Rule-playing occurs whenever the rules begin to dictate not just whether a particular action succeeds or fails, but how the overall story progresses. This can be good or bad, depending on the general opinion of the gaming group. It does, however, tend to be in contrast to what Tabletop RPGs were created to do. (Supposedly, anyway.)
There are many things that can bring rule-playing about. For one, if the players don't pay attention to what their characters would want to do in a situation, and instead spend all of their attention on what the rules let them do, that's rule-playing. For another, if the game master takes a heavy-handed approach to rules enforcement, requiring a skill check for everything and giving only the standard bonuses, then the players will be required to rule-play if they want to stay alive. However, rules-heavy gameplay doesn't always devolve into rule-playing; skilled game masters will often give bonus modifiers to players who are roleplaying their characters well.
Rule-playing is the dominant mode of play in computer and console RPGs, because there's no game master there to give roleplaying bonuses. It is the preferred play style of Rules Lawyers and Stop Having Fun, Guys. The spiritual opposite to Screw the Rules, I Have Plot!.
The Rule of Cool may be a rule, but a game master who follows it is not considered to be rule-playing. The same applies to the Rule of Drama, Rule of Funny, Rule of Scary, and any other rule that is vague and open to interpretation.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- Early editions are the Ur-Example. Player Characters are generated by rolling up The Six Stats at random and then seeing which Character Class you qualify to play. Want to play a wizard? You just have to hope the dice give you a high enough Intelligence score. In practice, most groups use House Rules to be more lenient and flexible.
- A possible drawback of the more miniatures-rule heavy editions of D&D (notably third and fourth) is that especially during combat players may focus more on moving their physical playing pieces around and choosing actions from an established standard list and less on actually playing their characters as such.
- Old editions of Traveller are infamous for having random character generation tables that can kill a character before play even starts. The current edition allows much more choice in the process and makes "killer character creation" ("Iron Man") optional.
- Rolemaster is infamous for having rules that require rolls for everything. There are even rolls for basic hygiene and walking without falling. Bad rolls on these checks can move you to the game's "beloved" and lethal critical failure charts which are designed to humiliate your characters while maiming or murdering them.
- FATAL: The one and only thing you can choose about your character is your gender — and, given the No Woman's Land setting, the choice is nominal at best. Everything else - from your class to the width of your anus - is determined by die rolling and modifiers (with some arcane mathematics thrown in as well).
- In early editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Player Character creation is completely random aside from race and sex, including their stats and the starting Career that governs their advancement. Want to play as a wizard? Better hope you don't start the game as a dung collector instead!
- The Order of the Stick is an example of this enforced on a story-verse. The world works specifically according to Dungeons & Dragons rules even when it defies normal logic. The characters frequently Lampshade this even though it probably shouldn't seem weird to them. The rules are, of course, suitably interpreted for Rule of Cool, Rule of Drama, and Rule of Funny.
- Knights of the Dinner Table:
- The rules always win and it's only on very rare occasions that a rule is widely agreed to be broken. One of those occasions was the "beggar mob" rule which stated that 10 angry beggars constituted a mob and could automatically overbear a target. Brian tried to discourage BA from using this rule when it was used against the party but, failing that, decided to turn the rule to his advantage by having the party hire their own beggar mobs to overbear targets.
- There was also a widely agreed upon Moratorium/Treaty in Muncie banning the use of coupons, which had previously led to a coupon based arms race (since gaming is Serious Business in the Muncie community.)
- In the 3rd installment of The Intercontinental Union of Disgusting Characters, Ringman's wife accidentally lets the front door to his house close. Because 2nd Edition AD&D's rule for opening an unlocked door doesn't specify that the door has to be stuck, Ringman is forced to make a running start and slam into the door with his full strength to get it open. And it takes two attempts. If the normal-strength person who'd let the door close had tried to open it instead, it could have taken all day.