Rules Are A Cage (and I’m a Puppygirl)

Jay Dragon
8 min readMay 16, 2024

Tabletop RPG rulebooks only serve to restrict and constrain us. So why is that a good thing?

When I look at any tabletop RPG, the first question I ask myself is: What does this game offer me that I couldn’t achieve by playing make-believe with my friends? See, I could gather a few friends, sit down at a table, and pretend to be dungeoneering adventurers or superheroes or whatever. We could describe what we do entirely fictionally, and we wouldn’t need any rulebook to help us do that. So then why do we want to play a game?

Sometimes (often) people tell me to play a certain game because it gives me permission to take certain actions, or it enables me to do something I couldn’t normally do. That’s not a very satisfying answer for me — I don’t need anyone’s permission to do anything in my make-believe. Maybe if I was playing a video game or a board game, something where the fictional world takes a backseat to the rules, I would be interested in rules that enable me to take certain actions. But in TTRPGs, ultimately I can just make up whatever I want.

Sometimes (often) people hear this question and interpret it as a threat to their games, or their way of enjoying games. Some people take this and come to the conclusion: there is no reason to ever play games. This is distressing to a lot of folks, because they like to make and play games! So sometimes even asking this question can generate distress. But I don’t always play make-believe with my friends: very often I still choose to play games. So why? What does the game offer me that make-believe doesn’t?

An Aside on Puppygirls

(Reminder: What I do in the privacy of my own life is my own business and I won’t appreciate people making weird jokes about my sexuality or personal preferences. I’ll feel uncomfortable if you use this blogpost as a space to make assumptions about me!)

Sometimes people enjoy bondage (or so I’ve heard). It’s enjoyable to be put in a collar or tossed in a cage, to have your hands cuffed to a bed frame or for someone to blindfold you. This is enjoyable because you want to struggle for control. You want to move your arm or speak or see, but you’ve allowed someone to make it harder for you, because there’s fun that emerges from the friction. If I’m in a cage, that cage becomes a source of tension and friction. I get to grapple with it, bite it, slam into it — I get to struggle against it. It serves as a limit for what I’m ordinarily capable of accomplishing. If I pushed on the cage and it came open, I’d be disappointed, because it meant that I couldn’t keep struggling. I want a sturdy cage so that I can slam myself against it and it can take it.

Back To Games

When a game presents a rule, that rule interferes with what I was originally intending to do. If I’m playing make-believe, I can jump over a wall whenever I want, unless I don’t want to. If I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons and I want to jump over a 12 foot tall wall, I need to roll an acrobatics check, and if I fail, I can’t jump over the wall. The rule “gets in the way” of the make-believe we were initially doing, and restricts my capacity for action.

And that’s a good thing!

The reason I’m playing any particular tabletop RPG, instead of playing make-believe, is because I want the game to challenge and vex the fictional world I’m moving through. I want the game to cage me, to make it hard for me to do something I’m normally able to do, to create moments of inefficiency that sculpt how I behave. It’s why we chose the game for the table!

The way the game interferes with our imagination, where it chooses to step in or stand back, reflects what the game chooses to focus on. Dungeons & Dragons famously has a lot of rules for combat, and very few rules for social interaction. This means that the system of Dungeons & Dragons is heavily invested in interfering and mediating how we engage in combat, and avoids interfering with how we engage in social interactions. There are multiple ways to interpret this fact: some might think of it as D&D caring more about combat, while others might think of it as D&D making space for freeform social scenes while eliding combat.

Ultimately, in D&D, there’s a big cage around combat, and a wide-open field around social interactions. If we want to play in D&D’s provided space, we can lock ourselves in the cage, or prance around the field, and it’s up to us which of these is more fun or more fruitful.

An Aside on Game-Texts

I keep saying “the game wants this” or “the game limits us.” This is nonsense, of course — tabletop RPGs are game-texts that describe rules, but there’s no mechanism of enforcement. We interpret those rules and apply them to our play, but no one is making us do so. When I speak to a game-text’s desires, I’m talking about the situation where we fully and thoroughly apply the rules presented to us by the game-text and use them for our game. If rules are a cage, we’re the ones who bought the cage and set it up, and we can just as easily not set it up and ignore it.

Even then, having a cage sitting on the floor, even if we’re ignoring it, shapes how we play. If we decide to play Dungeons & Dragons and proceed to explore a situation in which none of the rules ever come up (we go a session without rolling dice) the potential of the rules is still present with us. It’s a presence we’ve invited (we chose to put the book down on the table), but its presence sculpts our actions, the same way a flickering candle or copy of Lord of the Rings might.

Wanderhome (an example)

Wanderhome is a game with very few rules. It has some light and easy-to-set-aside stuff around a minimal token economy, and it has a vast number of picklists that shape how characters relate to one another, but the only hard stance it takes at any point is the claim that there is no violence in this game. And as an extension, in the Veteran’s playbook, there’s a single rule allowing for violence: unsheathe your sword, striking down the person in front of you, and then remove the Veteran from the playspace.

Some people play Wanderhome by avoiding any possibility of violence, staying as far away from the limitation as possible. That’s okay! But the way I like to play is to skirt up against that limitation and see how close I can get. Knowing that there’s an impassable cage means I get to grab the bars and really slam my whole weight into them. Knowing that violence is off the table means I can get into messy and disastrous situations and push things up to the brink of violence, and then work together to see how we can get out without the situation becoming violent. The Veteran’s act of violence serves to show the one escape valve, and uniquely shapes how the Veteran plays on account of having a unique and disastrous capacity to get out of the cage.

So the cage doesn’t say “don’t come anywhere near here,” but instead it says “there’s something really interesting if you struggle to get out!”

An Aside on Mark Rosewater

Mark Rosewater has famously said: “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” I think that’s true, and it’s also true about getting creative when playing games. Restrictions create unexpected new avenues of play! If I know a straight-up fight will cause me to lose, I’m going to seek out other ways to engage in that fight. If I roll on a random table and get told to combine two weird ideas I never thought would work together, that will produce really interesting results!

Also, sometimes restrictions aren’t fun — especially “gimmicky” restrictions. Just because there’s friction in play doesn’t mean that friction is enjoyable. Rosewater has talked about this too. Everyone has to be on board with those limitations and leaning into them has to be fun. Part of the social contract between players and game designer is that the game designer has made sure those limits are interesting.

Seven-Part Pact (another example)

Seven-Part Pact is a game I’m working on (and that you can read if you support my Patreon) about seven wizards trying to hold the world together. It is a game partially about existing in a male-dominated space (wizards are expected to be men, and patriarchal social expectations govern swathes of the game’s structure). The rules are restrictive, simulationist, crunchy, and constraining. You are incentivized to only spend time with your wife and kids when you get a mechanical benefit from it. If you choose to spend time with them instead of focusing on doing your job, you’ll probably struggle even further with your responsibilities.

These rules exist because I want to model a strict and intense patriarchal social structure, and the players are interested in enjoying that playspace. The incentives are not to reward you from spending time with your wife and kids, but rather to make enjoying their company a selfish action — either you’re skimping on something else, or you’re getting a reward for doing so, which makes the kindness feel hollow. This rule is cruel and unfair. You want to find a way to break it, to get out, to escape the confines of patriarchy and be free with the people you love, and —

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe your character is a cruel man whose priority is work. Or maybe he’s just uncaring, and you as a player don’t pick up on this and ignore it, leaving your wizard thoughtlessly negligent. All of these are interesting reactions that emerge from a system of incentives!

I can’t control what you do when I put you in a cage. Maybe you’ll climb on top of it, or bite at the bars, or sulk, or ignore it and play on your phone. All of these are totally reasonable emotional responses. As game designer, I don’t control your feelings. I just set up the cage for your enjoyment.

Ouppy Play

Let’s play together! Let’s run around in a field and figure out the limits of what we can do, and then strain against those limits as hard and as forcefully as possible. Let’s set lines and veils so that we can explore the space created by those walls. Let’s see what interesting things emerge from that struggle, when the rules get in the way. And as designers, let’s make sure those rules are worth fighting with.

This blog post was originally posted on my Patreon. Support the Possum Creek Patreon to get access to these blogposts weeks or months in advance, along with exclusive articles, games, first looks, and more.

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Jay Dragon

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Award winner. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, Yazeba's B&B, etc.