How Important Are Rules?

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The infamous
The infamous “random harlot” table from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Too many rules? (Image: Ethan Gilsdorf)

In a story that ran Monday called “Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Wizards of the Coast’s Problem Child,” posted by our friends at BoingBoing, writer Peter Bebergal posits this idea:

Over time, the rules governing [the] classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons changed and took on a weight of their own. Role-playing elements sank into a mire of charts and tables and special abilities. … Dungeons & Dragons has become a game preferring combat to role-playing. It favors prefab characters acquiring new skills and powers over a character that the player comes to identify with.

In defense of the old school renaissance of gamers who play older versions of D&D, Bebergal (who is a friend and writer colleague of mine, and a fellow gamer) rightly says he can’t be sure how Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s creators, “meant the game to be played, but they certainly invented a game that never makes us feel like we are cheating for not adhering to every table and chart.”

It’s an excellent issue Bebergal raises, this question of rules. How many or how few rules make for good game play? We want certain rules in certain games to be rock-solid and immovable. In other games, perhaps there’s some wiggle-room.

Less complex games—for example, non-role-playing games like Monopoly or Scrabble—seem by design to require the strictest adherence to rules. What few rules these games have must be followed, or all hell and chaos breaks loose, right? People throwing tiles and hotels and little metal top hats and dogs at each other. Total mayhem. We don’t want that.

Or perhaps even these simpler games could be looser. Could one play a modified version of Monopoly where the poor win and the rich lose? Or a “rules-lite” version of Scrabble that allows any word, even imaginary words, to be placed on the board, as long as the player can pronounce the word or come up with a definition for it? (See, I just made up a new rule. Damn.)

Tell Tale
Tell Tale: a game with about 3 rules (Image: Blue Orange Games)

I recently played a terrific game called Tell Tale with my 6-year-old nephew, my 65-year-old step mother (his grandmother), and my girlfriend. The rules are incredible simple: images on cards serve as prompts to help a group of players tell a collaborative story (or storyboard). The very lack of complex rules not only makes it easy for the whole family to play, but there’s very little disagreement or argument or confusion. The clear point is story, and silliness, not adherence to rules. Or winning.

D&D (and other RPGs) would seem offer the greatest openness about how to play the game, and that’s true. Taken as a whole, the many versions of the game offer one of the more flexible rules systems out there. Probably the variety of D&D’s versions accounts for this. Parker Brothers doesn’t tend to reissue old games with new rules; they update the look and feel of their games, and the packaging, but tend to keep the gameplay more or less the same. I don’t hear old school Monopoly players complain about Star Wars Monopoly or Kardashian Monopoly (but then again, I’m not tapped into that subculture.)

But paradoxically, because of the many possible rule sets one can use, with D&D we see the greatest passion about how the game should be played. If you sit down with two different D&D groups, you can guarantee widely—and wildly—different interpretations of the rules, not to mention a heated argument over which version is best. Should the emphasis be placed on role-playing, and on-the-fly improvisation, and good game mastering to keep the fun going strong? Or does the group prefer orthodox adherence to feats, rounds, to hit charts or other minutiae, focusing on battle tactics over character interaction and story?

These debates are never resolved, because in the end, this is a matter of taste. But Bebergal does raise this final, and I think, worthy idea to ponder: do more rules necessarily mean “less wonder, less imagination”?

I don’t have all the answers. But clearly, the question matters if, in a game, what you value is imagination. How do rules inhibit imaginative game play? How do they make it better? And do D&D’s various rules themselves—Basic or AD&D or Expert or 3.0 or 3.5 or 4.0—tend favor or create conditions for a certain kind of gameplay to the exclusion of others? I’d love to get your responses and comments below.

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