Role-Playing and Rule-Playing Games

When I was a lad, it was a cliché in gaming circles that RPGs could be divided into role-playing games and rule-playing games. I doubt that I've heard anyone say that since the early 1990s, but I believe that the idea is well worth reviving today.

In role-playing, the player takes on the role of a character. He looks at the world through the character's eyes, and makes decisions that the character would make. A role-playing game aims to be a simulation of being the player character. To me the ideal is that I could play the game without knowing the rules, and trust that the game system will produce realistic results for any action I might choose. I think a game like that is an unattainable dream, but generally I would work toward that ideal.

In rule-playing, players try to manipulate the rules system to make themselves win. Completely abstract games like chess and bridge are rule-playing games, and they bore me utterly. Often I play games that purport to be role-playing games, table-top wargames or other kinds of simulation. But I find that that they're really about manipulating abstract rules to win.

A memorable example for me is San Juan, a card game about a colony in the New World. When I first played it I liked it because it seemed to be a game of building an economic empire. I liked all the interesting things I could build to expand my settlement. But as I played more I realised that to win you just had to have your eye on the bottom line, which was abstract victory points rather than the money that your settlement makes. The game was about manipulating abstract rules to score abstract victory points, and the gameplay was simply dressed up with thin veneer of simulating something real. At that point I lost interest. This same objection applies to more card games and board games than I care to remember.

In RPGs, rule-playing often appears as rules-lawyering. In games with complex rules, players with evil minds can work out how to make the rules work for them. They stop making the decisions that their characters would make, and instead make decisions based on what will work under the rules. Generally speaking, the more complex a game system is, the more opportunities there will be for this kind of thing and the more the game will degenerate into rules-lawyering.

Some games have Luck Points. For example, Savage Worlds gives these the idiotic name 'bennies' and player characters have three per game session. The player spends the whole game session wondering whether now is a good time to be lucky and spend a benny. (God, that sounds stupid! Why couldn't they just call them Luck Points?) But in reality people don't decide when to be lucky. The player's decision to spend a benny is not a decision that the character would make. The player is manipulating abstract rules to gain advantage. You might as well play chess or bridge if you want to do that.