Rules do not elide

A rule can be a statement of what you can do, what you must do, or what you must not do, and it may also describe *how* you must do a thing. Rules have all kind of uses. In tabletop roleplaying games, one of those uses is to simplify arguments about how things ought to play out in the fictional situations we imagine and describe at the table. This has led to the claim that “rules elide”, and from what I can glean from the froth and din of internet discourse, some people think this is a very important claim*. But I am going to argue this is, at best, a partial representation of what rules do.

Why might we say that rules elide? Well, if you haven’t already, you can go and read the article where this idea was first publicly described (though it has now been deleted and is only available on backup, so don’t harangue the author** about it – which, come to think of it, don’t do that anyway). From reading that article, I take the essence of the “rules elide” claim to be this:

  • Without any rules, we describe the fiction in intricate detail, carefully characterising each little bit of what is happening. For example, we might describe each step, slip, swing and cut of a sword fight.
  • Rules enable us to shortcut that by instead rolling a die and saying “I win”, skipping out all the detail in between.
  • Therefore, rules elide the details of the fiction. Not necessarily all the details – and indeed, by eliding some parts, they effectively highlight what is left – but nevertheless, this is their role. Rules elide.

Whenever one describes another person’s argument there’s a risk that this leads to simplification or misrepresentation but I think the above is a fair summary of the “rules elide” argument.

The problem is that the first bullet isn’t true.

Without any rules, we might indeed describe the fiction in intricate detail. But we might not! In the linked article, an imagined player group describe the picking of a lock by working through the movements of pins and tumblers and whatnot. But that is certainly not how I would handle the picking of a lock. Here are a few ways I would think about doing it:

  • I might make a quick decision either way and describe what happens. “Nope, you can’t pick it, and your lockpick snaps.” “Cool, it opens.”
  • I might describe the lock and ask the player picking the lock what happens. “This is a top quality valyrian steel lock. How good a lockpicker are you, do you think you can open it?”
  • I might present a “yes, and” or “no, but” sort of approach. “Sure, you can open it, but it is going to take a while and you can hear the footsteps of the guards approaching, what do you do?”

You could of course argue that somewhere in there I’m using rules. My ability to “make a quick decision” rests on some rule, whether explicitly stated or implied, that I have a right to make a decision (probably because I’m the GM). But in reality if we started trying to roleplay together without discussing any rules at all, it is very very likely that at some point someone would skip over most of the fictional detail and make such a decision. Indeed, the decision to say “you find a locked door” is such a moment. The casual elision of details is actually a fundamental part of storytelling and imaginative play, regardless of whether you think there are rules involved.

So it’s not the case that roleplaying without rules is inherently very detailed.

But more than that: rules can actually supply detail where none would otherwise exist.

Consider the classic case of a game of cops and robbers. “Bang bang! You’re dead.” “No I’m not!” In this game, we skip over enormous amounts of detail. I point my two fingers at you and say bang bang, you fall over or you don’t. At no point do we consider what kind of gun or ammunition we’re using, what armour we might be wearing, how good my aim is, the potential elements affecting my aim such as distractions or (at longer ranges) wind. We are eliding the heck out of that gun fight.

I defy anyone to look at the crunchier roleplaying game manuals and tell me that these games elide compared to this simple roleplaying activity. Looking at my old copy of Shadowrun 4th edition, I see 2 and a bit pages of rules for adjudicating initiative, 6 and a bit pages of rules for different types of ranged fighting, plus 9 pages of details about different types of ranged weapons (with pictures!) This is not eliding *anything* relative to how I would normally conduct a firefight in a roleplaying game; in fact if I take it seriously as a set of rules, it enormously expands the level of detail and precision I would use in narrating such a fight.

So at the very least, I think we have to say that rules don’t always elide. Perhaps they are always eliding compared to some perfect simulation of reality, but that is certainly not the default or most commonly observed state of imaginative play when unmediated by rules.

What, then, will we say about rules? Rules are a way of guiding the conversation. We can drill into the details we find interesting, as Shadowrun players presumably find weaponry. We can skip over the details we don’t find interesting, as many other games do with the details of the same weaponry. We can remove arguments over who went bang bang first and who is now dead. We can specify how decisions should be made, and who gets to narrate the outcome of those decisions, as when Forged In The Dark tells us who gets to decide what dice to roll and who gets to decide the level of risk and effect. We can quantify things that would otherwise remain vague, as with hit points in D&D or sanity in Call Of Cthulhu. We can introduce details that don’t exist in the real world, like the characteristics of a monofilament whip. We can force the conversation at the table down particular lines, as when in Ten Candles, if the last candle goes out, the characters die regardless of what they may have had planned. We can force a player to describe something they hadn’t even thought about until a moment ago, as when in Apocalypse World a character is suddenly asked to tell us their secret pains.

Rules can sometimes elide. But more often, rules specify. Rules focus. Rule describe. Rules intrude.

Rules are a magical way to shape our conversation at the table, to direct play and to bring imagined worlds to life. Used unwisely they can be blunt instruments that get in the way of good storytelling. But the best rules help us tell stories we almost certainly wouldn’t have told otherwise. They mostly don’t do it by eliding.

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*Side note: I am far from the most up-to-date person on internet discourse. I think this claim may be fairly old, at least by the frenetic standards of discussion on X and other such places. I’m sorry if I sound like an old man shouting at clouds.

**Which, to be clear, I have no idea how important the author thinks “rules elide” is as a statement or how sweepingly they intended to make that statement. Perhaps this entire article is a statement of the bleeding obvious – ironically I kind of think so. Still, discourse eh?

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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