I always was hooked by content of game instructions. About what is that game? How to play it? What are things to fiddle it? The thing which hooked me into TTRPGs was a written walkthrough for Icewind Dale 2 videogame. I read over there about a tabletop roleplaying game called „Dungeons & Dragons 3e”. Anyway. When I read a TTRPG book, very first things I’m looking for are answers what the game is about and how it’s played in details. The mechanics, procedures, tools and principles written out. What I’m supposed to do while playing?
In another words, I just love to try out the instruction. How it works? How the game looks like? How it helps me to utilize the „fun” part (and what „fun” is there)? This is called „Playing By The Book”.
I decided to explain, what really „playing By The Book” really is? I think it’s better to describe, how I make it. It’s easy to give an advice like „stop homebrewing, just stick to the instructions”. However, a human being is a complex one, with their experiences and habits. That’s why I consider playing BTB as a lesson about control of your previous habits, learnt behaviour and acquired practice.
|„Playing By The Book (BTB)” definition: it’s a stance to play TTRPG session according to written instructions and verbalized premise of the game. You play to find out, what the game brings to offer and how it does. It’s „I want to get to know that game” attitude. You can call it as „bookish play”.|
Forget about your RPG
I say it gently but honest. All those decades of TTRPG experience, hundreds or even thousands of sessions, cons and system-agnostic guide books. All of them propably aren’t included into instructions of a given game you chose to play.
Several years ago, I learnt about the advice as „to forget what you played before”. TTRPGs varies, a lot, and is a fact. Many of them don’t have much overlap with each other. Some of them don’t overlap much with traditional RPGs, like D&D or CoC, for instance. I’m bold enough to say, that previous TTRPG experience is like baggage. Sometimes, we’ll pull something helpful and useful. However, by default, baggage loads us and can become a tiresome burden…
„Forget about your RPG” motto is about relief and relax. To open yourself for a new experience, to possibly free yourself from any bias; from previous sessions or games. To abstain from a previous TTRPG played, even if something makes it easy for you. My personal example: during Wicked Ones campaign, it took me two sessions to get used to different options for a roll than in Blades in the Dark. The same game engine, different games…
Become a new-born novice
I like to approach a new TTRPG like a newbie. I know nothing, I don’t have any idea, I maybe have a rough understanding of what I read from a rulebook. The small difference is, when I run a session: I try to read the book thoroughly. But only once. I don’t bother to remember every word from 100d6 pages long book. The goal is to learn, how to start.
I expect, that I’ll learn further how to play/run, by playing sessions.
I consider this as a honest approach. How can I point that my D&D 3e experience would help with such different TTRPGs like Love in the Time of Khvareneh or Lines in the Sand? How it can ever overlap? When I played those games, I was novice of them.
It’s about being humble to the new experience. Being open to it. Take off your guard of the past – I would recommend.
Expect to become surprised, how the instruction played BTB can impact the shared fiction. How strange elements and obscure rules interact with events of the session? Almost every game has it’s quirks and nuances. I call it „the edge of a game” These are moments, when a game (book) expect us to accept and introduce various resolutions. We can see, that the game has it’s own taste.
That’s why I’m looking for unexpected. Non-conventional resolutions and tools, leaving the comfort zone. I don’t expect anything beside expecting that using a rulebook will show me something.
Use the damn book
Saying „Use the damn book” is plain obvious. Like calling for The Bible or other religious work.
In order to play By The Book, however, you need to use the book. Not only before and after the session, or during a break. Right now, at the moment, when you ask yourselves „what to do?”. When you pick an instruction from the book, you learn the game. The rules are used – and can be understood – in context of live play, when they are needed. According to BTB stance, taking a short break to find out something in the book is not „a rookie mistake”. In fact, quite opposite. You learn, where you may find revelant information; each time, it will take less time. You remember those rules how they were used and why. Also – as a GM for instance – you can show, that you’re on the same page with others. There’s a common reference – the book of a game.
I figured it out, how to use those brick TTRPG books in this way. I read the book in chunks: the problematic parts, the important parts for the next session. It doesn’t look like significant effort, right? Every such reading and every session, this adds up. I consolidate the knowlegde. In result, I started to become more oriented in the book, how to guide myself while using it…
Another secret. The main reason why many TTRPGs have hundreds of pages, is because they are filled with utility content. Skill and ability lists, setting, world & lore information. Many tables, generators, maps. Those aren’t intended to know by heart. It isn’t practical at all. You look upon them, when it’s needed; when you want to use them.
Take a look on the entire picture
For a definiton of „playing By The Book”, there are two additional terms:
- Rules As Written (RAW) as „playing according to the written text”.
- Rules As Intended (RAI) as „playing according to the premise of a game”.
Both terms are important: RAW should lead to RAI in result, while RAI is what really the game is about.
I heard that issues with RAW are straightforward. Either you use the written instuction or not. You can read aloud the procedure and use it, or not. The instruction’s text can be written badly or good…
However, understanding each rule in isolation is not enough. Various mechanics and rules interact with each other. This brings the vector (the direction and the force) for the session. And this adds up – each rule, principle, mechanics, tool – into whole, bigger picture. Everything starts to be connected. Every rule becomes „for something” and fulfills at least one purpose.
You can say that RAI is „playing by the spirit of a game”. I’d prefer to say that it’s about intended purpose of a given game (book). TTRPG’s written text doesn’t only has dry text written on, but also instructions how to play. Why to play this? For what to play this? This is the common point for understanding, why we bring a given title. What we want to play together? „Rules As Intended” principle helps you to form a bigger picture of a game, and this helps you to understand, why you can stumble upon that strange looking rule („the egde”, as I wrote before)…
How to learn RAI of the game? Read, which characters do you play. What the book promises you at the very beginning? What are the written instructions for a various roles at the table, like player or game master? How the structure of a game looks like? Propably you won’t be 100% sure before the first session anyway, so don’t be afraid to slow down the play a bit. Make sure that you put in use the written instructions as correctly as you can. Don’t speed up things, until you feel comfortable enough. Play to learn, how to play. Session’s tempo will go back by itself!
It’s not easy!
Playing By The Book is not hard, it can be challenging. It compels you to break through your habits, to not listen to compels for making houserules. It can demand increased effort. To leave the comfort zone.
Don’t expect a brilliant first or second session. This doesn’t mean that – by playing BTB – the first session will always go wrong. Consider this approach: look for positive things and try to figure out the potential of the game. Listen to the positive feedback. What’s seems interesting to you? What tells you to continue? What vibes?
Maybe you’ll learn, that you feel bad while playing given title. Or, perhaps, sticking to rules of an exact games is too uncomfortable to you. That’s fine. At least you gave a shot and tried. You learnt.
Why even to play BTB at this point?
There’s a hidden premise of playing BTB. While playing By The Book, we review how given TTRPG really works. Does it fulfill our expectations? Does it fulfill it’s own promise (RAI)? By this process, we sort games as „better” and „worse” designed…
We discover, that some games simply works poorly. We can be dissapointed at our beloved TTRPG from the past. The moment „I would homebrew this and that?” didn’t came from a vacuum, right?
OK, we can just simply play by themselves and don’t bother with some dude writing some obscure blog, right? You can change whole structure of a game, or bulk of the instructions, sure. However, that will mask the fact, that a game doesn’t match our expectations. We mask the need for better roleplaying. We could just spend our time and effort by playing something else, instead…
Playing By The Book is a trial-and-error method. We bring TTRPGs in which we’re hooked in. We return to games which worked good for us; we reject those really bad. It can be frustrating at some times, but in the end our gaming will improve. You’ll learn better ways of having fun. In my opinion, it’s not worth to play bad games. Bad gaming is always bad (unless you do it for a research)
„Bookish play” as I called, helps us to explore, what we really like in TTRPGs. What we’re really interested in. Which resolutions, tools and such we like to bring on the table. We can help ourselves in shaping our taste in TTPRGs.
I like to play BTB, because I want to learn something about a new game. I try other and another TTRPGs in search for something new or at least something to be inspired.
Also, by playing By The Book, we can learn how to homebrew on our own. How to make games by our own, by learning how given piece works in their original context. How we can „steal it” for own purposes and makes it work. Which elements are suitable to construct our own game?
We can learn, how previous instructions work, where are both the ingenuity and the failure of previous designers.