Among other ways, I often like to play in a rules-centric way1, where the rules are the "physics" of reality and dictate what can and cannot be true within the fiction. I especially like this for PvP games, where good rules help players be okay with bad things happening to their characters.

Sometimes though, players who seem like they might be receptive2 to this style of play fail to engage with the rules directly, and instead maintain a fiction-first relationship to the game reality, leading to frustration for them and me. They end up relating to the rules as obstacles to what they want to accomplish instead of scaffolding on which to build what they want.

In my current approach, I try to encourage them to read the rulebook and make a character from a couple of interesting things in it, in conjunction with talking with me about it and the narrative ideas they have which capitalize on it. This playstyle is typically used by us with hard-rules systems, regardless of whether or not they are rules-heavy. The best example would probably be the first edition of Anima:Beyond Fantasy, where if players reject the playstyle the game just won't work at all due to the massive resulting power difference, as players cannot gear their character towards a certain desired power level without engaging in the rules, regardless of what that power level is.

What is an effective way to teach receptive players2 how to engage with a system in a rules-first manner, when their habit is to engage in a fiction-first or simulationist manner?

  1. When I say rules-centric here I mean that the rules dictate the nature of the gameworld. If the rules say you can trip a legless slug, then you can trip said slug. It's not that we follow the rules when they don't make sense within the game fiction, it's that the rules dictate the game fiction so tripping slugs makes sense. Perhaps being tripped has some special meaning in the context of the fiction, or the slug can't actually lack legs, or whatever.

  2. A receptive player is one who is capable of learning and enjoying the playstyle but doesn't already know it. For simplicity, assume I've already accurately determined that this is the case for someone I'm teaching, so that answers can focus on the teaching part.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answerers: beware that this is not looking for ideas off the top of random people's heads. Answers should be based on solid experience actually doing this, complete with techniques based on experience with what does and doesn't work. Answer should cite the experience they are based on. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 0:34

3 Answers 3


I'll assume that you and your players are on the same page, that they're convinced that this is a fun and interesting approach to playing, and that the sticking point is that even though they're committed to trying things your way, they keep falling back into old habits.

In my experience, the best way to change these habits is to change the social expectations at the table. One way to do this is to lead by example and model the behavior you'd like to see: For instance, one group of players I've played with that tended to talk to each other using real-life names switched to using character names when, as the GM, I adopted Apocalypse World's Principle of "Always address the character, not the player." I had a similar experience at a convention once, where I played "A Penny For My Thoughts" with a GM who took a hardcore approach to immersion, delivering the whole game in-character as the therapist administrating the experiment and refusing to refer to any of us except by the names he'd randomly assigned us at the session's start. ("You look like a... Daniel to me." Then he wrote it on a nametag and stuck it to the player's chest. I don't know if that was part of the system, or the GM's own flourish.) For another example, as a player, I recently had a session where I was in the spotlight at the very beginning, before the other PCs had been introduced. I used an emotive, descriptive, first-person tone to narrate my actions. This inspired the other players to use a similar style when their characters entered the scene, even though their tendency is often to be distant, take "pawn stance", and to pepper the GM with questions about what they can and cannot do instead of acting directly. (Unfortunately, it works both ways - I tend to fall back into the habit of playing that way myself when I'm around this group.)

Another approach is to change the makeup of the table. If you have some players who exhibit the behavior you want and some who are in favor of trying it but don't have the habit, it might help to have a table full of mostly players who already "get it" and only a couple who don't. This is really the same idea as modelling it yourself, but sometimes it helps to have more people - particularly if you're the GM and you want a model for strictly player behavior. The goal here, of course, is not to induct your players into a cult or to peer pressure them into doing something they're uncomfortable with - it's to offer them a good model for the type of gameplay you want them to try and a social environment that's conducive to trying it. I'd make it explicit and clear to everyone what's going on and to tell the players you're trying to teach that if they can't get the hang of it or decide they don't like it, no worries, their friends aren't going to abandon them over it or anything awful like that. (Hopefully that goes without saying in most cases, but it might not for some people.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey, even if it goes without saying, it can be reassuring to hear. I think the 'watch us while we do the thing' advice is probably the way to go here. I'll just need to get better at explaining what I'm doing while I'm reading a rulebook :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 14, 2015 at 22:04

The best things to do (in "best" order) given your assumptions and question would be:

  1. Sit them down individually and play through a mini-session or two with them.
  2. Translate what they want into what fits the game
  3. Break it to them that perhaps this isn't the game for them and maybe see about finding one that is.

Now, on to explanations! I will be using Shadowrun as an example, since that's my current fare and you profess experience in it.

Individual Play

The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is to sit them down and play the game with just them. Give them a situation in which a lot of the rules will come together and work with them in the way that best suits them to learn how to think in the manner you need. In Shadowrun, I would have the players create a character with me, and then put them through a scenario that was suited for their character's strengths, and then one for their weaknesses, so they could get a mind of what to do.

Translate The Gameplay

This assumes that the player isn't trying anything outrageous and works with you. If this isn't the case, you might need to skip this suggestion.

Most of the time I find that players with go for a half-and-half method, usually relying on the rules as a loose guideline and stretching them a bit to cover some heroic feats. Maybe it's wanting to throw a boulder when they can only life a battle axe. Maybe it's wanting to shoot the badguy in the head by sticking the gun out around the corner. In either case these are perfectly acceptable things to try and fail at. As a GM, I would remind them that the action isn't feasible with their lack of strength/skill, and if they insisted use the rules to determine if it works.

To go along with this, you may want to be nice and let your players pre-roll certain actions, so when the time comes they can keep things moving smoothly. This isn't just a thing to do in the case of what you asked (with the amount of dice rolling in Shadowrun, I often have people pre-roll perception checks, etc). How well this works depends on the system, but if it helps you could stockpile some rolls, apply them as they come along, and when you run out have them re-roll.

This isn't your game

Hopefully for you the awesome thing about being friends/acquaintances is being able to say "I don't think this is the sort of game we should play together." Sometimes the answer is as simple as that. There have been plenty of times I've needed to be reminded that it isn't worth the energy if it's not a positive experience for both of us.

Experience: I've been GMing games for only about twelve years now (I know a lot who have been doing it longer than me.) I have also published a few P&P games across all genres, and am a professional PITA player. As a Shadowrun GM I've had to tell a few friends this game wouldn't be for them (after some trying, even.)

Below is the old answer, of which the main one came from after the question was clarified.

What is an effective way to teach receptive players how to engage with a system in a rules-first manner, when their habit is to engage in a fiction-first or simulationist manner?

You say before your question:

Sometimes though, players who seem like they might be receptive to this style of play fail to engage with the rules directly, and instead maintain a fiction-first relationship to the game reality, leading to frustration for them and me. They end up relating to the rules as obstacles to what they want to accomplish instead of scaffolding on which to build what they want.

What you're alluding to (I believe) is that they're receptive to trying something new, but then eventually realize this system isn't for them. The short answer, then, is to keep on as you have been, and if they don't catch on either accept that they won't catch on and tailor game to them in regard to their parts or accept they won't be a good fit and move on. If you've been nudging them and finding no progress, you eventually begin to reach the definition of insanity.

But, let's assume they really are receptive and maybe you need some pointers.

I'm a Shadowrun GM, and Shadowrun is pretty much to rules that Eve Online is to spreadsheets (hint: In my experience it's the heaviest of the more popular titles). I have had a few friends express interest in the game, only to find they're interested in the setting and not so much the rules. What I would do to teach them how to play on a rules-first basis (something more important in pickup groups at the local Book & Game) was to play a game session with just them, where I got to focus on what they did and help instruct them on what's expected. Spend this unique time with them on their main character and not a test, so they don't have to shift gears or trains of thought until after they've had time to adapt.

My alternative, of course, is to have a fuzzy "good enough" area. Outline with the group the main rules you will focus on, and the rules you will be a bit more vague about. Have a group meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page, and do a light adventure focusing on the rules-iest part.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I went through and re-answered, putting in a lot more detail now that the question has been clarified a bit more. \$\endgroup\$
    – Codeacula
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 20:53


You request advice on getting people to behave within the rules of a game. One way to get them to see things your way is to use first principles, which for games is:

"A game is defined by its rules."

1. Use Analogies

A. Offer the example of common games like checkers, chess or tennis. They all have reasonably concise and well known rules. As soon as one doesn't adhere to the rules of that game, one can't play it fairly with others.

B. Rules in game like Soccer, and American football. For football, compare NCAA rules versus NFL rules:

  1. Soccer: you know you can't use your hands, so don't or you aren't playing fair.
  2. NCAA -- one foot in bounds makes for a reception
  3. NFL -- both feet in bounds needed for a reception.
    You (GM / ref) rule on completed or incomplete passes, hands calls, etc.

The first principle applies likewise to your RPG. The rules create the limits of what the in-bounds and out-of-bounds plays are, and ensure fair play for all involved in the game. Since you are working with differing people, and they may have differing personal visions of what an RPG is for their fun time, *this may take more than one conversation.

C. A non-game analogy you can use is art: the rules define what is in the picture (within the frame) and thus is art. Anything outside the rules is dirt on the museum wall but is not art in the context of that museum (game).

How do you introduce this point to people who already play RPGs using a narrative-first attitude? Communicate to them, but do not be surprised if it takes some interactions in game play to do this.

2. What perfect rule set?

I approach RPG with the point of view of "it never hurts to ask" for two reasons.

a. All rules systems are finite, and the players will eventually find holes and gaps.

b. Sometimes, a weird thing players ask for would be fun, and it is time to make a GM decision. Basing such decision in the rules (if you are consistent) provides both fairness and structure. When I say "no" I use the rules as the basis for saying "no" and apply the philosophical point: a game is defined by its rules.

3. Examples

a. My original experience with this came 30+ years ago as player. Our first few sessions of Traveller was where I had this point rammed home to the point that I "got it." Some of us (players) were trying to turn the Traveller sessions into something approximating the movie Star Wars, which had very recently come out. It took the GM a few gaming sessions to get us all to embrace the rules of Traveller (and to read them with more interest). He also had to deal with the fact that it wasn't D & D (pre-1st edition, and our most common game) and it took effort (and our being friends) to better play in this new box.
The lesson stuck.

b. A few years later, during a two year AD&D 1e campaign that began with "Keep on the Borderlands," our DM was very rules and structure based. Of the players, 4 of 6 players had been DM's in other campaigns. Our styles and his weren't the same. It took some time (and frustration, and much patience on his part) to get us to accept his template. Once we did, the game flowed more smoothly and there were fewer arguments mid-game. It was a very memorable campaign. (A few of us still call each other by in game handles, to this day).

4. Will it work for my game?

Effectiveness will vary from GM to GM and player to player. How strong is your relationship with this person? That matters in terms of how the message is received. The original question addresses two people having a different vision of how to deal with the boundaries. That need not be fatal.

5. Supporting your position

This all leads you back to the requirement for communication between players and GM regarding -- "what are our expectations" -- to bridge the gap. Same Page Tool may help.

If your GM style, and the game, requires all of the players to be very-familiar-to-expert on the rules, and roll with them, it doesn't hurt to point out a few things.

a. "We Are In This Together" appeal
Their adhering to the rules makes it more fun for everyone in the group, DM and players alike.

b. ""Get the Most fun out of our Game Time" appeal
Pace of play improves when everyone knows and adheres to the rules.
OK, Sports analogies again:

  • NBA games where fouls run wild, and every other trip down the court ends in a foul shot.
  • NFL games when they refs drop flags like confetti due to false starts and illegal alignments.

Those games aren't fun to watch, and probably aren't fun to play.

c. "Empathy" appeal
GM puts a lot of work into this to make it fun, a little quid pro quo in terms of being more up on the rules is not too much to ask of all players. Your personal relationship with the players influences the effectiveness of this approach.

6. Caveat

Not all player-GM pairings are a good fit. This RPG hobby is something we do in our free time. Trying to shoehorn someone into a style that they don't find fun will eventually end participation. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since you have multiple players whom you are serving as GM.

  • \$\begingroup\$ It seems like this method of teaching is likely to result in players continuing not to engage with or know anything about the rules, and to view them as an obstacle to play. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @the dark wanderer. My crystal ball is fuzzy, so I won't predict how a given player will respond. Thanks to your clarification in the comments for the original question, your target audience is someone who is open to your input on rules-first emphasis and may need some time/nurturing to internalize it -- adapting to something new. Using analogies to other familiar games/rule sets can help with that. (Example, you don't get to serve into either service box in tennis, just the one assigned from where you are serving. To do otherwise means you aren't playing tennis). \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you organize this answer a bit and add some more direct suggestions? The only things I'm getting from this answer is "explain that it's rules-first, use analogies as necessary" and "keep saying NO until they get it, with occasional allowances for when there aren't any rules that address the current situation." How did the GM teach you the rules-first nature of the Traveler game you joined? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:45

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