The Space Beyond the Rules

I just had an annoying conversation with a friend about the relative merits of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the previous version of the game. I’ll spare you the details, as it’s been discussed ad absurdum elsewhere. It did get me thinking, though, about the role rules play in tabletop roleplaying games.

Tabletop roleplaying games, as I’ve mentioned before, can adapt to players’ actions much more easily and completely than digital games. This is due mostly to the GM‘s ability to roll with the punches and make up stuff in response to an unexpected path taken by the party. Since the origin of tabletop roleplaying games, the roleplaying proper, that is, the social interaction, character quirks, and people-focused play, has been largely separate from the rules. Tabletop RPG rules focus on things like combat, non-social conflict resolution, and supernatural powers. All the fluffy social and character-building stuff is allowed to just occur, with the rules keeping out of its way. Sure, there might be a Diplomacy skill or a Charisma statistic, but those are usually reserved for small parts of the roleplaying: deciding if a character’s argument was convincing enough, or just how pretty the elf princess is. Few systems dedicate more than a page or two to rules governing seemingly important things like falling in love or becoming homesick.

And that’s just fine. Combat, magic, disabling booby traps: these are things that most of us will never experience, things which are nice to have codified and defined for easy processing. Social behavior, however, is something that’s familiar to every tabletop gamer. Even the most reclusive, introverted dice-roller has the experience of getting together with people around a table to play. Human beings understand social situations better than just about anything else, so our creativity is broader and deeper in that area. And I think that’s the interesting part of roleplaying.

Tabletop RPGs are like Graham Nelson’s narrative at war with a crossword. In their archetypal form, they are a strategic war game stapled to a collaborative story. Gameplay stapled to narrative. The rules provide the crunch, the competition, the success and failure. But from a narrative perspective, everything is a success; the story progresses. The rules provide inspiration and definition. The story forever stretches out of the box created by the rules.

RPG sourcebooks are sprinkled with things to “encourage” roleplaying. Ethical alignments, a smattering of character points for specific backgrounds, and extra experience for compelling performances give gameplay benefits for story-focused activities. Some players treat these like a checklist, doing the bare minimum to get the maximum gameplay advantage. Others don’t need the encouragement at all to create elaborate backstories and personalities for their characters. Fundamentally, though, no system I know of is nuanced enough to support the depth of social interaction experienced around the gaming table during a single discussion of pizza topping choice.

That’s one reason why digital games have neglected the social side of gameplay. Platform mechanics are easy to implement. Gravity, acceleration, motion. Simple equations. Despite best efforts, we humans are much more susceptible to the uncanny valley in social situations than in situations of physics. We’re willing to accept simple motion physics, but not simple social physics. It takes significant technology or creativity to make rigid rules that incorporate social nuances. True roleplaying lies beyond the rules.

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