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Spicy Rules, Bland NPCs?

Shamus Young, author of the always-excellent DM of the Rings [1] webcomic, made an interesting comment about paying equal attention to rules and roleplaying on strip LXX: The Needs of the Many [2].

The strip posits that if the scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where members of the Fellowship escort peasants to Helm’s Deep took place in a stereotypical D&D campaign, Aragorn and company would have made them do a forced march, sacrificing the old and infirm for the sake of efficiency — because really, who cares about a bunch of peasants?

As always with DMotR, chances are that you’ll laugh while remembering times your players did something a lot like this. Shamus’s point, though, is that you can’t pin this behavior entirely — or even largely — on your players:

…you could make the case that stuff like this is the result of a DM who is strict about rules and lax about role-playing, which is about the surest form of self-sabotage a DM can do. If you adhere to the rules with meticulous authority and fill the world with generic NPCs, then soon enough you’ll have players treating your world like a place to mine treasure and farm experience, and not like a place where an epic story is taking place.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, figuring that if I make sure we get the rules right, some of the other stuff (like good NPCs) will fall into place — even though in most cases, it doesn’t work that way at all.

Adherence to the rules should always take a backseat to providing your players with meaty, juicy steaks roleplaying opportunities, and one great way to do that is to design vibrant NPCs [3] — and then drive those NPCs like a rental [4].

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#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On July 23, 2007 @ 9:02 am

Some rules sets do a better job of discouraging this behavior than others.

I was playing with some old friends over the weekend at a yearly event we have to get together and game and realized just how different play styles can be. So much of that is rules driven though: when I ran Burning Empires for those same folks, they jumped at the RP.

By the same token I found myself crunching away at the numbers playing D&D. It’s fun to do both, really!

#2 Comment By Frank Filz On July 23, 2007 @ 10:01 am

Adherence to the rules should always take a backseat to providing your players with meaty, juicy steaks roleplaying opportunities

I disagree with this statement. In my opinion, the rules should support the type of play you want. If you want PCs to consider the weak and infirm in a force march situation, make the rules bring that consideration into play.

Of course sometimes you can also enforce this with genre conventions and buy in from the players (but this just highlights what the real consideration is is to make sure that SYSTEM (as per the Lumpley Principle) takes such considerations into play). But still, it’s worth considering trying to make the rules apply better to how you actually want to play.

There’s nothing wrong with what type of play the players in DM of the Rings want. The problem is that the GM wants a different style of play. The GM ignoring the rules isn’t going to fix things, the fix needs to come through the GM and players actually reaching agreement on what play is about.


#3 Comment By VV_GM On July 23, 2007 @ 12:31 pm

Frank – I disagree with you because so many rulebooks include a paragraph about how you should ignore the rules if that results in more fun for you and your group. I agree that the DMotR is an example of what happens when the GM wants the players to play his/her game instead of working with the players and making compromises so that both sides find the game enjoyable.

#4 Comment By brcarl On July 23, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

“Writing intended to illicit a response should be written in the extreme.” 😉

That being said, I don’t think that rules should ALWAYS be cast aside to when in conflict with good role-playing. A bad case of rules inconsistency can take the wind out of any good role-play sails almost as fast as a pet GMPC.

Part of the trick is deciding, as a group, what rules get tossed and which rules get adhered to. In my recently launched campaign, for instance, we decided that meticulous record keeping for food and water was annoying and added nothing to the game. Plenty of other more interesting complications were already taking up everyone’s time. Taken to the extreme, you could say that most game designers have decided implicitly that rules for bodily waste handling aren’t fun enough to warrant attention.

Anyway, I agree with the basic premise: don’t let rules get in the way of the game you’re trying to play. As a few others have pointed out, though, for some folks its the rules that make the game fun.

#5 Comment By Frank Filz On July 23, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

VV_GM: I used to think it was a good idea to toss rules if they weren’t fun, but more and more, I strongly feel that the game should NOT depend on this. Sure, sometimes you will have to bend the rules a bit, but too many people take those statements and basically toss the rules, and that really doesn’t do any good. If the author can’t stand by his rules, why bother publishing them?

Now part of the problem is too many mainstream games have suffered rules bloat. Meticulous record keeping of food and water, as brcarl mentions, probably has no place in most games. Why do game systems include such rules? Do they ever really get used?


#6 Comment By VV_GM On July 23, 2007 @ 3:42 pm

Frank – I recognize your point and I think that it is a valid one. I personally avoid rules heavy systems. I’m just saying that many groups can benefit from a rules audit and are encouraged to do so by the publisher/designer. You are right that it is pretty pointless to ignore all of the rules, but I think it is fine to use 80% of the rules in a system and agree to ignore 20% (or replace them with house rules). It is like buying a stock car: You may like the basic package that it comes with, but soem of the features you might not ever use or will replace with custom parts.

#7 Comment By ScottM On July 24, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

That’s one good thing that talking over an adventure with someone (who isn’t playing the game) will often do: highlight a flat character. When prepping a DitV town, the first things that people caught about my towns were flat NPCs… and they were great about helping me find a kernel to build better roleplaying upon.

It can be hard to “think” like all the different NPCs in your world. When you get stuck, see if someone else has an idea. They’ll often come up with something you’d never have considered… and can spark a whole new direction for your campaign world.

#8 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2007 @ 8:05 am

“Adherence” may have been the wrong word to use. I think “focus” might have been more in line with what Shamus was getting at: Too often, GMs make sure to really nail the rules (which is a good thing), and neglect to give their players compelling characters to interact with.

In that situation, the pay attention to the rules:create compelling NPCs ratio is out of whack, and needs to be shifted towards the NPC side of things.