Power and Rule Zero

Several months ago, I saw and participated in a discussion on Twitter that, at the time, really bothered me.  I knew at some point, I would end up writing about it here, but I wanted to give the ideas time to settle first so that when I did so, I did it from a place of clarity and logic.  Both Joann and I try very hard to get our points across clearly and, while we are not interested in telling anyone what they have to do or think, we try to make sure others understand why we do what we do and think what we think.  That is, after all, the only thing we really have control over anyway.

The discussion was about, what has colloquially become called Gaming Rule Zero.  Gaming Rule Zero states, essentially, that the rules of a roleplaying game are merely guidelines, and that the Gamemaster, in his role as “director” has the ability to bend, change, or break these rules as needed in order to tell a good story and ensure the players and themselves are having fun.  As background, there is an excellent article describing the origins of this line of thinking by Jon Peterson over at his blog, Playing at the World.

On one side of the discussion, several people were advocating the idea that the rules were there to “keep the GM in check” and to “make things fair for the players”.  In a board game, I can absolutely appreciate such sentiments.  Personally, my favorites are wargames.  I grew up playing Battletech before I discovered hex-and-counter wargames like Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader from Avalon Hill (now Multi-Man Publishing).  Such games are more tactical simulations and in order to provide the “realism” effect that those who play them are looking for, detailed rule sets codify what happens in vast numbers of situations so that the rules may be applied fairly to all.  Advanced Squad Leader, for instance has a rulebook (when all the additional rules and modules are added) of over 650 pages of rules covering literally every situation I could imagine in order to simulate an action in any theater of World War II between 1938 and 1945.

On the other side of the discussion were those who were struggling to understand the point of such “enforcement”.  I found myself among them.  Not because I had anything against the rules in a game.  Far from it, in fact.  But because I struggled to understand why anyone would ever continue to play with someone who they felt a constant need to ‘watchdog’, as if somehow they might get too powerful.  Allow me to explain.

Roleplaying games are a game.  When we sit around a table to play, no one hands the GM a loaded weapon to enforce their will.  There is no red button next to the GM screen that will launch a flotilla (I so rarely get to use words like that) of missiles to destroy your houses if you “step out of line”.  It is… a game.  One that is, I would hope, enjoyable to all parties.

Roleplaying games are, typically, also a sort of contract or covenant.  The GM promises to spend time away from the game preparing a world for the players to run around and have fun with in exchange for commitments of time (and schedule) and trust.  The Players promise to give the GM trust to guide the narrative of the story in exchange for a commitment that the GM will focus on providing an entertaining experience for everyone to enjoy and escape for a few hours.  There are variations to that, but it is, essentially, what is presumed when a group gets together to play a roleplaying game.

If a player in a roleplaying game is not having fun, they absolutely have the right to get up and walk away.  I have done so myself.  That is not to say that the GM (or any of the other players) are necessarily bad PEOPLE.  But sometimes, a group does not gel.  That is life.  With the acceptance of tabletop roleplaying games into mainstream society, there are literally thousands of roleplaying groups out there, with more forming all the time, that you can be a part of.  You can find them on Roll20, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, MeWe, Reddit (how I found my Joann all those years ago) and many other places.  Don’t stay in a group where you’re not having fun.  Likewise, if a GM is not having fun, they too have the right to find a different group.  This is a voluntary enterprise, folks.

If a GM feels like they are “against” the players, they are, perhaps, missing the point of being the GM.  One of my new favorite rulesets, Blades in the Dark, has this to say about the subject:

“Be a fan of the PCs. Present the world honestly—things really are stacked against them—but don’t make yourself the enemy of the PCs. They have enemies enough. Be interested in the characters and excited about their victories.”

Blades in the Dark, page 193

Your Best Game Ever puts it a different way:

“Your job as arbiter and referee—as well as the fact that you know a lot of information that the players don’t—sometimes gives a skewed perspective of your overall role. You might manage the rules and build the world, but that doesn’t put you in a position of authority in other ways. You aren’t in charge of the whole experience. You aren’t the “god” of the game. It’s a group activity. The players aren’t there to be entertained solely by you, nor are they there for your amusement. You’re all there to have fun. Just because your role is different and has unique (and more) responsibilities doesn’t give you any special power over the players or the game.”

Your Best Game Ever, page 92

Personally, if my players do not see me as their biggest cheerleader, I feel like I am doing something wrong.  I want to bring them an evocative world and have them make it better.  I want to bring them a compelling story and have them surprise me with inventive twists and thrilling turns.  As much as I want to watch as they learn new things about the world, I want to feel the same because of how it interacts with their characters.  I don’t want to be the only one creating the fiction, because roleplaying games are better together.

So where do I fall on Rule Zero?  I don’t believe it is an issue.  I refuse to look at my games as GM v. Player.  I want to say yes to all the cool things my players want to try because I want to see what happens.  I am still going to portray the world honestly and with creative integrity, but I want my players to think outside the box, to look past the numbers on their sheets and to dream.  If the rules get in the way of that or don’t provide a path to do that?  Then they need to be changed.  If my rigid application of the rules is preventing my players from having fun?  They need to go.  In my mind, everything should be subservient to the narrative and the fun.

I realize that many of you will have your own way of running games.  Once again, I am not telling you how to run your games or your tables.  What I am trying to do is get you to think about your approach and ensure that it is deliberate by sharing what is deliberate about mine.  As a GM, own your philosophies.  Make your players aware of them so that there aren’t mixed expectations.  Everyone in a group should be having a good time, and there are too many players out there now to suggest that we can’t find any.  People, right now, are waiting to play in a game.  Perhaps your game.  You’ll never know until you look, and when you find that group where there is so much trust that you don’t need to worry about “enforcing the rules with an iron fist”?  Amazing things happen and crazy stories get told.  This is, however, just my opinion.  That and $1.75 will buy you a bottle of Mt. Dew.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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