamers are a silly lot.
@Scott Martin – Oh yes! The “sometimes” part of this article is very important indeed. If you find yourself consistently ignoring a certain rule that is a good indicator that you and your group either need a house rule for that part of the game, or perhaps you should investigate playing another system that is a better fit for your group. Excellent point.
I’ve been known to say things like that, yes…
@Patrick Benson – Haha, gotta love the Tom Sawyer approach.
If it’s clear from the outset that the GM is going to have this authority and they group accepts it, I think this is a fine approach. When it crops up unexpectedly in the middle of the game, however, it can be problematic.
A lot is made of social contracts in gaming, both implicit and explicit. An oft-overlooked element of the social contact is the system itself. When a group selects a system, it is declaring, “These are the mechanics by which we will play the game,” and making a joint decision regarding a major element of the social contract.
If the GM significantly tampers with the rules without consultation, or makes frequent exceptions, he’s effectively violating the social contract. Unless, of course, the group already agrees that this is acceptable.
@Sarlax – I think it’s more like, “These are the mechanics by which we will start playing the game.” No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. 😉
And yes, a good GM will involve the rest of the group in any significant rule changes. But managing such things as house rules is traditionally the GM’s turf.
I used to think that you should ALWAYS fore-go a rule enforcement or ignore a bad die roll when it got in the face of good role-playing. But my fairly strict DM had an interesting response when I last whined about a miserable “1”: if you always succeed, where’s the excitement?
It’s a valid point. I enjoy butt-kicking and glamor as much as the next escapist role-player, but if things always fall your way, then it deflates the game (eventually). Like most things in this subjective hobby, it’s matter of balance: knowing when to fudge, and when to stick to your guns. That comes through best when you have a confident, knowledgeable GM and fellow players.
I had recently ran a game with my ten-year old son and his mates. He wanted to get the candle he had picked up earlier out of his backpack out, light it and set the Harpy’s greasy hair on fire. I went to enormous lengths to convince him that this was not possible, realistic etc etc etc. Sure it would not be easy, but the cool things I could then have had happen (Harpy goes ballistic, dives headfirst into the frozen lake etc) if I had remembered that my goal was for them to have FUN… That is rule number one.
To my mind the only purpose of consistent rules in an RPG is to prevent what otherwise occurs in games of pretend: “you have a super sword? Well I have armour that is stronger than your sword…and I can fly”. As long as that is not happening we are ok.
@Timon – You have one vicious ten-year old son there. He can come play in my game anytime! 🙂
But that is the point exactly – your son and his mates are going to have a different definition of what would be fun than the rules were most likely designed for. A table of thirty-something gamers might not enjoy that kind of play, but I can see how a group of kids would.
Speaking primarily as a player with worries about intra-party oneupmanship, I see the rules as a way of preventing exploitation in which one player can become exceedingly powerful and hog the spotlight. My philosophy on the rules is that the rules preserve equity of power between players. When the rules destroy interesting things characters are trying to accomplish, or when they quash roleplaying in the way described in the negotiation example, they ought to be discarded. And some systems, particularly to my knowledge, old WOD Mage: the Ascension is this way–specifically discourage dice throws and rules lawyering when the way the characters deal with the scene is more important than the game mechanics.
Firstly, Your comments about what makes the game fun are well taken. I also would bring out from it that this is why we don’t just all play online all day. The social aspect of the game is critical to the enjoyment. And yes, the game is the medium to getting together. As we get older, it has been made clear to me that a bunch of adults (chronologically, at least) with jobs, children, families, bills and other responsibilities have it a lot of reasons not to go out, and the gaming thing has just kept on being the reason we get together. And some of my PC’s have been with me over 25 years.
Secondly, this only happened because we based the rules on the game we all wanted to play. My PC’s play the game and create the story based on these rules, and sometimes rolling that 96% on a simple lie attempt after great exposition is part of creating that great story (“How was I to known that the stupid gate guard has a brother that really IS a necromancer??”).
So I think that Tim Jensen’s point is very well made and that in the right system, Roleplaying is emphasized anyways.
I think we are opening up a 96′ Sterling Reserve Cab and a 2001 Barolo so far this Sunday.
This is the reason it’s spelled “Role Playing” and not “Roll Playing.” Fun supersedes rules 100% of the time.
I’d like to hear your take on the definition of Drift as offered over on the Forge.
Changing from one Creative Agenda to another, or from the lack of shared Creative Agenda to a specific one, during play, typically through changing the System. In observational terms, often marked by openly deciding to ignore or alter the use of a given rule
It would be interesting to hear your analysis in terms of Creative Agenda.
@Rust – I like the term “Drift” as a way to describe what I wrote of for those who subscribe to the GNS theory. As for Creative Agenda, well that is a term that applies directly to the GNS theory. So while what I have written is an endorsement of the occasional use of Drift according to the GNS theory with the idea of Creative Agenda being a part of the game, I myself do not endorse the GNS theory and don’t adhere to it.
This is not to say that GNS theory is wrong, but it is not a theory that I believe in. I prefer to take a different approach with my games and my game designs. I really enjoy works like “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals” by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman available from The MIT Press. Their research into game theory and the biology and architecture of the human brain leads me to think the GNS is a bit too narrow to describe what is happening at a physical and psychological level when a person is playing a game.
This article was written from that perspective. That we as human beings might stray from rules because our brain has become bored with something that normally is fun. Literally our brains are processing something and it is experienced as fun until over time and with repetition that very same event is now boring. It may become fun again with a short break, and most likely will become fun again with a short break, but at that moment our brains are saying “That’s enough. Fun effect off.”
Since that is our physical reality, a good GM has to be ready to take that break from the game and allow a distraction moment take off. First because it is just plain cool when those moments occur naturally. Let them ride out. Second so that the collective set of brains at the table each has a moment to stop playing the game in order to reset the “fun factor” of the game.
I hope that helps you to understand where I am coming from as the author of the article. Sorry that my response isn’t in the terms of Creative Agenda, but since I don’t subscribe to GNS theory I wouldn’t feel comfortable in writing from that perspective.