The Guidebook Rules

Monica Valentinelli

UPDATE: I’ve been informed that Monica Valentinelli, not Jim C. Hines, wrote the article; Hines merely hosted it on his blog.

I was cruising the internet one day when I came across an article by author Monica Valetinelli about the importance of progressive inclusion in tabletop RPGs. The article itself was nothing unusual, and she and her group don’t need anyone’s permission to play how they want. However, she unknowingly highlighted something that speaks not only to RPGs, but to a wider issue in our culture, an issue more foundational than she realizes.

This part of the article stuck out to me more than all the others:

Lastly, representation is incorporated into the text itself. The text, which includes rules, setting, and fiction, is what the players and gamemasters of the world cue off of. While it’s true that some players and GMs absolutely take a game and modify it for their table, over time I’ve found that many players want a fully-developed and well-researched world before they’ll do that. Most players place a lot of trust in the material, and when those details are done well it can have a huge impact on their creativity and the time they invest in that world.

Take a look at the bolded part. Instead of taking advantage of tabletop RPGs’ relative freedom compared to video game RPGs, these players need supplements that lay everything out. Having scenarios and settings handed to players in a convenient guidebook goes against the very spirit of the tabletop RPG, boxing the players into a pre-packaged, standardized campaign as bland as grocery store hamburger.

Why is this? Why, even in the boundless realms of the imagination, do players want to be led around by the producers of the game? Rules for objectively determining the outcomes of actions are one thing, but requiring pre-written settings is quite another.

The answer is simple: the players were raised to expect a rule for everything.

Consider the trajectory of the average 21st-century American kid: he is prevented from playing outside for fear of bruises, fear of kidnapping, or fear of visits from Child Protective Services. Any athletic activity he takes part in is likely to be organized sports, which have myriad rules.

To make sure he has time to prepare for the standardized tests, schools ban recess — too chaotic. Simple jokes and pranks lead to harsh punishments, and he is told that this is for his own good.

Once he gets into college, he has to worry about giving the wrong opinion on top of studying and job searching — after all, college put him into a pretty deep debt, a debt he cannot discharge in bankruptcy.

And once he is at that job, the threat of termination hangs over him like a sword of Damocles.

One can argue that adult life has responsibilities that can’t be escaped, and this is true. However, this lack of freedom has migrated over to childhood and the teenage years as well, so the young are taught that no action can be taken without permission of some kind. Now that many parents hand their young children tablets and smartphones to keep them occupied, those children have even less of an incentive to manage their own play.

They need a rule for everything because in their lives, there always have been rules for everything. The culture has worked overtime to snuff imagination out of children, all for an ill-defined “safety.” In an atmosphere like this, even playing pretend needs pre-approval from some authority.

It’s safe to say that tabletop RPGs are better served when you kick the supplements and let your brain run free. What you come up with will be far more interesting, far more engrossing, and far more engaging than anything the game’s producers make. Draw upon everything — the books you read, the movies and TV shows you watch, the video games you play, the life you live. The tabletop experience is a unique one, and it is best experienced with an unshackled, unchained, and unbounded mind.

To see a product of my unbounded mind, pick up a copy of my novelette, Sword & Flower, by clicking the picture below.

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18 Responses to The Guidebook Rules

  1. The demise of free play is a good point that should be made more often. Also:

    (1) The players are younger, too. When you are a 13-year-old boy, you don’t have the level of references and mental images it was assumed an RPG player in the 70s would have. This ties with the Appendix N problem, as it was more or less implied players of the original D&D were adults and well-read people who would supplement the lack of rules with their own rulings and common sense.

    (2) The (quite unexpected) success of Dragon Lance, which -I believe- started the craze for setting-based and narrative-oriented games.

    (3) Then there’s IP consolidation, as game designers have tried to disassociate their products from uncopyrightable culture. Orcs and elves are fine, but you can’t copyright that. They want their own settings, with their own stories, extended universes, worldbuilding, encyclopedias for rules and creatures, and so on. Naturally, they try to push the idea that more books are needed.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      All of those are very good points. (3) is a pretty big deal in particular, since companies make money when more books are bought.

  2. PCBushi says:

    This is a good topic; I find it difficult to generalize from my personally limited experience. When I DMed for my friends, I always tried to create somewhat fleshed-out worlds that I had put time into, with maps and all that good stuff. But my friends just wanted to play – they didn’t care to hear/read my exposition of in-game lands and politics and gods. And in retrospect I can’t really blame them.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I run a homebrew world myself, and my group actually enjoys the high level of detail I put into it. However, such a thing isn’t 100% necessary even in a long campaign. Still, worldbuilding is fun. 🙂

      • deuce says:

        I started out DMing with my own homebrew world. I’ve always loved history/folklore etc, so it wasn’t a chore for me to come up with background. I loved it and learned a lot in the process of research. I had several players tell me they loved the fact that I actually knew the “facts” of the world off the top of my head. It allowed me to run spontaneous games. A well-designed world will generate its own stories.

        Most RPG worldbuilders/designers know diddley about history or the old, great fantasy. Very shallow and incestuous. As always: junk in, junk out.

        • Rawle Nyanzi says:

          Indeed; reading about real history and real historucal patterns was essential to my worldbuilding. It’s always good to have your setting fully realized.

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  4. JimFear138 says:

    I know exactly what you mean. I had a similar experience with a friend of mine. We were in a skype call, and I was going over my newly acquired Mazes & Perils rulebook. I was talking about running a few scenarios with it, and everyone seemed interested till I explained that it was all one book. I was going over AC and some other PC stats, when one girl said that it sounds really complicated, more complicated than Pathfinder!
    Pathfinder! That rule set requires an entire website just to host it all! But this 79 or so page rulebook that is DMG, players guide, & Monster Manual all at once is the more complicated one! I was blown away.
    Having a rule for literally everything doesnt free you. No disrespect, but look at the Torah and someone like me. There are like 600 laws in Judaism, meanwhile I eat what I like, say what I like, and wear what I like. It’s the same principal with RPG’s. When you get rid of everything but the nuts & bolts rules, you can do almost literally anything with it.
    Also anything that cuts down on rules lawyering is a positive in my book.
    This incessant rule for every little thing has crippled people’s imaginations. And this friend is under 20! This kinda shit is why this whole thing matters. These people are in chains, figuratively speaking, and they need something to rattle their worldview.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Thank you, Jim. It’s frightening how the burdensome rules of the outside world have invaded the realms of the imagination. As for my own group, we never had that problem.

      I believe GMs and players should come up with their own stuff.

  5. Pat D. says:

    I narrowly missed the safety craze as a kid (born ’81). Around when I turned 13 the local playgrounds were razed to install new “safe” equipment. It felt like a bad sign at the time and sure enough, it was. Unstructured play was always my favorite, I feel really bad for kids who’ve been deprived of that.

    Anyway, I’ve never played tabletop rpgs but the ability to make stuff up is what I find the most appealing about them.

  6. Gamera977 says:

    Yeah, I noticed something like that back with the release of 5th ed. D&D. I think 90% of the attention was with one paragraph where they stated you could play a character of any sexual orientation or even a cross-dresser. There was someone in an Amazon review that was overjoyed that as a gay guy he could now play D&D…
    I mean gee friggin’ whiz! I played with two gay guys back in 2nd and 3rd ed. No one had to tell them that they could play as well as anyone.

    I’m playing a Kitsune Wu-Jen in 5th ed. now. There aren’t any rules on it but I found some player made material on the internet and my DM and I hammered out something that works…

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Yeah, any time a gamebook lacks something I need, I just imagine it into being. It’s what makes tabletop RPGs fun.

    • James Sullivan says:

      Dead on.

      I had a discussion (vis a vis Player Character Orientation) with an acquaintance in my Writing Group (And I think Rawle nailed the impetus for all of this regarding structured play, etc):

      How do we convince gamers that they don’t need a game rule to tell them what they CAN do? They need the game rules to tell them what they can’t do. If the rules of 1st or 2nd Edition AD&D, or the Red Boxed Set don’t say anything about characters being gay, lesbian or transsexual, what on Earth is stopping them from playing what they want?

      • Rawle Nyanzi says:

        Imaginstion is a prerequisite for these games, and so much is done to limit kids along a certain track. It’s why Lenore Skenazy speaks so highly of “free range parenting.”

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  8. DanH says:

    “(1) The players are younger, too. When you are a 13-year-old boy, you don’t have the level of references and mental images it was assumed an RPG player in the 70s would have. This ties with the Appendix N problem, as it was more or less implied players of the original D&D were adults and well-read people who would supplement the lack of rules with their own rulings and common sense.”

    This is not correct.
    Actually this points out another aspect of how different things are now.
    Back in 1977 when my friends and I started playing D&D as 13 year olds we were fairly well acquainted with “Appendix N” works. We had also read, Robinson Caruso, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers, Tarzan, Doc Savage and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
    We watched Star Trek and read comic books and even some of the old pulps that were forgotten in our grandparents attics and basements. We grew up with westerns on TV every afternoon and “Land of the Lost” on Saturday mornings. Many of the old Buck Rogers and Tarzan movies from the 30’s and 40’s were aired on “Dialing For Dollars” movie programs on TV Saturday afternoons.
    We had also enjoyed radio plays that were still being re-broadcast before the corporations homogenized radio programing. We had listened to The Shadow, Gang Busters and the spooky stories of Mystery Theater, often in the company of parents or grandparents who had introduced us to those shows.
    We were not unusual, most of our age group had, to lesser or greater degrees, the same touchstones.
    I never understood the many comments I have read stating that when first confronted by D&D people were confused about how to play it. To my friends and I it made perfect sense, we “got it” right from the start. Moreover we were so excited by it because we had reached the age where going outside and playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’, ‘Cops and Robbers’ and ‘Army’ was too childish. We didn’t realize it but we were just replacing one type of shared adventuring with another.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Excellent point; well said. Kids are more imaginative than adults give them credit for; they don’t need to be spoonfed everything.

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