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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Late Night Thoughts on Ruling and Rules, or Why I'll Never Run an RPG "By the Book" Ever Again

I've been thinking of the whole "Ruling vs Rules" juxtaposition and I find it literally eye opening. OD&D was written with the idea that players would come up with ideas literally "outside the box." If a player wanted to play a dragon, the DM should work with the player to make it happen (assuming it fits the campaign I suspect.) Very open ended. The assumption is gaming group will make the game their own. The original Basic D&D Boxed Set kept to that feeling of openness.

AD&D was written with the idea of a set of rules for tournament play that would be in universal use (from the DMG Introduction):
Thus, besides the systems, I have made every effort to give the reasoning
and justification for the game. Of course the ultimate reason and justification
is a playable and interesting game, and how much rationalization can
actually go into a fantasy game? There is some, at least, as you will see,
for if the game is fantasy, there is a basis for much of what is contained
herein, even though it be firmly grounded on worlds of make-believe. And
while there are no optionals for the major systems of ADVANCED D&D (for
uniformity of rules and procedures from game to game, campaign to campaign,
is stressed), there are plenty of areas where your own creativity and
imagination are not bounded by the parameters of the game system.
These are sections where only a few hints and suggestions are given, and
the rest left to the DM. (emphasis mine)
I started with AD&D, and of course the first thing we did was houserule the shit out of it (we never called it houseruling). I don't think I ever read this passage until 30 years later. Still, as intended, the game was not meant to be tweaked to fit your home game and your players - the players were to conform to the rules.

2e begat more rules and 3x even more. The idea that sufficient rules could negate the need for rulings meant that all DMs, if they were fluent with the rules, could, in theory, be created equal. All players would be on firm ground in organized play, as the rules in use would be consistent. I believe 4e moved even further in this direction, but I'm no expert, so I could easily be wrong.

5e seems to be a step back in the right direction, at least in part. Discretion is given to the DM to tweak the default rules to make things a better fit for his campaign and the players therein. If 5e grabbed any inspiration from the OSR, it is here. Not in the rules themselves, but in the flexibility of the rules.

Do you need to have all of your options spelled out? Height, weight, age - all determined randomly by dice and charts, like in 1e? Or can you just as easily decide those on your own? They don't effect the mechanics of the game, just the roleplay - and it seems like every edition after the White Box started putting more and more emphasis on roll over role and rules over rulings.

Maybe that's why I like the clones so much, as they tend to put more of the weight on rulings over rules.

Heck, even the current AD&D 1e campaign I'm playing in, which hues fairly close to being BTB, didn't have us randomly determine our age or physical stats. Which is right, even if the rules say it's wrong. No set of rules should need to define how you are going to roleplay your character beyond general class and race tendencies. If I want to play a portly and balding Tavern Keeper (Barliman Butterburr anyone?) I don't need rules telling me I'm short, thin and 18+ 1d4 years old.

Of course, I could just play myself, but where's the fun in that? ;)


  1. "... [AD&D] was not meant to be tweaked to fit your home game and your players..."

    I've always taken this to mean that it's still D&D, just not "Advanced". AD&D's kinda like Gary's attempt at FLAILSNAILS conventions, rather than some prescribed One True Way

    "2e begat more rules and 3x even more."

    A shame, because, while 3.0's no longer my preferred edition, it did a great job providing an engine suited for rulings. Unfortunately, they then proceeded to drown it rules, shooting themselves in the foot

    I used to like having things spelled out a little more, back when I was more of a 3tard. It felt like the game was helping to teach how to make rulings, and giving me some training wheels when I was new or coming back after a long break. Then I was prepping a Kalamar campaign a couple years back and figured I'd make a personal PHB collating various house rules and supplemental material (figured I'd take a closer look at the changes in 3.5 too, which is how I realized they got damn near everything wrong), partly for ease and partly 'cause some interested parties had never played before. Didn't take me long to realize how stupid and redundant most of that stuff was. Some of it might've been fine for fine for an advice book, like Dungeon Mastering for Dummies, but a rulebook needs to be slim and information dense

    1. Forgot to add, as far as tables for things like height and weight go, I loved 'em but we never treated those as rules. They were purely optional details that you could choose or roll for, if you even used them at all. I actually collected quite a few tables for various background elements and would try craft something coherent from the results, essentially discovering my characters instead of just making them

  2. I been saying this for a while about AD&D vs D&D. It one of the reason opted to use Swords & Wizardry for the Majestic Wilderlands.

  3. What matters in the end is play at the table and everyone's buying into the rules & rulings that facilitate it. If everyone is having a great time, rule sets, house rules and rulings fade into the background as the shared story forms the fun.
    I am all in favor of a player designing their own character, but I find that random charts help players create character that may would not play otherwise. In Dragonquest I had designed height, weight, skin, hair and eye charts. If the character wanted to add other features, that was up to them. All random, but often more fun than what was originally in their concept. Dragonquest provided players with a social status and birthright for background which was fun.
    When I first started gaming I was very much a rules person. Time, comfort with the game and aging has made me more of a rulings person. While I jokingly mock certain systems out of gaming snobbery; game choice, rule sets and rulings are all secondary to table play. If everyone is having a good time, mission accomplished. Life is too short to argue about rules and time is too precious for me to wait for the GM to find the right book or rule before the game can move forward.

  4. I had DMed game once where the party travelled from Town A to Town B. Someone asked how long it took, and I said "two days" off the cuff. One of my players started asking questions about distances, whether they were on the road or travelling through wilderness, and so on, and looked up the travel time section in the rulebook to verify whether my ruling was accurate.

    Issues about respecting DM authority aside, I think the incident illustrated the basic difference in approach. Some of us like to be able to find a written rule for everything, while others prefer to have only a few rules for the most common and important situations. I put myself into the latter category - even though travel times have been part of the rules for a long time, I only use them when I think they're important.

    1. Players also like to have firm ground under their feet, if this trip is 2 days long from point A to point B becasue the party is on a road moving through rolling hills and itks x miles long the player will be able to make an accurate guess at how the trip from point C to point D will be. DM's must recall players are in an information vacuum and it is the role of the player to do well by fining out every bit of infomaion they can and make decissions based on that, the rules are one source of that information.

    2. JDsivraj, that's only true for information that is relevant. In the example I gave, the campaign was a dungeon crawling game where travel time never actually mattered. While I can understand why the player wanted to follow the rules as written, he was focusing on something that really didn't matter.

      It's still down to a fundamental difference in preferences. If the players want to send a coconut to England, some people will be happy with the DM saying that it takes so many days. Others will want to find the rules for the airspeed velocity of two laden African swallows.

      There's a balancing act between having rules for every possible situation (which is impossible, as Tenkar says) and trusting the DM to rule things fairly (and we've all had bad experiences with this too, I bet). The challenge is that we all have different opinions on where the perfect range on this spectrum is.

    3. Players want to feel their actons will dictate outcomes, that choices will matter and they are not just going along for a ride on the DM's railroad.
      If the campaign isn't waiting for the PCs ad things actually occasonally happen when and where they are lookinng the travel times between points matter.
      Risking 2 likely encounters instead of 4 isn't worrying about coconut airspeeds.

  5. This is going to sound like an insult. It's not meant to be. Erik, you are very good at saying obvious things well. Maybe they're only obvious after you say them. This is actually a very rare skill, and I love coming here and seeing what you have to say about things.

    1. No insult taken. Sometimes the obvious is so obvious it's not so obvious ;)

  6. Erik-

    I read that paragraph, back in the day. I also read the Afterword, which says in part:


    (The CAPSLOCK is how it's presented in the book, not me being shouty.)

    I guess I always took to heart the very first sentence in the Afterward. That resonates with me much more than all the "only use Official AD&D products" and such references that people on the net always pick apart.

    I never got the feeling that the spectre of EGG was standing over my shoulder, shaking his head in disapproval at my house rulings back in the 80s, or today. I guess we all take from Gary's works what we want to find. There is certainly enough seemingly contradictory material to support whatever conclusion any J. Random gamer would like to find.

    But for me, as a whole, I don't feel the constraints that others do when it comes to AD&D.

  7. This is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of games where you can play 100% in the rules and yet have the flexibility to have home rulings on things which aren't detailed down to the letter I'm the rules. However, this requires being willing to go outside a different box: the D&D box. And you can go outside that box and stay in the fantasy dungeon crawl box.

  8. I always just use the rules from AD&D that seem useful to my game and discard the rest.