Rules and Fun

by James Wyatt, designer

Why does D&D have rules? Why does this book exist?

Wouldn’t it be fun to gather a group of your friends together and engage in a collaborative form of storytelling together, crafting an epic tale of high fantasy? You could tell any story you could imagine, invent the strangest and most fantastic magic, shake the earth and tear the heavens. You could do anything you could dream, within your story, and leave that gathering inspired. Story has power. Our myths shape the way we live.

It’s possible that what I’ve just described is not too different from one of your D&D sessions. I’ve heard people brag that they hardly ever roll dice when they play D&D. When some people think about D&D as a roleplaying game, that first word is the most important—roleplaying. It’s almost a form of improvisational theater, immersing themselves in characters, trying to imagine what those characters would do in the fantastic situations of the D&D world. Improvisational theater or collaborative storytelling.

One of the great elements of roleplaying, in this sense, is that you’re not having a story fed to you. You are participating in the creation of the story. That’s one of the things that makes it fun—your involvement in it, your ability to explore a vast expanse of possibility that’s limited only by your imagination (and that of your DM). Game theorist and designer Will Wright has said, “Fun is the process of discovering areas in a possibility space.” In D&D, that kind of fun never ends.

But the second half of “roleplaying game” is game. Some people focus on that word almost to the exclusion of the first. They view D&D purely as a tactical simulation—an exercise in die-rolling and probability. But fundamentally, D&D is a game about roleplaying, rather than a roleplaying exercise like you might encounter in a corporate training exercise or a session with a psychologist.

Games have rules.

Why have rules? For people who don’t like dice with their D&D, the rules might seem to get in the way of fun. For the tactical simulation crowd, who can’t be bothered to roleplay, the fun is entirely in the rules. But in a roleplaying game, the rules contribute to fun in two important ways.

The first is that rules define limits. Part of the fun of a game is puzzle-solving. The biggest puzzle of D&D is figuring out how to succeed within the limits of the rules.

In a pure storytelling exercise, someone can present a challenge for the protagonists, but there might not be a lot of challenge to figure out how to overcome it, because no limits exist as to what you can do. The protagonists of an improvisational story can be godlike, easily overcoming any obstacle. Children’s playground games are a fine example of this. When my son and I act out imaginary battles, I can’t win, because he constantly invents defenses against my attacks and creates new attacks to assault me. His imagination is faster than mine, so he wins.

Rules limit that escalation and enforce balance. They carefully define your chance of succeeding on many of the things your character might attempt in the course of an adventure. Fundamentally, game balance is about making sure that everyone has the same limits, or rather, limits that give them roughly equal chances of success in different ways. A fighter and a wizard fight very differently, and they’re skilled at different roles, but if they’re balanced with each other, they have equal opportunities to defeat their foes and emerge from the dungeon victorious. And that makes the game more fun.

When my son and I play D&D, he has to figure out how to beat my monsters given the spells and abilities at his character’s disposal. He’s inclined to invent spells that will let him defeat any monster I throw at him, but the rules let me say, “Well, that should be a higher-level spell than you can cast. Maybe in a couple more levels.” D&D combat is a lot more fun, for me at least, than being conquered by a fevered imagination.

The second way rules contribute to fun is by setting out possibilities. D&D’s rules as limits largely fit between the covers of this book. That’s actually pretty amazing—people think of D&D as an incredibly complex game with entire bookshelves full of rules. The vast majority of those rules, though, are not limits—they’re possibilities. Most D&D books are full of classes you can adopt, spells you can cast, monsters you can fight. Even when you’re not actively playing the game, you can look through your books and sample the possibilities. You can plan your character’s advancement—choose the feats you want to take over the next several levels, pick your next spells, browse the prestige classes. You can stock dungeons with monsters, traps, and treasures. You can build a whole world from the possibilities expressed in the rules. You can even make up your own rules—your own prestige class, spell, feat, race, or monster.

Rules are a two-edged sword where possibilities are concerned, though. In a computer game, the rules (that is to say, the computer code) define the possibilities of what you can do very narrowly. If you want to crawl underneath a bed and the game doesn’t let you crawl, you just can’t. The rules are too restrictive. The rules of D&D, though, limit your options without too narrowly defining them. The beauty of D&D is that your character can try anything you can imagine. The rules are there as a yardstick to measure your chance of success.

What’s most fun about D&D, though—at least in my opinion—is that the game is what you want it to be. If you’re more interested in the roleplaying than in the game, or the other way around, the game can accommodate your preference. Whatever your taste in fantasy, you can create it within the framework of the rules. If you want to immerse yourself in the game, build your own world from the hamlet level up (or from the cosmological level down), the game will reward you for all that work. If you want to show up one evening a week and hang out with your friends, rolling a few dice when someone pokes you, the game will reward that level of involvement as well. The fun is there for the finding—in this one book of rules limits and in the ever-expanding universe of rules possibilities.

Rules and Fun

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