The Rules

“You can’t break the rules if you don’t know the rules.”
-The Borribles

rq2First of all, this is not about the Rules restaurant in London. Though I’ve eaten there and the food is excellent.

No, this is some thoughts about game rules. John has been writing a series on game design for this site and much of game design is really about rules. Some games also provide interesting settings and characters, but so do good science fiction and fantasy authors. What makes it game design is that it has rules.

I’ve been gaming a long time and have seen, played and run many different game systems. I also have a fairly easy time with math. As a result I can figure out most rules systems pretty quickly, they are usually just variants of something I’ve seen before. As you might imagine, I’ve been called a rules lawyer, and less pleasant versions thereof, on many an occasion. Now a player obsessing about the rules, especially during a game, can be really annoying. But I would argue that there are some good reasons to understand the rules of the game and how they are supposed to work, illustrated in the following gaming anecdote. (Ok, as a gamer I’m probably writing these things just to tell gaming anecdotes, sue me.)

One of the best games I’ve ever played in was a Runequest game. Runequest was one of the earliest RPGs (1978) and definitely shows its age. The system has plenty of things it doesn’t cover, is somewhat clumsy, and has a fair amount of crunch. You not only had overall hit points but also hit points for each limb, your head, and your torso. So you could loose an arm without dying or die with many hit points left by loosing your head. Each section of your body could have different amounts of armor. There was even one god whose worshipers could do things like swear to never wear armor on their left arm allowing them to do extra damage to other people’s left arms. See, crunchy. Anyway, I actually felt more freedom to try whatever I wanted in that game than many newer, more elegant systems because of the GM. Being a good GM he was good with NPCs, stories, etc. But what allowed all that freedom was his knowledge of the rules. He knew them inside and out, backwards and forwards. So no matter what I threw at him, he would think for a bit and then come up with a way for the rules to take care of it. I was leaping around, swinging on chandeliers, fighting on top of runaway carriages, and all sorts of stunts that the game hadn’t been designed to handle. But he came up with ways that were fair and worked smoothly with the rules. Sometimes I’d succeed, sometimes not, but it was fun trying. I felt more freedom to try stuff than in anything I’ve seen outside of rules-light systems, and Runequest is not a rules-light system.


Anyone who has gamed for a while knows that these things come up. Someone will want to do something that isn’t covered by the rules, or not covered directly. Maybe the rules themselves are so bad that they need to be worked around. I remember being at a convention and attending a demonstration game of Superhero 2044. The combat rules were so bad that the guy giving the demonstration, from the company that produced the game, said that no one used it and he used house rules for the demo. Some people also like tweaking systems, adding house rules or adapting them to different settings. Then of course, there is the advantage of not realizing that the power combination you gave the bad guy is unstoppable halfway through your climactic fight. All of these have something in common. Fewer problems arise and the results are usually better when you really know the rules and how they work, or don’t work. So time to put in one last anecdote.

shadowrun coverI played in a Shadowrun game over several iterations of the rules. At one point my character was Feedback, an insane rock star turned shadowrunner. Feedback had maximum human, 6, Dexterity and Body, a stat covering things like endurance. She also had close to maximum Strength, as well as a high skill, 6 dice, in Athletics. In short, she was an Olympic athlete with cyberware. Our group at the time also had two physical adepts, basically magically-powered martial artists. Their physical statistics were about what Feedback had but they had no Athletics skill. What they did have was one level of Athletics auto-success. This cost a bit of their magic pool, but not tons. A beginning adept could, though they had better things to buy, get something like 12 auto Athletics successes.

How the system works is you roll a pool of six-sided dice equal to your skill and try to match a target number or better. Each die was counted separately and they “exploded”, meaning that if you rolled a 6 you rolled that die again and added it to the 6 and could keep on going as long as you rolled 6s. Each die that equaled or exceeded the target number counted as a success. As a result, rolling a 6 meant you automatically rolled a 7 or more, as the re-roll would add at least 1 to your original score.

For example, let’s say there was some kind of running task to outpace the boulder rolling at you through the ancient temple. The difficulty might be a 4. With 6 dice of Athletics, Feedback would roll 6d6 and count how many 4s or better were in the roll. The average would be three successes. The physical adepts, on the other hand, would roll their 0 Athletics, which meant that they could default to a characteristic like dexterity, but at a penalty of –2 on the rolls. So if they had 6 in dexterity they would also roll 6d6, but they would need 6s, giving an average of one success. They would then add in their auto-success for a total of 2 successes. You can see that there are three ways to adjust the difficulty in this system. You can increase the number of successes you need, i.e., you need three 4s. You can increase the difficulty number, you need to roll an 8 or better. Or you could do both, you need to roll three 8s. The thing is that how those different methods change the likelihood of success is not necessarily obvious. This brings us to the story.

shadowrun magic coverOur usual GM was running. We were raiding an office building and needed to get to the top floor. Several of the players went straight for the elevators, which was apparently the way the GM wanted us to go. However, we had no hacker, the enemy knew we were in the building, and all elevators were computer-controlled. If I were those guys I would have taken us up to almost the top and then dropped the elevator down the twenty-some floors, killing us all. I suggested taking the stairs. But we were in a hurry. So the GM came up with his running up the stairs rule. For every two flights you had to roll Athletics. The target number was the number of flights you had gone up. Failure meant that you took a fatigue level. Given how the mechanics work, even 2 fatigue levels is pretty crippling in a fight. The early flights would be easy. You needed a single 2 after the second floor, a single 4 after the fourth, a single 6 after the sixth etc. But by the twentieth floor you needed to roll a 20. The chances of that on an exploding d6 are 5 in 1296, not likely even with a large pool. But since they had one auto-success, the physical adepts never even had to roll. The GM had just created a system where the adepts, with a bare minimum of Athletic auto-successes, would make it without breaking a sweat while everyone else, including my Olympic athlete, would pass out before getting there. And this was generally how he handled athletic stunts, you needed one really high number like a 20 or 30. This made my significant skill investment in Athletics useless while his buddies’ one auto-success let them do whatever they wanted, no matter how crazy. One of the many reasons I left that game.

So, why all this rambling about rules? As I said, I’ve seen many game systems and I like thinking about how rules work, interact, don’t work, or generally affect a game. So I hope to write some thoughts on different systems and types of rules. Maybe someone will find them interesting. Maybe they’ll even save someone from making a terrible house rule, though that is probably the delusions of grandeur talking.

One Response

  1. I’m really delighted you started this series. It’s one of my pet peeves that so many people who write game material have a poor grasp of probability.

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