In Defense of Sticking to the Rules

Q.)When is it acceptable to expect a new player to stick with the rules of a table top role playing game, even when doing so may intimidate them or exclude them?

A.)When it’s what is best for the table, full stop.

I’ve been privy to some interesting conversations recently around table top role playing, inclusivity vs gate keeping, and when the rules should be followed as written vs loosely adhered to. This is a thing I have an opinion on, and while it’s not really a hill I’d hang myself on it is the sort of hill I’d point at and say “this here, this is my hill.” I do believe that there are times when it makes more sense to work with a player and mentor them to understand the rules than it does to bend the rules in their favor, and I would even argue there are times when it makes more sense to discourage a player from joining the table than it does to change the game to include them. It appears this is a rather controversial opinion, so I’m going to try to defend itself here.

Before I begin, I feel compelled to share my storytelling experience, less as some sort of “nerd cred” and more to show people where my argument was forged. Literally anyone can be a GM or DM or Storyteller or whatever the system uses as a title for the rule judge. One doesn’t even have to do the task well to then say “I am a DM.” That said, this is a hobby I’ve had a lot of experience in and I feel that deserves some mention.

As a teenager, I spent time on freeform roleplaying websites like the now defunct go.com, which later lead me to spending a fair bit of time in Ethereal Realms based websites which often specialized in freeform storytelling but also had various campaigns across different systems. My first “sit down at a table and play” storytelling was a short lived Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign, which was followed by several home brew campaigns. Of these, there were two that were exceptionally long running. The first was essentially a portal fantasy campaign that fused Wizard of the Coast’s Call of Cthulhu D20 book with their Greyhawk setting in a low-fantasy escapade in which the players, as Investigators turned Adventurers, did their best to survive complete with sanity checks and diplomacy despite being obvious outsiders. The second was a two year long campaign in a low-fantasy desert setting loosely inspired by Egypt and Mesopotamia, where arcane magic was plentiful but divine magic was almost non-existant. In this, not only was healing almost non-existent outside of certain skills and salves, but attention was paid to how often the characters ate, where their water sources were (a strong drive for a lot of the explorations of the campaigns), and encumbrance was actively tracked. Yes, I ran perhaps the only campaign in America that’s ever paid attention to the encumbrance rules. From there, I’ve not only ran some Pathfinder games but I’ve DMed some as an official member of the Pathfinder Society, and I have a long history with the international fan group for White Wolf Publishing (which has changed its name a lot over the years, from Camarilla to Mind’s Eye Theatre to, I believe its most recent iteration, Mind’s Eye Society.) In this, I’ve had a successful stint as a Vampire: the Requiem storyteller, and I’ve assisted with running the National Geist: the Sin-Eaters game back in the day. Other systems I’ve had the pleasure to run include Tri-stat, 2nd Edition Shadowrun, L5R, Anima, and some god awful Maid system I’m trying hard to forget about.

In all of this, I’ve learned a lot of people love to get together and throw dice while talking with their friends and having a good time. I’ve also learned there’s a dedicated group of players who want to use the rules to their own advantage to live out fantasies that they can’t achieve outside of the game. Others, still, are more concerned with the story and their character’s interactions with it than they are any sort of set of rules. It becomes apparent that a lot of rules are quickly glossed over in an unofficial setting, and that the only two real rules that should matter are:

1.)The Storyteller is always right
2.)If the storyteller is a dick people aren’t going
to show up to his games and then he won’t be a storyteller
anymore, so maybe he doesn’t need to always be right.

That said, the rules do matter. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t be shelling out $60 or more for each book of them! There wouldn’t be entire websites dedicated to errata and how publishers feel the rules “are supposed to work.” The reason that rules matter, I’ve found, is far less to do with the rules themselves, and more to ensure that all players are on the same page as to how their character will interact with the world. This becomes more paramount the more players enter the game. A small house table of 4 might have a whole slew of house rules, and a new player can quickly pick up on them. By comparison, those wishing to play a sanctioned game recognize by White Wolf Publishing’s global campaign not only will be expected to understand the rules (complete with rulings and errata) for the nation they are playing in, but those wishing to storyteller and host one of those games are expected to stick to those rules fairly even as they may otherwise have control over the events of their local “domain.” There is some interesting discussion here in that some of this errata could be considered “house rules” in and of themselves as they may differ from the books proper, but these are rulings enforced by leadership and not created on the fly by anyone directly interacting with an affected character.

Of course, this isn’t just against a new player. Sticking to the rules, as written, help ensure that a player new to the table knows what to expect, and the knowledge that they may have picked up at one table can be used at another. It ensures that everyone at the table is playing fairly, a point of importance for games that are taking place across multiple tables across the nation. The discussion that is being had, however, isn’t in regards to a player knowledgeable about the rules going from one table to another, but rather in regards to new players who would be discouraged to play a game because of those rules and their initial complexity.

It is in this area of enforcement that I find not only rules matter, but game style and expectation. I genuinely want to foster new players and watch them enjoy themselves while partaking in a hobby that I too enjoy. The more people who are willing to play the game, the more who may play the game with me in the future! That said, it may not always be best they start at my table. It may make more sense for them to gain some mentorship first, or start in a few “beginner scenarios” to get them familiar with the rules. The former simply requires a little oversight and a volunteer; the second may actually derail the game time and enjoyment of other players if not taken care of in an advance session. Other times, a new character might just “want to have fun” but his idea of having fun is expecting me, the storyteller, to help him live out his masturbatory fantasies as his character attempts to have sexual intercourse with any living being not tied down (and a few that are.) Or perhaps as a starting player he feels he should be able to kill the king, take praxis from the Prince, or play an archtype that his stats simply can’t back up. Or perhaps they’re interested in the game in and of itself, yet are unable or unwilling to handle the fact that it is a game their characters can lose. In this, it may absolutely make sense to allow their character to die due to a bad dice roll or to another player’s actions, as opposed to fudging things. This is less about punishing a player and more about keeping things “fair” for the table at large, although in some of the listed circumstances punishment of their characters absolutely may be warranted.

As I share this, I guarantee you there are individuals reading this who would never want me to run a game in their home, who are absolutely horrified at the idea of there being “consequences” in a social game, and who would balk at playing a game with any sort of regional or national oversight. These players will see me as some sort of “asshole.” And they may be right! But I do know, definitively, there are a few dozen who have played with me over the years who have enjoyed the stories this style of gameplay has allowed them to tell, and the sense of drama and accomplishment that can come along with it. Ideally, we’d be nurturing new players who show an interest, and if this means running extra scenes with them outside of an official scenario or letting the dice be a little kinder to them when sitting around a kitchen table more power to the storyteller. Failing that, it might even make sense for a potential new player to sit in on a session and ask questions as they have them. At the end of the day, however, a game isn’t just about one player. It’s about everyone at the table. And that means sometimes the rules must be followed, even at the risk of losing a potential player.

That said, sometimes it’s about the spirit of the rules and not the letter, and at the end of the day the rules are for playing a game and not for orchestrating a cult. Sometimes you gotta tell everyone else at the table to fuck off, you’re the storyteller, and you want to help the new guy out. And sometimes you just gotta remind the new player that they have Common Sense on their character sheet and attacking the Sheriff because he’s making you way to be Acknowledged by the Prince is not a smart thing to do. Handling these situations is part and parcel of being a good storyteller, far more so than rule lawyering. And yes, it can be really frustrating to help someone understand how to play a game, only for them to decide they aren’t interested in playing the game with you, but if you’ve helped them find a new hobby I personally feel that’s a small price to pay.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lament the fact I lost my sketchbook that had dozens of made-up minerals and flora and their “potential medicinal uses” as seen in-world and just how truthful those “wive’s tales” were, among other campaign notes.

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