Rules as Written? Bah!

If there’s one turn of phrase that makes my blood boil, it’s “Rules as Written”. It is, imho, the most damaging three words in rpgdom, and I’ll tell you why.

This wonderful Role-playing hobby is unlike any other. It’s an act of collective creativity where a group of two or more souls get together to make up a story. It’s a game of heroes and villains, of plots, sub-plots and twists where one one side of the table sits the Good Guys (usually), and on the other side sits everyone else. The rules form the framework for the game; they’re the physics, the chemistry and How Stuff Works. To a large extent the rules also help set the mood for the game too – a session played with GURPS (for example) feels very different to one played with Rolemaster. As does, for that matter, a game of Third Edition D&D compared to Fourth Edition. Each rule set brings a different pace and emphasis to the table, and it’s all good.

But when folks start quoting “The Rules as Written” they suck all that out of the game. Role-playing isn’t a sport. There is no offside rule. There’s no fouls. There’s no way you can break the rules in a role-playing game. Neither is it chess, Monopoly or any number of other board games. They’re all fine pastimes in themselves, but they’re not RPGs. When gamers try to say “that’s not in the Rules as Written” like they’re some frickin’ expert who knows the minds of the game designers themselves, a fairy dies. They’re ignoring the single most important rule of the game: “Have fun and make shit up”.

Here’s the thing. My all-time favourite role-playing game is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praiseit’sholyname). I’ve played it on and off for over twenty five years and I’m still learning the game.  It’s been a zen-like voyage of discovery where at first I House Rule’d the crap out of it. Now, there’s probably two or three House Rules we still use, and I’m even questioning their place in our game. It’s taken almost three decades to get to this point, and might well take another three more before I’d claim to be an expert. My mastery of Fourth Edition D&D is a long, long way off yet – and (unless your name is on the cover), so is yours.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with saying “this is what the PHB says, but we play like this” and differentiating between the rules, as written on the page, and those played at the table. That’s cool. It’s the anally-retentive quoting of chapter and verse from the Rules As Written in caps, like it’s Some Damn Bible. If you want to change it, change it. Making the game yours is a fine part of the hobby, and should be celebrated not treated like your rules are in some way inferior to those in print.

It’s your game. The Rules As Written (bah!) are just the first steps along the way.

19 Comments on “Rules as Written? Bah!”

  1. Your words remind me of the advice from one of my favorite RPGs, Star Wars D6: 2nd Edition Revised & Expanded: The game is about having fun. If the rules are getting in the way of this, change them or ditch them.

    However, I think the rules do have a place for the sake of cohesion. After all, if I sit down at a convention and play D&D 4e, I expect the rules that I know as part of the game to apply. If the GM clearly doesn’t know the rules and is making stuff up, then I’ll be an unhappy player. Essentially, I’ll stick to all the rules unless the GM rules that they don’t apply or he’s houseruling them for whatever reason. Then I respect his decision.

    This came up recently in a D&D 4e con game. We were attacking some creatures and I wanted to interrogate them, so I said I was doing nonlethal damage. The GM wasn’t familiar with the ruling on that, so he trusted that the rules allowed for it in the way I described and afterwards, I showed the page to him. I was adamant about being allowed to do it since the rules say I can, but had the GM said “No, I’m not going to allow you to do nonlethal damage”, then I would have been alright with it and moved on. So I think the rules still have their place, but arguing about the “rules as written” is just a waste of time.

  2. Huh, I think that multiple line breaks is messed up.

    There should be three blank lines above this one.

    And three more above here.

  3. Funny you bring this blog post up, I was thinking about the same thing. It cracks me up to see people claim Setting/Style X can’t be played in a game like Savage Worlds because of “The Rules as Written”. Some systems are designed to give the GM’s flexibility to add in their own details as necessary, or use as little as needed. And to be honest, I’ve NEVER played a game entirely with the “RAW”. They are all suffice to my butcher block and mad diabolical schemes of House Rulery!
    .-= Rev. Lazaro´s last blog ..Grain Shipment: Spring 1152 =-.

  4. Agree wholeheartedly. The rules are meant to depict reality, but obviously not every aspect of reality can be described mechanically in a 300 page handbook. Thus why there are the strengths and weaknesses of different systems which are, theoretically, depicting a similar reality.
    .-= Keith R. Potempa´s last blog ..Black Hole vs. Star =-.

  5. I don’t like to disagree … actually no, I love to disagree. Where is the fun if everyone agrees with you :)

    First and foremost, the rules as written are a starting point for any discussion about how a game should be played. Whether it is around a gaming table or online. If we all agree to play or talk about game X, then the starting point should be what is actually in the book.

    [This is an irritation I have with people online when you offer a criticism of the mechanics a game *cough*4e*cough*. They often respond ‘Ignore that rule, play it how you like!’ which is fair enough but pointless. If I complain that my car is not very good driving down perfectly ordinary roads, it is meaningless to tell me I could drive it across the fields!]

    Where the discussion / game should go after its started with what is written on the page is up to the players and all outcomes are equally valid.

    Frustration arises when someone fails to understand the informal process in which a group resolves questions about the rules. GMs who arbitrarily ignore rules are just as bad as players who insist on following on following everything as written.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..D&D 4e Review: The Desire =-.

  6. I think I’m pretty much in agreement, Wulf. The rules are the framework, and should be changed only to assist the DM in facilitating the game (as it is being played by that group). At the same time, any of those rules changes need to be applied consistently and made aware to the players so that they know what to expect out of their DM’s version of reality.
    .-= deadorcs´s last blog ..Bring Back The Talent: Craft Skill Specifics =-.

  7. @Thunderforge Yeah. This theme borks linebreaks in comments. Sorry ’bout that. I’ll look into fixing it.

    I agree – common ground is definitely a Good Thing, and that’s what the rules provide. The problem comes in when they start being used as come kind of defensive crutch that holds back imaginitive play.

    @Kurtis My logic is flawless :D

    @Rev Quite so!

    @Keith Exactly. The rules are just the starting point, nothing more.

    @Chris Excellent! Disagreement is what keeps the world interesting. The thing is that (to borrow your analogy) there’s nothing wrong with preferring one car instead of another – we all have different needs, after all. If 4e isn’t your thang there’s no shortage of other games out there right now. Where the annoyance comes in (for me at least) is when folks start claiming that “according to the Rules As Written, 4e isn’t a role-playing game”, or “The RAW says I can’t use Encounter Powers outside combat!” or “Skill Challenges aren’t role-playing if I follow the RAW” – all of which mean a) they have clearly not read the rules, As Written or otherwise, and b) these people are idiots and shouldn’t be allowed on the road.

  8. Unfortunately, I get stuck with too many Rules As Written players and DMs. Recently had a DM tell me that my 4E shaman couldn’t actually speak to spirits (as the name of the encounter power implies). The rules as written allowed the spirits to advise me with a +2 to a skill check. They could not give me moral advice of any kind.

    Another player of a 3.5E game I ran actually quit because he felt I “cheated” when a monster got a running start by using a move action at the end of one turn to start running and a move action at the beginning of the next to jump. As if it was impossible to comprehend momentum being carried from one round to the next…

  9. Have you been reading my mind? I’ve been thinking about posting on this very subject.
    I grow so tired of the endless rants on various forums about RAW and “Well, it doesn’t say that I can’t” type arguments. Common sense just needs to trump RAW. Sometimes the spirit of a rule is more important than syntax. And if all else fails, just shut up and roll the dice.

  10. It’s all about context. At my house we “have fun and make shit up.” At a con, likely playing with people I have just met, the rules (as written) become more important. After you’ve developed a sense of trust between players and GMs, then you can begin to meddle with the rules. It’s an organic thing. It grows with time spent gaming together.

  11. Great post, with a truly engaging question. I know when we were playing 3.5 we used a couple of rules dead wrong. We were aware of it, we knew it was wrong or not as written and we were ok with it. It worked for us.

    Then we had a new player join the group. He sent many, many emails blasting us for our inconsistent usage of the rules. We kindly told him that we’ve been playing with our bastardized version of the rules for years and weren’t about to change because he had a problem with it.

    He finally relented, right around the time 4e was released and we switched editions.

  12. This is kind of the reverse of your post. My player wanted to change the mechanics, and I, as the DM said “No”. You play it RAW.

    I was DMing just this weekend where a player didn’t like how his characters daily power was written. It summoned a fireball which could then move and attack all encounter long, instead of the character’s taking actions. The fireball does more damage than he does, normally. But not much more. He felt it was too powerful, and “why would he use any other spell”? This was the first time he’d used it (or read it,obviously).

    He felt that once it hit (kinda like the fighter’s reliable keyword), it should disapate. I was fine with that, but I threw in the caveat that it only applied to this power/character. I wasn’t about to hobble the other character’s abilities on-the-fly. So this player begins a big argument stating that NO, we have to decide this here and now, this is important to the balance of the game. I stated that I’m not going to have a major reaching discussion of game balance and mechanics in the middle of a session (I know this player well enough to know that if I made a ruling on HIS power, at HIS request, he’d demand it be a game-wide rule). Again I stated that I was fine with him playing his character that way, but I wouldn’t apply it as a general rule for everyone without analysis and discussion. And, I stated, we’re playing it correctly as it’s written.

    So he was petulant and sulked the rest of the session, trying to use every character’s daily power every turn (despite most of them not being useable more than once). “Because the DM ruled that we can use over and over, which isn’t how daily powers work”.

    I WANT TO believe that the designers of the game have put a lot of forethought and playtesting and analysis into the rules. I like to see them very specifically worded so that I know they put a lot of thought into them. I rely on that belief so that I DON’T have to go second guessing whether this rule is balanced or correct. I don’t want to be discussing mechanics while playing. I want to be playing. And that’s why I, for the most part, stick to RAW.

  13. @Kurtis: guns don’t kill people. people kill people. hahaha.

    @greywulf: This post is another reason why yours is one of the few blogs I keep up with anymore. Even though I rarely post comments nowadays!

  14. @Kurtis Rainbolt-Greene

    This is not about bad behavior players. It is about the process in which a group of people come to a common understanding and shared model of how the world works.

    The rules are a vital part of this because it gives everyone a common denominator.

    When a group of players gather, they all have a different idea of how the game works. Just as everyone uses English slightly different – putting different emphasis here, or implying a slightly different meaning of a word there.

    The rules form a nexus about which everyone’s different ideas can be discussed equally – a dictionary of the language of the game.

    In this process, different people place different weights on how important that dictionary is. This is down to personality and the situation.

    When a player’s model deviates too far from the group’s model (either by sticking to close to or completely ignoring the written rules) you see friction.

    The problem though is not the friction. Friction is an essential part of the how a group forms a common model. Bad behaviour is when players allow that friction to result in anti-social actions.

    Just claiming that the rules say X is not bad behaviour, it is just part of the process.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..D&D 4e Review: The Desire =-.

  15. @Wulf – There is nothing wrong with everyone selecting a car to suit them.

    But if we are discussing car X, it is meaningless to ignore criticism of car X by saying that car Y exist. The fact that car Y might exist doesn’t change the existence (or not) of any weaknesses in car X.

    Anyone saying 4e isn’t a role-playing game is an idiot. My character sheet says ‘Elf’ on it,not ’40 something businessman’, of course it’s bloody role-playing. But it is a valid comment to say that the presence of certain rules, e.g. skill challenges, effects the nature of the game.

    Whether this is a good effect or not is just personal opinion but the mere existence of those rules has an impact on the game.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..D&D 4e Review: The Desire =-.

  16. I simply can’t play without house rules. No matter what system, it’s not possible. The rules are there to provide a base, not to cover every situation in depth and in a way everyone likes… Logic and common-sense must prevail over rules (as well as fun, obviously)
    Otherwise, you end with people saying that in 4E an enemy can’t hide behind an unconcious body because allied players don’t grant cover… Or that if you immobilize a dragon by binding its wings it won’t fall because it has hover.

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