Thursday, 10 January 2013

Running the Rule Over Rulings and Rules

There was a huge hullabaloo on recently on the desirability of rulings versus rules. To create a synopsis on this strange controversy: there are some people who object to the idea of the GM making rulings, because that is too much like the GM making things up as he goes along based on his subjective judgements, and is consequently unpredictable and open to abuse. There are others who like the idea of the GM making rulings, because it is quick and easy, masses of rules covering all eventualities do not have to be memorised, and it allows the GM to be flexible and respond using his own understanding of his own game and how he wants it to be.

I fall into the latter camp. But what rarely gets mentioned in these sort of debates is that all it is really is fiddling around the margins: even in the most rules-heavy games, the vast majority of the GM's work is composed of making rulings.

Firstly, outside of the specialized and strictured arena of combat, even if the GM is applying a rule mechanic, the means by which he applies that rule mechanic is almost always discretionary. For example, in most skill-based games, the GM provides a numerical difficulty rating which the player has to beat - but since the rule book will not be able to give anything more than a few examples to provide guidance in what that difficulty rating should be for a given task, that rating will ultimately come down to the GM's own judgement: it is, in effect, a ruling, albeit a guided one. Many mechanics in RPGs have this character, when you think about it.

Secondly, once you get away from skill checks and similar, much of what happens in a typical RPG session is effectively at the GM's discretion, though it is not commonly given the title "ruling". For instance, when the adventurers go and visit the Frog King in his throne room and enter into negotiations with him, how does he react to what they say? If the game includes a reaction-dice style mechanic and his reaction is "unfriendly", how does that unfriendliness manifest itself? What does the Frog King think of the PCs - will he try to manipulate them? Threaten them? How cunning is he? These decisions that the GM has to make are all functionally identical to rulings, even though though he probably does not think of them in those terms.

Likewise, in a fight with a group of kobolds, how do the kobolds strategise? How do they choose their targets for ranged attacks? What does Kobold 3 do this round? Does Kobold 4 run to get help, or throw a javelin at the party's magic user? Again, these decisions are functionally identical to rulings: they are down to the individual GM's judgement.

It will ever be thus. In most modern legal systems, especially in common law jurisdictions, judges have a great deal of discretion in how they apply the law. Terms of art such as "reasonableness", "proportionality", and "balance of probabilities" are everywhere; when a provision in a piece of legislation requires that an action be "reasonable", it is down to individual judges to determine the meaning of reasonableness in a given context - to make a ruling - albeit often with guidance. Legal systems recognise the importance of this approach, because it is not possible to write laws which will cover every eventuality and always be so reliable and accurate that they can simply be applied robotically whatever the situation.

The same is true of rules and rulings in RPGs: no matter how comprehensive a set of rules can be, the number of eventualities they can actually cover will be vanishingly small. It is not possible, for instance, to draw up a set of rules to cover precise niceties of social interaction - "If the players say x, the monster says y" - and this is why social interaction is basically an exercise in the making of rulings. Similarly, it is not possible to draw up a set of rules to cover all potential combat tactics - "If x, a kobold will do y" - and this is why the decision-making of NPCs in combat is an exercise in the making of rulings.

The great majority of what a GM does in any given session, then, is ruling. It seems quite plain that the only course of action, in light of these circumstances, is not to attempt to develop comprehensive rule systems (a quixotic goal), but to create games which teach novice GMs how to make rulings effectively.


  1. I think you're right. Really, game systems vary most by the amount of rules they come with, but they all require GM rulings to play. It's a matter of degree, not kind. The only way you can get to pure "rulings" is to go all free kreigspiel and have the GM rule on everything with no reference to rules, and the only way to go no-rulings is to ditch the GM and any judgment calls at all.

  2. A very good point - rules lawyers miss that not even the real law works the way they expect.

  3. What I find curious in that Big Purple discussion is that some people associate "rulings" with GM tyranny, whereas I would argue that the presence of a discretionary GM gives players freedom. Having an individual judge at the table allows RPG players the freedom to go "off grid" in a way that computer gamers and board gamers never can.

  4. Or not to play with unreasonable people, be they player or GM.

  5. Surely the difference between a role-playing game and a board game is precisely GM rulings?

    1. Come to think of it, disliking GM fiat might be one reason for the popularity of MMPORGs, board games like Warhammer Quest and Descent, and computer RPGs.

  6. At the same time, no one will suggest that there should be no rules and only rulings: having a general framework to base the rulings on is a very helpful thing. So the next question is: "How much is enough?" That's not an easy question to answer and so there's still a good deal of room for debate.

  7. "If x, a kobold will do y"

    Only in a computer program can (well, must) you do that.

    Reminds me of my theory / feeling that D&Ds after version 2 were written by computer programmers.

  8. What a completely bizarre argument. Rules are to keep things fairly consistent and predictable enough to work with, and to reduce the number of rulings needed by the GM. Rulings are what the GM must do continuously. That's why additional rulebooks are optional and used only if useful, and why in fact every rule is as well. Having GM'd many, many groups over the past 3 decades, I can vouch that each group's style of play and personality grouping will support a different balance of rules and rulings. The mystery to me is why this is a mystery.

  9. I agree in favor of rulings. I prefer my rules light and simple, easily memorized so I can just play, and open to adaptation and manipulation of all sorts.
    I am attempting a work of maximum simplicity:

  10. this argument seems very bizarre. i'm not sure how anybody could argue with the validity of noism's points, but i guess maybe i'm not making enough effort

  11. What I've found really interesting over the past couple of years in the "rules vs. rulings" debate (which is a stupid debate because good rules facilitate effective rulings; it's like saying "healthy food vs. nutrition" or "books vs. reading") is that a number of gamers are apparently no longer capable of using guidelines. Regardless of which side of the false "rules vs. rulings" debate they come down on, their process has apparently become so broken that they can only interpret guidelines as immutable rules which -- once they've been published -- must be followed as if they were androids and the guidelines were Asimov's Three Laws.

    And this seems to come from both directions: The "rulings suck" people interpret any published guideline as a rule that the GM has to follow or they're a bad person. And the "rules suck" people interpret any published guideline as yet another horrible example of rulebooks trying to strip the GM of their God Given Authority.

    The whole thing is bizarre.

  12. It all comes down to the GM. I have played in a number of groups, from D&D Encounters "Official Wizards Owns This Game" events to the starter packs of shiny-eyed newbies, and the only thing that makes a difference is the GM. D&DE events are hyper rulesy with limits on what your character can be and do, but there are GMs who make it fun by working with you and telling you that you can do things. And I have played in free-style games where most of the problems and events were unsolvable because I could not read the GMs mind and my answers were unacceptable.