Role-playing games allow their players to immerse themselves in imagined worlds and to live, vicariously, the exciting lives of the characters whose roles the players take on. Why do we need rules in order to do this?
Children manage to play make-believe without rules, so the answer isn’t self-evident. Rules in tabletop role-playing games seem to serve some combination of these functions:
RPG rules establish an impartial framework for interactions between the game master and the players. This strikes me as the worst reason to have RPG rules. If you need a code of laws in order to keep the GM from abusing the players, or the players from abusing the fictional reality, then you probably shouldn’t be gaming together. Your group has an unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t have anything to do with role-playing as such. Besides, most GMs rightfully tinker with (or substantially alter) RPG rules in order to suit their preferences, so the rules would be no protection for players in any case.
RPG rules model the fictional reality. This is the reason generally given for rules in role-playing games. The rules tell you how much damage a sword does, or whether one spaceship can outrun another spaceship, or whether a person can jump across a pit of a certain size. However, it is not clear to me that RPG rules model the fictional reality any better than would common sense in the absence of rules. In the real world, if you are stabbed with a sword and you don’t receive medical attention, it is likely that you will eventually die. In the meantime, you will bleed heavily from the wound and your ability to perform physical tasks will be severely limited. Under the model of fictional reality provided by most RPG rules, a PC won’t be killed by a single blow from a sword. Indeed, the PC will recover naturally without medical attention and without any long-term ill effects. In the meantime, the PC will be able to perform physical tasks without any impairment.
To the rebuttal that the fictional reality of most role-playing games is not realistic and that most PCs have super-human abilities, I would answer that common sense in the absence of rules could model such an heroic reality just as well. If we’ve abandoned realism, then aren’t any rules that tell us how many times a PC can be stabbed with a sword before dying more or less arbitrary? Is it five times? Ten times? Common sense would say that an epic hero can generally shrug off the attacks of lesser foes unless he is literally overwhelmed, and leave it at that.
To the objection that players won’t trust a GM’s application of common sense in the absence of rules, I would say that you are then using RPG rules not to model reality, but rather to establish an impartial framework for player-GM interaction, with its attendant lack of trust and assumption of bad conduct on both sides.
RPG rules introduce an element of chance. This seems to me the best reason to have rules of some sort in a role-playing game. My poor stabbed fellow from the last section will probably die of his wound, but there is still a chance– however small– that he’ll survive. If the sword missed all of his vital organs, and if he can somehow staunch the flow of blood without medical attention and before passing out, and if the wound miraculously closes on its own without becoming infected or rotten, then the fellow could pull through. Even applying common sense, we can’t absolutely say for sure; there’s still some luck involved.
By instructing us to bounce dice (or turn over cards, or cast runes, or whatever) in certain situations, RPG rules open a space in which chance can operate and events can develop out of the control of both players and GM. This is both exciting and applicable to almost any fictional reality.
We may say, then, that RPG rules exist in order to manage chance in a way appropriate to the fictional setting. Any rules that go beyond this are either a distraction and an abstraction, or they are papering over problems in the group dynamic. With that in mind, I present:
ROLL A F-ING PERCENTILE
Brief Rules for Managing Chance in Role-Playing Games
Using words that your gaming group can read and the recording medium of your choice, briefly describe your character. You may include such things as your character’s background, abilities, shortcomings and appearance. Be specific but succinct. Two or three paragraphs is about right.
NPCs, Creatures and Adventure Design
In similarly comprehensible words in your gaming group’s language, the GM makes notes about the game’s setting and the people and beasts that the PCs are likely to encounter. These should be organized in whatever fashion the GM damn well pleases.
Flow of the Game
The players pretend to be their characters, providing dialogue and describing their characters’ actions. The GM describes the world around the characters, plays the roles of any NPCs the characters encounter, and generally provides the results of actions attempted by the players.
Situations Involving Chance
When the GM determines that there is a significant element of chance in any given situation, he or she will use his or her notes, the character’s description, and an understanding of the situation to decide the percentage chance (from 1% to 99%) of a certain thing occurring. The GM’s decision is final, although he or she may solicit opinions from the players as desired.
Roll a f-ing percentile. Generally the players should be allowed to bounce the dice unless the GM doesn’t want them to know the result of the roll, or why dice are being bounced.
If the result of the bounced percentile dice is less than or equal to the percentage chance of the thing occurring, then that thing occurs. If the roll is higher than the percentage chance, then that thing doesn’t occur.
EXAMPLE: Brag the Shortsighted has been stabbed in the stomach with a sword. Rather than seeking medical attention, he decides to sit at the base of a tree, shove his tunic into the wound, pray to his gods and hope for the best. Does Brag survive? The element of chance is barely significant in this situation, but because death is on the line and it’s kind of exciting, the GM decides that chance will be involved.
After some consideration, the GM decides that there is a 15% chance that Brag will both be able to keep himself from bleeding out and avoid any life-threatening infection at the wound site. Brag’s player thinks that because Brag is huge and strong in addition to being shortsighted, he should have a 30% chance of surviving his wound. In a wild moment of generosity, the GM ups Brag’s chances to 20%.
Brag’s player bounces dice and rolls a 54. This is higher than the percentage chance of Brag surviving his wound, so Brag dies. The GM decides that Brag’s bunched tunic fills with blood until Brag becomes faint and passes out. He drops the tunic and bleeds to death while unconscious.
ADVANCED ROLL A F-ING PERCENTILE
Compare the chance roll to the percentage chance of the event occurring. If the roll is:
More than 30% lower than the percentage chance (for example, 20 or less on a 50% chance): Yes, and. The thing occurs in a more pronounced way, or some other occurrence or circumstance along the same lines is added.
10% or less lower than the percentage chance (for example, 40-50 on a 50% chance): Yes, but. The thing occurs in a less pronounced way, or there is some other occurrence or circumstance that weakens or mitigates the result.
10% or less higher than the percentage chance (for example, 51-60 on a 50% chance): No, but. The thing does not occur, but the failure is less pronounced or there is some other occurrence or circumstance that mitigates this failure.
More than 30% higher than the percentage chance (for example, 80 or more on a 50% chance): No, and. The thing does not occur, and the failure is more pronounced or some other occurrence or circumstance opposed to that thing is added.
EXAMPLE: Brag the Shortsighted from the previous example rolled a 54% which is more than 30% higher than his 20% chance of surviving his wound. This is a ‘No, and’ result. Did Brag survive his wound? No, and wolves eat his remains. Also brownies come by and steal his stuff. So there.