When we were little kids, we roleplayed with few boundaries. The floor is lava! You avoid it, or you “die.” It was the same with playing adventurers versus monsters or space wizards with laser swords in the back yard after interacting with popular media, such as Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars.
We didn’t have written rules. The parameters were contextual and freeform. Any rules that existed were negotiated, often on the spot. The imagination space was broad.
Imagination space is an ephemeral realm where creativity has free reign within parameters a game defines.
Computer roleplaying games have very tight imagination space. You might be able to roleplay your character, but most parameters are rigid in that you can do only what the game allows. Some tabletop RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, have a tight imagination space. Others, such as FATE or Fiasco, have a looser space. A lot of games fall in the middle, from the “basic” Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia and many of its modern refinements or clones to Mage: The Ascension or Cortex games.
Let’s start with the idea that imagination space must be limited in roleplaying games. Games require rules. They necessarily involve a system of adjudication, and that system is a boundary on the imagination space.
Arguments have been made that a roleplaying game could exist as a series of adventure publications without explicit rules. These adventures, then, teach you how to adjudicate by inference from situations depicted in the publication. However, forcing the reader to come up with systems of adjudication on the fly is not an absence of a system. And unless a user codifies a personal system while playing or reading and inferring, the result can be markedly worse than a codified system. The result can and likely will lack mechanical reliability, which means the players can’t know what to expect even in similar play conditions. (1) Each interpreter is apt to have a different system, too. That difference of inference is sure to fragment any community that forms around the game. We’re talking a different sort of edition war, alongside a player-base that can’t be united for public or promotional play, a la D&D Adventurer’s League or Paizo Organized Play.
Such lack of consistency is a problem in early iterations of D&D and AD&D, despite the Gygaxian ideal that the rules should unify players, at least on that point. (That’s in the preface of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.) These versions of D&D often had no rules or extremely loose and inconsistent rules (2) for how to adjudicate some situations at the table. An absence of that guidance means the referee is on their own. In some cases, a D&D adventure contains a subsystem to aid the adjudication. Some old-school games based on these systems have the same shortcomings.
I’ve been told that old-school rules must interact with adventures and that the story emerging from freeform adjudication of player choices is a measure of the rules’ greatness. I can see the appeal of this play style. It exists in a form that might be easier to use in other games. However, this kind of rule presentation and use can lead to slowdowns and stalls at the table. These glitches are especially prevalent when only a character’s capabilities, rather than player ingenuity, can solve a problem. As with climbing or swimming (and aside 2). Impromptu rulings have unpredictability similar to having to build rules from scratch. If the referee notes judgment calls to build mechanical stability over time, that ref is making a codified system. They are limiting the imagination space and, at least, cracking the illusion of openness.
This problem is one of imagination space that is too broad. Other drawbacks in this context include players resorting to rote solutions. I see this called the “I attack with my sword” dilemma of games that offer few interesting options to players. Some players, for good reasons, resort only to what they see on their character sheets. In this way, powers and traits that are more descriptive can create opportunities for narrative variety. However, these innovations can be seen by some, as was prevalent during D&D’s fourth edition, as restrictive or rote in themselves.
Overbroad imagination space can be like little kids pretending without rules when players disagree. “Yeah, you said BANG, but you missed. I’m not dead.” In tabletop RPGs, players and referees can similarly be left flailing for solutions. We might even seek to restrict the space further for our version of the game. That’s when house rules come in, which is part of codifying a personal system. We add parameters to gain rules reliability, and in so doing, we build complexity and constrict imagination space.
Designers do a similar thing. This process is especially true as games that have had long lifespans evolve. When a game has multiple iterations, it tends to become more complex over time. Designers add subsystems to aid situational adjudication. Design and play values of the time might be expressed, such as the simulation trend of the mid- to late nineties that extended well into the twenty-first century. That aesthetic gave us D&D’s third edition.
As preexisting rules gain new parameters, they seem to become more restrictive. This loss of imagination space is something longtime players notice. Some lament this passing away but call it by other names. The rules are too complex. Why do we have a rule for everything? I mean, Gygax said we don’t need any rules?
Well, Gygax was wrong. That is unless we only want to play negotiated make-believe. And Gygax’s assertion assumes a player-focused, freeform play style that not all games do or can. (3) Still, simplicity is fine. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
As a long-in-the-tooth game player and designer, I crave that simplicity, too. Part of that feeling is that I can clearly see the fences for what they are. I feel the restrictions deeply because I not only understand they aren’t essential, but I also see what could replace them. Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition exceeds my complexity threshold, because so many design choices could have been replaced with simpler or more usable ones. And if that game is beyond what I want for complexity, you can imagine what I think of that trait in other games on the market. (4)
Newer players come at this issue from a different perspective (as aside 3 suggests). They can’t see the barriers clearly if at all. That’s good. This perspective becomes apparent if you introduce a new player to a game without explicating the parameters. Even complex or supposedly restrictive games can seem simple or unrestricted from this perspective.
I recommend trying the experiment. It’s a learning experience to let unindoctrinated players go and see what they try. Especially elucidating is emphasizing to them that they can try anything.
I played Gamma World’s seventh edition with several new players. In that game, characters have two power sources and are most often bizarre mutants. The sources come with powers that are quite specific in name and effect, like those of D&D’s fourth edition. Some have said, loudly and not in the same words, that this specificity limits the imagination space. For some players it does. But others see telekinesis on their character sheet and, understanding that means they can move things with their mind, try to pull off stunts telekinesis should permit. They not only use the powers they have, but they invent new ways to use telekinesis in play.
I let them. My experience and familiarity with the rules I used to guide them.
I find this mode of play incredibly inspiring and something to be encouraged and replicated in any game. (Do it!) So heartened, as an artist in residence in the MuseumsQuartier (Vienna, Austria) I took it a step further. I made a game from scratch for a talk and show. Plain English described character capabilities and limitations, even though characters could be as weird as those in Gamma World. A very simple core mechanic ruled the game. The characters had a few modifiers to alter their rolls, along with expendable resources and measures of resilience. All play relied on each player’s interpretation of the words on the sheet and rolls to accomplish tasks that had an uncertain outcome. (5) It was fast and a blast. Between thirty and forty people have played this game, and about fifteen did in one marathon night. I reworked the game for a last-minute event for kids at last year’s PaizoCon, too. It worked again.
This experience solidified my philosophy that leaving imagination space open to inventiveness is a must in all roleplaying games. Most rules I’ve looked at don’t go far enough in saying a player can have their character try anything. (6) Like with my post on RPG introductions, we writers and designers need to be explicit about this point. Games that go immediately into character capabilities and how to make skill checks or action tests are misleading players to think of character parameters as hard limits. They aren’t.
I’m not a great dancer, but that doesn’t mean a can’t and won’t try. Especially true if I’ve had a few drinks, making me a better dancer (maybe). Players understand this “try anything” idea intuitively when it comes to the real world. That understanding might not transfer into game playing. Most people, whether they come from board games or video games, think of rules and character capabilities as hard limits. Tabletop RPG rules need to break this spell intentionally. If the game doesn’t do the job, you should do it as the referee. If the referee doesn’t do it, establish it as a player.
In games I adjudicate, I tell players from the start that creativity works. They should try cool stuff. I never limit players exclusively to what’s on the character sheet. (7) I limit only based on in-play circumstances and existing factors that can be expanded upon, such as the character’s extant skills, traits, and powers. That latter statement means you can try anything, but your character might be bad at it. Just like in real life, it might be a poor choice to try doing something have no aptitude or training for. But you can still try.
A spellcaster can alter a spell, perhaps over time inventing a new one. A character can try fancy maneuvers and combat tricks. When I run a game, my nonplayer characters and monsters perform off-book in this way, too. If for no other reason, I do it to show the players it can be done.
Using imagination space, as someone running a game, also applies to recasting (often called reskinning) elements. Changing the narrative qualities of a mechanical component can be enough to make it seem new or more dramatic. Consider using this option to surprise the players during play. Ogres in the Monster Manual for fifth edition seem straightforward and a bit boring. (“I swing my greatclub!”) But the ogre remains a challenge if it stomps its enemies (perhaps for javelin damage) or knocks them around. It’ll also seem more like the big brute it is. (8)
You can read the Monster Manual all you want before coming to my D&D table. You’ll still get the unexpected. I tell players about changes their characters know about. Like the time I told players you can’t tell a dragon’s alignment from its color in one of my campaigns.
I encourage you to do the same as a referee. If you play a complex game or one with definitive rules, take a note from looser games, such as Basic D&D and FATE. Open the imagination space for the players, including yourself. Build drama by trying fun stunts and allowing that crit to take the big monster out, even though it has 4 hit points left. Tell players to try awesome stuff with their characters, then let them do it. Don’t punish these attempts, either, unless you want to them to stop. Take another page from games that are more open, and allow some amazing tricks to work without ability checks, trait rolls, or skill tests. Do so especially when the character has abilities that all but ensure success.
Player-skill style of play, like that favored in some old-school D&D-like games, doesn’t rely on character capabilities as much. However, the skills and traits of a character says a lot about the way that player wants to engage with the imaginary world. Take those cues as a ref. It’s okay for the character to be capable of something or know something the player can’t. Also fine is if a highly skilled character can, without rolls, pull off stunts other characters can’t. (I’ll get into that more in my next post, which is on using character capabilities passively.)
As a player’s character says something about how they want to play, and should guide you as a referee, the rules are there to guide all the players. But the word guide is the point. These games are ours. The players’ collective imagination fuels them. Open a few doors and windows. Let fresh air into your game’s imagination space and some stale air out. You’ll be glad you did.
Writing a roleplaying game? Leave the doors and windows open. Make sure to tell players (including referees), loud and proud, bold and upfront, to run around in the game’s imagination space. They’ll be glad you did.
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1) Alternatively, and as a digression, one could claim that this adventure with implied rules is interactive fiction. At least, the result could be more like choose-your-own-adventure books, text adventures, and modern interactive fiction, which are game experiences without explicit rules. The problem here is that the adjudication is often reduced to a pass-fail mechanic based entirely on player choices. If the game involves degrees of success and hides the math, it feels like a pass-fail game anyway. If the game doesn’t hide the math, or bases the math on external feature, such as a character made at the outset (as in Fighting Fantasy products), then the game has an explicit a system.
2) Take the climbing rules and swimming rules from Expert D&D use differing systems, although the Rules Cyclopedia brings them closer together. In any case, lots of room is left for the referee to adjudicate situationally.
3) A lot of old-school games focus on this play style, too. That’s a fine way to play, no matter what system you use. It can be fun to simply adjudicate what the players say the characters do in the situation the adventure puts them in. It’s not new, though, I’ve heard the claim that the revival of the old-school invented this practice. It didn’t. I played Basic D&D that way when I was ten and didn’t know the rules from the Sunday funnies. Get off my lawn!
6) The last three editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game literally say this, although not in a prominent way. Starfinder is similar. And Mutant: Year Zero. I had a hard time finding a game that makes this point well, though, or in a way likely to sink in.
7) I’m not sure where the idea that you’re limited in actions to what’s on your character sheet came from. Maybe it grew out of restrictive DMing for the D&D game, especially during the third-edition era. The accusation was unfairly leveled at fourth edition, too, often by those who had only read the game (or not even that). It has never been true of D&D or many other games.
8) Interesting monsters was something D&D’s fourth edition did well. Monster stunts are also an interesting feature of the AGE system. AGE player character stunts are cool, too, but they can be a case of too many choices at one time. The One Ring has monster special abilities fueled by Hate! It’s too bad a similar mechanic didn’t make it into the Adventures in Middle Earth D&D translation.