A Penny for Your Thoughts

How RPG Rules Work

This is description, not prescription.

The way I figure it, an RPG's rules coordinate three things:

The fictional things and events and stuff in the game. The interactions of the players themselves. Dice, numbers, words, maps - real-world tokens, things, props, representations. Emily calls 'em "cues" and I think that's just right.

If you can pick it up and hand it to another player, or change it with a pencil and eraser, it's a real-world cue. If it exists only in our heads and our conversation, it's in-game.

So here's a rule: "1. Don't mess with the dark forest to the North, it's Vincent's."

This rule coordinates the interactions of us, the players, with the made-up stuff in the game. The rule says that if the in-game stuff comes to include our characters entering the forest, we change our interactions in a particular way: we defer to me, Vincent, about what's what.

The rightward-pointing arrow is "our characters entering the forest," the leftward-pointing arrow is "we defer to Vincent about what's what."

Here's a rule: "2. Subtract the roll on the damage die from your character's hit points."

This rule coordinates our interactions with the real-world cues we're employing. The leftward-pointing arrow is "the roll on the damage die," the rightward-pointing arrow is "subtract from your character's hit points." The die represents every real-world thing we're using: dice, character sheets, life stones, everything.

Notice that non-RPG games' rules are all entirely like this one. Monopoly, Chess, Die Siedler - they have no fictional in-game, just people interacting and real-world tokens.

Here's a rule: "3. If your character has higher ground than his opponent, make your attack roll at +3."

Now this rule takes information from the fictional in-game and applies it to the real-world tokens we're using. The long rightward-pointing arrow is "your character has higher ground than his opponent, +3," and the leftward-pointing arrow is "make your attack roll."

I've drawn the long arrow through the people because of course it's the people who interpret the in-game and apply the rule.

Here's a rule: "4. If your character takes damage greater than 4 on the damage roll, he's knocked down."

Here the rules instruct us to have certain things happen fictionally when certain things happen in the real world. The rightward-pointing arrow is "the damage roll" and the long leftward-pointing arrow is "damage greater than 4, knocked down."

Here's a rule: "5. If your character's opponent tries to disarm your character, make a Hold Weapon check. If you fail, your character is disarmed, and you thus suffer the unarmed penalty until you retrieve your weapon."

The more complicated your rule, the more complicated the arrangement of arrows. The short leftward-pointing arrow is "your character's opponent tries to disarm your character." The long rightward-pointing arrow is "make a Hold Weapon check." The long leftward-pointing arrow is "your character is disarmed" - the part where we imagine your character's sword skittering across the rocks. The short rightward-pointing arrow, at last, is "suffer the unarmed penalty."

If this were the Weapon Breakage rule instead of the Weapon Droppage rule, the short rightward-pointing arrow would be both "suffer the unarmed penalty" and "add 'broken' to your weapon on your character sheet."

So now, we employ various rules in various orders and combinations over time.


This animation shows kind of what Dogs in the Vineyard or D&D or Shadowrun or PTA or V:tM is like in play.

The way Charles' group plays Ars Magica would have practically only the arrows between the players and the in-game lit up:

(I'm very open to correction about this, but it's my impression.)

The way my group plays Ars Magica would be about the same, but we'd have the arrows crossing the players light up a few times per session:

And finally, Jonathan Tweet in Everway describes three kinds of rules: Drama, Fortune and Karma.

Rules like this are Drama rules.

Rules like this are Fortune rules if the real-world cues include dice or some other randomizer; Karma rules if they don't.

On 1-19-05, Matt wrote:

I really only clicked to see if comments were working, but now I feel obliged to come up with something.

My ideal game, I think, has a balance of movement across all the arrows. This might be a useful diagram for identifying the kind of play people prefer by making certain arrows darker, etc. Or not. Shit, it's only 6 here and what am I doing up?

On 1-19-05, anon. wrote:

"Notice that non-RPG games' rules are all entirely like this one. Monopoly, Chess, Die Siedler - they have no fictional in-game, just people interacting and real-world tokens."

I would strongly disagree with this. The fictional worlds may not be as pronounced or as strongly identified with as in RPGs, but they definately exist.

Case in point: Diplomacy. There's you intereacting with other people and the game board, but there's almost always a shared imaginative space of diplomatic missions running back and forth and high-level meetings and so on.

Even Monopoly can work this way. Who does not make sound effects when they move their pieces? Who does not chortle like Snidely Whiplash when they send another player to bankruptcy? And in these moments, a fictional scene plays out.

Who knows, perhaps when Kasparov is advancing his knight, he's thinking of a medieval kingdom?


On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

I guess somebody was going to say that.

Maybe my best answer is:

Playing Monopoly, no arrows come rightward out of the fiction. Imagine whatever you want, nobody else cares.

When we talk about the imaginary stuff in the game re: rules, we aren't talking about what I'm imagining in my own personal head anyway. We're talking about the shared fiction, which means that it's communicated and agreed to. Kasparov might be thinking about a kingdom or his laundry, I'm pretty sure he's not saying it all out loud and trying to get his opponent to buy into it.

And just to head off the other half: of course the players can create house rules to make Monopoly into a roleplaying game. Whatever! I don't think it's especially controversial to observe that, as written, Monopoly ain't one. Lord I hope it's not.

On 1-19-05, C. Edwards wrote:

"Notice that non-RPG games' rules are all entirely like this one. Monopoly, Chess, Die Siedler - they have no fictional in-game, just people interacting and real-world tokens."

I totally accept and enjoy those kinds of rules in a non-RPG. They seem annoying, unsatisfying, and extraneous most of the time when they are incorporated into a role-playing game. It almost seems like a wasted action to have rules that don't directly interact with the shared imaginary space.

I want to achieve nearly 100% efficiency in my rule/work to shared imaginary space exchange.

On 1-19-05, Bryant wrote:

Nice! Very nice. I agree with this 100% and I like the arrows a lot.

On 1-19-05, Chris wrote:

Wow! Vincent- it just struck me how much power goes into the traditional GM's hands in that they get final say not only over what goes into that imaginary space, but also what effects the imaginary space has back OUT into the game itself. So, say a player wants to put a character in a tactically advantageous situation, and even the GM agrees("You're on higher ground, with the sun to your back, etc.") but only if the GM decides to apply modifers back out to the Tokens in play, will the SIS have a solid effect.

This is probably one of the best little ways of explaining the whole social effect of gaming there. Neat.

On 1-19-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

I have this whole essay brewing about this two rightmost little arrows. If you're going to beat me to it, let me know.


On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

I have no plans!

What's your essay going to say?

On 1-19-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

Like most of my essays, it's going to say "Look, a thing!"

We physicists aren't so keen on the "persuasive argument" thing.

Essentially, I think some games have something called "toy quality" where the game's mechanic itself is fun to play without needing to reference the SIS at all. I think that games with toy quality are a bridge to board and card and dice games. I also think it might be a key to Gamism, but I'm not sure.


P.S. Hey, remember when I was talking about how "everything is system?" I was going "look, see, those arrows are symmetric!" Just couldn't express myself well.

P.P.S. Heck, I still don't know what system is. Is it that box on the right? Or is that just mechanics?

P.P.P.S. Say we're using a published setting with canon guidebooks. Is the setting in the right box or the left box?

On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

The arrows are System. System is what we do.

The left box is a snapshot: what's happening in the game right now. You can imagine its contents changing over the course of play, alongside the arrows lighting up and going out.

The right box is everything that's real that we consult to help us decide what's happening in the left box. Along with dice and the writing on character sheets and stuff, it can include the contents of setting guidebooks. Really though, the vast most of the contents of setting guidebooks simply don't appear in the illustration; they wait outside of frame in case we want them.

On 1-19-05, Ben Lehman wrote:


Rules printed in the game book: Cue or System?


On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

System if we're using them right now, nothing if we aren't. "Using them" includes things like "if we get into combat, there goes the whole rest of the session - let's talk to them instead."

On 1-19-05, Ben Lehman wrote:


Now I still can't understand that other thread, where I was like "it's all system" and other people were like "what?" I was hoping it would illuminate that. I think I'm still right, though.

Anyway, thanks a bunch. Just going to go stare at the animations now.


On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

Link me to the other thread?

On 1-19-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

And look! There's your diagram!

On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:


On 1-19-05, nothings wrote:

I'm sure you've thought of all of this already, Vincent, but I found your explanation a little confusing, so I have tried to go through in a little more detail and a slightly different focus.

My apologies if I've slipped on any Forge-ian terminology, as I'm not actually a regular reader.

On 1-19-05, Vincent wrote:

Nothings: linkinated. (corrected)

Well, I agree that you have a different focus. I think that the differences between mine and yours can probably all be summed up in their opening sentences: my " RPG's rules coordinate..." vs your "...the activity of game-playing can be reasonably characterized by the interaction of..."

Like, I don't include a picture of the rules because all I'm talking about is the rules. I also don't include props or snacks - except as real things inside the d6 picture, if and only if a rule refers to them.

Also having a GM outside of the group is nonsense, no matter how you slice it. If you want to talk about distribution of authority within the group, cool, and that's when a GM can come up - but the GM's a person same as the rest of us.

And about my arrows and dice: I consider the interesting bit of rolling a die to be the interpretation of it, not the rolling of it. Thus "roll the die" is an arrow pointing from the die to the players; from the origin of the information to its destination.

Um, so now what? This conversation will make more sense if either you ask me to comment on yours, which I'd be happy to do in another thread, or else you ask me questions about mine, which I'd be happy to answer here. Or both!

On 1-20-05, Vincent wrote:

Ben, I reread that thread, most of it anyway. Here's a thing:

The goal of designing rules is to change social contract.

When I design a set of rules, I'm trying to change the way that people relate to one another, within the confines of the game. I'm trying to force, trick, or provoke them into treating one another in particular, possibly unnatural ways. I'm fuckin' around with their working creative relationships.

Beyond apportioning credibility, rules create permission and expectation. Permission and expectation are the real building blocks of social contract; cunningly designed rules have access to human interactions at a deep level.

So, sure, there are no complete RPGs; as you say, the complete RPG is playerless. It may work better to think of RPG rules as strong or weak, flexible or brittle: a strong RPG draws the players into its particular play, where a weak one allows them to play however comes naturally. A flexible RPG can survive or redirect a broad range of preexisting social dynamics, where a brittle one requires a particular social dynamic to already be in place, or the game crashes.

Am I making sense? Am I kind of on your topic?

I bumped this thread up to the front page. Let's talk about my diagrams here.

On 1-20-05, Rognli wrote:

This is like the Central Theorem of Roleplaying. For dummies. With friendly, unscary illustrations. It doesn't get any better...

Can I translate it for publication in the only Norwegian gaming-zine, "Imagonem"? And before you ask; no we can't pay you, cause we don't make any money. But I will tell everyone you are very cool.

On 1-20-05, Vincent wrote:



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