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Friday, 25 September 2020

Let me be ruled by laws, not by men

"It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are the creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do!"
That's Gary Gygax's idea of roleplaying. I'm in the opposite camp. Like John Adams, I want to be ruled by laws, not by men, and I don't like autocrats. The "story" of a roleplaying game is there to be discovered by the players. It might well be different for each player. Roleplaying is not is one person telling everybody else a story. You want to do that, go write a novel. If a player points out that the rules contradict the story you'd got planned, don't throw your toys out of the pram. Embrace it. There's another story waiting to emerge, and probably a better one than your not-even-a-novel.

When Gazza grumbles about barrack-room lawyers, I'm guessing a player called him on his own rules. I don't mind that. I'm glad of any group that includes a rules maven, as I can never remember the rules even when I wrote them myself. The ideal rules are capable of covering any eventuality and might only rarely get looked at. You can have a great game (and usually a better game) when there are hardly any dice rolls. The rules are only needed when they're needed, an impartial court of appeal that any player can turn to so that the referee at the end of the table doesn't get too big for his or her boots.

"But I want to be told a story!" What are you, five? Still, OK, that's fine. À chacun son goût. Personally I would always rather have an outcome delivered by my own choices and by dice rolls than one prearranged by the referee to fit a plot, but you don't have to invoke the rules at any point. If you're happy to jump through the referee's story hoops, sit back and enjoy it. Seems like you'd be Gary's ideal player.

An honest cop doesn't carp about a guy knowing his rights. Running with that analogy, we all hope to live our lives without recourse to the law, and most of the time we can. But it's good to know, if you're innocent but on the spot, that laws exist that ensure you're treated without fear or favour. And even if you're not innocent, in fact; only a brute or a twit dreams of a world where cops mete out their own justice without deferring to the law.

We don't live our lives accepting government by somebody who says, "Never mind the rules, I know what's best." So why would we play games that way?


  1. It looks to me as though you're mixing more than one aspect of gaming into your stance here, but what I'm taking from your post is that you prefer rules for everything, to be spelled out in advance, with no DM interpretation, and allowing player actions to drive the story, not the forces of the society in which they reside, or the agendas of its rulers. Oh, and apparently with no regard for the preparation that the DM has already put in, which I presume was as a result of discussing the campaign with the players in advance. As you say, to each their own. But I wouldn't equate an opposition to any of those stipulations with childishness or a Nixonian personality. I just watched Kevin Sorbo as Kull knock down a set of laws that weren't for the best. I'm with Kull.

    1. The references to rules that generally don't get looked at, and an 'impartial court of appeal' suggest that you are mistaken in your interpretation here.

      Gygax's quotation -- of a piece with the 'I only roll the dice for the sound it makes' line that he often used to trot out -- is advocating a situation which makes the rules largely pointless. Indeed, in those days there were many advocates of ruleless gaming.

      When you switch to ruleless gaming, however, you discover that this actually highlights the power dynamic between referee (or, as in some cases: the 'Master' of the 'Dungeon') and players. Without rules, you either have to come up with some informal means by which players have some meaningful input and understanding of the game reality, or you have the dictatorship to which Dave is referring: the ref who is there to tell a story.

      My point, which Dave may agree with, is that the rules help to provide players with opportunities for that input and understanding, even if they are largely unused.

      This is not a theoretical position: it is a reaction to frequent experience of tell-a-story referees. Personally, I've played with a number of these, many of whom were excellent (and who published scenarios -- I suspect the desires to 'tell a story' and to publish a scenario may be linked). Even the best of these were not as satisfying as the best truly collaborative games. Like Dave, my feeling is that the whole point of participating in a role-playing game is making an active, meaningful contribution. Choosing option A or option B that the referee has previously decided on is not a meaningful contribution. It reduces role-playing to a live run-through of a gamebook.

    2. To that I'll just add that "the forces of society" are part of the rules governing the player-characters. I'm not going to change the terms of the Manifesto of Noble Deliverance to steer my story, any more than I'm going to arbitrarily change the rules for dodge and parry.

      And *of course* I'm not arguing that you must use rules whether they are good or bad -- logically that stance would require you to use all rules for all possible RPGs in every session. Hammurabi picked his rules (and maybe Kull did too) and from then on everybody knew what those rules were.

    3. OK, I don’t normally have debates in a comment thread, but in this case it’s like we’re looking at different posts.

      Gygax Quotes: Never hold to the letter written, (nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you,) if it goes against the obvious intent of the game...Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are the creator and final arbiter. (Note, no comments about “story.”)

      Dave Reaction, Issue #1: I'm in the opposite camp...I want to be ruled by laws, not by men, and I don't like autocrats. (Note, Dave ignores “if it goes against the obvious intent of the game.”)

      Dave Unrelated Issue, Issue #2: Roleplaying is not one person telling everybody else a story. You want to do that, go write a novel.

      Dave Connects Two Unrelated Issues, creating Issue #3: If a player points out that the rules contradict the story you'd got planned...probably a better one than your not-even-a-novel.

      Dave Reacts Harshly to Imagined Dissent:
      - "But I want to be told a story!" What are you, five?
      - An honest cop doesn't carp about a guy knowing his rights...only a brute or a twit dreams of a world where cops mete out their own justice...
      - Richard Nixon quote implying that it’s wrong for a DM to be above the rules.

      Baron Greystone sees Dave connect two unrelated points and create a problem that isn’t being supported by his quotes, then get nasty in advance to dissenters. Oh, and ignore that Gygax is saying that players parsing out the verbiage in printed rules when it’s obvious that’s not the intent of those rules needs to be interpreted by the DM, and his decision is final. Which has been the design of rpgs since their inception (recent games notwithstanding). A referee’s rulings take precedence, but he should be referring to “the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes.”

      Dave possibly redeems himself with this reaction: Hammurabi picked his rules (and maybe Kull did too) and from then on everybody knew what those rules were.

      Baron Greystone wonders if Dave has a problem with a DM who is consistent in his rules interpretations. He also wonders who Dave encountered who changed established rules to support a plot point mid-campaign, and that this somehow disadvantaged players. But there is nothing in the Gygax quotes that states an endorsement of arbitrarily changing rules to support a plot point mid-stream, which appears to be the bee in the bonnet.

    4. When Gary says "the intent of the game", I'd say, "whose intent?" But I'm glad I sort of redeemed myself for a moment there!

      It reminded me of a peripheral point I wanted to make, which is that the reason for going with what the dice and rules point you to is that you're often taken in a direction that an authorial refereeing style isn't going to reach. If you're familiar with improv, it's "don't block".

      And (really hoping to achieve redemption twice in one day here) I include myself in that. Whatever story I might make up for my players, it's eventually going to smack of a typical Morris idea. When the rules and the rolls force me out of my comfort zone, that's when we get to go somewhere interesting.

      I can see what Gygax was getting at. He realized that often the rules in D&D were so carelessly designed that they ended up pushing in the opposite direction to what he intended. And, as Paul reminds us, he often said that he only pretended to roll the dice while making up a story. But -- oh what the heck, I'll go for a third redemption -- notice that I said if you like being told a story then fine, you can pretend you believe the referee's rolls and go along with what he or she wants.

      (Btw I do also have to apologize to Richard Nixon for involving him in all this. Compared to what we have today he was a paragon of fucking virtue.)

    5. There have been time that I've been tempted (and as a novice GM succumbed to said temptation) to cheat the dice to get a specific result. Most this happened when I had no alternative prepare for what I'd planned.

      Nowadays I just try to improvise and if I really can't I'll just be straight with the players, like:

      Me: Okay guys, here's the deal. I figured all of you would blow the roll to stay conscious and get captured, but you didn't. So, you have two choices.

      Choice A is you decide you failed the roll anyway, in which case I'll toss in some extra XP or some other bennie.

      Chooice B is we quit early 'cause I got nothing else right now.

    6. Isn't that the refereeing style that Paul mentioned above? If you're going to plan in advance to the extent of steering the characters to a situation where they're going to get captured, but you're giving them a roll to avoid that, then you might just as well pre-plan what happens if they make the roll. It's effectively a gamebook choice.

    7. Back in the earlyish days of role-playing I used to fulminate against dungeons. It was the fashionable thing to do, after all.

      More recently, I started to realise what a clever idea they were. An artificially constrained environment could be planned in meticulous detail, allowing players pretty well free choice.

      ...well, except for what Ian Livingstone came along and showed us with Warlock of Firetop Mountain: that it was often a choice between predetermined possibilities.

      But designing a dungeon (and I, in my early years, was as prone to multi-level monstrosities as anyone else) was certainly much easier than designing a world based on the same principle of predetermined options.

      So then the 'world' approach got tamed by the bravura antics of the 'plotted scenario'. And the problem here was that the main skill of running such a scenario seemed to be to conspire with the players to pretend that the truth was other than that they actually had little impact on what was going to happen, but were trundling down the rails (I remember Danny Baker looking inordinately pleased at himself on Shooting Stars for pointing out that contestants were just stooges in a comedy show, and although I like Danny Baker, I found it boggling that he could be so naive as to have ever thought otherwise -- or that he could imagine that it was in any way clever to point it out).

      But my point is that the history of role-playing seems to largely line up behind Baron Greystone, and against Dave (and me, for that matter). The referee has spent all that time writing a dungeon: it would be churlish for players not to trot obediently down its corridors.

    8. I suppose the final fallback is to say that even if we as players have to conform to the referee's plot (and what is a dungeon but a plotline in architectural form?) the story is not in the plot, but in what we think and feel and say as characters -- and those things the referee cannot dictate.

      Admittedly that's as flimsy a straw to clutch at as the Eternal Champion stories where Tanelorn isn't a physical place but only a concept. There may be nothing for it, Paul, but to take arms like Horatius on the Sublician Bridge and await the forces of my lord of Greystone.

    9. Well, I said "nowadays" in my post but at this I haven't been involved in a live, in-person RPG since... I think January or February of 2018. And when I had actual time to prepare, I'm cover all the bases. However, there were times when the usual GM would just say "I'm not up to running tonight, can you do it?" And this would be on game night. So, I'd grab module from something like TORG or WEG Star Wars (because they had easy plug 'n' play Templates) and just go from that.

    10. Perhaps churlish is a bit harsh but I do think there’s an implied “social contract”. But hopefully it has some basis in a shared desire amongst the participants to brave the dank dungeon of Wherever to steal the Whatsit and vanquish the evil Villianio the Vile…
      I suppose if you think about it, the whole premise of adventurers existing outside of societal structures, going off to kill monsters and loot inexplicably created and completely illogical underground chambers is, to be frank, contrived and pretty naff in the first place. Dave, your comment about a dungeon being a plot line in architectural form was a bit of a Eureka moment for me. Thanks. Paul you’re right, the players can do whatever they want - as long as it fits within the ubiquitous 10’ x 10’ square stone chamber with a wooden door in the North and South wall... ;-) But as you say - we’ve all done that right? It’s a tangent for another day but the best “dungeons” are ones which logically exist, have history and purpose and to be frank are modelled on something from the real world.
      You may think it’s a cop out but I do think it ultimately depends upon what the playing group want to play. Whilst there are nowadays probably much better mediums/technologies for mindless dungeon crawling murder and loot style games - whatever floats your boat I guess. How much more rewarding though is it if the PCs have a logical place in the world, people they care about, something meaningful to do and something they believe in and hope for. Bit like real life. Whether that is serving their lord or lady as retainers, becoming rulers themselves, plying their trade as merchants, maybe professional treasure/lost knowledge seekers, jaded mercenaries, altruistic but misguided crusaders or freedom fighters if there’s some reason they do the dangerous things they do that makes for a richer more rewarding game. I agree it’s for the best of the players themselves have the freedom to decide those things for themselves but a little nudge now and then from. GM is surely not too bad? And as the Stones say they may not get what they want but they just might find they get what they need.

    11. I'm always a little surprised to find there are groups whose games still consist of dungeons, maps, ten-foot poles, secret doors and all the rest. It almost makes me want to run Nyelmu's Garden of Weeping Snows -- and this time, maybe, finally get it right.

    12. There's seems to be a slight resurgence in "old school" adventuring. Even when the "old school" was the only school I never got the appeal of it. "Hey everyone, instead of staying here and enjoying this fun tavern scene, let's go underground and repetitively do the most dice-intensive role-play averse things we can do (combat and traps detection/removal) for the next couple months."

    13. Same here, John. I bet if you ask even the most determined dungeon-delving player what moments stick in their memory from past games, almost none of those would be dungeon experiences because those tend to be about tactics rather than character interplay. But if anyone out there wants to argue the opposite, be my guest. We keep a safe space for scrappiness around here :-)

  2. As somebody who had to endure a "tell-a-story" GM (who was telling a story about his favored viewpoint NPC), screw your story. As a player I want to tell You My story and presumably so do the rest of the players. I don't mind tossing out rules sometimes. Dave, you've done this in your GURPS campaign by no longer allowing point for mental Flaws. Which is fine as long as your players knew that going in.

    1. I'm all for tossing out rules, John, as you say -- as long as everyone around the table knows which rules apply. And a lot of GURPS rules could do with jettisoning!

  3. Dave I think there are competing tensions at work. I suspect a lot of the complaint about GMs throwing out the rule book and adhering to some mythical heroic “spirit of the game” actually just boils down to examples of poor GMing. My view is that the GM is the umpire of the game but is not the star striker who kicks the goals and gets the glory (I know how you love sporting analogies :-)). Whilst the GM is in charge and final arbiter of outcomes they must conduct themselves with humility and make the game about the players and not about themselves and their ego. I initially took umbrage with your comment about being like a 5 year old if you’re wanting to be told a story, but on reflection I think I’ve actually said something similar. That without rules, which importantly everyone adheres to, it really is just a childhood game of “make believe, let’s pretend”. If there’s no-one to adjudicate the rules fairly and impartially then it can just degenerate into childish arguments of “I shot you! No, I shot you first. Did not! Did too!” *cue brawling 5 year olds*! I think the flip side of it though is that whilst the GM is there to serve the players there’s an implied social contract that the players will, to be blunt, not be assholes. That doesn’t mean they can’t forge their own path for their PCs but being excessively argumentative or contrary as a player is just as unacceptable as self-indulgent GMing. It takes an experienced GM and mature players to cope with PCs who decide not just to build their own sandcastles but decide to leave the sandbox entirely. I suppose that’s where the much maligned over preparation at least in relation to the world/setting can come in handy.

    1. I remember at the same time as people I know were going all diceless and ruleless, there were also many players who seemed to feel that 'real' role-playing entailed playing a character who was not going to be part of any collaborative activity with the others. Possibly this was a reaction to what Dave long ago dubbed 'Thatcher' referees, but it was an almighty pain in the arse. One guy I knew at university at least had the decency to take this to its logical conclusion: he believed that 'real' role-playing could only be done in postal games, because otherwise you would be constrained by the shared, social nature of the activity.

      For me, though, the shared, social nature of the game -- with all the tensions that entailed -- was what made role-playing great. And rules were a part of making that work. Ditching them is feasible, if everyone playing is on the same page. And of course, if the rules become the 'point' of the game, that's equally destructive to my preferred form of role-playing -- though there are plenty of people, especially of the wargaming persuasion, who enjoy that. But the sweet spot, for me at least, is when the rules provide a shared reality -- and the intrinsic entertainment and drama that games provide -- but don't get in the way of anything else.

  4. My original comment on this web page, which got lost as so many of my comments do, was to imagine Dave in one of Ben Elton's shiny suits from the 80s 'Bit of politics there!'

    My lengthier comments that followed are not worth repeating, but I will say I found David Frost's delivery of 'By definition?' strangely poignant in current circumstances.

    1. I knew I'd eventually turn into Ben Elton. But -- argh, why did Blogger eat your comment? They've changed the interface (to make it mobile-friendly, in the process totally buggering up the desktop version) which may account for some glitches.

    2. Blogger didn't eat my comment. But if I forget about it, and do something else, it vanishes. I guess I'm too used to the luxury of those places that autosave drafts.