Rules as Written? Bah!
If there’s one turn of phrase that makes my blood boil, it’s “Rules as Written”. It is, imho, the most damaging three words in rpgdom, and I’ll tell you why.
This wonderful Role-playing hobby is unlike any other. It’s an act of collective creativity where a group of two or more souls get together to make up a story. It’s a game of heroes and villains, of plots, sub-plots and twists where one one side of the table sits the Good Guys (usually), and on the other side sits everyone else. The rules form the framework for the game; they’re the physics, the chemistry and How Stuff Works. To a large extent the rules also help set the mood for the game too – a session played with GURPS (for example) feels very different to one played with Rolemaster. As does, for that matter, a game of Third Edition D&D compared to Fourth Edition. Each rule set brings a different pace and emphasis to the table, and it’s all good.
But when folks start quoting “The Rules as Written” they suck all that out of the game. Role-playing isn’t a sport. There is no offside rule. There’s no fouls. There’s no way you can break the rules in a role-playing game. Neither is it chess, Monopoly or any number of other board games. They’re all fine pastimes in themselves, but they’re not RPGs. When gamers try to say “that’s not in the Rules as Written” like they’re some frickin’ expert who knows the minds of the game designers themselves, a fairy dies. They’re ignoring the single most important rule of the game: “Have fun and make shit up”.
Here’s the thing. My all-time favourite role-playing game is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praiseit’sholyname). I’ve played it on and off for over twenty five years and I’m still learning the game. It’s been a zen-like voyage of discovery where at first I House Rule’d the crap out of it. Now, there’s probably two or three House Rules we still use, and I’m even questioning their place in our game. It’s taken almost three decades to get to this point, and might well take another three more before I’d claim to be an expert. My mastery of Fourth Edition D&D is a long, long way off yet – and (unless your name is on the cover), so is yours.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with saying “this is what the PHB says, but we play like this” and differentiating between the rules, as written on the page, and those played at the table. That’s cool. It’s the anally-retentive quoting of chapter and verse from the Rules As Written in caps, like it’s Some Damn Bible. If you want to change it, change it. Making the game yours is a fine part of the hobby, and should be celebrated not treated like your rules are in some way inferior to those in print.
It’s your game. The Rules As Written (bah!) are just the first steps along the way.