Rules Are Made To Be Broken: Knowing When to Ignore What the Book Says

Every game, from Candyland to Rolemaster, has rules. Rules are what keep a game from turning into Calvinball (regardless of how fun that might be for a little while). Thanks to the rules, everyone is on a level playing field, has the same expectations of the game, and knows what they can/can’t or should/shouldn’t do. Every game needs rules, and the players need to play by the rules for everything to go smoothly and for a good time to be had by all.

But sometimes, you have to throw the rules out the window and just play the damn game.

This might seem like an odd viewpoint coming from me. I’m a D&D/Pathfinder girl – and those games are about as rules-heavy as they come. As an RPG publisher, rules are pretty much my bread and butter. I’ve even proposed rules for sex and romance here in my column. And now I’m telling you to ignore all the rules?

No, not all the rules. Just the ones that aren’t working for you.

What’s the matter with the rules?

We’ve probably all had the experience of playing with a rules lawyer, who has a rulebook marked with sticky notes on almost every page, and objects any time someone tries to squeak an extra 5 feet out of their move action by creative mini-moving. Then there’s the GM who has house-ruled so many things that the game is barely recognizable and every attempt to do anything that you know is legal by the book is overruled as “that’s not how it works in my game”. Either situation is frustrating and not very fun.

Likewise, some game systems are more stringent on rules than others – and the amount of detail in those rules can be a sticking point for many. For example, I love the way magic is set up in D&D (3.5 and earlier) and Pathfinder: you have a spell list, you get so many spells per day, those spells do very specific things. This makes my detail-oriented, order-loving brain oh so happy. When I played in a WoD Mage the Ascension campaign a few months ago, the loosey-goosey magic system was nothing but frustration for me. Where our GM and other players in the game thought the magic system gave you freedom to do anything, I couldn’t wrap my head around how to do anything. The rules (or lack thereof, in my view) were hindering my enjoyment of the game.

Luckily, there’s a vast middle ground where most of us can happily play.

Go with what works. Forget what doesn’t.

I’m not advocating cherry-picking which rules you want to use in every game. Each game has a number of guidelines that, if not followed, will bring you back to playing Calvinball at best, or quitting play entirely at worst. If you want to abandon all the established rules, you’re just free-form roleplaying. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you want any consistency, you’ll have to essentially make some rules of your own. And now we’re getting into game design, which is another topic entirely.

Start out playing by the rules as written. Any sticking points that seem dumb, pointless, cumbersome, or confusing will rear their heads in very short order. Then, case by case, decide how you want to houserule it to make it work better – either by tweaking it or ignoring it altogether. Very simple things can be ignored – like my optional rules for conception that I discussed a few columns back. Your game can run just fine without using a single one of those suggestions, and I assure you my feelings aren’t hurt if you think they’re pointless.

Not everything can be tossed out the window, but it can be adjusted to work better for your situation. My husband, as a Pathfinder GM, hates attacks of opportunity. He thinks they bog down combat, and I tend to agree. In our private game, we ignore attacks of opportunity entirely. However, he also realizes that plenty of players love attacks of opportunity, so he has houseruled that your character can only take attacks of opportunity if they have the Combat Reflexes feat. This work-around lets those players who want attacks of opportunity still have them, for the reasonable price of a feat (and the RP reasoning that the character is more skilled at combat, and therefore can work those extra attacks in), but also keeps those extra attacks to a minimum so combat doesn’t move at a snail’s pace.

What if it’s an integral part of the system itself? Back to the example of me pulling my hair out with my Mage character, it would have been unrealistic of me to hope for some houserules to make the magic system more like D&D or Pathfinder. That would defeat the purpose of playing Mage. I love WoD, except for the way magic works. Do you feel the same way about a game system? Odds are you’re not the only one who’s loved it except for a couple things, and they’ve likely posted their ideas and pointers for dealing with those sticking points on the internet. For me, some googling turned up endless lists of examples of magical rituals you could perform with, say, Mind 2 and Spirit 3. Maybe using such a list (if only for inspiration) isn’t quite going by the rules, but it’s a good deal better than just telling the GM, “I’ve got Mind 2 and Spirit 3. I’m going to roll my arête and do…something” (which I may or may not have done on occasion). If I play Mage again, I’ll be more prepared to deal with the rules that I don’t really like or understand.

It’s not set in stone.

Houserules are fluid and easily changed. If you houserule something, thinking you’re making it better, only to find you’ve made things even worse, nothing in the world is stopping you from changing that rule again, or sheepishly going back to the original rules.

Don’t let the belief that you have to play 100% by the book ruin a game for you. You can take those rules and manipulate them as needed to fit your game. No system is going to please everyone, so take the bad with the good and work with it until you’ve massaged it into the perfect game. Even if that means ignoring a rule or two.

What published rules have you had to tweak or ignore to best suit your game? Or do you resist deviating from the rules?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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