There is a long standing argument between which is more important in a roleplaying game, and for the record I always side with the story if I must choose. That being said, I just wanted to chyme in with a few tidbits of advice on this age old war. You see, both sides are right and in the end, both sides are wrong. Because much like the guy debating on apple or blueberry pie, you may have both.
Story Trumps Rules
In every roleplaying game, there is times when the storyteller wants to achieve a narrative not supported by the rules. Maybe the antagonist has achieved godhood, or maybe you just came up with something really awesome. There is always a time when you just need to go beyond and this is when the story trumps the rules.
The good about it is that the story trumping the rules allows for the never ending supply of story. Times like this is what begot Raistlin of Dragonlance, the many planes of Dungeons and Dragons, and most of the greatest moments of our gaming careers. Your imagination becomes the rule, the fun of the group the goal. As Gary Gygax once said, “You don’t have to be original, just entertaining”. What the great one means is, feel free to draw inspiration from any source. I myself love to hear music of a genre that matches the them, and from there I am inspired to write amazing stories. Take it as far as you want, but don’t forget…
The bad side of story trumps rules is that you end up with Mary Sue’s that can do everything under the sun in such a manner that the group is frustrated or worse, not having any fun. I think we have all heard the horror stories of a storyteller who favors one player or an NPC over everything else. Yeah, I have had it too. One DM consistently put in an all powerful NPC into every single game and it drove me nuts. Every game I was like, “well what anime character am I going to have to deal with today?” It is frustrating when the story over-rules every single effort of the player, and this can kill a game very quickly.
How story should trump the rules is not to be the reigns that lead the story in a precise path, but instead be the road without lines. Let the players surprise you, support a fantastic idea, let the storyteller take you where you never imagined you could go. The key is, to make sure the fun is there, if it isn’t, why are we even playing? One should never dread going to the game table.
When Rules Trumps the Story
Now the rules are important and are a large part of what makes the game different than kids pretending to be Power Rangers (oh those were the days). Knowledge is power, knowledge of the rules can be ultimate power. The down side is that rules alone are not enough to make a game. They need a spark of imagination or the game gets boring fast.
The good side of rules is that they provide consistency and a fall back when there is disagreements between differing imaginations. The rules is what allows you to mitigate all the ins and outs of disagreements that can not be solved by fanboy arguments. Batman versus Superman can finally be answered when you have rules laid down that dictate how the physics work. This can also allow you to figure out how each player, faction, etc. measures against threats both within and without. This can be an invaluable boon to storytellers as they can design challenges that will be all levels of difficulty.
The dark side of the rules is the infamous rules lawyer. This bugger, this annoying turd, is the one who treats the game like a competition of numbers. They would rather prove they know more about how to “work the system” than prove they know how to work as a team. The fun of the group is secondary to their superiority and you end up wanting to blast them with OC spray. None the less, the rules lawyer can be the storyteller or the player and you never know who is who until you start.
Conversely, the rules can be wielded by the rules sage or lawyer. Much like the Philodox and Theurge of world of darkness, they are the ones who would use the rules to teach all those they come across how a system works. I have had very few of these in my life but amazingly I have two in my current group. Josh and Avery are amazing resources as I learn two new systems to date (Mutants and Masterminds, and Warhammer 40k). The thing is, and even I forget this, is that anyone, rules sage/lawyer alike, can occasionally get the rules wrong. Maybe they are learning alongside you? Well be gentle with mistakes; to err is to be human, to forgive is divine.
Why not have both?
Now here is the modus operandi that I most identify with. Why can’t rules be what supports and explains a story? There is no reason you cannot find a rule and build a story behind it, like I did with my rave powered superhero in Mutants and Masterminds was inspired by the supplements of light and sound powers that Josh provided me. The character ended up being amazing fun with an amazing story behind her (I flip a coin or roll a die for character gender every time). You can also come up with a concept and find rules that support it, building your style of roleplay and way to make your story with each bit from either side. This is a lot like my 40k character for Avery’s Deathwatch game. I came up with a sniper and guerrilla warrior. Well lo and behold I am pointed at the Ravenguard and from them to the Raptors. I found my home, my play style, and the character just sprung to life with every toss of the dice. Funny part is I originally planned to be a librarian but the dice were not kind to me in that regard. I ended up with stats for a tactical marine and I went with that. Ended up being a lot of fun to play this guy who needs no mojo to do what he does, it is all skill. The concept was changed by the rules and made better for it. These times are magic, but you have to keep an open mind to create them.
Well all, that is my thoughts on the matter of story versus rules. Both have their points, and both can be fun in moderation. I sincerely hope this helped someone out but for now, I am going to bid you adieu for I must go back to bed. I am sick today, and writing this was very taxing. I meant to write about vampires today but, this was on my mind. Please forgive the divergence. I hope you have a wonderful day.
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