Do we really need rules to roleplay?

In response to my post on why I believe 4E D&D is geared towards combat, a few people responded in the vein of “well you really don’t need rules to roleplay.” This got me to thinking; do we really need rules to roleplay? In the end, I decided that, in my opinion and in most cases, yes, we do.

What is a “rule?”

According to Webster’s dictionary, a rule is defined as “ a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” So rules in RPGs guide actions. And just like every other rule in an RPG book they should be flexible. They are “guides” not “rigid ways of performing.”

Roleplaying without rules

If two people sit down and, in-character, have a discussion on what’s going on in town, where’s a great place to go for entertainment, etc., then no rules are necessary. Essentially, both players are doing nothing more than acting. This is the same if you’re playing a tabletop RPG or any type of freeform roleplaying.


Now, if the two characters start to haggle over, let’s say, the price of a horse, it can be played out in-character but, in the end, how do you decide on the cost? There needs to be a mechanic in place to help figure it out. This is where a skill like Haggle (in Earthdawn) or Streetwise (in Hollow Earth Expedition) comes in to play. You need a way to distinguish one characters abilities from another because, in real life, a player may not be good at bargaining but have built their character to do well in situations like this.

Structure or “guides”

Roleplaying requires structure. Even sandbox gaming, while far-reaching in what the characters can do in the world at large, has a structure to it, usually some kind of over-arcing storyline. Without it, the exploration of the world would be pointless. There would be no reason to do it and the players would have no idea what to expect when interacting with people and races.

With regards to PCs, remember that people are not their characters. For example, I am a charismatic person. It’s relatively easy for me to play a charismatic character. I like to think that I would have no trouble roleplaying a complete encounter related to me talking to the King about a possible mission. But what about someone who isn’t a charismatic person? Do you force that person to roleplay it out and base the output on their interaction? No, you don’t. You use, for example, the skill challenge rules from 4E D&D. That is a structure in place to help characters be someone that the player is not.

Character Personality

What about roleplaying a character outside of a skillful situation? What about your character interacting with the rest of the party or even NPCs of their own race? What then?

Granted, I can decide how to play my character and what kind of personality to give them but what if the rules don’t mention anything about, say, halflings? How does my halfling interact with other halflings? How does my halfling interact with non-halflings? Sure, I could make up the way that I approach situations like this but, in the grand scheme of things, halflings have a rich and storied tradition of being pleasant and down-to-earth. They form tight-knit communities and normally live alongside other races.

By laying down rules on halflings and other races, it gives us a glimpse into how that race interacts with their surroundings. It allows the player, and the DM, to make the world the players are in more in-depth and more interactive.

Confusing Rules with Fluff?

At this point, you may think I’m confusing “rules” with “fluff.” Personally, I don’t see the terms as mutually exclusive. I believe that the “fluff” laid out in a book are examples of rules. For example, Iron Kingdoms describes how Gobbers are typically viewed in the world. With that, the players have an idea of how to deal with, and what to expect if they play a, Gobber.

Just like all RPG rules, “fluff” doesn’t have to be hard-and-fast, but it is a way of structuring the world and the interaction of characters there-in. It helps guide the players through their environment.


In the end, it all boils down to structure laid out by rules. Structure on how the world is laid out, how races interact with one another, how NPCs react to characters, etc. Without this structure, you force those who aren’t very good at role-playing to suffer for their personal flaws. You also give no information for which the basis of a good roleplayer can build their character. So, for the most part, you need this structure and you need these rules.

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15 Responses to “Do we really need rules to roleplay?”

Ben Overmyer November 24th, 2008 at 1:13 PM

If I read that correctly, then would I be accurate in inferring that a perfect role-playing game by that definition would have to be one in which every possible scenario was covered by a rule?

Ben Overmyer´s last blog post..The Nature of Role-playing

reveal November 24th, 2008 at 2:03 PM

@Ben – Not at all. You don’t need rules to cover every scenario, you simply need rules to provide a basic structure for the game and the world in which it’s set. These rules can be “official,” i.e. D&D, HEX, etc., or “unofficial,” i.e. homebrew settings.

Ben Overmyer November 24th, 2008 at 2:08 PM

What would you say is the threshold after which improvised freeform collective acting (“Pretend”) becomes a role-playing game?

Given that original Dungeons & Dragons has no skill lists, power lists, and relies heavily on player (as opposed to character) ability, would you still classify it as a role-playing game?

Ben Overmyer´s last blog post..The Nature of Role-playing

jwrush November 24th, 2008 at 2:09 PM

Well, I think you’re correct about two things: first, it is the fact that there are social interactions which are easily reduced to hard and fast mechanical abstraction — haggling is a great example, but there are others — and which are likewise simply aren’t interesting enough to warrant game time attention. No one I’d want to play with would argue that in a table top game at least, we should reduce these to rolls.

Secondly, I think you’re right that we need some sort of communal understanding about the worlds in which we’re playing in order for the experience to be meaningful. We need to know the rules, as it were, of the world, in order to take part in telling its story.

But it’s pretty clear that these kinds of “rules” are different in a significant way, isn’t it? The first are out-of-game mechanical rules of the system, while the second are in-game rules of the setting.

I agree that no one thinks we can play without the second kind of rules (we’d effectively just be playing a minis game, or chess), but it seems to me pretty obvious that we could play without the first kind; all we’d be doing is playing pretend.

Now, I’m not saying that that’s desirable; in fact, for most of us, it’s not. There are times when rules for social interaction help us get around situations where there are disagreements about what should happen, or which allow us to abstract away boring things. But there certainly is a balancing act here, and too many rules can take away the freedom which many players find to be enjoyable in table-top.

jwrush´s last blog post..NPCs in 4th Ed

Joshua November 24th, 2008 at 2:35 PM

I don’t really get the not “needing” rules for roleplay argument. If 4e supports RP by not having rules for it (or having few rules), why doesn’t it support combat by having no or few rules for it? It’s obvious that you can tell what’s important to a particular RPG system my examining what it devotes the most space to. If 50% of a system was devoted to researching spells, and combat occupied 5%, people would acknowledge that the game focused on magic and research. The problem is that “Role Playing” has such a Mom-and-Apple-Pie status in the hobby that nobody want to admit that their favored system treats it as an afterthought.

Joshua´s last blog post..Supporting the Old School

reveal November 24th, 2008 at 3:19 PM

@Ben – Good questions! I’m not sure what the threshold would be. When kids play cops and robbers, they have a set of rules in mind, i.e. cops act one way and robbers another, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a “roleplaying game.”

I would still classify OD&D as a roleplaying game, just one with less structure than future incarnations. Because it relied so heavily on player ability, there’s a reason new editions and “expansions” were created. :)

@jwrush – I agree that too many rules can throttle enjoyment. But that’s one of the things I love about RPGs. The rules are flexible. :)

@Joshua – I think what most people get at when they say you don’t “need rules” for roleplaying is that they see people using their imagination less and relying more on rules to shape the way they roleplay.

Thasmodious November 24th, 2008 at 5:23 PM

If you define “rules” as loosely as you do above (not saying that’s a bad thing), you have to recognize that 4e has you, and the new player, covered. Those “rules” for RP, and I agree with some of your assessment, are indeed a part of the 4e books. The first 30 pages of the PHB are mostly about building a complete character to roleplay, including notes about personality and background, how to roleplay, alignment, religion, etc. Each race has a page of art and crunch followed by a page of RP-centered information on the races history, identity and traits, lists of their basic characteristics and sample names, followed by three examples of adventurers of that race, centered on personalty and roleplaying information.

The powers section for characters is about the same length as the spells section of the 3e PHB (as is the combat chapter, just to note).

The DMG is mostly focused on world building and running the game with very little crunch, and what crunch it has is not focused on combat, but on social encounters, skill use, and roleplaying. Haggling, the DMG tells us, could be resolved with opposing checks or a skill challenge, but also cautions that not every interaction needs dice rolls and table time. Do you really want to haggle over every arrow? That’s a group decision and not something the game needs to create a rules system for.

When I say “you don’t need rules to roleplay” I mean it in response to the specific ways in which people who charge 4e with being “RP lite” or overly combat focused (D&D has always been combat focused) mean it, and I dispute the validity of that statement. For many, it is the specific absence of the “flavor skills” in 3e – craft, profession, and perform that serve as High Example #1. For me, their removal was one of the smarter changes between editions. These subsystems in 3e were clunky, clumsy, abusable, and pigeonholed characters rather than freeing them. A fighter had to gimp himself to also be a crafter, and couldn’t reasonably play an instrument or sing, any more than he could reasonably be alert or a sharp listener. The 4e skill system is focused on the skills adventurers need to adventure, as that is what the game is about. You can easily create background skills, like crafting, if you want, but its easier to just allow a player to write up his characters history as the son of a master smith and detail his skills and why he turned his back on that profession. If it comes in game, in a manner in which the outcome needs mechanical resolution, those guidelines are in the DMG, but a leatherworker doesn’t need to roll everytime he works leather and rarely in an in-game situation.

The way I see the system of 4e is that it has removed unnecessary mechanics, following the corner case problem examples of 3e, to present a cleaner system. Within a couple years, all those subsystems that people loved and hated will be available, either through supplements official or 3pp stuff. But having a concrete, balanced system at the core is a good design goal. Groups can tinker with it to cover their own needs, without the system itself having to build clumsy constructs to tackle every conceivable way someone might want to play the game. Gamers are a creative lot, if a DM really thinks there should be rules for the wear and tear of clothing in combat and dungeon exploration, they will come up with a way to do that that works for their group.

You didn’t need rules to tell you how to play an angry, brooding fighter, obsessed with revenge over the death of his twin brother, you just need some guidelines, and the 4e books have those.

reveal November 24th, 2008 at 5:37 PM

@Thasmodius – Nice response. :)

One thing I will say is that I’ve never stated that 4E took out all RP. I just think 4E is more combat-oriented than previous systems (ok, maybe no OD&D ;) ).

Brent P. Newhall November 24th, 2008 at 5:51 PM

Nicely put! I agree completely; rules exist to provide a consistent framework for determining outcomes in a non-existent setting. The rules can be seen as the physics of the world we’re playing in, defining exactly what happens when a longsword meets hide armor.

Brent P. Newhall´s last blog post..How To Invent a Role-Playing Adventure, Part 1

Joshua November 25th, 2008 at 9:03 AM

You could say the exact same thing about the unnecessary combat mechanics, and how they get in the way of creativity and roleplaying in combat. Just write up your background as a Dragonborn Warlord in FUDGE, and go. All those pages about powers and the fiddly bits having to do with who is standing in what map-square and who’s next to him pigeonhole characters rather than freeing them.

This isn’t to knock 4e, exactly, but I think it’s goofy to say all that kind of crunch is necessary for combat and useless for RP, but 4e isn’t a combat-centric game. Stop trying to pretend it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Joshua´s last blog post..Supporting the Old School

guy November 25th, 2008 at 9:09 AM

Of course you need rules for roleplaying! otherwise it becomes a case of “bang! Bang! I shot you! you missed me!”

Chris November 25th, 2008 at 11:41 AM

Holy shit! You guys all need to go out and spend the $25 to buy Dogs in the Vineyard.

It has this universal mechanic that’s used to back up any sort of narrative fluff your little heart can dream up.

Instead of trying to come up with a rule to cover every possible action, you have a universal rule that can handle anything.

You can use it for fighting, gunslinging, arguing, exorcising demons, healing the sick, raising the dead, adjusting your glasses, seduction, sorcery. It’s bad ass. Trust me.

If you want your games to be more cinematic, go check it out.

d7 November 26th, 2008 at 7:37 PM

I have to second that people need to look up and see what non-D&D games are doing. There are a lot of games now that have a unified “conflict” mechanic that is used to resolve all kinds of things. Dogs in the Vineyard is one example, but there are others.

The best example I can think of, because it’s free and available online, is the system that The Shadow of Yesterday uses. In TSoY any conflict can be a single die roll or a multi-round tension-filled dicefest. As one reviewer put it, “Why does the duel get all the drama? Can’t a chess game be dramatic too? [The detailed resolution system] is not limited to combat, but rather to what the players feel is important to them.”

That last bit, making the game about what the players think is important, is just what a lot of games have set out to do. D&D puts nearly all its mechanics into combat, but that’s not the only way to do things.

d7´s last blog post..The Adventure Funnel

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