Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why 'Rulings Not Rules' Sometimes Breaks Down For Me

I began with the Mentzer Red Box and learned the game that way.

I had most of the AD&D combat and saving throw charts memorized before I was 10 (I was very popular in school, as you might well imagine... and no, I don't have them memorized anymore).

I played 2nd Edition tons and tons when it came out in 1989. I remember when the Players Handbook came out, before the others, and I was staying at my grandparents' house soon after, just rolling up hundreds and hundreds of characters.

I was back to AD&D when I started a game here in early 2006. I switched to BFRPG at the end of 2007. In the past year I've also become familiar with OD&D (and ran a game for a couple of months using a heavily-houseruled version), Moldvay/Marsh/Cook, and Holmes. Now I also have a Labyrinth Lord game I run online every so often.

They're all frickin' different in the tiniest of details! I can't keep all this shit straight in my head! AAAAHHHHHHH!

When I tell the players, "We're playing Game X," they should be able to read the rules to Game X and know that's how things are going to be. You don't know how often I, or one of my players, assumes that a spell works in this game exactly the same way as in that very very similar game we're familiar with. When dealing with a new player who hasn't played any version previously, this kind of thing is particularly bad.

So in the matters that the book describes, we go by the book to prevent my unconscious game-swapping from unfairly impacting the players. Yeah, I make changes (thief skills getting distributed by the player a la 2e!), and the rules in my favorite games leave so much to interpretation, and I intentionally pull some cross-edition hijinx (Deck of Many Things in my BFRPG game, mwahaha)... but the things that are in the rules, are the rules.

And the players are allowed to overrule me if it's down in black and white. Unless the rules break is previously planned on my part, then they're shit outta luck, but at least they immediately know something is "wrong."

Seems fair.


  1. A completely reasonable position. To me the motto "rulings not rules" is meant to suggest that rather than over-extending the rules to apply to new things or twisting them to be useful in special cases we should be on the looksout for non-rule solutions to problems not directly addressed by the rules. The rules are still important.

  2. I realize the "Rulings Not Rules" is not usually taken to a free-form extreme, but there are those that take it quite far... and I just like to provide some balance for that. :)

  3. A very good posting. This idea is one of the reasons why I'm personally a fan of "core mechanic" rules - because of this, if you have to make a "ruling" about something not covered in the rules, at least there's one common "rule" that's there to fall back on, not half a dozen or more.

    So yeah - "rulings" should only really be made when the "rules" don't support what you want to do, or you have already publicly stated to your players that Rule X is being replaced by Ruling Y.

  4. Im a firm believer that once the game starts the rules should be there. But I also believe in constant change and improvement. If I or the players find a stupid rule, I expect at the end of the game to work out a better rule, get unanimous approval, then write it down (writing it down is important). I also have no problem with being overruled by players, thats one of the rules we changed. Rules are only aplicable if someone remembers them (in which case we fall back to simple ability checks). If no one remembers that rule then it wasn't important enough to anyone to make plans about it.

  5. Assign a reasonable probability, roll the dice. At the core of the game that is all there is. As long as everything else is in accord, I do not find the minor variations between editions worrisome.

  6. "They're all frickin' different in the tiniest of details! I can't keep all this shit straight in my head! AAAAHHHHHHH!"

    Yes, I can relate to this.