So, Dan Maruschak recently posted to Story Games (the G+ community, not the forum; which you would think they were the same thing, and they are – except they aren’t) about the frequently expressed view that too many/too complicated rules are bad in a roleplaying game. Now, his post had a point all of its own, which I shall ignore because I want to talk about something else. Take that, rules!
Anyway. In discussion on the said post, I arrived at the view that there were two types of “rule”, which I shall here call structure and mechanics. Why is this relevant? I shall tell you if you would accompany me to the next paragraph…
Glad you could join me! The point I was responding to in making the above distinction was that sometimes, rules make roleplaying easier. Take a simple example. Fiasco has almost no in-scene rules. It essentially leaves the job of running scenes completely unconstrained – sure, one person sets the scene while another bunch of people decide the broad outcome (or vice versa) but everything else is down to whatever you collectively want to do. And the thing is, that works for some people, but for others it leaves them lacking direction and unsure when they should jump in. You have to develop the kind of culture that improv groups make use of all the time, and developing that culture can be challenging.
In contrast, Fiasco makes generating the overall scenario for the game much easier by providing a basic setting and a bunch of simple rules for generating story elements. You take turns, and nobody is in doubt about what they can and can’t do during this stage of the game.
So, weirdly, the most rules-heavy bit of Fiasco is in some ways the easiest and smoothest part of the game. All those rules didn’t get in the way after all!
…which brings me back to my point about structure and mechanics. See, I think Fiasco’s set up phase is not really a “rule” as traditionally conceived in roleplaying games. This is a bit of a vague concept which I’m having trouble articulating, but what I call a mechanic – the traditional RPG rule – is a very well-defined procedure for taking a well-defined input and generating a well-defined output. “When you are hit by a short sword, roll d6 and subtract it from your hit points.” “You can take two half actions or one full round action every combat round.” …that kind of thing.
In contrast, the Fiasco set up isn’t really like that. It’s all “before you start the game you should create some elements to use in play”. Now, I’m contradicting myself here slightly (did I mention I’m having trouble articulating this?), because the element generation tables have all the hallmarks of what I’m calling a mechanic, and the rules about how you arrange relationships and other elements around the table look like that too. But the overall effect is merely to guide play towards a relatively ill-defined form: a structure, if you will. Similarly, Fiasco’s two-act structure and its token-based scene resolution are designed not truly to constrain play but to provide a framework on which to hang your story. Likewise, defining roles (is there a GM? What do they do? If there isn’t, how does that work?) is more about setting a framework rather than fixed procedures. This is all what I call structure, and although it kinda fits in the category of rules, it serves a radically different function.
Now apropos of Dan’s discussion, I’m not saying that structure is good while mechanics are bad. But it seems to me that roleplaying games have historically had a tendency to major on mechanics and leave structure to the GM to work out. And, furthermore, they have tended historically to err on the side of too much mechanic (for some people’s tastes) but very rarely got even close to too much structure. Even Fiasco, which is quite a structured game by RPG standards, is in my view not structured enough.
So in principle: more rules is neither good nor bad. But in practice, more mechanics is often going to turn out to be too much, while more structure is very unlikely to be too much. That may not stay true, if RPGs continue to develop and diversify, but even post-indie revolution it’s still the case for most games , in my opinion.