Strict vs Flexible Styles

Mucking about with some Mind Map practice yesterday, I noticed an element to the so-called Play Styles dimension of roleplaying games that I hadn’t thought much about before. Some people are strict with the rules and methodologies of the game, and others are much more flexible.

I really hadn’t run into many strict “by-the-rules-as-written” players over the years. These are people who not only prefer to play the rules as published but who also really don’t enjoy any deviation from them. The other end of the spectrum are people for whom the rules-as-written are the merest suggestion of guidelines from which divergence is a given.

Given all the other sliding scales in roleplaying game circles – such as loose vs detailed crunch, lite vs heavy rules weight, and higher vs lower complexity – I was surprised that I had missed the strict vs flexible dial. It also got me thinking about how I fit on that scale.

When I have a new game and am learning it, I usually force myself to play “rules-as-written” so that I can assess the rules and systems within it. Generally, however, I feel pretty free and at liberty to tinker with mechanisms that I either don’t much like, find too fiddley, or outright feel don’t work. Most players I know are fine with this as long as it gets discussed.

But it’s important to accept that some people don’t like this flexible attitude to the rules-as-written. Some say it’s cheating to bend or break the rules. Others feel that it opens you up to unexpected complications and side-effects, leading them to assert that playing the game as designed is safer. A few feel that their game of choice is objectively “best” and should not be tinkered with lest it be spoiled.

The realisation brought me back to the importance of dialogue and discussion, both prior to starting a game and periodically during the campaign. I’ve added strictness and adherence to the rules to my list of things to discuss. I simply hadn’t given it that much thought until now.

Game on!


  1. For me it’s less about strictly following rules, but more about consistency. Once we’ve had the chat to decide what will be, what to expect, I then expect that to follow.
    The confusion between strict and flexible can be triggered when one interpretation drifts into another over time without warning. And may not even be noticed by players or GM until it crosses an u defined line that triggers one or more participants…. when expectations are breached.
    When a rule is followed strictly and then later dealt with casually, and maybe strictly again later. The flip flop is is a striking offender for me, but I often don’t speak out when it bothers me, rather grumble to myself later n feel off-balance,or wonder if I was wrong n misinterpreted something significant.
    I can’t think of a rule set where strict adherence to the rules would ever be the best option, nor where an absence of rules could be acceptable.
    But it’s important to note my autism has a strong impact on this perception/view.


    • I have a tendency to want to follow rules, in part because I want to prove the game system. Either I dislike it and want to prove that it’s broken, or I love it and want to prove it it works as written. To some degree this is a desire to get inside the head of the game author; obviously it worked for them, and so making it work is a matter of learning and applying the same technique and process to make the system sing.

      I invariably find myself bending the rules anyway, which to me is proof that the rules are inadequate or broken to some degree. A perfect set of rules would never need modification. Naturally my quest for such a perfect set continues.

      Intuitively I feel that every game system is perfect if you can only get inside the head of the person who wrote it, since it was apparently perfect for them, and that if I could ever manage to achieve such a feat I would find gaming Nirvana instead of either having to roll my own rules, or perpetually having to fudge rules in order to make them work.

      Although I’m a big proponent of rule 0 in theory, in practice I consider the need for it to be admission of failure as a rules designer.

      On the other hand, such a perfect set of rules would be a complicated set, and I dislike complexity. It’s very likely that my perfect game is flexible, since that’s the only way to combine playability with sufficient depth.

      Liked by 1 person

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