I encountered a discussion recently on the challenges in following societal rules in game. There is a vocal group of gamers that object to IC rules enforcement, often out of a wish to for escapist fantasy. The wish to be transgressive within a roleplaying setting is one that probably derives from a sense of being stifled by the rules of the real world, either implied or explicit. Evaluating how and why we follow or break society’s rules is a useful exercise both in and out of game environments.
One of the legs of the stool that is Lloyd Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation is constraints. Constraints represent people, places, and things that limit how a rhetor might go about persuading his or her audience. Constraints can be as broad as laws prohibiting certain forms of persuasion – only certain government entities get to use the “Cake or Death” line of argument – to a rhetor’s desire to avoid coded and/or triggering language. Understanding and acknowledging constraints is critical to choosing the best course of action.
So why do so many players respond to constraints first with resistance? In 35 years of playing games, the favorite alignment I encounter is still Chaotic Neutral, and people who play outside alignment systems still actively resist any limits or checks on their power from external sources inside the game world. One of the more curious phenomena I’ve encountered is that players will handle limits to their character from the game mechanics far more readily than social norms, even in the form of laws.
I certainly understand the impulse, but I think we’re missing something important when we give somewhat free reign to our impulses – the concept of consequence. A rhetorical constraint is not, in most cases, an iron-clad prohibition; it’s more of the promise or likelihood of negative consequences for making the constrained choice. Even laws do not actually prohibit behavior, they simply promise consequences for engaging in that behavior. Too many games and too many players wish to live in a consequence-free environment. Some of Bitzer’s own critics imply that Bitzer himself didn’t give enough relevance to consequence, and how discourse, in trying to resolve an exigence, could end up modifying the exigence (Personally, I think such arguments are mostly a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that hope we don’t conceive of time as progressing, but that’s another matter).
Unless our RPG adventures are simply a parade of events that we encounter and move away from, conceiving of consequence is important both for the GM that would have a world react to the actors within it, and for the players who would define their own characters in the context of the world they live in.