Monday, May 7, 2018

"Trust At The Table" or "Why I Like Games With More Rules"

For those who don't know, I went to school for criminal justice. Which is a fancy way of saying that I sat in a lot of classes and discussed the origin of the legal system, the workings of government, and understanding how everything from enforcement to punishment came to be what it is today. It was interesting, in its way, but by the time I had my degree in hand I really didn't want to be part of that field.

However, there was something I learned there that I feel applies to my outlook as a gamer. Namely, that a system of law where the limits of rights, authority, and power is spelled out in exhaustive detail might take a lot of time to learn and master, but it is ultimately a good deal fairer than one that doesn't have those limits written out.

Don't worry, I'll bring this back around to gaming shortly.
And that is why, as a player and a DM, I will always prefer a system that spells everything out so that I'm on the same page with everyone else at the table.

How Far Do You Trust Your DM?

The first RPG I actively played was Dungeons and Dragons 3.0. I moved up through 3.5, and then as my regular readers know I settled into Pathfinder and got comfortable. While I've played other games (most of the World of Darkness, a few different Savage Worlds titles, 5th edition, Pugmire, and others), my preference is always for games that spell out all the rules for you. From falling damage, to what check you have to roll to disable a trap, to figuring out whether or not someone is surprised when combat starts, I want it all there in black and white right in front of me.

Even if we're talking about spell vectors and bullet drop-off. I want it in the game.
The comparison I like to use to explain my feelings on the subject is between frontier justice, and today's modern legal system. A lot of folks romanticize the days when a judge was just a guy full of folksy wisdom, who used his own common sense to cut to the heart of disputes. The problem is that system depends pretty much entirely on who is sitting in the chair, how they're feeling, and what they think is right... which is not an ideal system for a fair and level playing field. The modern legal system is far from perfect, but it lays out what procedures have to be followed, it gives specific acts that must be committed in order for something to be a crime, and it limits the power of those who sit in the judge's seat. It doesn't take it away by any means, but a modern judge can't simply sentence someone to hang because they want to; they have to follow the procedures, and act in accordance with the rules.

And yes, I'm comparing older, more free-form games like Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition (and its modern incarnation 5th edition) to those frontier days. Because, on the one hand, they are simpler. Just like you could be a frontier judge with little to no knowledge of the law of the nation, so too you could be a DM for those looser systems without any exhaustive reading. Unfortunately, those systems also require you as the DM to make a lot of judgment calls because the system hasn't gone down a list of every possible thing that can happen, and made a rule for it.

On the other hand, learning more rules-heavy games takes time, energy, and a lot of work on behalf of players and DMs alike. You need to know the difference between actions, you need to know all the things that provoke attacks of opportunity, and you need to know the difference between spells, spell-like abilities, supernatural abilities, and extraordinary abilities. There tends to be a greater depth and breadth for options, and layers of rules for how the world functions. From rock slides and volcanoes, to severe cold and drowning, it's all there. And that takes more effort, just like how becoming a prosecutor or a judge in today's legal system requires you to go to school, pass the bar, and all the other stuff that comes with being a lawyer. At the same time, though, you don't need to do anywhere near as much personal ruling as a DM for a system like this, because the rules encompass so many more options. So whether someone is a good DM, a mediocre DM, or even kind of a bad DM, players can (at least in theory) hold up the rules as a way to protect the integrity of their choices, and maintain their agency. Because if the book already had rules for what happens when you're entangled, then amending those rules on the fly is not something the judge can just do because he disagrees with them.

But The DM Can Just Change The Rules... Can't They?

This is around the time where someone clears their throat and informs me (as if I don't know) that actually the rules are just guidelines, and the DM can just change them if they want to.

To which I say I agree with the former, but not with the latter.

How does that work, exactly?
Another remnant of the frontier-style of system (and for me as a player, the old-school way of playing) is the belief that the DM is god. Good or bad, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just like how a judge in those olden times could deliver whatever sentence they felt was appropriate. I disagree vehemently with this setup, because while the players need a DM, the DM also needs players. You're all in this together, and you all have to agree mutually to the rules you're playing by. And while those rules can be changed to suit your style of play, those changes have to be agreed to by everyone sitting at the table. Because it's a cooperative game, even if the DM is running the monsters.

Like any other game, you can alter the rules to fit your particular style and design. However, if your DM is like that kid on the playground who calls on his everything-proof shield any time you have a clever idea, or unexpected strategy, then an effective rebuttal is to point at the rules you all agreed to and remind them that shield isn't an option. Because if you, as a player, have to follow the rules, then so does the DM. And given that the DM has access to every monster, spell, NPC, and natural disaster in the known cosmos, it doesn't seem like much asking them to get a table consensus before putting white-out over how an already-established rule works.

Ending Caveats

Because I want to make sure I'm seven shades of crystal clear on this one, I thought I'd add in some ending caveats. I am not, in any way shape or form, saying that more complicated games are better than simpler ones. Nor am I implying that disagreeing with my opinion means you're doing something wrong as a gamer. And if you prefer to give the DM total authority at your table, and you're okay with that, that is still a decision you actually made. Also, since I'm sure someone will suggest I play with DMs I can actually trust, let me assure you that I trust my regular DMs. But I also join new groups a lot of the time, and when the DM is a wild card, knowing that the rules lay out 99% of anything I'll ever try to do as a PC is a comfort.

As I so often say, you live your life, roll your dice, and tell the stories that make you happy. I'll do the same.

However, as someone who is more at home in rules-dense games, and who feels frustrated by rules-light ones, I wanted to put some of my thoughts and opinions about my experiences into words. Perhaps someone reading this might have trouble putting words to their own feelings, and might find this helpful.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update. We all play differently, but this is the frame of mind I typically have when coming at a game. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, then take a look at my Vocal archive, or stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi! My eternal gratitude, and some free stuff, will be yours.


  1. Its like with political structures: If you have a competent, good-natured, wise ruler, any political system is working fine. Including monarchy, tyrannys or dictators. If anyone is "kinda" happy, it works.

    I recently had some problems with DMs. If you have the feeling as a player, that there is some GM vs. PC going on, than the rules are important. He still can change, ignore or just forget to apply some rules, but in a way the PCs are getting screwed. Thats really bad.

    The thing with rules is, that there arent "constants". If you have a fuckload of rules, you forget one or two at times where they are important.

    The point is: Have a competent DM, that wants to create a great adventure and story with you and the other players. And that dont want to enforce his views on how power is working on you.

  2. I appreciate this article deeply. The trend in gaming right now seems to be to shed complexity in favor of simplicity. While I appreciate the value of easier entry, as an experienced player I view the rules as both a toolkit for me to leverage and a defense against arbitrary screwjobs.

  3. The problem I see here is that I really don't think a rule dense RPG can save a gaming experience from a bad GM

    1. We can agree to disagree on that. I've had experiences where a DM tried to pull an ace in the hole out of his ass to punish my PC, but when I pointed out the rules prevented that action from working (couldn't be caught flat-footed, thus sneak attack didn't go off), the game simply progressed.

    2. If that's your idea of GM screwjob, then I think I understand why you think rules can protect you from the GM. But they really can't.

      At the end of the day, you need to trust your GM either way. Rules can't save you. Many of them are unenforceable/uncheckable. Even the ones that aren't are easily overridden by someone who wants to "houserule" something and often, rules can be used BY the GM to screw you over, as they are the ones in the position to determine what penalties and difficulty numbers apply to a given situation.

      There is no shield in the rulebook from a GM who wants you dead.

    3. As I said, experiences differ. I want a game where the DM is making up as little as possible. Because being a good DM doesn't mean you are a good game designer, and I'd rather a team of professionals plug the gaps, and fill out all the required charts and penalties than have Dave decide to arbitrarily alter things.

      In short, I want a system that makes the DM the referee, instead of someone who has to write laws at the same time he's trying to enforce them.

  4. Too many rules excludes tooany players. In the old days one did not even need to know the rules. The DM is god god is a fine way to play as long as the DM does not suck.

    1. That would be the point, Chris Medders. By relying on a structure of rules, rather than on the skill and goodwill of the DM, you take out the uncertainty. You can have a mediocre, or even bad, DM who can run an enjoyable game because their worse instincts and impulses are restrained by the system.

      That isn't for everyone. But I find it provides a safety net, and a protection against bad DMing.

  5. There are lots of short GMless games (or games with very rigid rules for the GM), and lots of very rules heavy games that still don't constrain the GM.

    Basically, I don't agree with your assumption that GM authority and quantity of rules are correlated.

  6. Yeah I used to play champions in the Hero system with a GM who would stat out our characters superhero outfits, our mundane shoes, he statted up handcuffs, pencils, everything. Still a terrible DM, who made boring campaigns, that didn't fit in the superhero genre. More rules don't equate with a better gaming experience. Also lots of complex game systems still have fuzzy rule elements, that can open up rule abuses.

    So I understand the premise but disagree with the conclusion. You can also have a bad DM who is constrained by the system run a boring game, or one full of squicky content that makes everyone uncomfortable. Just because he can't say rocks fall everyone dies, doesn't mean the game will be fun.

  7. More great content as usual.
    There's a typo under the "But The DM Can Just Change The Rules... Can't They?" in the first sentence. I believe you meant it to say "where someone clears their throat" not just "some".

  8. I completely agree that it's a matter of taste, and our tastes are completely different. ;D I'm much too enamored of playing around in the edge-cases: social interactions, political skullduggery, romance, etc. Hammering out rules for these situations is entirely possible (and some games thrive on them) but they just feel like they're getting in the way. It becomes the difference between playing football and playing fantasy football. But as you say, to each their own. :)