The Invisible Rulebooks

When asked to explain the Invisible Rulebooks in person, I usually start with this scenario. If it's any consolation, it rambles in person, too:

You're a player in a wild-west RPG, and it's kind of action-comedy western with occasional dramatic historical stuff, but mostly it's just action of the rootin' tootin' variety. Train robberies, stagecoach chases, high noon gunfights. Barroom brawls where the piano player keeps on playing no matter how many bodies slide down the bartop and slam into the piano.

So you're a player, in that, and you're playing the kind of rootin' tootin' character who likes to shoot the ten-gallon hats right off the bad guys to let 'em know who's boss. Bang!, pling!, and off the hat goes, embarrassing the bad guy without endangering him.

Some RPGs have specific rules for this. Some don't. But in an RPG, you – and I mean the fictional you, the rootin'-tootin' you – can try anything, and expect a fair shake on succeeding or failing or the mushy funtime chaos in-between. That's tactical infinity (which I usually describe with fake nuns; see this article for the fake nuns).

  • If the game has specific rules for hat-shooting, the GM might opt to use those rules.
  • If the game has specific rules for shooting, but not specifically for shooting hats, the GM might opt to use those, and apply them to hats.
  • If the game has no specific rules for shooting at all, but has rules for doing stuff in a broad sense, the GM might opt to apply those rules.
  • If the game has no rules that seem to apply well enough, the GM can improvise an off-the-cuff rule, or simply provide a ruling.
  • And so on. The permutations are many.

Lots of RPGs have rules for shooting. Some have rules for missing.

In the real world (as I understand it based on infrequent contact), if you send a bullet toward the crown of a bad guy's head, and miss, there's a fair chance you'll miss wide, sending that bullet into yon prairie backdrop or Old Man McGillicuddy's Traveling Snake-Oil Wagon. There's also a smaller, but genuine, chance that you'll miss a little low, and blow a chunk from his head, or miss lower, and slug him in the neck, or shoulder, or chest. Bullets aren't really made for making ten-gallon hats safely go pling!

Some RPGs are very interested in modeling that sort of thing, and a literal use of such rules could transform this rootin' tootin' symbolic gesture into a deadly accident waiting to happen. Because you're not just rootin' and tootin', you're shootin'.

Some RPGs are more genre-conscious, and if they're written with western action-comedy in mind, will explicitly place genre conventions above conventional physics in this situation: in such a run, it's safe to shoot someone's hat off. If you fail, you might embarrass yourself instead of the bad guy, but those are the only stakes. Nobody's going to lose a chunk of skull over this. And the same goes for shooting the bad guy's belt-buckle so his britches fall down, which bends the real world even further in the name of genre.

Some RPGs simply have no specific take on what happens when a gunshot misses, in any situation, symbolic or literal. Some do, but only consider the question in a way that wouldn't apply to the funny hat shot. Again, there are many permutations.

But none of this is a problem – none of it at all – if the Game Master is clear headed and fair and on the same page as the players.

Even if a literal reading of the rules suggest that Black Bart just lost a wet chunk of his frontal lobe, even if the rules have no idea where the bullet went, even if the rules never even mention bullets, the GM can make the call, and move on. Because GMs don't need to rely on the visible rulebook alone, they've also got heads full of Invisible Rulebooks.

We've all got a library up there. We've got the Book of Realistic Firearms As I Understand Them, and the Book of Genre Conventions Volume XIV: Action-Comedy Westerns. We've got the more general Book of Physics and the Book of Ensemble-Based Table Behavior and even the Book of How We Decide Who Gets the Final Dorito.

Of course, my version of the Book of Realistic Firearms As I Understand Them is probably different from yours, because we have different experiences and sources to draw from.

And if I'm very serious about it, my Invisible Rulebooks might give more deterministic weight to Realistic Firearms over Genre Conventions, because people, like games, have varying levels of genre-awareness (or genre-patience, or genre-interest). We can agree on both the realistic stakes and the genre stakes, but still disagree on which of these takes precedence in this game. Or we can agree on all of that, but still disagree on the odds of succeeding.

So, your Invisible Rulebooks, and my Invisible Rulebooks, are differently sourced and differently weighted. Probably. It's hard to tell, because they're invisible. But you and I still depend on them, and sometimes, in the middle of a game, the differences can become apparent.

And naturally, we have these internal rulebooks on every imaginable topic. There's The Book of How You Can Tell if Someone's Lying, for example. Maybe the GM has strong opinions on that one, and those opinions will inform the behavior of the campaign's NPCs. But if the GM's opinions on how a liar behaves differs from yours or mine, some of the GM's implications can be lost. And it doesn't even matter if the rules address it ... not if the GM is banking on the players noticing, in play, the way Fickle Joe the Stoolie touches his collar when he insists that he hasn't heard anything about Nickels McCone.

Every day, at gaming tables around the world, little wrinkles arise in the tension between our written, visible rulebooks, and the GM's library of Invisible Rules, and each player's own Unseen Stacks. My dog-eared invisible copy of Social Niceties in 16th-Century Muscovy might collide, at any time, with some other gamer's more general What Old-Timey Times Were Maybe Like Back In The Day, referred to in the same moment. My scrawny pamphlet of What I Suppose Brain Surgery on Klingons Would Be Like might contradict the more-informed knowledge of an actual physician at the gaming table, but it'll inform my version of Leonard McCoy either way, if that's who I'm playing.

And every day, gamers deal with it just fine. That's what a friendly table of cooperative roleplayers, with a groovy GM and a supply of Doritos, can achieve. And we do it so constantly that we scarcely notice how awesome we are for doing it.

And then, sometimes it doesn't go so well. Any gamer with a few miles under their adventuring boots can probably recall a time or two.

In traditional RPG design, there's a spectrum of design philosophy on how explicitly and thoroughly and often the visible books should render the invisible books unnecessary ... on how important the rules, mechanisms and procedures should be, compared to the judgement of the Game Master.

At one end of this spectrum, there is the idea that the written rules should do all that they can. Even the most thorough and explicit rulebook can't entirely supplant the need for GM judgement, but by golly, it can minimize it, providing a solid foundation on which expectations can rest, a reliable court of fair outcomes, in written form. In games at this end of the spectrum, the GM's judgement is necessary only for spackling the inevitable (but hopefully rare) gaps in the visible rulebooks.

At the opposite end, there is the idea that the rules should be constructed from the observation that GMs and players handle this stuff every day, and can do so more effectively if the rules just stand the heck out of their way (politely near, in case they're needed), leaving more brain-energy for the GM to focus on NPCs and adventures and things. In games at this end of the spectrum, the visible rulebooks are only necessary for spackling the inevitable (but hopefully rare) gaps in the invisible rulebooks.

Then there's the spectrum between, which is so roily with variables it looks less like a rainbow and more like a river of oil.

I consider both of those extremes, and all points between then, laudable. I consider them all considerate and well-meaning. What's more, they're all at the heart of proven, excellent works of RPG design. And professionally, I've worked every inch of that river for nigh on thirty years.

But I do have my favorites. Personally, I've built a cozy cabin near to the far-out end, the wilderness end, the trippy end, the get-the-rules-out-of-my-way end. That's just my happy-place, and that's probably obvious to anyone accustomed to my work (and if you're new to it, maybe that sounds icky, and maybe it sounds awesome, and either way you're not wrong).

I've been observing, for ~25 out of those ~30, how a design's position along this spectrum runs deep into every aspect of the RPG experience, and by "design" I don't just mean rules (ho-hum), I mean the good stuff: worlds! Genre resources! Characters! Adventures! And that right there, where I consider those the good stuff, and rules the ho-hum? That's the gleam on the tip of this iceberg, because once you recognize the invisible rules as a thing, you can design for their use. And I do.

It doesn't matter a lot to the Doritos, not really. Not often. I'm just on a low-sodium diet and I miss them so.

The term "Invisible Rulebooks" is one I find useful. It's a goofy metaphor, but terms are tools. What's more, it's a starting point for other terms in my toolkit. We'll get to those, and here's hoping you find them handy, too – no matter where on the river you camp, or what lengths of it you wander.

This is #1 of the RPG Lexicon series. Click here for the next one!

He knows you've got this. I know you've got this, too.