In praise of "Rulings, not rules"
If I look back at my history of roleplaying games, I see one clear arc. The rulebooks got slimmer and slimmer. My gaming started out in earnest with Dungeons & Dragons 3e, which is about an inch thick rulebook. Now, I play systems that barely take up a page. This is mostly the result of having experienced sessions that hit a slow pace for a variety of reasons, such as granular combat, or just discussions about how spells worked.
When I learned about the OSR, I was overcome with mixed feelings. The retro-clones seemed excessively punitive, with their “save or die” mechanics, the anemic hit point amounts, and total lack of feats. At the time, the table I was playing at was hosted by a GM that was flirting with OSR, but trying to make it work with Pathfinder. This led to some conflicting expectations, and inevitably some tough discussions. However, I was left with a copy of Swords & Wizardry in my hands, and that sort of started my journey into the OSR.
Running a game became easier. Prep became easier. Stat blocks were reduced to a few lines. I could get more work done with the adventure prep bits, without having to worry too much about the stat blocks. Meanwhile, my friends who didn’t feel like playing an “old” game, were happy that D&D Next came about, and eventually 5e proper. After all, it was modern.
That Old School Renaissance
In about the same time, I came across Matthew J. Finch’s “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” (link), which leads with the “zen moment” that is “Rulings, not Rules”. He wrote:
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.
Before reading that quote, I had treated all roleplaying games I previously played as board game rules. I.e. if you don’t play using them, you aren’t playing it correctly. In other words, I thought there was an idealized, proper way to play the game. Now, apparently, there was this other way, where you just trust the GM and don’t depend on the rulebook to figure out everything for you.
And hey, don’t play at a table with people you don’t trust. Your game won’t get better if you or others lawyer over rules, believe the GM wants to screw you over, or that the rules mediate “realism” for you. Everyone should be at the table for a good time, and not at someone else’s expense.
Rulings, not rules
So why bring up this zen point specifically? Well, I have praised having few hit points before, and there I mentioned some of the quirks of following the rules to their conclusions. Making rulings have a better chance of making a believable experience.
Rules can only go so far as the designer’s best attempt at describing the world. And ultimately, having rules for everything is a futile attempt. You don’t need rules for how rope works, for example. Usually, your imagination and experience are enough to handle how that works. The same is true for almost anything relevant in an RPG context.
Ruling that a golem will smash a gnoll is fair. You could rule that there is a chance that the gnoll can avoid a few hits, but the golem will eventually win in melee. So, instead of playing out 2 - 5 rounds of combat to determine this, just make a ruling. Roll a die, maybe, but only to determine if the gnoll got away or died.
If you describe that someone stabs a knight in the eye, that knight is dead. It didn’t take d4 damage, he died. I don’t care if the rules say it has so and so many hit points at whatever level. It’s your ruling to make, and frankly, it would strike me as bizarre if the referee went “sorry, the dagger only deals d4 damage, that knight has 30 hp - he literally can’t die from just that successful hit.” In this case, the ruling “the knight dies” helps to keep it believable.
As Finch went on to write: “Rules are a resource for the referee, not for the players.”
I really agree with this sentiment for a lot of reasons. If you off-load the rules from the players, all they have to worry about is the world they are playing in. The things they wear, use, etc. You get more interesting results out of it too. The players engage more creatively, instead of gravitating to the game’s rules and whatever list of “actions” it prescribes. If they don’t know the rules in the first place but react to your rulings, they will find it easier to improvise or act as a character would.
Ostensibly, roleplaying games exist to let you and your friends play characters in some fictional world. To me, it’s spoiling the opportunity if you break their immersion with rules that will inevitably cause people to mentally check out until it’s “their turn”. If your player goes “okay, so I guess I’ll just make an attack action”, and all that happens is that their character stands in one spot and deals out some damage 50 - 70% the time, you have squandered yourselves of a good time. Let them know that they can do cool stuff, try to trip the enemy, flip a table for cover, throw some sand in their face, etc. You don’t need a feat, or combat option in the rulebook for that, just make a ruling instead. Go “yeah, you can totally kick their knee in, but it’s going to be [insert a setback you made up]”.
Oh boy, this is the part where the soapbox truly comes out. So, in my experience, being a referee was a big deal in the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons 3e and Pathfinder. It had job-like qualities, with lots of tensions going on. If you didn’t know the system intimately, the party’s rules lawyer would call you out at the table, pages would be flipped and paragraphs would be cited. Combat would be played in rounds, and there was no way you could jump and attack at once without leaping attack or severe penalties. Following that, being a GM could be exhausting and would burn out me and many of my friends who were also people who had busy lives.
I didn’t play 4e, but I saw this Puffin Forest guy make a similar sentiment about combat in that game being almost like work. That description struck a familiar tune because we would definitely check out from the game while the party’s Synthesist tried to figure out the circumstantial bonuses to their multiple claw attacks. We crawled Castle Amber in Pathfinder, and it was a literal crawl. Glaciers would outpace us.
The funny thing is, I also found another place where this happened. The context is slightly different. It happened roughly 147 years ago. It was an observation made by Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel (1842–1905) about the wargame Kriegsspiel, where he found that “the decisions of the umpire were caught up in a mechanical and artificial pattern (Schema) of rules.” Moreover “ The rules did not help the umpire to impart his military views to the players, but rather formed an impediment, making the role of the umpire unattractive.”
The more damning part about Kriegsspiel was: “The rules of the game failed to do justice to the particular color and character of each combat situation and gave the exercise a needlessly artificial character. The detailed calculation of losses with combat result tables made the game too slow, without substantially adding to the realism of its outcomes.”
I feel this part rings true of the crunchy D&Ds and any other game with their inch-thick tomes. Having detailed rules don’t necessarily add to realism. They usually end up overloading you and making you pretend you’re a calculator. Worse, you might conceivably think it would be “normal” to boot up excel when you play your RPG. Kriegsspiel was intended to educate officers by providing a simulation of sorts, while roleplaying games have an adjacent goal of letting your players explore a fantastical world.
So Meckel would go on to write a simplified rules system for Kriegsspiel, which was moderately successful. However, another person, Julius von Verdy du Vernois (1832–1910), went on to flip the table and “stopped the use of dice, tables, and detailed rules entirely.” And: “In [Verdy’s game], no use was made of fixed rules, tables, or dice; rather, the umpire decided the outcome of battles as he saw fit – but he was supposed to give arguments for his decisions during the subsequent evaluation.”
I caught wind of “Arnesonian” roleplaying somewhere in August, and since then I’ve introduced to the world of Free Kriegsspiel in a roleplaying context. The acronym is FKR. I call it Free Kriegsspiel Roleplaying, though the term Free Kriegsspiel Revolution precedes it. There is a growing community, which has a big overlap with the OSR community. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with this style or philosophy.
What is it like to play?
As a player, your time will be spent mostly thinking about your character’s “in world” (sometimes called diegetic/diegesis) properties. You roleplay using natural language and avoid rules jargon if possible. You engage with the world using your understanding of it, and your experiences from real life. You probably have an intuitive understanding of how a rope works, so there is no need to specify rules for it. The Referee also has their intuitive understanding of the world, so both you and they can roleplay a lot just using a shared understanding.
The Referee controls the world and acts on behalf of the beings that inhabit it. The players enter this world, and it falls on the Referee to describe how the world responds to their actions. To maintain an immersive atmosphere, the Referee should stick to natural language as well and avoid naming rules or using rules-language.
As a referee, you have the roleplaying game’s rules at your disposal, but your primary tool is your own rulings. If the players want to do something which you think has a fair chance of either failing or succeeding, you can ask them to roll the dice. If a player’s character falls down a cliff, you can rule that the character dies. If you think there’s a chance the character survives, ask for a roll, but apply appropriate outcomes, which may involve grievous injuries.
So if you’re nodding in approval or clenching your fists in disagreement, I feel for you. I know that a lot of players and GMs like these beautiful systems that line up neat bonuses and traits. I know that there is lots of entertainment in “engineering” a character that is able to nuke the world with a “locate city” spell. I’m not saying your fun is wrong.
I think going Free Kriegsspiel on roleplaying games can be a lot of fun. It might feel atrocious, especially if you have invested in a game like I have. I have ALL the books. A library of 3e, PF, 5e and gigabytes of PDFs. Lots of beautiful art interspersed with elaborate rules about how to make fly checks, or how to identify what spell is being cast. I totally get it.
I also get that there are a lot of players out there that are intimidated by these tomes. They’re made to feel small by the sheer overhead of making your first few characters, and knowing that probably they already fucked up at character creation by picking the wrong things. I know a lot of people that went “nope” when they saw these tomes.
Imagine how elegant it would be to say “don’t worry about the rules, I got that.”
“Just say what you want to do.”