A recent question on RPG Stack Exchange had me researching the attitudes of Dungeons & Dragons towards rule interpretation over the years and I thought I’d expand it into a post here.
The allowed scope of DM rulings has absolutely changed over time in D&D. The balance between Dungeon Master’s discretion versus reign of the rules versus player empowerment has always been debated in D&D circles but there’s a clear evolution of thinking across the span of versions. The attitude towards rulings vs. rules in the game shows up
- directly and explicitly in the rules text
- implicitly in the text and detectable via textual analysis
- in the surrounding publications considered semi-canonical (Dragon magazine, nowadays forums and designer blogs), and
- the culture of gamers surrounding it.
Let’s stick mostly to the first two in the interest of space.
Original Dungeons & Dragons (0e, OD&D)
In the origins of the game, Chainmail, there was no concept of straying from the rules – it was a wargame. You could (and often did) mod the rules prior to play, but the whole thing about wargaming is that, like board gaming, the rules are considered inviolate during an instance of play as a core assumption. Some wargames didn’t have a “referee” role, and those that did, the role was very much like a sports referee – to determine if some violation of the rules had occurred.
But in the very first version of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson open the OD&D Men & Magic book with this admonishment to the “referee”:
These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.
– Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1, Men & Magic (1974), p.4
This is supported by textual analysis as well – the game rules’ intent (medieval people having adventures!) versus the relative paucity of the rules basically required large degrees of interpolation and discretion just to run a game. The gap between the mode of play and the written rules is so wide that reading the rules as an all-encompassing legal text on how to play is infeasible. Still, the metaphor is of the referee changing the rules as you proceed, with little discussion about ad hoc rulings.
Later supplements continued this theme. In Swords & Spells, the mass combat add-on, they note:
The second thing to remember is that these rules deal with fantasy. If something is unclear as to how or why it works that way, remember that it is all fantasy. Fantasy is not bound to rigid rules and rationales. Fantasy is imaginative. If you feel that your fantasy is better that this in some aspect, that’s fine. After all, it’s your fantasy. Be warned, however, that unless certain balances are maintained, the game soon becomes very lopsided and very little fun. BALANCE is to be maintained at all times.”
– Tim Kask, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Foreword.
In any case fantasy is a growing and flexible form of gaming, and referees must feel at home modifying and expanding upon rules as the situation dictates.
– Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Introduction.
The terminology – “referee,” “modifying the rules,” still hew close to the wargaming metaphor. Also in Kask’s quote, you see the first time balance, or as he states it, “BALANCE“, is mentioned. You’ll see it again…
Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Moldvay/Cook (B/X)
The 1977 version of Dungeons & Dragons births one of three major strains of thought on the issue of DM rulings.
Moldvay p.B2 (Foreword) on changing the rules: “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.” Paragraph 3 of the second column p.B3 also discusses how the rules are good as-is but should be changed if desired by the group and with the DM’s permission. Also notable for using the term “rules as written”, but only as normal descriptive English rather than a technical term.
Moldvay also has most of a page (B60) devoted to telling the DM that they’re the boss, not the players or the rules. Notably, it has explicit guidance on making rulings when there aren’t obvious applications of the rules. It also notes that though a good DM will discuss rulings with players after the game, a player who still disagrees is welcome to quit as their only recourse.
As you can see Basic moves well away from D&D’s wargaming roots, gives the players a voice but puts the DM in the predominant place. I would venture to say that regardless of what the text of each game says, this became the predominant model of operation for the vast amount of the history of D&D.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e)
In first edition AD&D, you see further development of ambivalence between the role of the Dungeon Master and the beauty and balance of the rules, though the DM is still considered the apex. It departs from B/X in that players are pretty much actively denigrated. In the opening pages of the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax rambles on at some length on this exact topic.
What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another. Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from “on high” as respects your game. Dictums are given for the sake of the game only, for if ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is to survive and grow, it must have some degree of uniformity, a familiarity of method and procedure from campaign to campaign within the whole.[…] In this lies a great danger, however. The systems and parameters contained in the whole of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS are based on a great deal of knowledge, experience gained through discussion, play, testing, questioning, and (hopefully) personal insight. Limitations, checks, balances, and all the rest are placed into the system in order to assure that what is based thereon will be a superior campaign, a campaign which offers the most interesting play possibilities to the greatest number of participants for the longest period of time possible.[…] Naturally, everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work. As a participant in the game, I would not care to have anyone telling me exactly what must go into a campaign and how it must be handled; if so, why not play some game like chess? As the author I also realize that there are limits to my creativity and imagination. Others will think of things I didn’t, and devise things beyond my capability.[…] The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign. Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far desire is to issue a death warrant to a campaign.[…] As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death.
– Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Preface pp.6-7.
You can see that player empowerment definitely isn’t on the menu in the seventies, but there is a stronger strain inserted of the wisdom of the rules and how while the DM is still above the rules, they should tread lightly and wisely in changing them. After apparently sucking down some whip-its, he goes on to say:
Know the game systems, and you will know how and when to take upon yourself the ultimate power. To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it. Remembering that the game is greater than its parts, and knowing all of the parts, you will have overcome the greater part of the challenge of being a referee. Being a true DM requires cleverness and imagination which no set of rules books can bestow. Seeing that you were clever enough to buy this volume, and you have enough imagination to desire to become the maker of a fantasy world, you are almost there already! Read and become familiar with the contents of this work and the one written for players, learn your monsters, and spice things up with some pantheons of super-powerful beings. Then put your judging and refereeing ability into the creation of your own personal milieu, and you have donned the mantle of Dungeon Master. Welcome to the exalted ranks of the overworked and harrassed, whose cleverness and imagination are all too often unappreciated by cloddish characters whose only thought in life is to loot, pillage, slay, and who fail to appreciate the hours of preparation which went into the creation of what they aim to destroy as cheaply and quickly as possible. As a DM you must live by the immortal words of the sage who said: “Never give a sucker an even break.” Also, don‘t be a sucker for your players, for you‘d better be sure they follow sage advice too. As the DM, you have to prove in every game that you are still the best. This book is dedicated to helping to assure that you are.
– Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Introduction pp. 9.
This would certainly excite comment if written today in a RPG.
And then in closing out the pages of this hallowed tome, Gygax writes:
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 by your players. Within the broad parameters give in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Volumes, YOU are 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 and Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do.”
– Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), Afterword.
This marks an interesting change. In Chainmail and OD&D the referee is just there to facilitate play between players. In Advanced D&D the DM has a predominant role and, while he is expected to become a master of the rules, reigns over the rules and players alike and can essentially extrapolate and make rulings according to his sovereign will.
Also notable here is the extensive (if mildly mental) discussion of the subject – many later editions barely spare a couple sentences on it.
Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Mentzer (BECMI)
Ah, my first Dungeons & Dragons – the Red Box. In the Basic Player’s Manual, it briefly describes the DM as “the person who plays the parts of the monsters and runs the game” (p.23). I think it’s so interesting that all the player books over time don’t really expand on the DM role to players beyond one sentence of “this person’s gonna run the game.”
The Dungeon Masters Rulebook makes a dramatic break with all that has come before.
The Most Important Rule
There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this: BE FAIR. A Dungeon Master must not take sides. You will play the roles of the creatures encountered, but do so fairly, without favoring the monsters or the characters. Play the monsters as they would actually behave, at least as you imagine them. The players are not fighting the DM! The characters may be fighting the monsters, but everyone is playing the game to have fun. The players have fun exploring and earning more powerful characters, and the DM has fun playing the monsters and entertaining players. For example, it’s not fair to change the rules unless everyone agrees to the change. When you add optional rules, apply them evenly to everyone, players and monsters. Do not make exceptions; stick to the rules, and be fair.
– Frank Menzer, Basic Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Rulebook p. 2 (1983)
The DM’s role as described is exceptionally limited when you compare the parallel AD&D. Heck, the DM can’t even change the rules without group consensus! All the advice in the first section harps on the fairness aspect. “…so should the DM keep the “monster knowledge” completely separated from the “DM information.”” It tends to assume the rules are complete and impartial application of the rules is all that is required in the game.
There is no explicit discussion of the GM using their judgment or making rulings at all. The rules section just says briefly that if the DM has questions they should 1) read the rules, 2) read some more rules, 3) ask an experienced DM, 4) send mail to TSR to get an answer (no, seriously). The only other mention is under the “Complaints” section that talks about listening to player complaints and admitting to your mistakes. The subsequent sets (Expert, Companion…) have exactly zero to say on the topic of the DM’s dilemma of making rulings using their judgment except inasmuch as constructing the adventure and choosing monsters is within the DM’s purview.
As you can see, BECMI takes the ideas from B/X and then apparently reacts against the strong strain of competition and DM entitlement in AD&D and swings way over in the other direction. Basic’s decline came when 2e came out but its concepts get picked up much later by 4e.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (2e)
The Second Edition DMG kicks in with a significantly different attitude towards rules, picking back up some of the B/X thread. Rulings are discussed explicitly and rules are put in the back seat in terms of primacy.
Choice is what the AD&D game is all about. We’ve tried to offer you what we think are the best choices for your AD&D campaign, but each of us has different likes and dislikes. The game that I enjoy may be quite different from your own campaign. But it is not for me to say what is right or wrong for your game. True, I and everyone working on the AD&D game have had to make fundamental decisions, but we’ve tried to avoid being dogmatic and inflexible. The AD&D game is yours, it’s mine, it’s every player’s game.
So is there an “official” AD&D game? Yes, but only when there needs to be. Although I don’t have a crystal ball, it’s likely that tournaments and other official events will use all of the core rules in these books.[…] Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don’t just let the game sit there, and don’t become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can’t figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.
At conventions, in letters, and over the phone I’m often asked for the instant answer to a fine point of the game rules. More often than not, I come back with a question—what do you feel is right? And the people asking the questions discover that not only can they create an answer, but that their answer is as good as anyone else’s. The rules are only guidelines.
– David “Zeb” Cook, Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Foreword (1989).
This is very notable – the rules are super flexible, both the rules as written (RAW) and even the rules as intended (RAI) are completely at your discretion, is the messaging. The DMG then talks a lot more about the players’ role in creating the story and in the DM’s role in entertaining them.
A mailing list debate from 2000 highlighting the difference in attitudes – 2e was more about freedom with less specific prescription, and some folks liked that and some didn’t:
1st edition was very personal and idiosyncratic, and not to everyone’s taste.[…] The second edition represents a shift in paradigm from this model (the shift began, of course, right away, as the D&D rules quickly mutated in the hands of individuals, but 2nd Edition was the first time it became evident in the products produced by TSR). Where once there was a complete game found in a few canonical books, now there is a nebulous web of possibilities spun through any number of sources.
There are some good ideas in 2nd edition[…] Other than that, my opinion is that it’s a mish-mash of rules that nobody ever took the time to playtest in conjunction with each other. Put the burden on the DM? Like I need to have more burdens placed on me!
Some folks are more comfortable with a more constrained and prescriptive ruleset; 2e (along with a lot of the storytelling focus of that decade with Vampire and the like) sets the rules aside for the focus on story and DM discretion.
Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (3e)
In the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook is the source of the term “Rule Zero” which is often used as shorthand for “DM discretion.”
0. CHECK WITH YOUR DUNGEON MASTER
Your Dungeon Master (DM) may have house rules or campaign standards that vary from the standard rules. You might also want to know what character types the other players are playing so that you
can create a character that fits in well with the group.
– Character Creation, Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (2000).
Since then, Rule Zero has been expanded in the popular mindset to be “The DM Is Always Right/Can Do What He Wants” or, alternately, “Having Fun Is The Most Important Thing.” It caught on as a term to describe judiciously breaking the rules – and the very fact that it emerged as an explicit term shows that there was discussion of the concept going on.
In the 3e PHB, it is pretty matter of fact about “Here’s the rules. You’ll be using them.” Except for Rule Zero there’s no mention of possible variation and no real discussion of the DM’s role beyond:
One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (DM), controls the monsters and people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face the dangers and explore the mysteries your Dungeon Master sets before you.
– Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.6 (2000).
The 3e DMG starts out with a whole chapter on the Dungeon Master’s role. This edition talks a lot about the player role – “The players and the DM work together to create the game as a whole” (p.8). The DM provides the adventure and the world and adjudicates, but the book provides a whole checklist to guide adjudication and creating house rules. For adjudication, check the rules, check similar rules, if you make something up it’s a house rule and you should be consistent with it for the campaign because “Consistency keeps players satisfied and gives them the feeling that they adventure in a stable, predictable universe and not in some random, nonsensical place subject only to the DM’s whims” (p.9). Any ruling made effectively should become a consistent, permanent house rule.
For house ruling, there’s a section discussing it, and the overall gist is to read the rules, understand why the rules exist, be careful about changing the rules – but still do it. “Given the creativity of gamers, almost every campaign will, in time, develop its own house rules.”
I have extensive RPG mailing list email archives going back to 1997, and as I search for incidences of the phrase “rules as written,” there’s occasional uses of the phrase all the way back but it comes into heavy use as a gaming jargon phrase on D&D lists in 2000-2001 with the advent of Third Edition.
My experience is that since 3e didn’t really explicitly say a lot about the DM’s role, 2e attitudes mostly carried over into 3e until 3.5e, when new players without previous edition experience and the more tactical rules focus enhanced in 3.5e caused a shift in attitudes not strictly prescribed by the difference between 3e and 3.5e text.
Over the course of 3e/3.5e, there was a significant culture change around rules adherence. WotC put a lot of work into their RPGA/Organized Play campaigns, and especially the Living campaigns had to, due to their format, enforce strict “rules as written” adherence (as predicted by Zeb Cook in the 2e preface, you’ll note!). This generated debate, and as time went on, altered more of the default mode of players towards the rules being fixed above the individual DM’s discretion.
A quote from a Living Greyhawk organizer list email in December 1999:
Last I heard, the rule from on high was: Greyhawk will be the flagship campaign. It WILL follow core rules, period. I suspect we both agree this means we will be playing some silly rules, tho not necessarily which ones actually are bad. However, until we hear otherwise, we had best be prepared to accept Core rules as written in stone.
And an immediate counterpoint:
I would be very…disappointed…if this were true. If this is the case then another Fate of Istus type thing seems inevitable – weird things springing up in the setting just cos they changed the rules again. The mechanics of the game should poke through the skin of the setting as little as possible IMO. Setting over rules – other wise you make things a complete homogeneous sludge.
Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, Revised (3.5e)
The 3.5e Player’s Handbook still cites Rule Zero (though without the “0,” so it’s just a sentence in the Character Creation section). Its description of the DM role is:
The DM controls the monsters and enemies, narrates the action, referees the game, and sets up the adventures.
– Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.4 (2003).
The DMG is largely the same as 3e with some slight shading of language couching the DM’s role and authority in more limited terms. “you control the pacing, and the types of adventures and encounters, the whole tenor of the game is in your hands” (p.4). Collaboration with the players is called out explicitly more. Also, the sheer magnitude of the rules and their attempt to cover all conditions makes the book more inherently readable as a self-contained guide to the game.
Gary Gygax had some harsh words for D&D 3.5 on this topic:
The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.
– Gary Gygax, GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)
At the end of 3.5e’s reign, the Rules Compendium had this to say, in departure from what had become the mainstream, about this essential assumption behind the rules:
Essential to the D&D game is the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is the referee and storyteller for the game, as well as the judge when the rules don’t cover a particular topic.
Let’s face it: No set of rules can cover every possible circumstance in a game meant to mimic life in a fantasy world. The rules clear up as much as possible, assuming the DM can make a judgment in a situation that the rules don’t cover or that they don’t cover adequately. DMs are expected to use knowledge of existing rules, common sense, realworld knowledge, and a sense of fun when dealing with such special cases. Knowledge of the existing rules is key, because the rules often do cover similar cases or combine to make such judgment calls unnecessary. It’s not always true, but you often can do or at least try something the rules fail to directly forbid, as long as the DM thinks doing so is reasonable. For example, the rules don’t come out and say that a Medium creature threatens all squares within 10 feet while wielding a reach weapon and wearing spiked gauntlets. However, it’s appropriate to assume the creature does just that.
The DM is also there to keep the game moving. Doing so might require expedient rulings that later prove troublesome or just plain incorrect. That’s okay. Players and DMs make mistakes, and these mistakes tend to average out over time. It’s better for everyone’s fun if the game just keeps going rather than devolving into a rules argument or going back to revisit the round in which a mistake was made.
– D&D Rules Compendium p.5
This statement, while still backing the rules, tries to cut beleaguered DMs some slack in the rulings department, even saying “let’s not go back and hash it over again” as some of the other advice gives on this subject.. James Wyatt writes a full page essay called “Rules and Fun” in the Rules Compendium (p. 63) that explains why we have rules and how they are important for balance and for introducing new possibilities, as opposed to their function as limits. He argues that the rules aren’t as restrictive as say a computer game’s, and says the D&D rules “limit your options without too narrowly defining them. The beauty of D&D is that your character can try anything you can imagine. The rules are there as a yardstick to measure your chance of success.”
The problem with this from a textual interpretation standpoint is that it’s hard to not interpret the raft of “possibility” options in the 3e branch of D&D as being restriction of options. I can try to throw my opponent in a grapple – until a feat comes out that says “In a grapple, you can now throw your opponent.” Thus despite mitigating statements by the designers, their design itself passively promulgates an approach to the rules as written.
Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – 4e
The 4e DMG does a lot of recasting of the role of the DM. He is described “one of the players,” a turn of phrase never used before in D&D, albeit a player with a special role (p.6) – “The DM is the rules moderator, the narrator, a player of many different characters, and the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.” He “stands as a mediator between the rules and the players.” If he makes a rules call during the session, it should be re-discussed later and he should “admit his mistake” and “make it up to the players.” The tenor of this couldn’t be more different from that of Gygax in AD&D, but you can see callbacks to BECMI in the wording.
4e does have a section on house rules (DMG p.189) as something “some DMs” might like to do, and allows that changing the rules is within your rights.
The word “judgment” in reference to the DM using their judgment or making judgment calls is used only 4 times in the 4e DMG, as opposed to 10 in 3e and 15 in 2e. In general it is stressed less in the text as a concept; implying that the rules handle most situations without that being necessary or desirable.
Another significant change here is the formal introduction of dissociated mechanics. In later 3.5e the concept had definitely emerged of “RAW, right or wrong” and that attempting to use game world simulation or physics was undesirable and you should just do what the rules say whether it makes sense or not. 4e codified that and formally dissociated the character powers into “rules first” mechanisms that can be skinned into the world however you want, but that have entirely deterministic effects not beholden to game world simulation. This mode of play places story above world/fiction and thus eliminates a lot of the motivation for rulings calls beyond pure “the rules aren’t clear here” in the game.
(Yes, Pathfinder is a version of D&D, duh.) Much of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook‘s GM advice is cribbed from 3e, with slightly stronger statements echoing earlier editions about “All the rulebooks, including this one, are his [the GM’s] tools, but his word is the law” “GM Fiat: The GM is the law of the game.”
When complications involving rules interpretations occur, listen to the player and make the decision as quickly as you can on how to resolve the situation. If the rule in question isn’t one you’re familiar with, you can go with the player’s interpretation but with the knowledge that after the game you’ll read up on the rules and, with the next session, will have an official ruling in play. Alternatively, you can simply rule that something works in a way that helps the story move on, despite the most logical or impassioned arguments from the players. Even then, you owe it to your players to spend time after the game researching the rule to make sure your ruling was fair— and if not, make amends the next game as necessary.
Cheating and Fudging: We all know that cheating is bad. But sometimes, as a GM, you might find yourself in a situation where cheating might improve the game. We prefer to call this “fudging” rather than cheating, and while you should try to avoid it when you can, you are the law in your world, and you shouldn’t feel bound by the dice. […]
Likewise, don’t feel bound to the predetermined plot of an encounter or the rules as written. Feel free to adjust the results or interpret things creatively—especially in cases where you as the GM made a poor assumption to begin with.
So they come out on the side of GM rulings, fiat, and fudging (all forms of primacy over the rules), with a bit of the “make amends if you weren’t fair” flavor.
The Gamemastery Guide has lengthy and detailed advice on running a game including a section called “Winging It,” “GM Subterfuge,” “The Illusion Of Free Choice,” and other related topics. Most of it tiptoes around the topic of ruling in addition to/overriding the rules. It talks about the GM having the final say and not wasting too much time in game with rules disputes but still comes strongly from the rules-fairness viewpoint. It does talk about dealing with “Rules Lawyers,” and says
Even if you follow these rules, you may still have trouble with rules lawyers. Not everyone views rules the same way. The important thing is to stand behind your rulings, and when certain things break the rules—for good reason— don’t feel like you have to reveal world secrets just because the rules lawyer demands answers. GMs work in mysterious ways, and with any luck history will vindicate your choice.
There’s also an “advanced” section on “Customizing Your Game” and it talks about making some non-rules-supported rulings – as long as it’s carefully concealed from the players. “And with some shuffling of notes
and hidden dice roles, no player should be the wiser tosuch an improvised ruling.”
This is an interesting and ambivalent approach – sure, the DM should be ruling, but it’s somewhat shameful and if the players find out then you will be somehow compromised. It’s like being a closeted 1e DM posing as a 4e GM.
It’s worth noting the Old School Renaissance movement to bring back older versions of D&D, with its seminal A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming using the phrase “rulings, not rules” to try to describe the spirit of older editions as compared to newer editions. It cites these four pillars:
- Rulings, Not Rules
- Player Skill, not Character Abilities
- Heroic, not Superhero
- Forget “Game Balance”
Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.
Some, however, consider this to be a bit of a retcon of how old school gaming actually worked. As you can see from this research, it is and it isn’t – the “rulings vs. rules” concept was very strong especially in B/X and 2e, somewhat less so in 0e/1e, and actively militated against in BECMI. Hackmaster and the Knights of the Dinner Table comic prominently parody the not uncommon rules-adherence mode of play in AD&D. As all nostalgia does, the Quick Primer picks certain elements out of the past to bring back and leaves aside some other elements.
Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e)
The 5e playtest, when it was called “D&D Next,” had some very retro things to say about the interaction of DM and rules. “The rules are a tool that you and the players use to have a good time,” “The rules aren’t in charge. You, the DM, are…” “the DM’s power comes with responsibility. Be fair and impartial with the players.” This last quote directly hearkens back to a quote from Zeb Cook’s 2e introduction – “As a Dungeon Master, you have great power, and ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Use it wisely.” It even goes on to discuss ignoring the dice – “The dice don’t run the game. You do.” This sweeps aside a lot of the underlying play assumptions of later 3.5e/4e and brings back a lot of B/X and 2e concepts.
In the final 5e books, it definitely takes a step back from the “rules are God” approach that 3.5e and 4e had been heading towards. In the Player’s Handbook, it says in the Introduction:
Because there is so much diversity among the worlds of D&D, you should check with your DM about any house rules that will affect your play of the game. Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and itssetting, even if the setting is a published world.
It also appears to take a hint from the OSR’s formulation of “rulings, not rules” as well as the prominent fiction-first modern indie games like Apocalypse World when it describes the basic pattern of play –
- The DM describes the environment
- The players describe what they want to do (and the DM decides how to resolve those actions – importantly, the PCs don’t decide what rules they use)
- The DM narrates the results
In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the DM is described as the “creative force behind a D&D game,” and it goes into their multiple hats (designer, actor, etc.). And in its Introduction it’s very clear that
The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.
Emphasis is in the original. The three parts of the DMG are “Master of Worlds,” “Master of Adventures,” and “Master of Rules”. As “Master of Rules” the DM is described as the mediator between the players and the rules.
As you read through the 5e DMG, I get a very 2e feel off of it, down to the art direction, and its approach to the game is very similar too.
In Part 3: Master of Rules, it’s very straightforward about presenting the GM with pros and cons of approaches including rolling dice in the open vs rolling behind a screen and fudging (changing rolls) if you want to. It offers options about the role of dice including using them a lot to mostly ignoring or not using them, OSR style. In the early stages of 5e development they had some discussions about “5e being compatible with all the versions!” which of course was impossible and left by the wayside, but they’ve tried to preserve some of that in terms of saying you can take as rigid or loose a playstyle as you want regarding the rules – but in the end, it’s the DM’s call.
And in Chapter 9, you are encouraged to “let your imagination run wild” and use optional rules or make up your own, with pages of advice on how to do that well.
Now, this is how the text reads – but the designers have done a very good job of continuing this. Games live on past their pages, and now in the age of the Internet, you can reach out to the designers in realtime. 5e designer Jeremy Crawford gives official rulings via Twitter. But the tone of his and Mike Mearls’ responses is usually “here’s how I’d rule”, not saying “this is what’s right you have to do it” like Sage Advice columns of old.
Though in each edition you had some elements of each approach, there’s a clear move in philosophy over time from
- 0e – the referee is an aribter and fills in the gaps
- 1e – the DM is large and in charge, the rules are pretty good, your players are at both’s behest
- B/X and 2e – the DM and players are both important, the rules are super mutable
- 3e/early 3.5e – the rules and players and DM are leveled out in importance, meaning rulings are minimized and a negotiation with players
- BECMI/late 3.5e/4e – the rules are pretty fixed and players and DM are equal and subject to the rules as law; RAW is an option
- OSR and Pathfinder – splitting off in their own directions in reaction to 4e, OSR back to a mix of 0e and B/X flavored attitudes and Pathfinder to a hybrid of 1e/2e/3e attitudes
- 5e – The DM is clearly in charge and can ignore/change rules and rolls as they deem wise, with the goal of everyone having fun (as opposed to the sometimes-stated 1e goal of “keeping the players in their place”.) It reincorporated a lot of the 1e and 2e thinking into the game to an even greater degree than Pathfinder.
At the same time, prominent “D&D Offramp” games like 13th Age and Numenera have a large portion of their pitch not just new setting/rules but explicit attitudes towards the running of the game – in Numenera, Monte Cook has a very large section about GM empowerment that, while not written in Grand High Gygaxian, still recalls much of the AD&D 1e and 2e advice about the GM being in charge and doing what they darn well please. 13th Age is a little more 4e-ey but both with rules-crafting and rules advice tries to take D&D in more of a storygaming direction. Dungeon World, a D&D-style game build on the Apocalypse World engine, is interestingly picky about the rules but the rules are kept to a minimum and it’s always the DM’s decision what rule is getting invoked at any time.
You’ve been busy~
It was very interesting to read this all over again in one place and get a glimpse at what came after 1E (when I left this game for others). More interesting is the opportunity the work you have done here affords us to reflect and see how our own attitudes and reactions have grown and/or changed over time both as a result of play, exposure to other modes of play and other games, that hoped for insight, and the overall culture such advice influenced with each influx of new gamers who learned from the books and not from players.
Likewise, a project on the YouTube channel, Grognard Games, is focusing on uncovering the attitudes, experiences, and influences which went on in the early groups and how those impacted on play. Of particular note at present are the interviews with Rob Kuntz and Tim Kask. Have you seen them?
Thanks! Haven’t seen them yet, may check them out. Not much video-watching time; I do podcasts on my commute.
It’s hard to believe that DM’s being equal to players could ever work. That’s never how we’ve played, and frankly I don’t recall ever reading that in the rules.
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Reblogged this on Cirsova and commented:
I don’t reblog things often, but in light of some recent posts around the webs, i’d like to share this.
I really love this article. It was well written and well researched. The rule of a GM has truly evolved over the years by evidenced in this article. I think it is partially due to the influence of video games on the genre and the subsequent anti-video game feelings of some of the old school players.
I am quite happy with the offerings of so many different game companies today to pay homage to all the different styles you mention here. I think the smaller groups function with a deference for the GM and the larger groups defer to the rules. This is natural since the rules will end disputes more quickly in larger groups where the dispute could cause more disruption.
Thanks again for the great article.
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Awesome article! Really enjoyed reading this, are you thinking of updating it for 5e?
Updated for 5e! What do you think?
Great stuff man! One bit you say “rules, not rules” where I think you mean “rulings, not rules”. Thorough assessment of 5e, we’re definitely back to the DM being in charge!
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Holmes’ basic D&D:
> A final word to the Dungeon Master from the authors. These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll — roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!
Holmes also recognizes the referee as one of the players; D&D 4 was not the first one.
> The characters are then plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and caverns run by another player: the referee, often called the Dungeon Master.
My understanding is that wargames don’t need to have a fixed ruleset. There certainly existed kriegsspiel without much in the way of formal rules.
But aside from these comments, a nice article.
This is a great read but there should be a sideline to include the Gygax conundrum that is Hoyle vs Poker of Official D&D vs Not D&D from the Dragon #67 article form 1982. They gave the rules and DM’s were meant to arbitrate anything and everything, especially that not covered by official rules but there was a distinction for Official Rules as Written mainly focused towards things like Tournaments and Conventions and such. Explaining why they’re saying you can change the rules for your games but why they still have official rules. Giving some understanding to the deadly old modules like Tomb of Horrors and why its made so deadly; and also understanding why DM was the arbiter of a game and something like the Sphere of Annihilation wasn’t intended to be solved with percentile dice (the old way of finding traps).