Humans have a limited amount of working memory, and each of us has a different set of mental aptitudes and processes. I'm finding, personally, that the rules are so detailed and all-encompassing that they completely absorb my attention and I'm not longer seeing the forest – creative roleplaying – for the trees. I find I'm spending way too much energy and thought on how to optimize my mechanical strategies – or counteract those of my players – that I'm overlooking the story.

How can I break out of this and use my knowledge of the game to enhance creativity again, instead of seeing it as just a rule dictionary? Do I have to do without so many rules, or is there another way out?


5 Answers 5


I wrestle with this myself, see the related question How do you help players not focus on the rules?

There is a tendency among people to start Pharisaically treating any body of rules as the end in and of itself and not the means to the end. Combined with a sense of rules entitlement fostered by both computer gaming and RPG Organized Play campaigns, it can generate a situation where people are affected by the "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" syndrome and the only options considered are ones where there's rules for it. Warning sign: People poring over their character sheets trying to figure out what to do next instead of thinking about the situation and engaging with the world to decide what to do next.

Choice of Game System

This behavior does somewhat correlate with detail of the game system. I play a lot of Pathfinder, but frankly am displeased with how the large amounts of rules coverage contribute to the syndrome you state. One of our DMs is very rules-oriented and always feels constrained to follow, for example, whatever mini ruleset an AP has for a subject over what might make sense in-world, and it bothers me when that happens - because I care less about "rules" and "winning" and more about immersion in a realistic fantasy world. You can go for rules-lighter game systems to mitigate this, though I have seen the same rules lawyering/"don't try anything there's not an explicit rule for" even with much lighter systems like Savage Worlds. Not saying a lighter system can't help, but there's also a mindset component to be overcome.

Same thing with storygames - many people will cite them as the solution but frankly most of them are gamist/narrativist and are as rules-constrained in their generation of story as any big ol' trad system.

Use of Game System

The best answer to my own "focusing on the rules" question was the one where @valadil suggested telling everyone you're running your own game, loosely based on whatever the ruleset at hand is. IMO it should always be the GM's prerogative to interpret, transform, or ignore the rules as it best suits the game.

Because to be honest, game designers are not gods. RPG rulesets are neither magical nor scientific. It's just junk some other geek wrote down; someone whose opinion on the Avengers movie you would doubtless find heretical were you to meet them IRL. Paying $30 for it doesn't make you the rulebook's thrall. Players do need some consistency to feel in control of their character - but a good GM can make that consistency the reality of the game world and not the rules in the book.

You have to make sure you're using that ability "for good" and not to arbitrarily mess with the players (or have them feel like they're being messed with because you're not communicating your mental picture of the game well and theirs conflicts, so you rulings seem unfair to them). But then you can freely use the rules as guidelines, bring analogous rules to bear on new situations, assign bonuses/penalties as you see fit, and breaking them when it makes sense.

Outside the Game System

Often players have reasons for falling back on the game rules. They give them some hope of success. As GM, you have to make sure you are not discriminating against "non-rules" prescribed choices, because if you are, you are implicitly telling them to live and die by the rules.

The one game that helped me break out into a new level of gaming was Feng Shui, the game of HK action by Robin Laws. It suggested bonuses, not penalties, for cool undefined actions and playing more fast and loose with the rules (no tactical maps, let the players narrate a little). It really helped me and my gaming group break out from the rule-mindset we had gotten into and become a lot more freewheeling, and the techniques port right back over to other games.

In fact, while running Feng Shui I had luck with inverting the new softie-GM saws of "always say yes" or "say yes or roll the dice." I said "If you ask me, the answer's no. Just do it. If you ask me if the helicopter's skid is still low enough that you can jump up and grab it I'll say no; if you say 'I run and leap to grab the helicopter's skid' then great, roll it." (Unless of course it's patently impossible at your game's power level.) After a couple cases of me telling people "No, because you asked," suddenly everyone's much more comfortable operating outside the options specifically enumerated by the rules. The reason this is successful is basic psych. When you game feeling constrained by the rules, the rules empower you but when you go outside them you feel like you're always playing "Mother may I" with someone, which is disempowering. If you are explicitly empowered to try inventive things, to the point where you are discouraged from even thinking you have to ask permission, then you gain the confidence that you were using the rules as a crutch for previously.

Conan doesn't ask if he can leap up on Dagon's back and tear his horn out; asking is for women and Shemites. He just does it.

I found after running/playing Feng Shui that even when we went back to other games, we took a much less rules-constrained approach after that experience.


Make your players feel empowered when not "covered by" the rules, and have an agreement with them that the game world's reality should come first. The rules are a helpful scaffold for this but, like any scaffold, at some point it's got to come off.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "Asking is for women and Shemites"? So your answer is both sexist and racist? \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Aug 11, 2012 at 18:00
  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes. Or it's a Conan joke. One or the other. You might have to think about it for a couple more seconds before tooting your PC horn. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 11, 2012 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ "suddenly everyone's much more comfortable operating outside the rules." I'm teetering on downvote, because it's not outside the rules, it's simply being proactive. Also you don't clarify whether you MIGHT say yes, or ALWAYS say yes if they say an action. Both ways of playing are possible, but the latter goes from mother may I straight to solo empowerment fantasy (and deserves to be noted as such). \$\endgroup\$
    – Callan S.
    Aug 12, 2012 at 2:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CallanS He does say: If they just go for it, they get to roll. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2012 at 5:03
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Obviously, "get to roll unless it's patently impossible." And it's outside the rules in the sense of this question, as in it's actions not explicitly described by the rules. Maybe you try to explode a fire hydrant up at the helicopter, or shoot a power line so it fouls the rotors, or something else there's not "a rule for." Reread the question, it's about having specific actions/options enumerated in the rules causing you to feel constrained to only those actions/options. I am, shockingly, answering in the scope of the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 12, 2012 at 6:01

Choose a different game system, one that doesn't have mechanical focus on things you and your group don't care about but can generate the same kind of story outcomes.


To expand on okeefe answer..choosing a different system is the best tool I've found. Some system favor roleplay more than others and on different things. For example D&D 4E is really REALLY tactical in combat so roleplay and creativity in combat is not as important. But in 4E, skill challenges is a really powerful tool.

Also some systems are more heavy on the rules. In D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, you have copious amount of rules to read to master the system and even then, after 6 years of gaming we check in the books at least once per game sessions because the rules are not as intuitive as some other systems.

Rule-heavy systems have the tendency to reward rule lawyers because those who read the rules and master them will gain power at the table both in game and out.

I also found that systems without less heavy on the math encourages player to describe their actions instead of calculating and comparing numbers. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition is a good example of this.


One thing you might want to consider (and this works best if you have a large table) is to draft a player as a co-GM to take control of certain aspects of the game that you do not find intuitive, or maybe even just to play a certain host of NPCs so you don't have to do the leg work. Make sure any helpers realize that they are effectively not players anymore because you need them on your side of the screen but that they are contributing to the game at large in an important way.


Give story mechanical clout itself. One method I've used is to have players recount the events of play so far as a story at an altar. If they did so, they got some free healing. I'm sure you could adjust this for other settings.

Another is from the Riddle of Steel RPG, where characters get bonuses to all rolls while they're pursuing things they care about (as established by the player writing them down on the character sheet).


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