TTRPGs: rules

TTRPGs are about telling collaborative stories. It’s a lot like writing a book, but each player is a main character, and the GM (game master) has to adapt to whatever they decide to do.

So why have rules at all? Why not just create a story without having to adhere to the game mechanics? Won’t a bad dice roll ruin an otherwise cool character moment?

Not at all. In the words of game designer Matt Colville, “rules are not a tyrant to be obeyed; they’re a language that helps us communicate.” And let’s be real, if a whole group is telling a story together, there’s bound to be disagreements. Rules keep the game flowing, they provide a simple framework through which to tell your story.

Not every TTRPG is the same, though: there are rules light games like Honey Heist (you play a bear planning a heist to get to the grand prize, a giant pot of honey), where the entirety of the game mechanics fit on one sheet. Then there’s rules heavy games like Shadowrun or Pathfinder, the latter of which has over 600 pages. These games favor different things: in Honey Heist, the game flows pretty fast because there’s just not a lot to look up; and when the situation calls for it, the GM can just make a ruling on the fly. Shadowrun and Pathfinder favor clarity. A GM running these systems should have a very good understanding of the rules, because looking them up is an ordeal and a half, which in turn interrupts the game flow. But, on the bright side, the books provide clear rules on just about any in-game situation.

As a TTRPG designer you must weigh one option against the other. Want a concise rule set that’s open to interpretation? Or a detailed one that may take a while to memorize? Maybe you want a little bit of both (D&D 5th edition is a good example for a game that has a medium rule set). You have to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to prioritize game flow or clarity?
  • How much room for interpretation should I leave?
  • Do I want to emphasize drama or combat?
  • Should my game mechanics allow for the Rule of Cool?
  • Are success and failure binary, or are there degrees of success?
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