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Author Topic: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?  (Read 451 times)

Eirikrautha

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Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« on: June 21, 2022, 10:17:46 AM »
So, I was reading the GURPS thread, and part of a response struck a chord with me.  The response was [bolding mine]:

   I do not know what it is like for most people running the game, but I know in the case of my group (we play a few games/rules --Savage worlds, D&D, DCC, Mutant Epoch and GURPS) the players have by far the weakest grasp of the rules and how their characters can operate in GURPS  than any other system, despite having a play time advantage of 4 to 1 over any other ruleset. They have great fun while playing...but zero interest in reading even a little about how to best play their characters (options in combat and so forth can be extensive, but I mean even the most basic of things here) because the books are simply not engaging in the least. 

Now, I don't have many strong feelings about GURPS (played 1st edition when it came out in the mid-eighties briefly, but it never caught on with my group), so my thoughts weren't really about it as a system.  They were more about RPGs in general (maybe even OSR in terms of definitions), and specifically about the role of rules in an RPG.  I know there is often a dichotomy presented between "rules-light" and "rules-heavy" RPGs, but for some reason, neither description really encapsulates the games that engage my group.  We have games that should fall in either category that we do or don't like, so it's not the amount of rules that is the issue.  Instead, I think it is an issue that is expressed in the quote above.

Should RPG rules tell you what is possible, or should they tell you what happens when you try something?  That to me seems to be a big difference in how game rules are constructed (and, honestly, speaks to the difference between most types of games, like board games, and RPGs).  An RPG doesn't tell you what you can or can't do; it simply explains what the outcome of any attempt is.  I think that was one of the strengths of older editions of D&D, even with respect to its combat.  Look at the combat rules of the earliest editions.  Most combat was highly abstracted, primarily because it was not attempting to adjudicate every thrust or parry, but instead the result of 1 minute of fighting (or 10 seconds in BECMI).  So, it can be seen as the answer to the question, "I try to kill him.  What happens?"  I think this was one of the great strengths of the earlier editions.  The rules grew out of play, and specifically to give an answer to a player's attempt to do something not described in the rules.

I think that part of the difference now, especially in more modern game systems, is that the question becomes "What do the rules say I can do here?" as opposed to "I try to X... what happens?"  I don't think this is necessarily a conscious choice (and I'm willing to bet that there are groups, especially experienced ones, who maintain the freeform approach to actions even with very restrictive rules), but I do think that game systems can encourage or discourage this type of play.  I think one reason that feat or skill-based systems tend to bounce off of my group is that feats tend to limit players mentally ("I don't have X, therefore I probably can't do X or shouldn't try X").  Likewise, systems that involve "character builds" reinforce the same kinds of restrictions, mentally, if not in practice.

It's amusing to me that, despite entire systems being developed (and D&D being warped almost beyond recognition) to avoid having to ask the DM, "Mother, may I?", the basic interaction of many players with the rules system is exactly that.  I feel like the divide between systems where the rules specifically prescribe what actions are possible (sometimes in great detail) and those systems which just attempt to provide tools for adjudication is far greater than the number of rules (I think that it is completely possible to have a rules-heavy system that still has the descriptive focus.  I'd argue that AD&D is one... which is why many people want to argue that it isn't rules-heavy... because it doesn't play that way due to the rules only being necessary when a player attempts something, not to tell them what they can attempt).

To be clear, I'm not saying that one approach is "right" and the other wrong.  Obviously, this is a matter of taste.  But I do think it is a useful distinction.  It's one reason, I think, that despite trying to emulate earlier editions, 5e rubs so many players who like the feel of the earliest editions the wrong way.  Even though it has the potential, at most public tables I've played at the players are frantically looking for what the rules say they can do in the situation, instead of trying to figure out what they should do in the situation, and letting the DM figure it out.  5e says "rulings, not rules," but it most often doesn't play like that (at least outside my home table).  I wonder if the emphasis on universal resolution mechanics has had something to do with this (though, to be clear, I think it's completely possible to have a universal mechanic and still treat the rules as descriptive... I just think most games don't).

Should rules be primarily prescriptive or descriptive?


oggsmash

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2022, 10:55:50 AM »
I think having some measure of both is probably going to be best overall.  I think DCC with things like mighty deeds does a great job of the I try this...what happens?  My issue with things like GURPS is the rules cover situations as to what happens if someone tries something (because you can try just about anything) but because it does not often package things like say feats do, people feel they probably can not do something if it is not spelled out they can do some exact thing.   Now, dont get me wrong GURPS gets deeply into what happens when they do try something (Can I stab his vitals through a soft spot in his armor for example) and has many ways to buy the penalties for such a thing down and so forth.  But unless the player has specifically got a "feat" or feature of his character spelling that out, I find they simply do not try to do things like that as often as they should (I do have one player who is a fantastic archer as his character, and he is always looking to shoot armored enemies in the neck or monsters in the eyes) because there is not a spot on the sheet that spells it out. 

   I feel a game like DCC does a very good job of allowing some pretty deep rules for what you can try and a good job of allowing for some on the fly creativity from a player, at least with regard to combat for instance (a mighty deed can cover everything from slashing eyes to blind an opponent to charging through an enemy to knock them down....most anything that could simulate a feat or action a character might attempt).   DCC also does a great job of sucking a reader in with the art and a list of good examples of mighty deeds...where GURPS, even with the 4ed Martial Arts book has lots of GREAT combat options....but holy shit do you have to dig around walls of texts to find them and examples of how to use them.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #2 on: June 21, 2022, 12:12:55 PM »
In most cases, rules should be both descriptive and prescriptive.  Though I'm not sure the descriptive/prescriptive breakdown is an exact match for the core bit, which is the player saying what they want to do and the GM adjudicating.  Everything else is commentary on that, whether presented as descriptive or prescriptive.

The very best prescriptive rules are open-ended enough to allow that adjudication while also serving as descriptive examples of how to do it and general guidelines for the most common activities that characters will try.  So it is easy for a "rule" to move between prescriptive rule and descriptive guidelines based on the experience of the GM and situation at the table.  That is also the most basic required thing that a GM decides, which is easy to learn to do at that basic level but requires experience to master.  Which is why when you get an influx of new gamers, there is also a heavy push towards prescriptive rules:  Some of them are struggling with learning how to adjudicate and a fair number of them don't want to be bothered and/or don't like it when you tell them it is the essential skill.

What the game should do becomes in part a question of goals.  Do you want the budding GM to run an OK game sooner, or do you want them to struggle now to ultimately do better than "OK" later?  And it is not a binary switch, but a slider, with pros and cons at every setting.  Me, I think limiting new GMs to simple constructs (say, dungeon crawls) so that they can get their feet under them with rules that have less training wheels on adjudication is the way to go, because a GM that doesn't start adjudicating early has to unlearn bad habits for the training wheels to come off. 

hedgehobbit

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #3 on: June 21, 2022, 02:07:26 PM »
I wonder if the emphasis on universal resolution mechanics has had something to do with this (though, to be clear, I think it's completely possible to have a universal mechanic and still treat the rules as descriptive... I just think most games don't).

I ran a campaign of Fantasy Hero, arguably the most complicated game every made, with a party of complete newbs and it worked precisely because it used a universal mechanic. The player would state what he wanted to do and then roll 3d6. Attacking an enemy? roll 2d6. Leaping off a cliff? roll 3d6. Bluffing a guard? roll 3d6.

Because of this, the player never really had to learn the rules nor did they treat the rules as a list of possible actions but just did whatever they wanted. Pretty quickly, I taught them to add a relevant skill to their roll but they would still state their action, roll 3d6 and tell me the result but that was the extent of their system knowledge. This flowed so much better than regular D&D where you have to ask the DM what dice to roll. So much so that I changed my current OD&D game to all d20 roll high.

I would go so far as to say that a universal resolution system is critical to running a descriptive game. Simply because any other game system requires the players to know the rules and knowledge of the rules inevitably leads to the players making their character choices based on what actions the rules system promotes instead of any other consideration. Even if the only way a system promotes an action is by making such action the simplest action to resolve. Consider, as an example, AD&D's regular attack versus a grapple attack and how almost no AD&D players attempt a grapple because it is such a cumbersome mechanic.
« Last Edit: June 21, 2022, 02:10:06 PM by hedgehobbit »

hedgehobbit

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2022, 02:24:19 PM »
Should rules be primarily prescriptive or descriptive?

If I am writing a set of RPG rules and I want those rules to work the same an many different tables, I will want to write the rules in a prescriptive manner; "Take 2 actions from the following list of 5 action types, etc". This way anyone watching a YouTube session, or reading a actual play account will recognize the game as the one they play at their own table. The players can also get together and discuss various strategies and builds knowing that, for the most part, the characters will work the same regardless of the DM. Thus making an active gaming community around the game.

As a DM, however, I want the best experience at my own table and whether some group in California is playing it the same way I am is irrelevant. And to get the best experience, it helps if the players have more freedom to do unexpected things, thus a descriptive game is best for me.

So I don't think the descriptive/prescriptive divide is one of player preference, but rather the different design goals and needs of a game writer compared to those of a Dungeon Master. [Which is why I don't buy RPG rules anymore.]

Eric Diaz

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #5 on: June 21, 2022, 04:22:41 PM »
I wonder if the emphasis on universal resolution mechanics has had something to do with this (though, to be clear, I think it's completely possible to have a universal mechanic and still treat the rules as descriptive... I just think most games don't).

I ran a campaign of Fantasy Hero, arguably the most complicated game every made, with a party of complete newbs and it worked precisely because it used a universal mechanic. The player would state what he wanted to do and then roll 3d6. Attacking an enemy? roll 2d6. Leaping off a cliff? roll 3d6. Bluffing a guard? roll 3d6.

Because of this, the player never really had to learn the rules nor did they treat the rules as a list of possible actions but just did whatever they wanted. Pretty quickly, I taught them to add a relevant skill to their roll but they would still state their action, roll 3d6 and tell me the result but that was the extent of their system knowledge. This flowed so much better than regular D&D where you have to ask the DM what dice to roll. So much so that I changed my current OD&D game to all d20 roll high.

I would go so far as to say that a universal resolution system is critical to running a descriptive game. Simply because any other game system requires the players to know the rules and knowledge of the rules inevitably leads to the players making their character choices based on what actions the rules system promotes instead of any other consideration. Even if the only way a system promotes an action is by making such action the simplest action to resolve. Consider, as an example, AD&D's regular attack versus a grapple attack and how almost no AD&D players attempt a grapple because it is such a cumbersome mechanic.

My experience with GURPS is somewhat similar. Character creation is a hassle, but when you're done you just roll 3d6.

I like playing D&D 5e, but it gets cumbersome, with each character having a dozen different powers by level 7.
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tenbones

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #6 on: June 21, 2022, 04:36:56 PM »
GM's should express their settings to the players through the use of their system of choice to resolve tasks. The RPG rules *could* help describe that, and certainly the rules should "feel" right in mechanically expressing the "vibe" of the game and its genre.

CP2020 does a fantastic job of this. It's high-speed, lethal in its mechanical expressions of combat.

Other games might be more fiddly with bits and widgets to play with/against the system itself, as opposed to trying to abstract the actions of the game. Hyper-realism will do this, as well as games that rely overly on abstractions which pull you out of the actual moment with the PC's.

As a GM - you should be using the right tool for the job - and put your own emphasis on it. And your players are your audience, so you need to conduct your game to either 1) satisfy their needs, 2) convince them that your presentation of your needs transcends and includes their own.


rytrasmi

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #7 on: June 21, 2022, 05:06:00 PM »
Rules should be prescriptive with simple and universal (or near universal) resolution, in my view.

Prescriptive rules encourage players to learn the rules and when necessary help look them up. Why bother learning the rules if the GM is just going to wing it half the time?

Simple is important because it puts the focus on the role playing not weird rule interactions or min-maxing. If you want a bonus, earn it by role playing a good approach to the problem instead of combining obscure rules to get it.

Universal is almost a side effect of the above two. No game needs numerous different little subsystems that are rarely used. Any subsystem that gets used less than once a session can be simplified, combined with another subsystem, or removed and left to GM ruling.

The GM should as always have the power to overrule anything. However, with a simple prescriptive system, overruling normal things will be rare. Instead, GM rulings should cover the many edge cases.




This post is opinion and if it sounds like something more you are misreading it or perhaps I'm just a jerk. Q.E.D.

FingerRod

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #8 on: June 21, 2022, 05:31:09 PM »
I have had a lot more luck over the years with non-universal mechanics than what some are describing in this thread.

A Cleric uses a d20 to smash something with their club, throws 2d6 to turn a skeleton, or a d6 to open a stuck door. Who exactly has a problem with that?

I have gamed with countless dum dums, and they did just fine with multiple mechanics. I cannot see what the issue is.

Back to the OPs post, my OD&D/Basic players can get away a blank piece of paper to start their character sheet. If they need to roll, I tell them. Nine times out of ten, this happens after they have described their action. But, I will also say I find rules outlined in those books to be both prescriptive and descriptive.

What is lacking is the bloat, feats, and nonsense you referenced. That is where I think the nuance between prescriptive and descriptive likely becomes more important.


Wisithir

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #9 on: June 21, 2022, 08:43:08 PM »
If I wanted the system to constrain my choices to only those allowed by the rules, I would play a board game or a computer game.

To me, the core gameplay loop of pen and paper RPGs is starting with description of the scene deciding what the character would do, declaring the action, then having the GM adjudicate and describe the results thus setting the scene for the next decision. I should not roll dice until and unless the GM calls for a roll to resolve uncertainty when adjudicating.

Beyond that, the rules exist to help define the world, especially when it differs from our own. They are a tool, not the game. Universal mechanics help with understanding because +2 is then always a +2, not a +1 to a d20 is worth less than a +1 to a d6, so how useful is +x to Y.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #10 on: June 22, 2022, 08:01:54 AM »
Streamlined mechanics are good.  Pushing that last bit of streamlining too far in order to get to universal is bad.  I find that a small handful of mechanics reused across multiple systems is better than "universal" and also better than trying to have a custom fit on every mechanic. 

That ties back to what I said the first time:  The best mechanics have some elements of prescription and description.  You don't get that if you shoehorn everything into one mechanic.  It tosses the description right out the window.  It's possible to keep both with every mechanic a custom fit for maximum description, but then the rules themselves get in the way of the new GM learning to adjudicate.

Lunamancer

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #11 on: June 22, 2022, 08:25:35 AM »
Should rules be primarily prescriptive or descriptive?

I don't think all "rules" are created equal. There's the rules, then there's rules, and then there's rulings.

The Rules establish the "language" of the game and basic procedures. The game would slow to a crawl and be unplayable if I had to explain every time what it means when I say roll to hit, make a save, roll initiative, roll for damage, etc. I remember going to cons in the 90's, sitting down to an AD&D game, the first thing the DM would have to clarify is whether we're using d6 or d10 for initiative. If it's just this one thing, it's not that big a deal. But if you start tinkering with the whole list of core rules and procedures, there would just be way too much to front-load. These rules should be mostly left alone and played as written.

Then there's rules, as in rules of thumb. Like magic-user armor restrictions is a pretty good rule of thumb to balance out and differentiate the various classes. But if you have other ideas, have at it. It's not like you can't write a suit of armor on the magic-user's character sheet. You can still calculate Armor Class the same way. It doesn't lead you to having to divide by zero causing the paper bursting into flames. It fits just fine withing the framework of the rules. You can question whether or not this would be a good idea, but you can still do it without having to re-explain the entire game.

And then there's rulings. The 1E DMG I believe is mostly made up of rulings. That's why most of it just seems like oddly specific rules. It's like, here's something that came up, and here's a solution that worked well. The published rulings in an RPG should be something like codification of judgement. I think there are some really great calls in that book, and so I tend to use everything as written. But at the end of the day, the rules demand the DM take up the role of adjudicator. And so the DM must rule according to what he or she finds most reasonable. In fact, I would argue the DM who follows the rulings as written without applying sense is abdicating the role as adjudicator and is thus ironically going against the rules as written.

The rules should be prescriptive. Rulings should be descriptive.

Rules of thumb are a little trickier. They could be thought of as soft-prescriptive--that is, they should work well if followed precisely but also (ideally) be flexible and not break down if the individual GM starts tinkering with them. Or they could be thought of as descriptive in the sense that they provide a good example for the GM to aspire to in his or her own variant.

This also relates to how to interpret the written rules. There's a famous line from Gary Gygax's afterward in the 1E DMG that I use as a Rorschach test.

Quote
BY ORDERING THINGS AS THEY SHOULD BE, THE GAME AS A WHOLE FIRST, YOUR CAMPAIGN NEXT, AND YOUR PARTICIPANTS THEREAFTER, YOU WILL BE PLAYING ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE.

Most gamers I've encountered view this as prescriptive finger-wagging. "You better do things this way, otherwise you're not playing real AD&D." And that's usually met with all too predictable sobbing and wailing, "But muh badwrong fun!!"

But I see it like this. Yeah. You can do whatever you want. No shit, Sherlock. Even if the RPG comes with engraved tablets stating plainly that Thou Must and Thou Shalt Not, it's not like the game police are going to kick in your door if you stray from the rules as written. The real issue is not whether or not it's "muh game, muh rulez." It's more like, "Okay, tough guy, you can do whatever you want. So what are you going to do?"

Like suppose for example you've got an idea for a home brew magic item but you're not quite sure how to stat it in AD&D (or whatever RPG you're playing). I would say, well first, I want to make sure the item isn't so powerful that it dominates the whole game. But I also don't want it to be so weak that I'm left wondering why bother. That still leaves a broad range of possibilities. So next I'm asking, of those possibilities, what fits the item thematically and how does it figure in with the campaign as a whole. And then if I still have multiple possibilities, I ask which would be most fun for the players. Or even leave the choice up to the players--like maybe the item has multiple settings, or maybe there are multiple versions of the item that players can pursue. That sort of thing.

I think this is all fairly common sense. But it happens to track the Gygaxian Holy Trinity of considering first the overall game, second the specific campaign, and third the players. I would argue that the quote is not prescriptive finger-wagging at all. It's descriptive of what sound DMing looks like.

KindaMeh

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Re: Should RPG rules prescribe or describe?
« Reply #12 on: June 23, 2022, 10:29:43 AM »
I’ll preface my own response with the fact that I have only limited experience being a GM or whatever a given system calls it, albeit some more as a player. I feel like as with anything else in gaming, it’s probably going to depend at least a little bit on what the GM and players want or have the most fun playing. For some groups they want to play more casually, “creatively” and rules-lite, in which case I’d probably lean towards recommending descriptive over prescriptive rules. In part because I feel like prescriptive rules handle a wider variety of situations well only if they really delve into the possibilities of said situations and the like, which may lead to a lot of rules that nobody remembers super well if they aren’t as invested in that kind of thing. But also, as a player with a preference for I guess maybe simulationist gaming (?), I have a liking for when the rules describe what happens and would sensibly and likely happen within a given scenario. As such, if it were a group of players and GMs like me, they’d probably love the idea of a super well designed and fleshed out prescriptive ruleset. (Admittedly in part because they’d spend more time occasionally in reading gamebooks and theorycrafting than in actually playing them.) That said, as Lunamancer had noted, any given set of rules can be modified to create different rules in play by the GM and their players. (Although the DM may have the most authority by the nature of the game and its possible unspoken or at times written rule 0, I feel like the players kinda have to be on board to some extent, as it is a social activity. Also because if they sign on to play a given campaign and rule system with a certain promised flavor, I feel it is likely to some degree reasonable for them to expect that to happen.) As they continued, it still helps to have a solid starting rules chassis and framework for innovation, and for that  you need some degree of prescription. So in a way, I’d have to concur that at least to some degree prescription is a duty of the original system makers. Likewise, they rely on GMs to adjudicate things that break the table’s immersion/suspension of disbelief/fun/whatever, don’t make any sense as written due to mistakes or oversights in the RAW, and to adapt the rules to more complex situations that require judgement calls, like setting the success number for certain skill checks relating to specific scenarios. Basically, to handle description, including narration. But at the same time, a good GM has to be mindful of the prescriptive rules to some extent, because those potentially matter to a scenario and how players will interact with and view it. Further, a good system will often have proper consideration of flavor and description. Or so I see it, anyway.