Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rule Zero: Final Arbiter


I stirred up quite a bit of dust... and some mud, apparently, in last week's blog post about fudging.  That's ok, just means there was something there and some of it was wet.

Rule zero is related to "fudging," or occasionally nudging reality in certain directions (also known as magic).  If the ability to question and interpret results as the GM sees fit is the gun, then rule zero is the ammunition.

The dice are my co-pilots.  I like to have them around - I find them useful.  However, they don't own me.  Similarly, I can't GM without players; they are necessary.  But I won't be their bitch because I'm the fucking boss!  At the same time, players shouldn't be expected to bend the knee every time the GM opens his mouth.

Before we get into this article, what is rule zero?  From scouring the internet and being involved in the roleplaying hobby for 32 years, I believe it's a combination of the following three principles...


  • The Game Master is the final and absolute authority when it comes to running the game.
  • Roleplaying games are entertainment.  Your goal as a group is to make sure you have as much fun as possible.
  • The rules of any roleplaying game are simply the best guidelines the author(s) could come up with.  You bought the book, so it's your game now.  If you don't like a particular rule, change it.


Now, a few people don't cotton to the above.  They find it to be an affront to player liberties, fair play, game designer accountability, the concreteness of in-game reality, and probably a bunch of other stuff.

As you probably guessed, I'm with the majority on rule zero.  It's not only a good thing, it's required if one desires to consistently run good sessions.

Let's look at the first one.  The boss has to be given the opportunity to be the boss.  Whoever's in charge, he's got to have the authority to do what needs to be done, and is considered to be "the final arbiter of the rules," as Gary Gygax wrote.

To me, it would be like managing a store with the store's employees on equal footing, dictating store policy to the manager.  That's about as helpful to the manager as having the store's owner constantly over his shoulder, telling the manager what he can and can't do with his store.

Game Mastering is a lot of work.  It takes time, energy, and skill.  Granted, not everyone is awesome at it, but that doesn't mean that all GMs must submit to a particular style, constant debate, or decisions brought before some kind of player council and possibly overruled.  Personally, I will not run the game if I'm forced to GM a certain way - unless you're paying me, and even then, I can't say for sure.

Obviously, if the GM is either a total asshole or on a massive power trip, he doesn't deserve great players.  Flagrant abuse should not be tolerated.  You'll know it when you see it - the GM has to invoke rule zero several times per session, every session either because there's no consistency whatsoever or he has absolutely no interest in allowing the game to evolve organically.  Plus, you know, ego-maniacal jerk wad.

When it comes to house-rules, rule zero is not an excuse for game designers to be lazy or for a game's audience to accept a faulty system.  On the other hand, no RPG book is ever perfect enough to accommodate 100% of those using it to play the game.  Altered rules aren't an admission that a game is broken or the table isn't capable of understanding the designer's intent.

In fact, RPGs were made to change over time, to suit the idiosyncrasies and whims of those playing them.  The way an RPG is played depends on a dozen factors, and their open-ended nature is the best feature.  As a frequent GM, I like to be surprised, too.  And I like to surprise myself, the players, and those fucking dice.  That's why I allow myself the possibility for ignoring the dice.  Nothing is off the table.

Don't like how your GM is running the game?  Run your own game.  That's how many of us got started.  If you want to be hamstrung with red tape, bureaucracy, demanding players, and a lot of armchair theorizing on what constitutes acceptable GMing protocol, then by all means.  Have at it, hoss!

If you've got something more to say about "fudging," do it on the other blog post.  If you want to discuss rule zero, go right ahead.

VS