I’ve sat at many game tables over the years, attended more than a few LARPs, and run my share of games. Throughout that experience I have noticed that whenever a game master talks about how the rules “just get in the way of their story” it sends up a big, fat, red flag that tells me to get going while the getting is good.
If you are a game master who feels that rules are nothing more than an impediment for the story that you’re telling, take a moment to step over to the other side and try to see things from your players’ perspective.
Workers Have Rights, Players Have Rules
Think back to your history books about the robber barons of the Gilded Age. You know, those guys who literally hired children to work in coal mines. The ones who would assign workers 12+ hour days with no time off and no healthcare. The ones who kicked a worker to the curb and replaced them the moment they stopped being productive (such as when a boiler exploded and blew off one of their legs).
Thankfully, there are laws against this sort of behavior now. And while you might say to yourself, “A good business owner would never have done those things in the first place,” laws are established to draw boundaries. They must mark the boundaries of acceptable behavior because you cannot trust that everyone is going to do the right thing and act in good faith.
Which brings us to RPG rules.
On the one hand, the rules of an RPG are the physics of the world. When designers sit down to make a game, they write it in such a way that it will function and provide the desired experience if it is followed as written on the page. Game masters and their players can change those rules, essentially modding the game to create their own experience, but they need to agree on what rules stay and what rules change.
Those rules form the contract that protects players from a game master taking too many liberties.
The Rules Don’t Stop You From Telling Your Story
The game master still has access to everything in the game, as well as their own imagination. You can throw all the orcs, goblins, dragons, necromancers, and barbarians that you want at your party, and as long as their stats exist on paper then you are following the physics of the game.
What the rules stop you from doing is overriding your players’ ability to interact with the game.
If your big bad lieutenant villain relies on fear and disease, but the paladin is immune to both, you don’t get to wave your hand and override those abilities just because you think it would be “more dramatic”. If you think the sorcerer being able to stand in the middle of the dragon’s breath weapon and shrug it off like a sunburn due to their fire resistance is somehow undercutting the danger of that fight, you can’t spontaneously make up rules that suddenly say the sorcerer loses that protection. If the bard rolls well enough to charm someone, don’t “make them work for it” by invalidating the numbers on their sheet: give them the result their numbers genuinely earned.
As a game master, following the rules is your signal to the players that you respect the boundaries you all agreed on, and that you can work within them. It may be harder to accomplish some of the scenes you want to run (for example, kidnapping a party when half of them are immune to knockout poisons and at least a few of them can teleport out of danger is a nightmare), but not bending the rules shows that you want to treat your players fairly. You might have seven trolls all waiting in the lower room of the dungeon, and that might be an absurdly high challenge for a lower-level party, but if the ranger rolls a good enough Perception check to beat the trolls’ Stealth then you must let him see what they’re about to walk into.That’s what the rules of the game demand of you. And it is a roleplaying game. Without the game aspect, and the rules that make that part of things work, you’re just sitting around telling a collaborative story… and you don’t need rules if that’s all you want to do. You could probably do away with the books, the dice, the character sheets, and the minis, replace them with a campfire, and get the same results.