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.
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.