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You Buy the Rules to Play Them

 ·  ☕ 6 min read

Consider this exchange between a player and a referee:

Player: “Can you add [5e race] into [System]? I really want to play one.”
Referee: “No, I bought [System] for a reason and don’t want to deviate too much.”
P: “Then why are we using the sailing system from [different System] instead of these ones. Gunpowder isn’t in [System] either.”
R: “Those are different because they are part of setting the campaign tone”
P: “So why can’t that tone include [5e Race]?”

Now, the referee is completely in his rights to do this. It’s his game after all. However, one can sympathize with the player as well. If the referee is just going to cobble rules together at random, there’s no reason he can’t cobble something the player wants as well. Other than he doesn’t want to, of course. A version of this exchange happened to me a few months ago and I have been marinating on it ever since. I believe that I’ve come to a few conclusions after my contemplations on the Tree of Woe. I’m going to share the conclusions over the next few posts

Why do RPG referees buy1 rule-sets? It isn’t uncommon to own multiple clones of B/X (and all it’s flavors), Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, OD&D and it’s clones, several “second generation” OSR games2 and still desire to acquire more. This on top of non-dnd games like Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Traveller and innumerable others. My shelf is full of games I technically don’t run, since I mostly play home-brewed B/X (through the vehicle of OSE), or more recently ACKs. So why continue buying systems?

Well the answer to this question seems deceptively simple. Referees buy the rules to play them. Let me repeat. You buy the rules to play them.

There may be different reasons for wanting to play them. Many of the systems I have were bought when I was completely green to the #OSR and didn’t know the differences between the various dnd editions (B/X, AD&D, OD&D). Some of them where gifts and I felt obligated to at least give them a fair shake. Others, perhaps the plurality, I bought because I wanted the experience they purported to offer.

I bought them to play them, in other words.

In fact, look at what I just said, quote, “Many of the systems I have were bought when I was completely green to the #OSR and didn’t know the differences between the various dnd editions (B/X, AD&D, OD&D).” I bought systems to try them and see what I liked best. This extends into the clones as well. Lamentations of the Flame Princess offers a very different experience from Labyrinth Lord, even though they are both “just B/X clones” as naysayer’s might be inclined to say. This offer is why you buy the rules. I bought Lamentations because I wanted to run a game with flint-lock rifles and pistols, because I like black powder weapons in my fantasy games. I bought the rules to play them. I bought Stars Without Number because I wanted to run a high-tech space game. I bought the rules to play them. I bought Call of Cthulhu for my annual Halloween game. I bought the rules to play them.

This I’d wager is the reason why anyone buys any rules, to play them. Rules, as stated previously, offer different experiences. In fact, there is usually an explicit offer and an implicit offer. The explicit offer is what is on the marketing material. The implicit offer is what the rules actually facilitate when played. Ideally these two agree but that is not always the case. Advanced Dungeons and Dragon’s marketing material looks more like video game ads of today. They certainly don’t make me think the high-crunch, almost competitive nature of games played in the system. Lamentations on the other hand, explicitly wants a potential buyer to know that this is a 15th century horror setting with disgusting monsters and edginess. Then it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. The explicit offer is usually why you buy a game. Again, like a chthonic incantation, you buy the rules to play them. You buy the rules because you like the explicit offer you’re shown, and you are hoping that the implicit offer matches it.

Where does this fit into the exchange at the start? Well it goes back to campaign tone and feel. The impetus for the exchange is that the referee in question does not understand why he bought the rules. He thinks he does, and even uses it as an excuse to not include something he does not want in his campaign. But if he bought the rules to play them, he should have to change large swaths of them into different rules to facilitate the campaign he is running. He bought the rules to play them, he should play them. This mismatch is what lead to the player being confused as to why his desire for a race from a different system should not be added in the same way the piles of home brew and rules cobbling had been added. Something has gone wrong between the referee buying the rules he was “using” and the start of the campaign. Likely, what has happened is that the referee wants to deliver an experience with his campaign, and the rules are not a good fit for that experience.

It is important to note here that this can happen for any number of reasons. The mismatch could have been discovered organically during play and the changes made just as organically. It could be that the rules in question are not a good fit, but no system is and this one is the closest. In that case the changes were likely made up front to facilitate the campaign the referee wanted (this is the way OD&D was developed, referee’s making changes to existing games to better suit what they wanted). It could also be that the referee just blindly makes these changes no matter what system is being used. The first too are understandable, it is usually to make rulings into rules on top of a system than to wholesale change systems in the middle of a campaign. The last reason though feels like failed game-designer syndrome. Whatever the reason the referee is ignoring the reason he bought the rules. And he bought the rules to play them.

In the next post, I plan to go more in depth into the interaction between playing RAW, home brewing and campaign experience. Stick around for that! For now though

Sail On!

  1. Buy, for the purposes of this post, means more than just monetary expenditure. It also refers to mental buy-in by virtue of reading a system or running a one-shot. Time is a resource and spending on a new system is “buying” that system. Many fine games require no monetary expenditure, but a fair amount of time and mental energy to read. ↩︎

  2. Second generation here meaning games that are based on a TSR chassis, but make so many modification that “clone” doesn’t fit. Examples include ACKs, and Hyperborea. ↩︎

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