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The Game You Want

Monte Cook wants everyone to be happy:

It’s become clear to me over the last few years that game players should be able to play the game they want to play, not the game a game designer wants them to play. (That there are game players who disagree with this shows me that there are game designers who are also persuasive marketers, or who work alongside persuasive marketers.) This is particularly true with tabletop roleplaying games, in my mind, because so much of rpgs involves players customizing characters, game options, and creating their own material. (And, even if a player chooses not to do any of those things, they’re still choosing not to, so they’re still playing the game they want to play.)

Games are for fun. Playing a game that someone else has inadvertently made unfun (or has made some portion of it unfun) shouldn’t be a part of gaming.

The problem with this mindset is that it assumes that the game designer can get out of the way, and I just don’t think that’s possible. When I sit down at my weekly game we all mediate the fun by refering to the rules. I’m guessing your table does the same, no matter what edition or playstyle you prefer. If you don’t have a set of rules, I think most people will agree that you’re not “playing D&D” you’re doing something else. You can ignore some rules, or houserule in some extras, or whatever, but the core of “playing D&D” is using at least some of D&D’s rules.

But here’s the thing about rules: they don’t just give you a way to “figure out what happens”. They give you a structure upon which you build everything else. Good game design is about choosing where you need to build structure to be built on, where you need to leave gaps for players to build into, and perhaps most importantly where you need to avoid touching entirely. D&D is a game about fantasy characters doing heroic and even amazing things in a world full of danger and treasure and adventure. It has rules to support all of those things. It does not have rules for, say, office romances. Sure, you can shoehorn in a CHA roll, but that’s kind of the base-level “interact with the world” set of rules. There’s not a defense stat for the heart, and no “burned by an affair with the boss” feat that gives you a bonus to it. And I’m going to go on record that there shouldn’t be; that’s not in D&D’s wheelhouse.

And that’s the thing: the rules show you what’s important in the game. In 4E combat is very important, and so most of the system is built around it. In GURPS skill rolls are important, so most of the system is built around that. In White Wolf mood is important, so most of the rules work hard to play on that level and avoid getting bogged down in details. In the Smallville RPG plot is important, so most of the rules push the plot forward (or sideways, or upside-down…).

Picking the game you’re playing is an exercise in picking the thing you think is important. If you want a great tactical game 4E is a good choice. If you want a game with an awesome character-driven plot Smallville is great. And if you want to experience the lethality of fantasy adventuring then first-ed D&D sounds like a perfect fit. Each of those games was designed by a game designer to emphasize certain things, and they have rules that do a good job of doing so.

But the idea that rules get in the way of playing the game is paradoxical: the rules are the game. What the players do at the table is surround the rules in their game, like bits of moisture coalescing into a cloud around dust in the air. The dust needs to be arranged just so in order for that to work right, but the position of the dust determines the center and shape of the cloud; it has no hope of ever being the cloud itself.