What is more central to a game, content or rules?

So here’s a (probably unoriginal) hypotheses. It’s something that’s been floating in my mind for quite a while and I don’t know how certain I am of it. I’d like feedback in the comments if you have any.

In OSR campaigns, if you change the rules pretty drastically mid-campaign, most players would say that they are still playing the same game because to them the “game” means the content of the game that they interact with: items, spells, NPCs, the setting, etc. To this group, the reality and believably of the game world is paramount, rules are just a convenience to make this illusion easier. Altering the rules will certainly alter the feel of the campaign to one extent or another, but nothing essential has been changed.

On the other hand, someone with a storygame mentality (or maybe this is more of a Forge mentality) would would say that those players are now playing a different game, because that tradition sees the “game” as the mechanics by which you interact with the content. To this group, the particular kinds of choices and twists delivered by the rules is paramount, while the content is a servant to that.

I feel like this is the core of the mutual incomprehension I see between the two camps when they talk about each other’s work.

9 Replies

  • If you switch mid-campaign from D&D rules to PbtA rules, it would be a stretch to say you’re still playing the same game. Fear Of A Black Dragon play OSR adventures with story game rules – you’d give rules precedence in that instance I think, in terms of the play experience. But it seems a very conservative position on the part of some commentators to say you need a system that works like machinery – if I push button X I will get result Y – before you can claim to have designed a successful game.

  • I disagree. The line you describe exists, although I do not see it between OSR and storygames. There are a good number of storygamers who change rules and still play the same game. It is a question of individual gamers, some of whom ascribe utmost importance to the rules, while others see them as a vehicle to the desired outcome of helping to referee.
    Case in point: FATE, by many already considered a storygame, and certainly by no-one as an OSR game, blatantly states as their number 1 golden rule: “Decide what you want to do first and worry about the rules later.”

  • I feel like this has been stewing in my own mind of late.

    The recent first look of the UVG by Adam Koebel (Co-designer of Dungeon World) really highlights this viewpoint to me. If you watch it, he’s pretty harsh on how it presents the SEACAT system embedded within, in a way that really highlights this mindset to me. For him, the thing he cares most about are the *systems*, and he even says at one point something along the lines of “I don’t really need all the setting stuff, that’s the stuff I can make up on my own”, as if to him the game *IS* the systems to communicate the setting.

    This is entirely opposite to my understanding of the “OSR” mindset. The game *IS* the setting, the dungeon, the characters, the adventure. That’s the stuff we play for. The systems that describe that? Well “I don’t really need all the systems stuff, that stuff I can make up on my own”.

    Interestingly, looking back now, I recently finished up a long running OSR campaign within which exactly the scenario you described happened, we swapped systems a couple times. In conversations with my players that arose when this topic came up, everyone brushed it off as not a big deal, except one player… That one player would talk about all the ways their character was different now after the change in system. I hadn’t really considered why that was such a big deal to them until I literally type this out, but they are the one player in my group who’s other RPG experience is in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Huh. Anecdotal evidence? Certainly. Buts interesting.

  • The way I would look at things is that a game’s content will define a party’s goals. While a system will define it’s success/failure in reaching those goals.

    So to some extent, yes, you can switch the system and things will largely be the same. If the setting is a generic fantasy world and the party is out to kill dragons switching from an OSR system to 5th edition will still keep the party’s goals intact. They’ll have race/classes open to play as their players and probably just die less when switching to 5th edition.

    However, if you switch to some kind of story game system where combat is suddenly not really part of the game, either explicitly where there are no rules for it, or implicitly where it makes success or failure irrelevant or impossible, then the players are going to have to probably come up with new goals, possibly even switch to a different setting. If a setting has tons of dragon lair content and is mostly about killing dragons then why even use it if the game is suddenly about diplomacy and court intrigue and the players never leave the castle?

    I would say that most rule systems are broad enough that if you switch the system that most goals the party has in the setting will still be achievable and carry an element of risk. I think this goes a bit more so for D&D systems and all it’s derivatives as they tend to have a core engine that can be used to resolve pretty much anything, albeit in a very rudimentary way. Storygames, although I don’t have much experience with them, I find to be a bit more constricting as many tend to be developed to enforce certain setting goals and so make certain actions impossible or lack rules for those actions. The worst games, I find, are the ones were the rules actively contradict the goals of the setting essentially making the goals the setting suggest impossible with the rule set they provide.

    I do agree with you where I think OSR games are more interested in content. You have a neutral system and the GM and players create the game they want to play through selecting content. If there are tons of dragons and dragon lairs in the game, it’s going to be a game about slaying dragons even if there aren’t a lot of rules for explicitly killing dragons.

    Whereas story gamers seem to be more interested in rules. I think they tend to create the game they want to play through having explicit rules to dictate more of what the players can and can’t do and create an explicit style of play. They would probably create more rules for explicitly killing dragons and all that and have less content about it.

    I think it has to do with the improvisational nature of both types of games.

    In story games I find you don’t improvise rules. You improvise content instead. You have a rule set that explicitly gives the idea that certain actions have a high degree of success or are outright favoured and so the game should be about ‘that’, and you make up the content for ‘that’ as you go along and create the story.

    In OSR games you don’t improvise content. Instead you improvise rules. The setting is seen as immutable, existing outside the players. It suggests certain goals and actions to the players. As you play the game and they interact with the content you improvise rules to determine the success/failure of their approach.

    • That’s…a really great comment. So there’s a kind of paradox going on. The “fiction first” games are actually the ones with the strictest rules. The games with lots of rules tend to encourage improvised rules and homebrews.

      It makes a sort of sense actually.

      As I read this comment I thought “Jeez, where’s your blog?”. Then I clicked on your name and was rewarded.

  • I’m not the biggest RPGs person, but I can speak from a board and video games perspective. I would define games as experiences. Systems / mechanisms enable and encourage certain kinds of experiences. OSRs feel flexible in the experiences their systems lend themselves to, but I can see a through line of disempowerment and deadliness that discourage direct combat. I would compare them to survival horror games. But OSRs also tend towards flexible play styles and experiences, partly I think this is because of a looseness of mechanism design and a general philosophy of game design. Or as Jesse G. was saying, if your intention is for your game to support broad experiences, then your systems will be designed for that (they can still be very robust). If your intention is to support a specific experience, your systems better damn well be specific.

    If you can switch systems and not notice much of a difference, maybe the game design didn’t do enough of the legwork. Or maybe those systems you switched between were going after the same experience. Or the story content is the thing that hooks you. Or maybe it’s all you, it’s group improv and group dynamics. Most games are a combination of group dynamics and mechanisms. You can usually lean on group dynamics and have a fun experience, but that’s mostly “you” rather than the “design”. I like group improv as much as the next guy, but I’m a systems guy. I like games as rules, as interacting mechanisms that change your behavior to enable fun experiences. The formality of rules, the complex art of communicating to each other on how to use artificial rules to have fun intended experiences is like magic.

  • Context is important, I think when these terms are used, and ‘game’ isn’t necessarily that consistently or precisely defined given the way I see being used. Campaign and ruleset are terms that often help clarify what you mean in the discussions I’ve had in the groups I play in. For me, if you change the rules but maintain the believability and key features and feel of the game world, the campaign is the same, but the rules have changed. One day I’d agree it is the same game, another day I’d say no: we’ve changed the game but the campaign is the same. I’m a bit looser in my strictness for accuracy and precision outside of my job than some of my fellow gamers – many of whom were died in the wool wargamers before getting into RPGs, and still are.

    I don’t suppose that really helps, but I think you’ve got two issues here: one of which is terminology, and what people think of as a game vs ruleset vs campaign vs setting etc..

    However, when you ask what is more important: Content or Rules – to me it is Content. I run games inspired by the fiction and history I like, the current affairs and science and documentaries about cool things etc that pique my interest. The rules have to support me in that, or be hackable enough to allow that. That is what I’ve done ever since I first watched an AD&D 1e game at university in 1979.

    I do have a collection of rulesets – I do like reading rules. But what I run is a game that focuses on a setting, not the rules. And there you have me using game rather than the term campaign, but that is what occured to me as I wrote this. However, if I ran Thieves World in B/X, then changed to RQ2, or Traveller: I’d say it was still my Thieves World Game (or Campaign), but if you picked me up on imprecise terminology I’d probably agree with you.

    As to UVG – to me that is a setting, and a toolkit. Its nice that it has an embedded ruleset to help you out if you need it, but I didn’t get it for that. I don’t generally buy settings for their associated rules – I get them for the ideas.

    For story games, or PbtA stuff: I haven’t played any but I’m interested in trying them one day so I’ve been reading up a bit about them, mainly on Reddit. The impression I get from people discussing them on reddit is that a given PbtA game is targetted at a particular style of story. So The Veil, while its a cyberpunk game, is a very different beast from the Sprawl, also a cyberpunk game. To me, as a novice, it is because they take the free form of what I’m used to in an RPG and quite strictly codify it into a subset, called moves: and each type of character has a playbook with specific set of moves that aren’t the same as anyone elses. And the GM has moves too. And it is all different if you pick a different PbtA (or might be). So it seems to me that yes, their rules are stricter. Now, however wrong I am – well, that’ll tell you why I, as an old school rpg-er, might have difficulty talking with someone who is into PbtA, or playing such a game. This seems to be supported by some of the conversations I’ve seen on reddit where there are big gaps in understanding between some of the people in each world. This is often good, because some of the PbtA gamers have responded with good concise explanations of rule questions and style of play questions.

  • I can’t agree with the general sentiment expressed here. I think that OSR style of play is hugely dependent on the system used. OSR style is tied to early D&D editions which later became ‘bloated’ with other mechanics. Consider these points:

    Deadly: If you make the game less deadly, players don’t need to be as clever to achieve goals. They turn from struggling rogues into powerful heroes more easily. That would drastically change the types of stories told. No need to drag that 10 foot pole around.
    Player skill over character skill: When the system loads characters with useful skills, they start to rely on them more. This could reach superpower levels of 5e.
    Gold as XP: When you change it to XP for kills, players start focusing on killing monsters more than on clever outmaneuvering. Add lower lethality of the system in general and players’ goals will change.

    Those were just a few things that popped into my head, I’m sure there are more similar examples. It seems pretty clear to me that such system changes would change the OSR style of play quite a bit. It could turn the game experience from OSR to 5e high fantasy.

    Content and rules complement each other. Two awesome recent games come to mind – Mutants of Ixx and In the Light of a Ghost Star. Both games use super simple rules that work extremely well in their specific micro-settings. Those games are a complete package and can provide very enjoyable play experience. However, the same rules might not work as well in a different setting where players would want to do a wider range of things or potentially ascend to level 20 superheroes.

    I personally love simplicity, because I hate to be bogged down by brutal crunch that doesn’t reflect reality very well anyway. I just need some reasonable resolution mechanic, characters definition and a usable progress path. The more intuitive the better. Many OD&D and OSR derivatives have systems that may be relatively simple, but are not exactly intuitive.

    Rule systems are just abstractions of how things would go in real life, but like all abstractions they are flawed. Some modern OSR games have come up with some really useful and clever abstraction rules (e.g. usage die). However, the same can be said of many other modern games. One such innovation would be inclusion of gentle narrative nudges right into core mechanics (e.g. Yes, but../No, and..).

    In the end, it’s about what kind of things you enjoy playing. If you like minmaxing your characters, dealing with crunch and spending massive amounts of time in tactical combat, fine. If you like playing a relatively weak character in a deadly world and you enjoy counting your torches and loafs of bread while prodding the floors with a 10 foot pole, also fine. If you prefer to focus on spinning stories, why not.

    However, I have a feeling that many OSR fans have this attitude of superiority over superhero 5e approach or narrative games (whatever those are). When you really look at it, many OSR tropes don’t make much sense and are not realistic at all. In the real world an average or below average character (uh, I rolled 5 for STR) would not become an adventurer. Or if it did, it would die quickly. Who would engage in dangerous caving activities like stealing a drug cartel’s money stash from a cave? Some veteran master cavers or some below average losers? Or that scene from Mandalorian ep.2 where he stands in front of that cave. Damn, that was scary. We know that Mandalorian was pretty strong, but that cave screamed danger. I could feel his fear as he entered. Some loser character would have to be insane or really really stupid to enter that cave. It is also pretty easy to design hardly detectable traps that 10 foot poles would not trigger. Group enters, the corridor to that part of the dungeon gets caved in. Characters die within a weak unless they are packing some serious arsenal of tricks (probably spells). Fireball traps? Why bother..

    You know, dangerous adventuring missions behind enemy lines are for special forces not for regular grunts. Regular grunts are smart enough to avoid semi-suicide endeavors and having survived some ‘regular’ soldierly combat they are definitely not running after action beyond their duty.

    At this point you could say that in the OSR world, characters hire henchmen. Strength in numbers. But what are henchmen? They are just an abstraction. It offloads capabilities of characters onto the henchmen. They serve as mules, attacks per round and human shield buffers so that the weak characters don’t die as quickly. In a way it’s a bit of a cop-out. Instead of playing Reinhold Messner you play a bunch of weak climbers who would never get to the top without sherpas and oxygen tanks. And after a dozen henchmen die just so I could get some treasure, I might start questioning my moral compass (sherpas sometimes die too but it is a great tragedy, not an accounting write-off).

    If you enjoy OSR style of play as defined by OD&D/B/X era, that’s fine. I’m not judging. Just don’t think that it’s in some way more realistic or necessarily better than everything else out there. I’m not hating here, even if it seems like that. I like the OSR movement and I’d rather play a B/X game than 5e. I just wanted to offer a few observations. It’s possible that my understanding of RPGs is wrong, happy to be educated ;-) Peace.

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