On Playing by the Rules
I've been thinking a lot about rules lately. I'm not someone who gets on well in highly structured environments. Authority figures and me have a complicated relationship. Rules, in a lot of ways, aren't really my jam. So, whenever I find myself defending them, on the side of order over chaos, I feel a need to take a moment and reflect on why, for once, my scorpio ass is out here saying "well, actually, rules mean things?"
I was listening to a podcast recently, one of those Dungeons & Dragons actual play ones where folks get together on mic to play games and tell stories, and one of the hosts went on a side rant about the pointlessness of having rules at all. They objected to a line in the D&D Player’s Handbook that explicitly gave permission to players and GMs to follow their instincts and disregard rules or make their own house rules as they deemed fit. Their objection, as far as I could make sense of it, was that rules were for babies. For people who don’t know how stories work. For people who can’t or won’t just tell a story and make things up as they go.
I got mad. Mad enough that over a month later I’m still stewing on it and venting my spleen to all of y’all. But more than getting mad, I was forced to take a step back and really think about why I cared about the rules. Why it mattered to me that the rules of a game exist, why I think they make stories better, and why this attitude of rules are for babies was so profoundly offensive to me. Because rules do matter to me. Smash cut to scenes of me yelling at Twitch streams of Critical Role where players seem to have no idea how their character classes work. Or to this last season of Adventure Zone where their grasp of the purpose and use of position and effect in Blades in the Dark is truly tenuous.
But it’s not just pedantry. Sure, that’s part of it. Part of the joy I get from games is a kind of rules mastery. I love pushing the limits of a game, whether as player or GM, and finding the edges of what’s possible and seeing what story emerges. I like knowing how the system works so I know what kind of stories we get to tell using one system versus another. How D&D wants you to be telling stories of heroes vanquishing enemies in combat. How Blades in the Dark wants you to be stressed out, riding the red line, under pressure from all sides. How Belonging Outside Belonging wants you to think about relationships and how we effect each other.
Aside from an interest in systems, I had to step back and examine why I got so angry at this dismissal of the rules. And I realized it’s not because I am a stickler for rules or particularly believe in them (listen, I ain’t never rolled a lawful character in my life), it’s because rules are also about a relationship. A set of rules is a contract of sorts, a shared understanding, a bond between people – between GM and player, between creator and audience. It’s a way of saying these are the boundaries of the story we’re telling. It’s a way of communicating, up front, that when conflict happens, these are the verbs we are going to use to address it. If it’s D&D that’s going to be a roll to persuade or a roll to hit. Just as if we're reading a military SF novel, that’s going to be negotiate and attack. Or if we're in a regency romance it’s going to be… well, negotiate and woo, I suppose.
In fiction, rules are less explicit but no less important. There’s no one systematizing, declaring here’s the set of rules that everyone must abide by. Sure someone will try to sell you a book or get you to take a class based on the promise that there are rules and that they can give you a system to exploit them. Save the cat. Kick the dog. And so on. It's not that there's no value to these systems, plenty of writers have gone on to fame and fortune starting out from these frameworks, but they're descriptive of how stories work, not prescriptive of how they should work.
But this doesn't mean that there are no rules, that there’s no expectations, no conventions. Just because there’s no single point of authority setting them down, doesn’t mean that the bonds between creator and audience aren’t there. That we don’t have expectations of how a story unfolds, what consequence feels right, what narrative techniques are available. The rules are emergent, organic. Stories are built out of patterns that we've heard and seen over and over again since the dawn of humanity. What feels right to us as readers and as creators is hugely dependent on this shared understanding of how stories work.
When folks like me talk about the rules of writing, we're not talking about a prescriptive set of edicts that someone put in a book somewhere. We're talking about, or at least I'm talking about a connection I have to a culture, to a context, to a body of work. And that's where it truly becomes tricky because rules shift and change depending on context. Who is telling the story. When is it being told. Who is it being told to. All of these shift what rules apply, what matters, what's breaking a rule and what's conforming to a norm.
This doesn't undermine the importance of the rules, in fact I think it reinforces the inherent bond implied by them. It's a connection between storyteller and audience. It's a shared understanding. It's the way in which creators have to anticipate, understand, and accommodate their readership and there's something beautiful in that. Art is not a one way street, to me at least, and what we think of as rules is the clearest expression of the influence the readership has on a text.
We don’t have to like that rules exist. We don’t have to follow them even, but I do think you have to acknowledge them. I think if a storyteller truly operates in defiance of them, more often than not, the result is confusing, off-putting, or can slip into the outright offensive. Of course there are those who have seemingly somehow managed to operate outside of normal convention, but I think the success of those projects is notable precisely because of how rare it is to succeed in such a way.
To deny that rules exist is to break a bond with your reader. To say that rules aren’t important is to deny that your reader’s expectations aren’t valid, it is to say they are unreasonable to pick up a book with a sense of how the story will unfold. I think the job of a writer, or any storyteller, is to balance fulfilling and disrupting a reader’s expectations.
I think the mistake is in thinking that a rule exists and therefore it must be fulfilled. Instead, what I would hope is that we can understand the purpose of the rule, the role it plays in the story and hopefully harness that expectation to reach even greater heights.
The rules of the game matter and I think to deny that is to, in some small way, disrespect your audience. That doesn’t mean that you can’t break a rule, make a house rule, find a different way to tell your story. But if you are doing that, it also means you need to find a way to signal to your reader that you see them, you know you’re transgressing, and that you have a reason for doing so.
I guess for me, it's about respect. It's about empathy and understanding. Rules are contextual, fluid, and ever changing. And we can resist them, adapt to them, and grow with them. But I don't think you can deny them.