Rules & Fiction

February 16, 2010

There’s two ways rules interact with the fiction you imagine when you sit down to roleplay:

– Rules that declare
– Rules that delegate

Rules that declare, add something directly into the fiction. This ranges from setting up (“All the characters are wizards”) to in play (“Each turn, roll a die, if you get a 1, roll an appropriate Wandering Monster”).

Rules that delegate, determine who at the table gets say over what- who gets to input into the fiction and how. This can be permanent (“Each player gets to control their character”) to changing (“The player with the highest ranked card in the conflict narrates what happens”).

Rules that declare are designed to shape the fiction and produce momentum and direction in play- these often become the focusing lens for play. Because of this, they are often unambiguous and mostly reliant on cues in order to prevent the group from slipping out of the point of the game and losing focus. For example, D&D combat is shaped around the basic concept of “Run out of hitpoints and you die.” – that simple constraint then expands the whole issue of fighting monsters and dungeon delving throughout all versions of D&D.

Rules that delegate are necessary for anyone playing to actually play- how can you input into the fiction? What are the limitations of what you can input? How do we mesh things when different people want to input conflicting things? Etc.

Aside from this basic responsibility, rules that delegate sometimes apply an extra twist- requiring a specific addition or constraint to whatever someone narrates- “Narrate how you win the argument, but you must include Betrayal as part of the narration”. This also serves to focus play, and often forces players to use their input and play as a means of statement – making a judgment, putting an interpretation on something, etc.

Next: How this shows up in design vs. play, clear rules = responsibility, vs. zilchplay

ETA: Through the magic of synchronicity, Vincent has a post that makes a good sibling to this.

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