Rules influence the overall feel of the game, and it’s everything about the rules that brings out what the game is about. Let’s go and take a look at a random corebook and dissect it for examination shall we?
Changeling: the Lost
- Fluff: What is a Changeling, what happens to them when they’re abducted, and why they should be afraid of their Keepers. How do the escaped changelings interact with each other as fellow survivors and how do they perceive their new lives?
- Crunch: Combat rules, Contracts, Oaths, Dream Shaping, Crossing into the Hedge, Insanity and Goblin Markets.
What does this say about the game? Notice that the game is fairly fluff heavy, focusing more on building atmosphere first, and letting players get into the psychology of a changeling. This will shape expectations in terms fo character generation as well as the conflicts that players should expect.
Next, the rules go crunch, and detail the things that Changelings are expected to do. Fighting’s a given in almost any rpg, but there’s also the matter of Contracts, and forging Oaths and Dream Shaping. These aren’t there just for kicks, Changeling is also about drawing glamour out from mortals via their emotions. The Oaths and the Dream Shaping are further tools to do this, as well as further the Changeling’s own goals.
Note also the rules which aren’t there… There aren’t any hard rules on disarming traps, because for one thing, that kind of activity isn’t actively supported by the system as-is. Not that it can’t do it, just that it’s not under the default assumption of play.
Let’s try another one:
- Fluff: There are many different heroic races from you to choose from. With a few paragraphs dedicated to giving context to what they’re like and what societies they come from, and possible motivations to go off and adventure.
- Crunch: Combat, Combat Conditions, Terrain Modifiers, Skill Lists, Power Lists, Cover and Concealment.
D&D takes an entirely different route, Fluff is nearly excised from the book, making it only in small paragraphs per race, class and a few of the spells and rituals. What does this day about Vanilla D&D 4e? The game style shifts given the rules, without fluff context, you therefore have a generic fantasy setting whose primary conflict revolves around dungeon delving.
These are very broad examples, but serve to illustrate my point that rules matter, not only for adjudicating situatons fairly, but also in defining how a game feels. This is one distinct advantage that a focused ruleset has over a Generic RPG, like say HERO. Generic RPGs have a rule for everything and its up to the GM to pare the rules down into something more manageable and appropriate for the setting he created.
So the next time you sit down with a rulebook, give sometime to think about how the designers came up with those rules, and see if you can figure out the subtext behind their creation. What kind of games were they thinking when they made these mechanics? In figuring their initial design intent, you’ll gain a slightly better appreciation for the work these people do.