Sunday, 10 October 2010

"Rulings, not rules"

In my previous post, I mentioned "Rulings, not rules". You might want to go read that post first, but it's not mandatory.

It is my understanding (by looking at the OSR Primer, various retro-clones and some of the original books in pdf form) that in the old days, the rules were really "sparse", lightweight, sometimes they made no sense. You had a structure, some stats. Players described stuff, the DM described stuff. Sometimes you had a rule for what happened, but a lot of the time the DM just decided, sometimes he had you roll some dice and decided based upon that, or he rolled on some random table or whatever. Even if the number of rules increased with each supplement and edition, you were still kinda expected to use the game in your own ways

(Intermezzo: even with the infamous Gygax mandate that D&D is only D&D if played by the official rules. But that has to be taken into the context of tournaments and "compatibility" of groups and players everywhere.)

These days* you have a rules bloat, with pages upon pages of rules covering every possible situation. Character abilities tie into that. You can't just "make rulings", because there's a 90% chance there's already a rule for that somewhere in a book. The rules are the players' safety zone, they build their characters based on and through the rules. They are the player's resource to achieve something in the game. They're prescriptive (Players: "I do X, and Y happens."), instead of descriptive (Player: "I do X.", DM: "Q happens."). If you're making rulings, you're taking away power from the players, cutting their reliable resources (or currency regarding those resources). For more on reliable vs unreliable currency, check out this post from Vincent Baker (for which this might be required reading).

In a game like oD&D, rulings are mandatory, they're part of the game. In a game like 3.x or 4E, rulings are deprotagonizing a lot of the time. I could try to poke at the issue of why and how this came to be, but maybe another time.

*When I say "these days" I am talking about "my" version of D&D, which is 3.x/Pathfinder. I have zero gaming experience with 4e, although I have read the books, but the situation doesn't seem much different. If anything 4E is even more prescriptive than 3.x.


  1. I kinda notices this as well. The more rules a system has, the less descriptive the players become. Instead of going "I try to slip past his shield and grab him by the throat" they go "I roll my combat roll of doom to grapple the guy". While rules are important to a point, I feel too many of them stiffle the whole creativity point of the game. I especially notice that when we're playing with Morea, for as our local rule lawyer he always has a rule in his sleeve to use for almost any "mechanics" situation, whereas you much prefer to have stuff described and then you decide how things go. And so do I.

  2. Yeah, that's why it's great we had that long discussion about what we want from a game. (In fact, I think we should talk even more about it.)

    Personally, I might not like that, but I know he does (at least, y'know, it seems so), hence it's important to strike a balance so we can both be happy. If I were just to override all his mechanical thingamajigs, he'd be miserable as a player and if I tried to stick to all the rules on my side of the GM screen, I'd be miserable as the GM.

  3. Yeah, we should talk about it more, get even more info.

    Agreed, need to keep some mechanomancy in the game, or he'll keep making that sad face of his when you overrule him. ;P