(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)
Before I talk about D&D itself, we need to talk about Rule Zero. We need to talk about RPG rules in general, as a concept. If you’ve followed my work for awhile, you already know that I often talk about how game rules push players into patterns of behavior. That’s the function of game rules, really: by voluntarily taking on constraints and abiding by rules, players should have a particular experience as envisioned by the designer of those rules. Rules shape the play experience from the ground up or else why do we need them?
This is obviously true for video games where the rules are largely immutable and the play experience is quite supervised. It’s hard to imagine the experience being sourced from anything but the game since the game is in control of just about everything. A tabletop RPG feels like a completely different animal. Much of the moment-to-moment play consists of what amounts to free-form narration. It might initially appear that RPG rules are less important, that they take on a lighter hand as they allow the players to take more control over the experience.
But if anything, that makes the rules of a tabletop RPG even more important. Since the expectation is that players are afforded much more freedom, the rules’ ability to constrain the players are weak. But those constraints must still shape play. Tabletop RPG designers are up against quite the phantasmal challenge: to define the boundaries of play without disrupting the freedom such games promise. A skilled designer can use those boundaries to awaken possibility in the players, empowering them to tell stories they never knew they had in them. Well-crafted rule sets funnel players toward an intended experience, all the while allowing them to think they achieved it on their own.
With all that being said, let me make one thing clear: Rule Zero is the biggest cop-out crock of shit in all of tabletop gaming. It’s found in every edition of D&D, and it’s seeped into every corner of RPGs to the point of being firmly ingrained in the zeitgeist of the culture. It’s a tantalizing excuse for any shortcoming a game might have, and it’s tricked us into thinking that games are more versatile than they really are.
It’s just fucking wrong.
Why It’s Wrong
For those who don’t know Rule Zero, here’s the gist: “Games are fun, and this is a game, so if any part of my game isn’t fun, you should change it into whatever you want.” Simple, right? How can that be wrong? It’s all in service to fun anyway, so do what’s fun! It seems like such an uncontroversial pillar of RPGs, one that any mature RPG player must take to heart.
But that’s just it – the fact that players need Rule Zero in order to have a good time should be quite troubling. It means that the default experience, or at least some part of it, isn’t fun. For a moment, let’s set aside the question of “What is fun?” and assume players know it when they see it. The job of a game design is to make that fun happen. Everything about the design is in service to that. Following the rules of the game should lead to an ideal experience, and crafting such a rule system is the mark of mastery in the discipline of game design.
So it gets really weird when D&D repeatedly passes the buck. Often it does so by making many of its rules completely optional. Other times, it offers no rule at all, opting instead to give vague guidelines as though it were an advice column. It might talk about differing “styles” that different players use and suggest you pick one, as though it were a post on a community forum. But a game’s rulebook is not an advice column or forum post – it’s the game. It’s the schema by which our experience will be defined, and we use it because we trust the designer to be better at crafting it than us. Shoving that responsibility right back at the players is backwards.
Now we can return to “What is fun?” And I won’t lie, everyone’s got their own idea of what that means. Surely we need to make everything optional because otherwise how will everyone have their own unique brand of fun? Everyone comes to the table for different reasons, and it’s a strong case for diversity in game design. But Rule Zero isn’t the answer! Rule Zero is an argument for game homogeneity, an excuse for everyone to play only one game and somehow make it work by stacking up endless tweaks, house rules, and custom designs. The way D&D gets by lies in being a homogeneous, squishy ungame that invites you to project whatever you want onto it by way of a do-it-yourself game design.
This is reflected in the way people diverge so widely on how D&D “ought” to be played. Some players place realism as the highest priority, dutifully tracking their packed rations and debating the merits of the wounds/vitality alternative to hit points. Some play it to learn and master the combat system, min/maxing their characters and endlessly debating the balance of the game and whether or not greatclubs ought to be buffed. Some are there for story, some are there for self-expression, some are there to be jackasses. I could go on, but even the D&D source books already do so exhaustively.
So far, we’ve tried to patch this divide with appeals to harmony – everyone is different, and that’s okay, so let people play how they want! And commendable and well-intentioned as that may be, that attitude fails to hear what the symptoms are screaming: in creating their own experience, everyone’s pulling in a different direction. It’s true that the course of a roleplaying game is in large part defined by the players. But if five different people are trying to create five different experiences, maybe only one of which has anything at all to do with the given rules in the book, you have to wonder why they all sat down to play the same game together. I get that friends want to play games with each other. But whatever they play, it’s going to go a hell of a lot better if they all push in the same direction. And that goes double – no, quadruple – for collaborative storytelling.
And if the players are all going to push in one direction, the game ought to help, too! The game should clearly state its intent to the players to set their expectations, and then back that up with an appropriate rule set. It should guide the players toward their storytelling goals and provide structure for their creativity to stand upon. In truth, making a game that does this well is extraordinarily difficult. Often a single game can only support a single type of story. But in a world where there’s no shortage of games to play, that’s perfectly fine. One game can’t be all things to all people, so if a game isn’t working for the direction you’re pushing in, there’s another game waiting for you that you’ll like just as much.
But you know what doesn’t help? A rulebook that says “Meh. Whatever, do what you want. Are characters interacting with NPCs? Roll a die at some point, I guess. Or don’t! Roleplay it out if you want – it’s up to you. Whatever.”
Oh thanks, game. If you were just going to tell me to do whatever I wanted anyway, what did I buy these books for?
This ambivalence toward prescriptive play has given rise to a linguistic quirk in D&D culture, one that is quite instructive: the distinction between “roleplay” and “rollplay.” In common parlance, “roleplay” is what you do when you’re speaking in character and interacting with the story and world. “Rollplay” is when you’re… not. It’s meant to refer to people who prefer to let their dice do their talking for them, people who want to interact with the game system more than the world. And make no mistake, there’s an air of superiority – even derision at times – associated with the roleplayers. After all, anyone can roll to hit – it takes a special kind of person to truly roleplay.
You can see this attitude in the person who proudly declares that their last D&D session went for five hours without rolling a single die. It’s visible – although the cracks start to show – in the person who talks about how their group just roleplays without the system, and in how their friends say “You’re so lucky!” You’d be forgiven for thinking these people don’t actually want to play D&D. But just ask them, and there’s no doubt in their minds: they’re definitely D&D players, just ones that play on a higher level than their dice-rolling, knuckle-dragging brethren. They sit around the table, unopened Player’s Handbooks sitting on their laps like so many totems, and tell a story all on their own.
Isn’t it strange that the more one becomes a “real” roleplayer, the less use that player seems to have for the rules of the game they purport to play? The sense that roleplaying and rollplaying appear to be opposites presents us with a fascinating irony: for as much as the roleplayers might claim that they’re playing D&D the right way, it’s the rollplayers who are actually playing the game at all. Only in the loosest possible sense could one consider both groups to be playing the same game.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the roleplayers are doing anything wrong. They’re having the experience they want to have on their terms, and it’s hard to find fault with that. But if we deconstruct the paradox of roleplayers drifting away from what is ostensibly a roleplaying game, we can’t help but infer that roleplaying is something external, extraneous even, to the fundamental D&D experience. Roleplay is the Do-It-Yourself element of the play, something you must bring to the table all on your own. The more you do it, the less the rules have to offer you.
Except, of course, Rule Zero. Rule Zero says “Play how you want.” And by converting more and more of play into pure roleplaying, by steamrolling over existing rules of conflict-resolution in favor of “Just roleplay it out,” you’re nevertheless still following one fundamental rule of D&D: Rule Zero. And if you’re following Rule Zero, you’re still technically playing D&D.
Rule Zero isn’t a free license for D&D to take credit for literally everything that players do at the table. Yet that’s exactly what Rule Zero tries to do. By telling players in the published books, in promotional material, and in blog posts and articles that there are many ways to play D&D – all of them valid – writers hope to leave you with the impression that no matter what you do, you’re still ultimately playing D&D. It’s the RPG placebo effect: players pile around a table and tell very personal and meaningful stories together all on their own, and swear that the game they aren’t really playing is what enables them to do it.
But what happens when you drop the RPG system entirely, and somehow – miraculously – you’re still telling stories? What happens when you realize that D&D was just the excuse to do it all along? You don’t need D&D’s permission to have a good time. You don’t need its permission to roleplay and tell stories. If you’re good at it, you can do it all on your own without any help, and you should give yourself all the credit for the story you told.
But what if you do need help?
We all like and want good stories, but we’re all just amateurs at the end of the day. How do we tell a great story we’ll always remember? That is precisely where a good storytelling game ought to be able to assist you. If a game is about storytelling, then the rules of the game shouldn’t increasingly recede away the more your game becomes about telling stories. The rules of a storytelling game should be all about telling stories – end of story!
Playing it RAW
In the foreword to the Gold Edition of Luke Crane’s The Burning Wheel RPG, Jake Norwood writes:
“To really enjoy Burning Wheel requires some investment in Burning Wheel. You, the player, have to care. You have to believe. I believe in Burning Wheel.
…The game is meant to be played as written. Each rule has been lovingly crafted – and now, many of them re-crafted – to support player-driven stories of white-knuckled action, heart-rending decisions and triumph against the odds. Burning Wheel Gold is the result of a decade of such stories.”
Now that is bold. In contrast to the veritable sea of tepid RPGs still limping along on Rule Zero, here’s someone willing to finally stand up and say “Here’s how you should play my game. If it were better another way, I would’ve written it that way. Just trust me.” That really says something about both the game and the author, and especially about any RPG author unwilling to make the same bet. Because why wouldn’t you? If you’ve spent the time to make your game the best thing it could possibly be, why would you need to rely on amateur players-turned-designers you don’t even know to fix your game? It couldn’t be that bad, could it?
So no more Rule Zero crutches. No more players doing their own thing, and then giving credit to D&D for the good stories they create all on their own. If D&D is truly worth the paper it’s printed on, then it should be the steering wheel that points the way even as the players drive. This means that going forward in this series, I will carry the assumption that D&D is being played straight – no modifications, no stylistic changes, and little to no preexisting experience or skill. This is D&D as played by the everyman, with all his faults and foibles. If we’re going to consider D&D to be a storytelling game, then we better find out what the rulebook itself actually brings to the table to help him tell a good story.
That work begins next article. See you then.