Do Rules Matter in Tabletop Roleplaying Games?

Back in April, Polygon released an article featuring Brennan Lee Mulligan discussing his latest live play series, “Worlds Beyond Number.” This article stirred up some controversy, as Brennan mentioned he uses Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (5e) for his heavily narrative-driven campaign. This choice puzzled many, as 5e is often viewed as a combat-centric system, rooted in the war gaming scene with an abundance of combat rules.

The crux of the debate revolves around a long-standing question: does the game system matter? This debate, dating back decades, questions whether the rule system of a game significantly impacts the gameplay experience. Is it crucial to select the perfect system for your campaign, or does it not make much difference?

In the Rdubs opinion set, the system does matter. A recent poll conducted on YouTube found that only 4% of respondents strongly disagreed with the notion that system matters. Most people have a preferred system, indicating that it does indeed affect their gaming experience. However, the more pertinent question is not whether the system matters but to what degree it matters. Several factors influence an RPG session’s outcome, with the players and the adventure content being primary.

A good group of players can mitigate many system-related issues, whereas a poor group can make even the best system unbearable. Similarly, the nature of the adventure—whether it’s a railroad with little player agency or a rich, open scenario with creative ideas—plays a crucial role in the overall experience. For me, the quality of the players and the adventure itself are more critical than the system, although an unfavorable system can still be a hindrance.

Returning to Brennan’s argument, he provides a compelling rationale for using 5e in his narrative campaign. He likens calling D&D a combat-focused game to looking at a stove and saying it has nothing to do with food simply because it’s made of metal. Brennan explains that while D&D has extensive combat mechanics, he uses the system to offload the parts of the game he’s least interested in—combat—so he can focus on emotions, relationships, and character progression, which he handles intuitively.

Brennan’s perspective highlights an often-overlooked aspect of game mechanics: rules can be what the game is not about, or at least, they don’t have to define the game’s focus. This principle is supported by Luke Gearing’s discussion on mechanisms as abstractions on his blog. He argues that mechanisms simplify and abstract complex aspects of gameplay to make them more manageable. The elements that are not abstracted often become the focus of the game.

For Brennan, D&D’s detailed combat rules serve as a framework to quickly resolve combat, allowing him to concentrate on narrative elements. This approach is similar to how Mothership, a sci-fi horror survival game, handles stealth. Despite being a game about running and hiding, Mothership intentionally lacks stealth mechanics to emphasize the tension and decision-making inherent in those moments.

When considering a game’s rule system, it’s essential to recognize what rules are included, what are excluded, and the purpose behind each. Rules can streamline less interesting parts of the game or provide toys to play with, but they can also create boundaries within which gameplay unfolds. This concept is akin to the “fruitful void” described by game designers Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker.

In essence, Brennan’s choice to use 5e for his narrative campaign makes sense within his context. He leverages the system’s voids and combat mechanics to support his strengths in storytelling and character development. Arguing that a narrative-focused system would be better assumes it would align more closely with Brennan’s highly developed improvisational skills, which he, as a professional improv actor, uniquely possesses.

Interestingly, this debate about the importance of game systems isn’t new. As Jeffro Johnson highlights in his recent blog post, “Gygax Took Braunstein Play As Axiomatic in 1979,” Gary Gygax, one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, was deeply influenced by the Braunstein games. These games, developed by David Wesely in the late 1960s, were less about strict rule adherence and more about creative and narrative-driven play. Gygax saw the potential of role-playing games to be flexible and adaptable, allowing the game master to shape the experience dynamically.

Braunstein’s influence suggests that the core of role-playing games has always been about the narrative and the players’ interaction with the world, rather than the rigid application of rules. Gygax’s approach underscores that the system is a tool to facilitate storytelling, not a constraint. This perspective aligns closely with Brennan’s use of 5e, where the system supports rather than dictates the narrative.

Ultimately, the importance of the system depends on the specific needs and skills of the game master and players. Brennan’s approach underscores that while the system does matter, how it matters can vary greatly based on the context and goals of the campaign. As Gygax’s legacy and Brennan’s modern practices illustrate, the true heart of role-playing lies in the stories we tell and the adventures we create together.

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