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When people talk about rules in RPGs they often refer to things like stats or dice. But that cannot be the whole of the story. Because in games rules are quite simple there to let us know what to do and what not to do during play. Therefore things like the existence of a GM and what they ought to do must be a rule. How to properly play a character is a rule. 

We can differentiate the following kinds of rules:

Ownership: A player can own a fictional entity. Like a player usually owns a PC and the GM owns pretty much the rest of the fiction. If you own an entity you can mostly do what as you wish with it, unless other rules interfere. Of course ownership can be distributed in many different ways. For example, if the Elf player not only owns their character but also elvish culture, they could make statements about it without being gainsaid. Of course there are lots of games without GM / player split.

Principles: Principles are guidelines on how you should play entities you own and how to act towards other players. (The term I took from Apocalypse World.) Examples might be to fudge dice, talk in first person, ask lots of questions, say yes or roll dice and many more. Principles are often considered tips, like GMing Tips or Player Tips, but by the definition above, they are actually rules. And that’s a good thing. Because if they are rules, we can actively rule them when we make games. Together with ownership, principles constitute a vast design space that is often ignored.

Setting: One principle that is present in every game is to respect established content. There could be no ongoing story if everyone ignored established facts. Many groups and games do a bit more. They accept content wholesale before play even starts. Like, when we play Star Trek 22nd century, we know that there are Klingons but probably no Dominion. We should consider Setting a kind of rule, because when we make a game, we can craft the setting in such a way that it fits our game’s premise. If you want to formulate setting information, it usually works like so: Since elves have pointy ears, do not describe elves having round ears.

Procedures: Also called mechanics or rules in a stricter sense. I like the term procedure, because that’s what they are, step-by-step descriptions of what you should do under certain conditions. We can recognize two important subtypes of procedures. 

  • Generative procedures create new instances of a certain type of entity. Like character generation. 
  • Interactive procedures come into play when fictional entities interact in a certain manner. Usually when these entities are owned by different players. Combat systems are typical examples, but also when some PC jumps over the GM’s chasm. They are sometimes called “resolution methods”. I don’t really like that term, because sometimes it is doubtful what is actually resolved. Consider a single attack that does 3 HP damage in an ongoing fight.

So if these are all rules that help us to bring about what our game is about, what are RPGs about? I have seen two kinds of answers over the years.

Core Stories

Core stories are roughly what the characters do. The name “core story” is taken from an essay by Mike Mearls called Core Stories in D&D. For D&D the essay has to say:

A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again.

Emphasis on next week and all over. In short, when you’ve read that shiny new game and wonder what should actually happen during a session, that game is lacking a clear core story.

Premises

Premise is one of those big word from Forge Narrativism featuring prominently in this essay by Ron Edwards. In plain words, according to the essay, the game’s Premise is a “problematic human issue”, like:

  • A possible Narrativist development of the “vampire” initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be, Is it right to sustain one’s immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?
  • Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?

So a Premise is a kind of question that cannot be solved, only answered. And it’s the players job to do the answering.

If you know any other takes for what RPGs are about, please tell me.