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Rules over Rulings: Consistency in DMing

Updated: Jun 14, 2018

I've been a video game designer for 14 years and the reason I love 1st edition AD&D is because it is NOT a video game. Still, there's significant cross-over in the discipline of game design and if I've learned one thing in 14 years, it's that games have rules.

Players often receive privileges that allow them to bend or break these rules, which is fantastic for the players. But rules still form the reliable system against which the players hedge their bets.

The RNG (or dice), the exploration, the unknowable portions, combined with the endless reaction to player choice are what add all the spice.

Whereas chess is a game that tests how well the human mind can resemble a computer, a sandbox (like AD&D) asks both players and referee alike to embrace the simulated entropy of the universe while grounding the experience in an extensive set of rules. There is a luxuriousness to participating in such a simulation and knowing that because of all the individual choices each round combined with all the dice rolls, that the thing could have gone many different ways...and that there might indeed be many other universes where it did.

This first new blog entry focuses on one of several core values I use to run successful games with the tenet being Rules over Rulings. Probably a more sensational headline than needed, but let me explain.

All the games I’ve played owe their greatness (or lack thereof) to their rules. In games with referees, a bad one can sour an otherwise great game. An excellent referee can elevate a mediocre game.

In your own OSR game, you know what works if you have regular players.

That is the touchstone that ultimately matters and what follows is a mere WAY of thinking about refereeing. It has made many players (from high school to college and now mid-life) sing praises about my style while engendering scorn in only a small handful of detractors.

It is my opinion that the commonality among detractors is a point of view best summed up as: “Something always sucks. My hero’s never the best or can’t have anything that’s just purely cool.”

I’m going to set that criticism aside for this particular post and instead start off my discussion of rules by saying that they are not the most important thing.

There are two other things that come first.

One, the game demands justice. And two, players plead for mercy. Try as you might, there is no way of creating perfect balance in any system, let alone the OSR—which never sought balance as a design principal. Gary said, I believe, that the players should have a 70% chance of survival but FEEL like they have a 30% chance of survival. And that is the founding principal of my games. It is also the only attempt at “balance” that I make.

Rather, my mantra is this:

1) I love the game. 2) I love my players. 3) I respect the rules.

This is the correct hierarchy (for me). If the game (as a whole) is not put first, your players will become lazy and spoiled. If the players are not put second, they will be justified in feeling so. Finally, if the rules do not come third, your reputation will diminish as consistency is replaced with rulings seen in hindsight as arbitrary.

Notice that you, the DM, are not on the docket of priorities. Your importance and feelings in the matter are an afterthought. As the Genie said in Aladdin: “Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bity Living Space.”

Your job is not thankless. But your powers are shackled to the credo, which you break at your peril. Your gratification is delayed. If you eat the marshmallow in front of you (in case you missed it, that marshmallow is your power to do anything that you want) it’s probably the last one you’ll get to eat. But if you shackle yourself to the mantra above, you’ll get a bunch of marshmallows in the future.

These future marshmallows consist of overhearing your players bragging, not about their characters, but about the experiences they had at your table. Your marshmallows are that players talk and laugh about your game between sessions, show up like religious zealots without reminders and actively engage instead of being on their phone (or drunk).

This blog post is mostly about mantra point three, but a synopsis of the other two is useful.

  1. I love the game because I know the world intimately. I know the secret doors the party missed and the treasures left behind. I know why the NPC is behaving strangely. I know all the bits the players do not know and I take pleasure in knowing. I take pleasure in the world making sense and in the world-making sense. I take pleasure in the world being fair, in that (like any other world) it is equally unfair to all players. And finally, I take pleasure in there being down-sides to most up-sides and a spirit of compromise to everything, which therefore makes player choice valuable and meaningful.

  2. I love the players because I want them to succeed and because they are my friends. I care about their feelings and commiserate in defeats. The body count is high in my campaign, at least 30 dead characters in the past 4 years. Yet some of the many characters in the stable have risen to level 7 in that time. When one dies, a new one is made to fill the place. I give gifts to my players. Sometimes there are prizes to be won. On our anniversary I cook steaks on the grill. My players know that I love them because I show them IN SPITE OF LETHAL CHALLENGES, that they are all on equal footing with the game and the rules. The dice are rolled in the open whenever possible so that all may watch as fortunes are won or lost.

  3. In third place, I respect the rules because they are the foundation of my game. They are agreed upon, even if a few of them are not perfect. They are predictable and therefore viewed as fair. Implementation and adherence is also consistent, which is why hard cover; volleys of arrows; system shock checks and crushing blows have meaning. Shields are broken. Spell books are destroyed by fire. Characters perish in the wastes without water. And the rules do not care. The rules are unrelenting and therefore shoulder the blame when characters die, leaving me mostly unscathed. Rules should be memorized whenever possible or allocated to handy screens. They should not be searched for during a game unless doing so is minimally intrusive. It is the DM’s burden to know the rules front and back and to hew closely to them.

Hewing to the Rules

I admit that I do not principally like the uncontextualized phrase “Rulings instead of rules!” Rulings, IMO, are necessary to cover all the ways a player can be creative that are NOT covered by rules.

Example: During the assault on WG4, the ranger (encased in a unique suit of armor with wings) opted to airlift one of the downed trolls out of the upper temple and drop it in the chasm—rather than wasting oil and time on it during the current melee. On his way to drop the troll in the gorge, a giant toll was seen returning along the causeway (after chasing the magic-user off). The ranger asked if he could try to drop the troll he was carrying on the giant troll below and thereby knock him off the narrow bridge.

“Sure,” said. I. “But owing to the heaviness of the troll (despite the ranger’s great strength), the problems of aiming, trajectory and so on; plus the giant troll’s strength; I’m going to rule that you only accomplish this crazy endeavor on a 19 or 20.”

He rolled a 19 and the game room exploded in cheers.

For everything else, there’s a rule.

Not really, but mostly.

In very casual play, using rules-light systems, a modicum of game-ness can be found in a perpetual rhythm of rulings—but this is not the kind of game I enjoy because under such conditions it becomes difficult for me to gauge my chances of success. It becomes instead like those poorly crafted choose-your-own-adventure books where you pick the smart thing but fail to guess what the author had in mind and therefore die horribly.

That is to say that if God made rulings at each increment in my life, I would be hard pressed to learn anything from my failures or to make intelligent plans about my future. But, having learned something about physics in the past 48 years, I can wisely choose a different approach to things that might have ended badly in my youth. I don't need worry about a fickle power changing the way things work from one life experience to the next.

The beauty of AD&D is the many rules to rely on. The ugliness is in their organization and sometimes mercurial manifestation over the books’ incremented printing. Nevertheless, the basics for resolving recurring situations are of such value that once the burden of committing them (to a good DM screen if your memory is like mine) has been accomplished, the respect it earns you as a referee will be palpable.

Memorization of tables that are of constant interest to players will earn further respect and I recommend investing at least as much time in memorizing your chosen rule-set (at least up front) as you invest in crafting your world and adventures.

New Player: “Can I buy some armor? How much is it?”

Me: “You may use the costs listed on p. 35 & 36 of the Player’s Handbook.”

New Player: “Wow.”

Simply knowing that the casting times of many M-U spells match their level can make it seem like you have a photographic memory. But the goal is not smug showboating. The goal is adherence and, through adherence, trust.

Your players will trust you. Especially if you admit when you’ve made and error and ask them collectively (before you make a ruling) whether the ruling sounds fair.

In short: make the rules clear and accessible. Save rulings for what the rules don’t cover. Pause any game to clarify a rule that will come up more than once and telegraph the implications of rules (AKA danger) through storytelling.

Eg. Instead of asking for a surprise saving throw when the party is bickering, say, “You are gathered about 10’ in front of the open doorway to an unexplored room. It is dark inside.”

You may think you are giving away the show but players cannot know what you know, and may even suspect a red herring. Whether gargoyles sneak around behind the bickering players and end them in a TPK or not, you have covered your bases. And when there is no danger, the players will grow more engrossed in the game because you are playing on their fear. (These are the times that DMs roll dice only for the sound they make).

In fine, your players will respect you because you have loved them enough to be fair when rules they should have anticipated are killing them. You see, when the ref is good, it is not the ref’s fault that the quarterback was sacked and your team lost. The ref did good. The rules are the rules and they bask in blood while the people (including the DM) engage in a purely cooperative experience.

In the next blog post, I might tackle my detractors’ argument: focusing on why artifacts have drawbacks, why thieves suck and why your OSR character is probably going to die.

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