Rule Zero

June 7, 2008

Over on Story-Games, the “controversy” over Rule Zero rears it’s ugly head again. Of course, like most design/theory/game controversies, it doesn’t really exist when you add context.

Rule Zero, as most folks know it, is “If you don’t like the rules don’t use them.” (implied, and sometimes also stated, “and change them”)

In one sense, this is the strength of roleplaying games, the Lumpley-Care principle at it’s finest- if the group has consensus about how the game should go, that’s how it goes. And certainly, many groups have used it that way and had buttloads of fun.

That of course, also assumes a group that communicates well and has a working social contract.

If you add another rule, common that goes with Rule Zero, which is “The GM is the authority”(implied, assumed, and rarely stated, “over the group“), then Rule Zero quickly slides into dangerous territory. After all, the “you” in “If you don’t like the rules, don’t use them” is no longer applied to the group as a whole, but specifically the authority figure to judge.

The final breakdown comes if this choosing to use or not use the rules by a single person isn’t communicated. (Rolls dice behind screen) “Oops, you missed the check! Too bad!”. Now, effectively, one person is the authority of when rules get applied, if any at all. Other players can never be sure if they’re actually getting full input into the game.

When you also add a bunch of advice suggesting that play is about one person dictating the direction of play, without communicating it (Illusionism), and in order to control that direction you selectively use or not use rules, you’ve now built a poor house for either collective storytelling or even really playing -a game- beyond Simon Says or Mother May I.

And many if not most games that suggest Illusionism highly stress not “over doing it”, not as in, not controlling the game, but more importantly, not doing it in a way that shows the players that their input is not really applied. (of course, if it is good and fun for everyone, why are you hiding it? Why would they be upset? Hmm.)

And then there’s the final bit of real world context that puts this all together. Though individual traditional games may differ on whether they simply have Rule 0, GM as Authority, or Illusionism in the actual rule books- these three have become the default understanding of roleplaying for most people. One usually implies the other three.

The belief that Rule Zero gets to exist cut off from the rest of the game text or from the rest of gamer culture, is naive or disingenous.

For game designers rule zero technically exists at all times- you can’t “make sure” anyone is playing the game the way you wrote/intended. But more importantly, if you explicitly write it, you need to consider what it means for gamer culture at large in that triangle of Fudging, Illusionism and Rule Zero, and that if you don’t want the other two, you’re going to have to go WAY out of your way explaining that and probably end up with dozens of emails of folks asking questions about why things aren’t working when they’re doing something weird with your rules you never wrote.

For gamers, Rule Zero is the source of the Gamer Hurdle. The default for roleplaying culture (which exists in no other gaming hobby), that the written rules are not necessarily a good indicator of how the game is actually played. Which also means, that saying “I’m playing Game X” doesn’t always indicate -what actual game we’re playing- and what kind of experience you can expect from it, and makes it harder for all of us to find games and groups of people who want the same experience.

For new folks who’ve never roleplayed before, while the idea that they don’t actually need to follow the rules is novel- telling them “not to use it” without any advice on what the effects in play would be, or how to fill the gaps provided, means you’ve just said, “If you don’t like the way the game works, design it yourself, have fun!”

In other words, Rule Zero generally does zero for anyone.


  1. Hello there,

    First I’d just like to say I really value and appreciate your writing. So far I have not yet found any other author/writer/blogger/expert who’s opinions resonate for me, as strongly as your own.

    I’d really appreciate your thoughts on some of the ‘expert’ gms online. I’m currently still in the researching phase of preparing to gm and have reviewed and started forming opinions on people such as Matt mercer, Chris Perkins, Matthew colville and Whoever that English guy who does the ‘great gm’ series on YouTube.

    I know you must get pestered by a number of folks on the Internet all the time but if you could point me in the direction of good role modeling material I’d appreciate it.

    Kind regards,

    • I don’t know who’d be a good role model for you. If you’re looking to play either a dungeoncrawl, map-based adventure game, or a branching path adventure (Illusionism), most of the stuff on youtube has plenty of advice on that.

      If you’re looking for another way to play, I haven’t seen anyone in particular I would point to as having a great channel – though mind you, I watch RPG stuff on youtube rarely – the most game-related stuff I’m watching tends to be game design analysis from the videopoint of videogame companies.

      Maybe try seeing if there’s any actual play videos (or podcasts) of games you’re interested in and seeing if someone seems to be running games in a way you find cool?

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