Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gaming in the RAW

When I came into RPG gaming, the default ideal was that the GM customized the system and created the setting to suit the group. I was 21 in 1978, with a long history of playing wargames. I was used to modding and kitbashing, though those terms may be later than the practice. I bought blank counters and created my own units, re-wrote rulesets, and created my own maps on big sheets of matting bought at art stores. Coming into RPGs, I did the same thing. Before I ever played an RPG game, I was going through the ruleset, discarding, adding, and modding. I played exactly one game before forming my own group as GM, because I knew that was the part I wanted to play.

Somewhere in those long years, things changed drastically. Using commercially produced settings and adventures became the default. I was going along in the old way, and only noticed it when new players joined the group. I bought a few adventures - modules people called 'em for no reason I could see, as they weren't modular at all - and maybe used a bit or two from them. I bought the old Greyhawk campaign, and never used it at all. More and more games were coming out with default settings as opposed to the old idea of implied setting. Meanwhile my own games were moving very far indeed from the games as depicted in the rulebooks. I added rules from this or that game, changed character generation completely, dropped lots of rules that were cumbersome for me in play. The results would not be recognizable to anyone who played those games in any other group.

Currently, there is a fetish about playing games in the RAW - that is, Rules As Written. Changing rules, kitbashing, modding are all verboten. This is, in my opinion, just wrong. It's an abdication of the rights of the group to the rights of the designer, even if the designer intends nothing of the sort. It's passive - insidiously passive. I don't like it, and think it's bad for the hobby. Groups should be pushing their own agendas, and so should individuals. Leaving everything on the designer level, as RAW does, turns groups from participants into consumers.

The only time I can see as justification for RAW is in playtest, and even then the playtesters, when they meet with problems, should be willing and able to get around the problem in play before feeding back the problem and their own solution they used in play.

Anyway, as always, my opinion.



  1. While I agree with you, I won't play a game where the RAW can't stand on it's own. There are just too many games out there now that are good and consistent and compelling right out of the gate, for me to want to play something that I have to start house ruling before I run it. Tweaking a setting is one thing, or adding rules for scenarios that are specific to your game are of course important, but if I have to re-work a bunch of the combat rules and character creation basics because I can't tolerate them as-written, then chances are that game isn't for me. Now having said that, I have mad love for any game that includes good guidelines for establishing new rules and precidents through strong fundamentals in the system it's self.

  2. I'm 21 right now. I play games I design for my own group. I customise games I run. Sometimes I try running some game by the rules as written, but it usually doesn't work very well; it is useful to do before messing with the rules, though.

    I have never seen this culture of the rules as written being enshrined and sanctified. I am not sorry of this.

  3. @ Helmsman:

    Oh, definitely. I'm not talking about *necessary* changes, just optional changes. If you have to change rules in order to run a game at all, that's just bad design. What I am talking about is changes that make life easier because they are more in tune with your group's style than the default.

    The other case, where the rules work, but are intolerable,just means that changing the rules to be more in tune with your group isn't worth the bother.

    @ thanuir:

    Awesome! I've been running games so long now - 32 years just for RPGs, let alone wargames - I can see bottlenecks without playing them out. I don't think I have ever run an RPG game as RAW in my life. Teh RAW culture is strange to me too. I don't know how widespread it is in real life, just from posts on the internet.


  4. Preah on Brother Clash! I have seen this culture building from the 90s. I am not sure where it comes from but it just blows my mind. Yeah, a game should run RAW but I have yet to find a system that I prefer to play that way, not even Iridium! Yeah, I know, I am not supposed to spew that kind of stuff but I just can't help myself. This RAW crap really bugs me.

    I just ran into a group like that this Friday at a shop down here. Grr, the freaks just would not shut up about the "problems" in 4e. I calmly said to them that they should fix them then. They just looked at me like I had switched to German or something. Then the GM pipes up with "Well, we shouldn't have and anyway, I am not a game designer". I gave them my patented "Dumb Cat Look" and said "You run the game right". "Yep". "You just spent 45 minutes telling me what the problem is so you understand it right?". "Yep". "Then you should be albe to find the solution." "Nope". I then gave up.

    It seems the very idea of modding rules is becoming foreign to a number of people. I can only pray that it does not become the default.

  5. I'm with you. The RAW philosophy, however, may go back to the 80's when you were being told you had to play AD&D by the RAW or you weren't playing AD&D. So what I say, but I guess the youngin's took it as scripture.

  6. I like playing games RAW sometimes but not because there's some sort of mystical value in doing so. Playing RAW is the thing I do when I want to see what this thing in front of me actually does, not what it tells me it's going to do. It's like a puzzle problem, or like finding the baseline of the game before I teach it to do tricks for me.

    That being said, I don't know how to run a published module as written. I get them in front of me and, I swear, they drift in front of my eyes.

  7. @ Bill:

    It isn't the default, but there is a strong undercurrent of RAW in today's gaming that was not there before.

    @ Mike;

    I never noticed a RAW philosophy in the 80s, but it may well have been there. It may have been in response to the infinite spreading of individual (A)D&D games away from the standard. People couldn't just come into - for instance - my games without extensive bringing up to speed. Our house rules were extensive and pervasive, and our setting was nothing like Greyhawk or Forgotten Lands. Perhaps it was the beginnings of tournament play?

    @ lady lakira:

    There is nothing wrong with sometimes playing games with RAW. I think the harm comes in excluding any other conception of play, as you so aptly say - thinking there is some mystical value in doing so, fetishizing RAW. For one thing, it institutionalizes the concept of a right way and a wrong way to play. The only wrong way to play a game is the way you don't enjoy it.


  8. Clash, you have really hit on something here, something that has people like me (with families, jobs, and other distractions) turning away from new games. This focus on RAW design has made many new games overly (and often tediously) complex. It hurts my brain to wade through paragraphs of often redundant rules, rules that are unnecessary when players were willing to improvize, adapt, and overcome. I play with two regular gaming groups and neither is fond of learning new games, simply because of the tedium involved in doing so. The general consensus by the GMs at the table is to play some old, familiar, game because they can't be bothered to wade through today's books.

    I think modern game design, especially RAW design, has led to a "I can't see the forest through the trees" mindset amongst the tired minds of gaming. There are so many rules planted in new games and systems, rules that seem pointless (at least to me).

  9. Interesting, in that I come to the opposite conclusion as parkimania from the same reasons. Having a job and family, I have great use for a game that will work as written. I would much rather be able to pick up a game and immediately start playing, rather than taking weeks to mod and kitbash it into something I can use.

    I feel that a lot of pointless rules and bloated rule sets come from a toolkit approach that tries to do everything, rather than only what is needed (i.e. "Well, someone might run an underwater campaign, so let's throw in rules for that.")

  10. @ John:

    I was quite explicit that I am not talking about games that *require* modding or kitbashing. I'm talking about games where you mod because it's fun and it makes the game fit your own preferences better.

    @ Rich:

    I agree with you. In general, designing for play in the RAW tends to make game rules complex. John is also correct that if you narrow your focus, you have less total rules. If you like narrowly focused, crunchy games, then that is what you would want to run in the RAW. The trouble is, the narrower the focus, the less replay value a game has. It's a compromise.