Monday 2 September 2013

Rules vs. Content: A Question of Emphasis

OK, so here's the thing.  I used to be really into the question of "What rules to use?"

You know: "What system to use?", "What houserules to use?"

And I still am pretty opinionated on the topic(probably a bit more that I should be).  But it hit me recently, that, while rules may be important, there is something more important: Content. What you run and how you run it.

Because rules can RUIN a game, creating a distraction, taking the focus away from the actual role playing experience.  But it's rare that the rules make a game session GREAT.  That's more of a question of the adventure you're running and the art of how you're running it.

And it's an easy mistake to make, focussing too much on the rules, at the expense of content. The rules are static, mathematical, open to easy analysis, relevant from session to session.  This, as opposed to the adventure you run, which is always changing, or how you're running it, which is a dynamic, inconsistent process, for which there is no definitive guide.

I look at the incredible bounty of Rule Systems our hobby has created: there are so many RPG systems and variants out there. There may well be more systems and variants than there are adventures/modules. It makes me think that I'm not the only one who has made the mistake of over-emphasizing rules when I should have been focusing my best efforts on Content...


  1. I guess it needs both, maybe even balanced. Consistency of rules will give flavor to a game (and is a big part of the "how"). That's why most of the tropes (all of them?) of D&D are derived from the rules (up to a point were the tropes dictate the game) not from the content.

    I'm of two minds with this, I guess. A friend of mine, to give an argument for the rules heavy style of play, is very structured when he is DMing. Without hesitation I'd give him a classic module to DM, knowing I won't be disappointed in how he'll present it. With him content and rules are RAW (a total emphasis on the rules, if you will). One benefit would be that it gives players a lot of freedom within the content. Not so much creative feedback, but a reliable reaction of the roleplaying environment.

    Being creative with the content might get tricky if the rules are too complex (or ignored because of complexity). At least for a DM building his world. Best example might be the rules bloat in 3E (lots and lots of content, but constantly with results that disregarded or mutilated the rules and damaged the game...).

    But it could work the other way around, too. You decide the content up front and build or rearrange the rules around it. Could arguably be the most difficult of all the options, but making the game your own is also the most intriguing of them all.

    Maybe it's a matter of opportunity and skill?

    1. Agreed, both are important, but I think it's a question of emphasis. As you say, rules can "will give flavor to a game". Rules are the side dishes, the spices, perhaps the plate. While the actual Content of the Session is the meat.

      Both are important. But looking back at sessions I've actually played in, what was it that really divided the better sessions from the worse ones? In my limited experience, it's more often been the Content of the session, than it has the particular rule system/edition we were using that night.

      So I feel like I've perhaps been putting too much emphasis, in my own head anyway, on the rules, at the expense of the Content of the Session.