(From the introduction to the Santa Vaca Companion—coming soon.)

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I have a lot of respect for James Ernest. We tend to hang out at conventions and spend a lot of time talking about games and everything but games. We agree, we disagree, we argue, but there’s always respect. I have never felt as if James was talking down to me and I do my best never to talk down to him.

And here’s something that everyone should say about someone else: James is a better game designer than I am. Like, way better. I can patch together some rules for a game, but James can put together ten or twelve solid games in as many hours. But there’s one caveat to this truth. James doesn’t get roleplaying games. It’s not that he doesn’t understand them, or even that he couldn’t design one, but there’s just something about RPGs that eludes him. He’s said this to me more than once. And I think it’s part of the mutual respect we have.

Just recently, at RinCon, he told me about a Pairs Deck game he made that was, in essence, an RPG. A card draft tells you who your character is and what they can do, establishing race and character class. Then, play proceeds to tell the story of your characters running through a dungeon crawl.

(“Running through a dungeon crawl.” Oh I could go on and on about the irony of that.)

James explained to me that his regular playtest crew was having fun, but there was a problem with the game. Whenever they were bantering and roleplaying their characters, they were having fun, but as soon as they engaged with the mechanic, the fun fell apart. And a little prideful part of me likes to think that he was telling me this story because he wanted my opinion about it. That one little thing that I knew, that little trick he hadn’t mastered yet. He was asking me. That’s what I like to tell myself. Anyway, he told me the story and without missing a beat, I said something that completely took me by surprise.

“In an RPG, the fun happens between the rules.”

I was shocked after I said it. But I said it with such confidence, I’m sure James thought it was some kind of profound RPG Buddha wisdom that I kept secret except for those who were truly worthy. But that isn’t the case. I just kind of said it. And after saying it, I thought about it for the rest of the weekend.

Is that really true? Does the fun really happen between the rules?

As a matter of coincidence, I ran The Name of the Game is Wrestling, a pro wrestling RPG Dan Waszkiewicz I have been playing around with for almost half a decade. The game started off as a straight RPG, then changed to a card-based RPG, then changed into something else, then something else…and we’ve given up about a dozen times trying to figure out how to do it.

Well, we figured out how to do it. We threw the damn rules out.

Oh, there are rules. It’s just none of them involve any dice or cards or conflict resolution.

The way it works: We have everyone get together and we explain for about 15 minutes why professional wrestling works as a storytelling medium. We explain how a match works, breaking it down to its five component parts, then ask everyone to come up with a character. Not everyone makes a wrestler, but that doesn’t matter because they can be part of the crowd. (In wrestling, the crowd is a character who has a role to play in the story.)

Once everyone has a character, we put together a wrestling TV show and divy everyone up into pairs, telling them how much time they have to tell the story of their match. Then, we run the show. We have only two explicit rules when telling the story of your match: no touching and no bumps (no falling down). That’s it. Just those two rules. Other than the rules of what makes a wrestling match work, those are the only two explicit rules we demand.

And you know what? It works. It works so damn good that people come in either not knowing or not caring about wrestling and leave fans. They cheer, they boo, they stomp their feet. They even make signs. They create cheers for their favorite wrestlers. It’s such a romping good time, we’re typically asked to either close the door or keep the sound down.

And there are no rules. Just two safety restrictions.

When Dan and I tried the game with rules, it all fell apart. People got too focused on rolling dice or playing cards. They weren’t telling stories, they were playing the game.

And that’s the thing that’s been bugging me most about RPGs these days. They’re too focused on the rules that they forget the goal here is to tell stories.

Combat heavy games like D&D, Shadowrun, or Vampire (yes, it’s a game about fighting; look at the list of Advantages) give you hundreds of pages of rules for mediating combat. And as soon as someone draws a sword or fires a gun, you know what happens: we all spend hours sorting things out. That’s because we’ve stopped telling stories and started playing the game.

And don’t get me started on “story games.” They’ve got the same problem. Just as combat games present you with heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for moderating fight scenes, story games give you heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for telling stories. So much so, I’m more upset about story games than I am about combat games. Combat games have the implication, “You know how to do this, so here are the rules for it.” Meanwhile, story games have the implication, “You don’t know how to do this, so let me hold your hand and show you.”

(Took me a long time to figure out why story games made me feel like I was being talked down to. I finally figured out a way to articulate it.)

Is it no wonder we talk about the game sessions when we rolled no dice as magical moments? The three hour game session of Suicide Squad that Rob Justice ran for me, Mike Curry, Eichlos and Chris Colbath comes to mind. We got a simple assignment: KILL THE BATMAN. Simple. We spent three hours talking about that. The first half was whether or not we could do it. The second half was whether or not we should do it. And that session was magic for me.

Rules in an RPG should always help us to tell stories. Not create an authentic tactical situation. And the RPGs that try to force story down our throats forget the best rule of storytelling: the best stories break the rules. It’s like someone hovering over my shoulder yelling at me, “You’re in the seventh stage of the Hero’s Journey and you haven’t met the goddess yet! And stop trying to Cross the Threshold! That isn’t until The Return!”

Maybe I’ve had a rough year. No, that isn’t a maybe. That’s a truth. I’ve had a rough year. But as I look through everything I’ve done as an RPG designer, I’m constantly asking myself the same question: “Did that help the players tell stories?”

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always, “Yes.”

Santa Vaca: “Fun Happens Between the Rules”

3 thoughts on “Santa Vaca: “Fun Happens Between the Rules”

  • Thanks, John. You illuminate an excellent point. Where does the lines between _game_ and _story_ intersect and what are the combinations? Something to ponder further…

  • Earlier this year, I ran my family through the Arrival Vengeance adventure for MegaTraveller. (Diplomatic trip through the remains of the post-Rebellion shattered Imperium.) They loved it. They were in tears multiple times as they realized what a horrorshow the Imperium had become.

    And I think there was only one session with more than a half-dozen dice rolls. (They wanted a chance to try out combat, so the Marines went down to investigate something that shot at them.) Notably, that wasn’t the session that had people in tears. It was the sessions where they were stuck with horrible moral dilemmas. Let a freighter full of refugees go on to safe-area indentures that were just barely not outright slavery? Or liberate them to a future in the increasingly-unsafe Wilds? They spent an hour going around and around on that one. My daughter (the ship’s captain) still talks about how it made her acutely aware of the responsibilities of command.

    I think you’re onto something, to be honest.

  • I hadn’t really ever thought about it before, but you’re right. I was in a 5e game that just ended, and most of the fun wasn’t the bits about fighting things, it was about our characters as people. Like the fact that my character was a brewer and put spiders in her brews.

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