The idea that a gamemaster has the discretion to alter or discard published rules was not an invention of role-playing games: it derived from a wargaming tradition going back to the free Kriegsspiel of the nineteenth century. But role-players enshrined it as a principle that is today known as "Rule Zero", a proposed meta-rule of role-playing games -- albeit not an uncontroversial one. The critical position that we should hold this as a universal meta-rule occurred to the early adopters of role-playing games fairly early, as shown here, in the "Gamer's First Law" of Ed Simbalist (designer of Chivalry & Sorcery) in Alarums & Excursions #38 in 1978.
Famously, Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 described its system as a "framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity." Its rules aspired to deliver merely a framework, not a set of iron dictums, because "as with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign." D&D even suggests writing any new or changed rules into the rulebook in pencil, not pen, because "who knows when some flux of the cosmos will make things shift once again."
The use of the phrase "as with any other set of miniatures rules" signals that D&D's attitude towards the rules was not a novel one. Miniature wargames had long embraced referees who concealed secret information from players and ran the system in accordance with Kriegsspiel principles. D&D's language about guidelines most directly paraphrases Chainmail (1971), which stated, "These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you form a game that suits you." But this idea was certainly not exclusive to Gygax's work, it was commonly accepted that miniature wargame referees could adapt wargame rules to their liking. To take just three examples:
Modern War in Miniature (1966): "There is only one rule to our war game: simulate reality. The statistics and tables are designed to help the player in this task. When they get in the way, if they ever should, then you should discard them."
Grosstaktik (1972): "You should regard these rules as a bare framework. Apply them flexibly, and modify them freely in accordance with your own tastes."
Kam-Pain (1974): "The Gamesmaster is the final authority on all rules interpretations... he may freely alter or delete existing rules, and add new ones."
This principle was essential enough to Kam-pain that they codified it under the name of "The GM's Cloak." Kam-pain would, incidentally, fuel the "Midgard Ltd." fantasy campaign, one of D&D's closest cousins.
But codifying it into the rules is one thing, and proposing it as a law that transcends any individual set of rules is another: its transcendence could only become apparent with sufficient examples to draw on. This concept that the rules could be altered as the referee saw fit, once it appeared in D&D, would echo through the games that imitated and followed it, a growing tradition of fantasy role-playing games. Again, to take three examples:
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977): "Chivalry & Sorcery provides the guidelines by which players may easily create the kinds of worlds they want and does not attempt to 'dictate' in any way what must be."
Runequest (1978): "Take those portion of the rules you can use and ignore the rest. Like any FRP system, these can only be guidelines. Use them as you will."
Villains and Vigilantes (1979): "The rules presented in this book are made to be broken, as are all rules... If the Gamemaster feels that he disagrees with any part of these rules or any point made, he should, by all means, experiment and adapt the rules to suit his tastes and needs."
Given the stance of Chivalry & Sorcery, we should not be surprised to find Simbalist, in an offhand note in A&E #35, stating that "if a rule is silly, change it or ignore it." He received a reply from John Sapienza suggesting that that principle should be "engraved in bronze for all writers and designers to ponder." As this idea was per Runequest "like any FRP system," Simbalist was inspired to elevate it to the "Gamer's First Law," a meta-rule governing the operation of all role-playing game systems, "the foundation and mainstay of all FRPing."
However, flexibility was not the only possible approach to running FRP rules. Greg Costikyan contrasted these "open-ended" systems that permitted modification by the referee with "closed" systems with rules that were not intended to be modified. Early refereeless systems like En Garde (1975), gamebook modules like Buffalo Castle (1976), and of course computer role-playing games, showed how designers aimed for "closed" systems quite early on, and this too became a valid approach to FRP, one that has since existed in a tension with those who hold the "Gamer's First Law" as absolute.
So why is this maxim now remembered as "Rule Zero" and not the "Gamer's First Law" or "the GM's Cloak"? Internet RPG discussion forums inherited the idea of "Rule Zero" from earlier Usenet group discussions. My best guess is that Carl Henderson's discussion of FRP meta-rules beginning with a Rule Zero kicked this off, though his categories were quickly transformed by others, and his statement that "the gamemaster has the power to overrule any rule, precedent, combination of rules, or dice rolls" was originally his Rule Two. Ideas like this, once they enter the melting pot of the Internet, can be difficult to trace to their sources.
These Internet discussions, easily Googleable, effectively eclipsed any earlier theorizing in analog media like Alarums & Excursions. It is the ambition of The Elusive Shift to start the process of rectifying that.
There is some tension here between the concept that the DM is a impartial arbiter and the players are striving against the preset mechanism that is the dungeon and the alternative that he players are directly in conflict with the DM. In the first case Rule zero is well and good while in the second case the players need some assurance of immutable rules to protect themselves from the DM. As I come from an old wargaming background I tend towards the first case and accept rule zero but I know others who tend towards the second case and would not even consider rule zero as an option.ReplyDelete
I think this is one of the mentalities of TTRPGs that needs to be challenged and changed by the community. A game should never be a contest between DM and Players, but instead a collaboration to create stories. Yes, there is an inherent conflict as the DM presents challenges for the Players to overcome. But the goal of those challenges should be to advance the story.Delete
And personally, I think Rule Zero should be "Ensure everyone is having fun." If that requires bending, changing, or tossing out rules, then do it.
I didn't say it was good or bad merely that it was. I believe it was Dave Arneson's preferred mode but it is not something that I have ever recommended.Delete
As far as I've ever been able to find, the actual term "rule zero" itself didn't enter popular usage until the Wizards of the Coast forums after 2000, thanks to this passage from the 3.0 Player's Handbook:ReplyDelete
Also a good theory. Henderson's language, combined with having a "Rule Zero," combined with the explicit statement that all his principles are meta-rules of all RPGs, is what makes me suspect he contributed to the modern usage.Delete
Part of the tension that exists/ed with Rule Zero I believe grew out of it's perceived misapplication. The early intent was for a referee to freely apply what seemed reasonable or logical to the rules prior to play or on the fly where no rule existed to govern a situation. It was not intended to be used for what ever a referee fancied to over ride existing rules already in place. Stability of the environment through a ref's interpretation of the rules was an important factor of play.ReplyDelete
Agreed that OD&D, and Simbalist's wording above, do not imply doing it "on the fly" - but Simbalist elsewhere advocated vociferously for referees altering system on the fly to serve the direction they wanted the game to go. At best it's a slippery slope - as TES talks about in the section on "Resolution," if players can't observe how the referee resolves game events, then referees could effectively freeform the game without perceptible differences to the player... as Gygax would later put it, rolling dice just for the sound they make and then deciding what happens.Delete
I will compliment you for the choice of topic in your previous blog post as being prudent. It's relative to the current subject and reflected in the comments here.Delete
This is such a minor point, but... I've seen DMs try to perform this "roll dice for show, then ad-lib ruling", and for me it always seems obvious when they do that. It's a combination of (a) body language (e.g., where eyes are focused), (b) fillers like "um..." at wrong time, (c) not looking at chart required by system, (d) not asking PCs for target/armor values, and (e) not being consistent from round to round (sometimes with subtle numerical differences). For me there's a big, glaring difference in play texture.Delete
There are many shades of gray between, I imagine. Simbalist talks about rolling for a random encounter but deciding, given the situation of the party, to reduce the number of skeletons appearing. Probably the closer you are to adherence the fewer performative "tells" you will give off. Simbalist's Kismet essays stress that it your job as the GM to convince the players that you are adjudicating to a determined system even when you aren't, which is perhaps it's own whole branch of role playing.Delete
I'm old enough to have owned a silver-cover copy of Chainmail, do I love D&D/RPG history like this. Great piece!ReplyDelete
Interestingly enough, you also still see this same spirit in some (not all) miniature wargaming rules today. In rules meant for the non-competition/non-tournament style of play, you also often encounter a variant of this "rule zero".ReplyDelete
Another historical reference from wargaming: In Fred's Jane "Rules for the Naval Wargame" (early 20th century), the following passage can be found:
"Nothing can be done contrary to what could or would be done in actual war."
That's not implying the use of a GM, but calls upon the players to play according what could be done "in reality", and overriding the rules when necessary. It's another implementation of rule zero.
To me, this is where the divide between referee and Game Master rears its slimy tentacles. I prefer the latter for all the reasons implied.ReplyDelete
The existence of a rule allowing the referee to alter any rule in any way desireable allows that same referee to remove said rule from their ruleset. Those who want it have it while those who don't remove it by rule. There's no controversy nor contradiction. There is only a decision.ReplyDelete
Did this mindset prevail in Gygax's AD&D books? I seem to recall passages from those books where he described the rules as law and allowing for standardized play.ReplyDelete
In the books no, that mindset was marketing, business driven. Why in actual play people ignored parts of AD&D e.g. weapon vs armor and houseruled like they always did.Delete
In various Dragon magazine articles he was clearly recoiling from (a) overly-wahoo playstyles that he didn't like, and (b) over-reacting to copyright issues and trying to squeeze the product identity tighter. There's one article in particular where he goes full-throated anti-changing-the-rules. The explicit marketing statements around AD&D was focused on, "we want players worldwide to be able to sit together and play a recognizable game", which I think is a pretty strong argument (network effects).Delete
N.B. the weapon-vs-armor rule is not the best example, because (a) Gary didn't use it, and (b) it's introduction in OD&D Sup-I marks it as optional ("For those who wish to include weapon types in the determination of hit probabilities..."). Most evidence is Gary intended those same commentaries to be applicable, even if he didn't explicitly copy them into AD&D.
So, the GM wears many hats.ReplyDelete
One of the implications of Rule Zero is that the GM is not trying to win the game and indeed cannot win the game. Rule Zero and the related facts that even if the GM does not bend or alter the rules, the GM has unlimited resources to bring to the contest, and the GM is not the referee means that contending with the GM as if the GM was one of two competitive sides at the table is pointless.
Nonetheless, there persists a class of players that believes that they are in some sort of contest with the GM and actually enjoys that as an idealized mode of play. It can really only be this sort of player that objects strongly to Rule Zero. Quite obviously, Rule Zero can be misapplied and players might reasonably object to its misapplication, but only a player that wants a fair contest such as they might have in a wargame can object to Rule Zero entirely. This sort of player perceives the GM as not only wearing the referee hat but also wearing the hat of a player antagonist.
But, for my part, I've always found that somewhat silly, as even if you deprive a GM of Rule Zero there is nothing in traditional RPG's that deprives the GM of the ability to bring unlimited resources and issue to himself whatever tactical advantages he desires. Can the GM design an encounter with a slippery narrow bridge and all the foes having the protection of arrow slits? Certainly. And that's the least of the sort of defenses a GM can give himself for free. That's rather fair minded compared to what a GM can do in creating scenarios.
There is no point buy for dungeons, and generally no point buy for encounters. The rules generally don't forbid GM full control over the setting, and putting Nyarthahotep in a closet such that opening the closet door means a party wipe. The rules don't prevent Cthulhu entering the dungeon 10 minutes after the players and cutting off all retreat. The rules don't prevent a trap that collapses the entire dungeon immediately. The rules don't prevent silent invisible stalkers tracking the party until they sleep. In short, an RPG just doesn't work if the GM is actually trying to win, yet some players persist in thinking they've beaten the GM or that beating the GM is the point.
The Elusive Shift talks quite a bit about Simbalist's "Kismet" essays (from A&E #43 & #44) which are salient to how the early community grappled with issues along these lines.Delete
Please forgive my typing as I am disabled and therefore certain aspects of writing become optional in my trying (unsuccessfully) to get my point across.ReplyDelete
John Peterson brings up an enormous topic, that is to say, the meta-ruling about rules. When one studies intelligence one of the first divisions is based on the idea of whether the intelligence is capable of thinking about thinking and what aspects of cognition are affected by the thinking process. With meta, it is an unlimited process, as Gödel showed with his first logical proof. (And many of the players of role-playing games at least new the theorem even if they did not know the actual proof.) This means that at whatever level a rule zero needs to be hypothesized and discussions about what the rule zero is will inevitably be discussed.
For example, Celebrim makes the point that there is an almost unlimited amount of content that the GM can bring to bear. But this too has a rule zero aspect because there is a defined boundary to what the GM can create: is this a truly fantasy-driven world with rules that limit the GM's effectiveness in creating, for example, starships and science fiction tropes. In some cases, yes and in other cases no, it is the world of one or more GMs. Some will bring in Macross or Alice in Wonderland while others seek to emulate some particular universe. There are myriad examples from very early in the official modules. Interestingly certain elements are glossed over which actually were used in the historical time periods that medieval pasts used. For example, there were primitive projectiles at Crecy (1346) this means that unlimited content means unlimited within the context of the campaign - whether there is hidden science fiction (Syndadie) or races that derive their power from science fiction (Harn). And this leaves aside the polyglot nature of other campaigns such as superheroic campaigns.
So in summary there is an entire world of what constitutes the rule 0 for each particular world being simulated as well as the rules for simulating the context. There are rules about what sort of things in the campaign are allowed and also rules for simulating the particular physics of the world.
You may also want to look into the Oberoni Fallacy as it's also a fairly early source (2002) that explicitly cites "Rule 0" as part of its explanation, but this "Rule 0" seems linked to the 3e PHB's Step 0 of character creation: check to see if the GM has houserules.ReplyDelete
Would be interesting to explore the connections between the idea of a rule zero and the idea of a 'rule of cool'. I think the latter originates not in gaming but in discussions about fiction more generally (as a sort of imperative to suspend disbelief) but it's not uncommon to see it cited in rpg rules as a meta-rule. In contrast to a rule zero, rules of cool in rpgs seem concerned not so much with the prerogative to change rules as with the prerogative to selectively not apply them, if not applying them would allow for something that all are agreed would be cool. But there seems to be a certain kinship between the two ideas.ReplyDelete
The "rule of cool" is about making the visualization be more important than strict adherence to the wargaming rules. It is one of the arguments that wargamers (who demand compliance with the rules as written) and role-players (who want the spirit not letter, because the letter killeth) A big part is whether the GM fits along this access and whether he is thinking of his role as an adversary or a referee.Delete
Rule Zero, was of course in the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons.ReplyDelete
Taking a look at AD&D1e the reference to rule zero is made in the Afterword section, so still there. Just at the end.
AD&D2e. In the foreward to the AD&D 2e Dungeon Master Guide Zeb Cook writes "Take time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don't just let the gamne sit there, and don't become a rules lawyer worry about each piddly little detail.
So Rule Zero is in all the editions, although deliberately less prominent in 1eAD&D, it's still there though, after a fashion.
Does anyone think there’s any connection between Asimov introducing the Zeroth law in the mid-80’s and gamers settling on the Rule Zero nomenclature?ReplyDelete