Monday, October 19, 2015

The Reason Rules Matter in Roleplaying Games

Normally when a Monday post rolls around I'll dig through my bookmarks and history list to find something that made me laugh, or which intrigued me, that I want to share with other gamers. You know, stuff like how a date has been set for the world's first giant robot battle, the Beyond the Barrier web series, or the Who The F#%K Is My DND Character? random background generator. This week, though, I'd like to talk about something that's been niggling at me. This weird argument that crops up again and again that the rules apply to everyone at the table... except the DM.

So you want me to make a Reflex save, but you're just going to pick whatever DC you feel like?

The Social Contract of Gaming

The social contract is one of the most common components of modern moral philosophy, and most people associate it with Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan. For those of you who skipped philosophy in favor of harder sciences, you can read what the social contract is at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If you don't feel like digging through text from a few hundred years back, here's the basis of the social contract; we all agree to give up certain freedoms, and in exchange for those freedoms, we expect everyone to abide by the rules of this society we have formed.

We see this everyday, and we see it in big and small ways. For example, we all know that if you commit murder, then you have broken the law. We all gave up the freedom to kill whoever we want in exchange for living in a less-violent society than a Mad Max wasteland. In the same way, we know that if you're checking out at the grocery store that you have wait in line, and that you go in order. Someone who cuts in line will feel the wrath of everyone they line jumped, and possibly the clerk and the manager as well.

That's the social contract in action, and it applies to the gaming table just as surely as it does anywhere else.

Just as we agree not to murder the DM, so the DM agrees not to murder us.
We like to kid around by saying that the DM is god, in much the same way people talk about the President of the United States as being the most powerful man in America, if not the world. In a way, this is true, but it gives the impression that both the POTUS and your DM have completely unchecked power that they can use how and whenever they see fit. If you've ever watched the news, you know that certainly isn't true for the former. It isn't true for the latter, either.

This is where the game rules come in.

Your rule book represents a social contract, of sorts. When we sit down at the table we all agree that barbarians, fighters, and rangers get a full base attack bonus progression. We agree that touch attacks ignore physical armor, and that you can't use a bastard sword in one hand unless you have the exotic weapon proficiency. We agree to build our characters according to the rules, and to give our sheets and back stories to the DM so they can be rubber stamped as okay for the game.

That is a two-way street, though. The DM, you see, only has the power to rule the game table with the support of the players. That means the players and the DM have to have an understanding; they have to be on the same page, and part of the same team. The DM may be running the villains, but the DM shouldn't be the villain. Down that path lies madness, broken games, and possibly ruined friendships.

But What About Rule 0?

We are all aware of Rule 0: if the rules get in the way of playing the game and having fun, then get rid of the rules in question. This is a great thing, and it can make games better when used responsibly. However, Rule 0 simply means that you, and the DM, can work together to amend the social contract. In much the same way Congress can amend the Constitution. Just like how the President can't walk into the Oval Office and revoke the second amendment, so, too, the DM can't just throw out rules he doesn't like or agree with willy nilly.

The players have to give their consent.

This is where we see a lot of old school vs. new school gaming clashes. In the early days of tabletop gaming, or so we're told, there were no real rules. It was theater, loosely guided by a set of principles, and directed by the man (or occasional woman) behind the screen. If the DM said you succeeded, you succeeded. If the DM said rocks fell and everyone died, then rocks fell and everyone died. That was the way it was. As games evolved into later editions, though, many of them codified what could and couldn't happen according to their worlds' rules. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and a dozen other games eliminated a lot of the wiggle room, and took away a great deal of the improvisation required by older editions.

In a real sense, it was like the transition from frontier justice to the codified legal system we have in the modern day. The judge can no longer bang a gavel and sentence someone to be hanged. Now, everyone gets a representative, there is a bargaining process, and centuries of case law may be brought to bear on the current decision.

So what's the point?
The point is that Rule 0 is alive and well in modern gaming, and that house rules and home brew games are right where they've always been. However, the DM needs to remember that his decisions have to be accepted by the players according to the rules of the social contract. Put another way, if a group of gamers sits down at the table to play Pathfinder, and there have been no amendments made to the rules as they stand, then players expect everything to work the way it says it does in the books. But if the DM decides that rogues cannot detect or disarm magical traps with no spellcasting ability of their own (despite that being the language of the trapfinding class feature), and the DM decides this without informing players and receiving their agreement, then that is a clear violation of what was implicitly agreed to. It's also likely to really piss off the players with rogue characters.

There are, of course, varying degrees of violation, and the reactions to those violations will also vary. For example, a DM may state that, for this game, natural 20s and natural 1s are automatic successes and failures on skill checks as well as on attack rolls and saving throws. Even though this is a clear rule change, it may be seen more as saving a space for a friend in a line instead of cutting to the front entirely. It may make some players grumble, but it will generally be tolerated. The bigger the change, and the less effort that's made to get the players to agree before the change is made, the more volatile the reaction is likely to be. For example, changing the god a cleric worships without that player's consent for no reason is going to cause problems. Stating that the barbarian's damage reduction, or the tiefling's fire resistance, stops working for no reason other than plot inconvenience (and without any game-legal ability that would allow this to happen with no necessary rule change) is also likely to result in difficulties.

It isn't that the rules are sacred, and can never be changed. It's that, much like amending the Constitution, you need to have everyone agree to the change, and inform them of the change, in order to get support for it. By treating the players like pawns with no say, or like enemies who need to be controlled, a DM violates this contract, and may find the table is no longer willing to play the game.

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  1. Nice article. Trust allows for flexible rules but even the strongest steel fails when bent too far. One way I build trust with my group is with player agency.
    On 1s, I encourage my players to offer complications to the result. That way I don't accidentally punish players but I do generously award players willing to take risk.

  2. Lost my support at fudging the dice. That's bad practice through and through. What about using a game that doesn't return unfun results for a change? ;)

    1. Game mechanics can only bias results, but some results are going to be unfun, since how fun something is depends on context.

  3. Thanks for another great article. It is important for players to know how the agreement works. It really does make for a much more fun game when the players understand that everyone, including the GM, follows the same rules.

    The "theater of the mind" is something I have tried to resurrect with . I love D&D but it just kept getting more and more rigid with what you could/should/would do with a specific character. It seemed like we almost used it as a crutch because we didn't trust or maybe fully understand the social contract. However with playing the Fyxt RPG and the freedom it offers for all players to do what they want it has opened up the narrative of the game all around. It makes the players a lot more like the GM able to have the freedom to really play what they want. With the understanding of the social contract between everyone at the table our games have gotten so much better. We have much better roleplay, better stories, and far more epic adventures than we ever did because everyone at the table is a storyteller, not just the GM.

  4. GREAT post! Above all else, the GM is there to run a fair, challenging game. A rule of thumb that I've used for sooo many years is this simple maxim: If its NOT fun, why are we (the GM AND the players) doing it? Remember, the players could be doing so many other things but instead, choose to spend their time in our collective worlds of wonder. If you follow that simple rule, I suspect that so many of the other rules and GM judgements will probably not be too great a challenge.

  5. We've been in a ton of conversations about this before and you know this is almost exactly how I feel on the subject. not so much that you can't or even shouldn't change rules to fit the games needs. Just that the GM is not the game. Also as point out though trust can play an important factor, the more the players trust a GM the more they'll allow him to make little changes and feel OK that he is doing it for the good of the group.

  6. Congress can't amend the Constitution

    1. If you actually read the Constitution, it clearly states that they can. In fact, pretty much all our amendments have come from being ratified by the House and Senate.