Monday, April 8, 2019

Rules Might Limit Dungeon Masters, But They Also Protect Players

I've gone on the record several times in saying that I tend to prefer rules-dense games to rules-light ones. Part of this, like I said in Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice, is because games with a lot of rules also tend to give you a lot of options as a player. As I said back then, games with robust rules back up your character concept mechanically, providing the necessary skeletal structure so that you're not just using the same three or four templates everyone else has access to with different flavor text.

There is another reason I prefer games with a lot of rules, though. It's because, simply put, I think you're less likely to get screwed if you have a contract that spells out how everything works.

Sir, if you'll reference page 357's sidebar, you'll see we've discussed why you can't do that.

The Dungeon Master is Not God

Perhaps the most-quoted thing I see about being a DM is some variation of, "You can do whatever you want. You're god, after all." While this is true in the sense that the DM is the one who handles the spinning of the cosmos, who populates the world, and who rules over decisions, the DM is more like a team lead or a boss than a deity. Ideally they should be working with everyone else on their team to reach their goals and to overcome challenges.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Johnson, your fighter's dead. Roll up a new character. No, at level 1!
Whether your dungeon master is someone who isn't good at making up necessary rulings on the fly (not every good storyteller has the skills to design a game, after all), or because they are actively adversarial in their approach, in a rules-light game it is all too easy for the players to get screwed. It's a lot like how, before the advent of labor laws, there was nothing stopping employers from working someone for 14 hour days until they dropped. Except, you know, fairness, and morality, and stuff like that. Which, if you'll recall, didn't work all that well.

Yes, I'm comparing dungeon masters to the robber barons and cutthroat capitalists of the gilded age. Because while it's true that some of these bosses cared about their employees, tried to be fair to them, and wanted to promote equal prosperity, there were also bosses who used and abused people to get their way. Bosses who wrung out anything workers had to give, then tossed them out on the street when they protested their treatment. Dungeon masters can be the same way; some of them are good, some are well-meaning but flawed, and some of them really should not be in charge.

That's where the rules come in.

To continue this metaphor, the rules of the game are like the labor laws that companies have to follow. Because it would be more advantageous for them to simply fire someone the moment they got injured on the job, but doing that is often illegal. In the same way, you might have a dungeon master who wants to declare that this fall from the rooftop killed your character, but according to the falling damage chart in the book, you would only take 5d6 damage. You've got 50 hit points, so even on a maximum roll you're going to survive, even if the DM thinks it would be more dramatic for your character to die.

Now, having the rules about falling damage, about critical hits and failures, damage dealt to sundered weapons, or about energy resistances spelled out in black and white doesn't stop a dungeon master from telling a story. What they will do, though, is stop a dungeon master from making up their own rules to suit their fancy, or imposing rules that aren't fair because, "Well, there's no rule for that in the book, so I'm going to do it this way."

In short, rules-dense games tend to put players and dungeon masters on a more equal footing, and they protect players from capricious, inexperienced, or mod-happy DMs. They're a contract between you and everyone else at the table about how the physics of the game actually function, and they cut out a lot of the wiggle room that is present in games with fewer rules.

A Paper Shield is Still a Shield

While it's true that groups can change the rules to suit their play style, those changes need to be things that everyone agrees about. And it's a lot easier to come together to collectively bargain over minor changes or modification than it is to make entirely new rules from scratch because something you want to do wasn't covered in the original text.

Cut damage in half and round down on successful saves. All in favor?
At the end of the day, though, both players and the DM are bound by the same contract. Each side is expected to follow the rules they agreed to. While it's true that it requires more reading, practice, and system mastery to play (much less run) these games, they're also harder for a hanging judge-style DM to simply get in the chair and start making rulings about who does and doesn't die, lose hands, get class features stripped from them, etc.

It's not for everyone, but it is a distinction that I consider important. Because if the rules are clear and spelled out, I don't have to extend a DM the same amount of trust that they can handle their position as I would if there were only a few guidelines in place they could ignore at their whim. And if players can point out where a DM's ruling is in violation of the agreement, then that helps keep everyone on a level playing field.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post! Been thinking on this topic for a while, so I thought I'd finally get my thoughts out there. What about the rest of you? What are your thoughts on rules systems being used as a way to protect players from bad DM decisions?

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  1. I always build a campaign setting document before my games that has all the Home Brew and House rules in it.

    One of those is 'Dragons are Not Color Coded for Your Convenience': Its a rather worthy title, but it means that as the DM/GM I reserve the right to modify monsters how I wish. I do this becuase modifying monsters is one of the few ways I can prevent metagaming from experienced players who know the Monster Manual very well.

    But I spell this out before any game begins. . .

  2. I agree with this completely. If I make a judgement call, It try to stay consistent, but I defer to the rules whenever possible. I take it a step further and rarely fudge the dice rolls, and when I do it's only ever in the favor of the players. Most of the time the dice are in the open and not behind a screen unless the situation warrants secrecy. @Thiatas, I mod creatures quite a bit too. I like that title!

  3. This argument is the kind of argument crap players use to try to hem their GM's with RAW, especially when they're using RAW to bypass RAI. The rules serve the game, not the other way around. And sometimes rulemakers screw it up.

  4. I don't always...naw, make that OFTEN...agree with you, Neal, but this is one where I 100% do. I started playing back in '79 or so and it always felt in the rules light days of D&D that every ruling from the GM was dependent upon whether they liked you or what mood they were in. And oftentimes those rules changed the next time you played with them. Even when GMs have really tried to cater to the ideas that the players have, when they play fast and loose with the rules, it grates on me and feels like I'm somehow still getting hosed.

  5. I have a digital document with all house rules or rule modifications that I give to every player before any game. Like Thiatas above I also don't limit creature to a set alignment & actually more closely follow the Eberron setting from D&D 3.5 edition in that reguard with it being stated in the rules.

  6. I absolutely agree. While there may be some flaws in the design of the game that individual gamers can fix, it is astronomically more likely that the highly experienced, professional game designers actually got it right, while the isolated few only think it's wrong and their modifications cause unintended negative consequences. As it turns out, I only had one player question a ruling I made on the fly once. We went with it in the moment, but I searched for it online later in the week. I was happy to report back that Crawford had previously confirmed that my solution was, in fact, the correct intended way. Still, like you, I'd prefer to have things spelled out. That way, we're all on the same page and have a common basis for decision-making.

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