The Roles of Rules in RPGs

In recent times, I’ve noticed a growing number of advocates for “rules light” role-playing games. This is hardly a new concept, but perhaps due to my own internet habits, I’ve recently come into contact with a much larger number of forum posts, articles, blogs, etc. advocating for lighter rules design. In this blog, I will primarily focus on live-action role-playing games (LARPs), since that’s where I’m seeing the greatest amount of activity along these lines. The general concepts are, in my opinion, also applicable to several other styles of games.

I’d like to specifically note that one of the posts that inspired me to write this is John Wick’s “Chess is not an RPG” post. This is not intended to be a direct reply to his blog, however, some of my comments do overlap with what he is discussing.

Most of the arguments for lighter rules tend to have a few core values that they emphasize, and I’d like to note a few of them here before I get into my responses to them.

  • Accessibility. Games with complex rules mechanics take more time to learn and may scare off players who do not want to take the significant time investment necessary to learn the detailed rules.
  • Confusion. The longer the rules set, the harder it is to commit the entire thing to memory.
  • Immersion. Complex rules often lead to rules debates and discussions that can distract from the role-playing side of the game.
    • In addition, extensive rules sets often have mechanics for things that are difficult to display visually, which can lead to other forms of immersion breaking. A very common mechanic that causes this in live-action games is stealth. Most stealth mechanics involve having some sort of symbol – be it a flag, or a hand gesture – to signal to someone that they can’t see you. This is highly likely to break immersion in one way or another, because the player has to “pretend” they don’t sense something they actually do sense.
  • Logistics. Some abilities are so complicated that they can require putting the game on hold. Common examples of these in live-action games include flight, teleportation, wish spells, etc.
  • Physical Ability vs. Character Ability. In live-action role-playing games with extensive rules, it’s common for some characters to possess abilities that the player does not personally possess (e.g. magic, special combat techniques, etc). This can result in situations when a person’s real world abilities are trumped by another person’s character abilities. For example, a common combat ability in games that use foam weapons for simulated combat is “Disarm”, which allows a player to strike another player’s weapon and call the word “Disarm”, forcing the target to drop their weapon. Some players dislike this mode of conflict resolution, either because it negates their personal abilities, or because the mere usage of character abilities breaks their immersion.
  • Progression. Games with complex rules often offer some form of progression for characters, frequently unlocking new abilities or increasing character statistics. This can be especially problematic for live-action games, since there are often a large number of players compared to tabletop games, and often there are few or no ways of filtering these players based on their player or character experience level. This can lead to situations where higher powered characters eclipse lower powered characters in every possible way, which can compound the “Player Ability vs. Character Ability” concern, as well as create additional concerns about deprotagonizing the new players.
  • Optimization Disparity. Complex games often have a problem with some character builds being “worse” than others, and players that focus on optimizing their characters getting a significant advantage.
  • Freedom. Games with lots of rules can inhibit player freedom by restricting character concepts, abilities, etc. based on what is allowed within the scope of the rules set. This can leave some players feeling like they can’t obtain what they want from their character, or from the game itself.

Not every “rules light” game emphasizes all of these, of course. These are just a sampling of some of the reasons I believe different groups advocate for simpler and games.

Each of these are legitimate concerns, but I would argue that each of them can also be addressed to varying degrees, and potentially in ways that allow for in-depth rules to enhance a game rather than detract from it. Gaming is extremely subjective, however, and my solutions will not be suitable for every possible player or every possible game.

Addressing Accessibility

There are a number of ways to make a complicated game more accessible to your audience. I recommend the following steps.

  • Make a beginner’s guide to your rules, which has everything a player needs in order to get started in the game.
    • This beginner’s guide can also help give players advice on “best practices” for your own game. For example, you can offer advice on types of characters that perform well in your game setting, or specific character types that are already so common that they will lack utility.
  • Set up player advocates to help introduce new players to your game. If you have an established game, veteran players that understand your lore, rules, etc. make great resources for this.
  • Arrange for character creation days, beta tests for new rules, and other events with the function of helping people get used to the game.

Combating Confusion

  • Don’t put all your game mechanics in one place. Much like D&D traditionally breaks down their core rules into a Player’s Handbook, a Dungeon Master’s Guide, and a Monster’s Manual (and then splat books beyond those), other games can benefit from avoiding front-loading players with too much information.
    • If you have game skills or mechanics that are not going to be introduced in your Player’s Handbook equivalent, you can make them easier to understand by constructing them using the same terminology and basic mechanical functions as you use elsewhere. In live-action games, having a list of “core effects” or “calls” is one way to handle this. For example, if you have a “Charm” effect in the basic rules, a hidden skill that has the effect of “Charm Elemental” is relatively simple to understand as a natural extension of what they already know.

Improving Immersion

  • You can train players to treat certain game mechanics as things that their characters are experiencing in the game world. For example, hearing someone call out “2 Fire” might be immersion breaking to some, but if a player is trained that “2 Fire” represents the sounds of battle, they can learn to adapt and respond to it appropriately in-character. When one person responds to something in-character, it encourages other players to do so.
  • If a game mechanic constantly proves to break immersion, consider ways you can improve those abilities. Stealth, for example, is easier to digest if it can only be used under certain conditions (e.g. when you’re in a dark place, out of line of sight, etc.) If even that is too immersion breaking for your particular game, consider alternative “rogue” style skills to replace it, such as disguise, evasion, etc.


  • Similar to discussion about immersion, try to find ways to modify or replace abilities that are too logistically cumbersome. For example, a Teleportation ability could be replaced with a “Fast Movement” ability, where rather than going out-of-game, the target simply gains the ability to dodge attacks and bypass obstacles for a specific duration.

Preserving Physicality

  • Different styles of games are going to want to handle this issue differently. There’s a sliding scale between physical capabilities determining the resolution to almost every conflict (e.g. battle games) and physical capabilities being easily trumped by character abilities (the IFGS). The key here is to figure out your intended demographic and tailor your rules to be suited toward that demographic.

Problems with Progression

  • The most common problem with progression-based LARPs, in my opinion, come from the level of disparity between starting characters and veterans. Some of the oldest LARPs in the US, such as NERO and the IFGS, tend to have a power scale that somewhat resembles old editions of D&D. That basically means that a first level wizard has about a 75% chance to lose in a fight against a house cat, and a 20th level wizard has about a 75% chance to successfully break reality with an infinite wish recursion loop. In a game where one player is a farmer with a pitchfork and the other player is Superman, there isn’t a lot for the farmer to contribute – hell, Clark grew up on a farm, he can probably even do that better, given his core physical statistics.
    • The best way to resolve this, in my opinion, is to decrease this level of disparity. In D&D, players often talk about a “sweet spot” in the leveling curve, where heroic adventures can happen but characters are not yet powerful enough to punch out C’thulu. It doesn’t make sense for every LARP to run in this power range, but’s a good idea to think about why it exists, and if it’s possible to provide a good experience to your players from beginning to end.
    • There are several other ways to address this problem, too. Dying Kingdoms, for example, has characters automatically “retire” to NPC status at a certain level – usually after a final epic send off adventure. This is a great alternate solution, but it may not be suitable for games that are designed for very long-term (or variable term) characters goals.

Demolishing Disparity

  • While it’s not possible to perfectly balance a game rules system, it’s definitely possible to take the time to analyze particular things that might be useless or far too potent. Different games are going to have different balance goals. For a competitive game, making individual builds competitive against one another has some degree of importance. For a cooperative game, it’s more important that each character build is simply useful and fun to the people who make use of them, and that abilities do not significantly detract from the experience of other players.
    • For example, a common balance problem is when wizards can do the same things that thieves can – but better, because wizards have magic. If a wizard can unlock doors faster than thieves with an unlock spell, sneak better with their invisibility spell, etc., why would someone play a thief? Why would anyone in the game world ever *be* a mundane thief? Perhaps your story can justify this to some extent, but it’s easier – and probably better for the experience of your players – to make sure major character archetypes all have a role to play in the game.


  • There’s an interesting scale here, because the simplest games – essentially “free form” roleplaying – offer almost complete freedom, but the next stages in simplicity – defined rules that have few customization options – offer very little. The best approach, in my opinion, is to provide a rules system with a level of freedom that accurately mirrors your game world. For example, if a specific type of magic is rare in your game world, rules reflecting that can actually improve your game.

And that leads me to the advantages of having a well-developed rules set. It might sound like a lot of work to try to mitigate or solve all the problems of having a well-developed game, but in my opinion, the benefits are worth it. Some of those potential benefits are outlined here.

  • Internal Consistency. When the game rules and setting match each other, this can contribute to an overall feeling of depth to the game world. This, in my opinion, actually serves to create a setting that has a greater potential for immersion than a world without rules . Inconsistencies and unanswered questions can be extremely immersion breaking for some players.
  • Story Synergy. As an extension of internal consistency, it’s possible for rules and story elements to actually feed off each other and benefit each other directly. One of my favorite examples of this is having multiple in-game martial arts styles.
    • In Shades of Venaya, if I see a fighter using the Teris Low-Blade Style, I can glean several things from that immediately. The fighter is using a style from Terisgard, so I know he probably came from there or was trained by someone from that region. It’s a defensive style, which means either he’s simply trained to defend, or he’s deliberately chosen to take a defensive approach to our fight – which means maybe I can talk him out of fighting. It’s also a very effective style against the Aayaran Instant Striking Style, so I shouldn’t use that. I can choose a style that counters it more effectively, like the Lysen Tear Style.
      • This example shows that just seeing a style can lead not only to strategic considerations – which effect gameplay – but also story decisions. If you know what city someone is probably from, maybe you can use gossip about that city to distract the fighter. If you know they’re fighting defensively, maybe they’re hesitant to fight you. Adding abilities like these to a game can add a broad variety of potential role-playing opportunities.
    • This type of synergy doesn’t only exist for combat. One of my favorite interactions between game mechanics and story is with magic systems. A well-developed magic system can allow players to debate sorcerous theory – both simply for fun and to determine the best ways to solve-in game problems.
  • Game Balance. In the example above, I explained that the Teris Low-Blade style was good against one style and bad against another – that scissors/paper/rock style is a form of balance that can add positive gameplay in multiple ways. First, it helps encourage people to take roles that support each other – two fighters that each know multiple styles have excellent synergy, since they can work together and switch styles as needed to counter foes they come across.
  • Reinforcing Scarcity. Various types of scarcity can benefit a game if properly controlled within a rules system.
    • Species scarcity can prevent your game from being overwhelmed with specific types of character types that are supposed to be uncommon (or nonexistent) in your game world. For example, if the fae are supposed to be nearly extinct, but they’re a valid player race, you’re probably going to have a *lot* of fae PCs unless you put restrictions on making them.
    • Ability scarcity can help make specific abilities come across as very powerful or useful. For example, if only one character in a game can resurrect the dead, that character is probably everyone’s best friend.
    • Character resource scarcity (e.g. hit points, mana, fatigue) can make situations feel more desperate. Healing the wounded is a much bigger deal when you have a limited mana pool to work with – and not enough to save everyone.
  • Extrapolation. If the rules and the story of a game are internally consistent with one another, players can use their knowledge of one to learn more about the other. For example, if a character knows that elementals in their setting are always weak against their opposite element, they could potentially extrapolate that a magical item of a particular element could be broken with “break item” spell attuned to the opposite element of the item.
  • Positive Impacts of Progression. A game with progression systems offers several benefits.
    • From a story standpoint, it helps provide meaningful development that can help to allow them to overcome challenges that may have been difficult or impossible when their story began.
    • In a system with progression, mechanics can be introduced slowly as a character grows stronger. This helps keep the complexity of a rules system more manageable.
      • My personal favorite way of handling this is through “lore skills”. In Arbiter System games, players can acquire lore skills during character creation or from other players and characters during the game. Each lore skill comes with a document explaining information on the lore’s subject, and many of them come with additional skill trees a character can purchase. For example, a character who learns about a specific type of magic might begin to be able to spend points to purchase magical skills of that type.
      • By allowing players to buy lore skills during character creation, it becomes possible for new characters to come into the game with skills that veteran characters have never even heard of. This makes the new player feel special, and helps encourage veteran characters to take new character seriously and include them in activities.
    • Progression is a powerful retention tool. The lull of gradually developing a more powerful character can help keep people involved in your game, which in turn helps keep your game running.
  • Customization. As I mentioned when discussing freedom, one of the advantages of a well-developed game is that they can often offer more character customization options than simplistic systems. Having a variety of options can prevent new players from feeling like they’re just a weaker version of a more established character, and can also help tailor their game experience to their tastes. Some players enjoy playing the same general “type” of character across multiple game styles – archetypes like “tanks”, “damage dealers”, “healers”, and “wizards” are very common. If a game doesn’t offer the type of archetype a player wants, this may reduce the player’s interest level in that game.
  • Engagement. A well-developed system can be just as entertaining to some players as a beautifully written story. This doesn’t only apply to people who like to maximize their character’s effectiveness – some players just love trying to figure out how their characters are going to develop over time. A system with flexible options can help provide the player with what they need to make their character fit the image they desire – within the constraints of the game world. For example, a well-developed system might allow a character who has been a fighter for their whole career to begin to learn healing magic after they failed to save an injured friend. A less developed system might not offer this level of flexibility.

In conclusion, my main point is that rules – when properly written – can do a lot to enhance the overall experience of the players in that game. Additionally, well-developed rules don’t have to detract from role-playing and immersion – they can actually enhance those experiences, too, at least for some players. Every game is different, so my specific suggestions are just those – suggestions. It’s worth taking the time to evaluate precisely how in-depth you want your rules to be and how that might effect the experience of the participants in your game.

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