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D&D General D&D's Evolution: Rulings, Rules, and "System Matters"

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Late last night, I ran across an interesting and excellent post by @Malmuria which helped crystalize some thoughts I had been having recently about D&D's evolution. Just to make this clear- you can blame Malmuria for this short essay. Repeat- you can blame Malmuria. Unless you really like what I'm writing, in which case I don't stand on the shoulders of giants, and I thought of this all on my lonesome! That's right- I am a firm believer in the "other guy" theory of life; all credit goes to me, and the other guy takes the fall.

Anyway, I am going to be assuming familiarity with concepts like Free Kriegsspiel and the distinction between rulings and rules for purposes of this post. I also highly recommend reading Worlds Not Rules to get a good overview.

1. What if everything you ever wanted ... came in a rocket can? The Free Kriegsspiel roots of D&D.

Dave Arneson was prepared for Wesley's Braunstein game. It was a simple scenario ... a banana republic in the throws of revolution. Arneson would receive his points for distributing leaflets. But Arneson convinced other players, using his fake CIA badge, that he was an undercover agent and easily "won" the scenario by stealing all of the money of the country, boarding a helicopter, and casually throwing down all the leaflets on the riots and burning embers below.

To understand D&D, you have to first understand the wargaming culture of the 60s and 70s, and the nature of rulings as opposed to rules. Specifically, this dichotomy was already explored and known ... in the latter part of the 1800s. Back then, there was a German wargame (of course it was German) known as Kriegsspiel. As these things go, the game became more complex over time, and an umpire was required to help interpret the rules and to make decisions given the opposing sides might not be aware of everything going on. Over time, there was a gradual realization- the rules were so complex that they were slowing the game down for no good reason (additional rules that had minimal benefit), additional rules kept getting added to allow for more realism yet never could accurately simulate the battles, the rules constrained the umpires' decision making, and most importantly, no one wanted to be an umpire because the whole system was too complicated to learn.

Hmmm.... this seems familiar, somehow?

Anyway, because of all of these issues, a new system was devised. And by "new system", I mean, effectively, no system. Free Kriegsspiel ("FK") got rid of all of the rules and cruft of Kriegsspiel and simply let a neutral referee make rulings. This was popular, because the players didn't have to learn complicated rules, and because the referee could use their own applied experience instead of complicated rules that often wouldn't match what happened in combat.

And from there, we fast-forward a century later. You have numerous wargamers- the famous ones today like Gygax and Arneson, but also the less well-known like David Wesley. All of them were familiar with this backdrop of neutral referees making rulings. Of FK. So the original major turning point was Wesley's Braunstein games- the first one, and most importantly, the fourth one. When one of his players, Dave Arneson, used his imagination and played a "role" in order to win the scenario. Something that inspired Arneson so much that he chose to continue running this style of game himself, in a little place called Blackmoor.

Here, again, we can understand the FK basis for this proto-D&D. Instead of a modern country in the throws of revolution, Arneson transposed the ideas to a fantasy world. And from that point on, he would listen to players, and make rulings as needed. If someone was a vampire, they were a vampire. If someone hunted them, they were a vampire hunter (a cleric). If he needed combat rules, he would borrow them from various places, including some rules he saw from an acquaintance- a certain Gary Gygax.


2. When God gives you lemons, you need to find a new God. The Codification of D&D.

This story is so well known by now (albeit contentious) it hardly bears repeating, but here goes- Arneson had previously worked with Gygax, and knew that Gygax had contacts to help him commercialize this new "thing" he was doing. What started as a collaboration grew contentious, as (depending on your sourcing) either Arneson's more free-wheeling style wasn't conducive to a written product and led to clashes and frustration with Gygax and others at the nascent TSR, or Gygax began to freeze him out over time.

The main thing is the result- OD&D. OD&D is a fundamentally bizarre product in many ways, mostly because it's almost unplayable (and it was pretty pretty expensive too!). Simply put, the original written product is simply a codification of the FK-style rulings that had accumulated over time along with some additional material. In order to "play" the original OD&D, you had to have knowledge of the hobby, wargaming, and a desire to make the game work. Perhaps most fundamentally, you had to accept an FK-style system; a neutral referee empowered to make all decisions. The rules didn't cover everything, and it was assumed that the referee would make rulings as needed. In fact, in Men & Magic, we don't even see the term Dungeon Master- it is still "players," and "referee."

So a question might obviously arise- if it was all so simple, if it was all just some FK "rulings not rules" with a neutral referee, why do we see the explosion of rules? Why do we see Gygax, at the beginning of 1e, insist that the standardized rules are to be followed? I am sure others might have their own reasons and speculations, but I would put it simply- money. There is very little commercial return in telling people, "Make up stuff. Then a referee will tell you if it's okay. Maybe roll some dice." On the other hand ... selling rules? And more rules? There ... there you get into the serious money.

Still, any cursory examination of AD&D (1e) will show you that it is a system that was not designed; it is a system that grew over time as various rulings were made, and various systems and subsystems were added. I often think that the original PHB+DMG could be compared to working for a dysfunctional company:
Monday: Everyone has a d6, right? Let's use d6 for everything! Maybe 2d6 for a few things. Oh, and 3d6 for abilities. Because that will make it easy. Design it all around the d6.
Tuesday: Woah! You see this? It's a d20. Everything we said about the d6? Fuhgeddabouddit! d20 for everything! It's so cool!
Wednesday: Hey- did you know if you take a d10, and roll it twice, you get a d100? I think it's time for percentiles! Let's put some percentiles in- how about we start with strength? Finished with that yet?
Thursday: Surveys say ... TABLES! That's right. Apparently, we are about to miss out on the table revolution. It's time for the ... PIVOT-TO-TABLES. More table. If you can think of something, it needs to be in a table! How far can critters tunnel per day? TABLE! Random harlots? TABLE! What? No, that one won't come back to bite us.
Friday: Throw out all the other stuff, because we need grappling and psionics! Don't worry if it doesn't fit in with anything else. Also? Surveys say that the kids love Poochie and Bards. Pick one and put it an appendix.

Anyway, D&D through 1e and 2e became a kind of Frankenstein of both FK philosophy (rulings, not rules, with a neutral referee that can make any ruling to account for anything the players want) along with incredibly detailed rules that prescribed what players could and couldn't do- of course, subject to the referee's rulings. On the one hand, this allowed for D&D to be a "big tent" style of game; you could have people that played it and dispensed with large portions of the ruleset and played it in manner very similar to a FK-style "rules lite" game. Or you could have people playing it with weapon v. AC modifiers and miniatures and try to adhere as much as possible to RAW.

Of course, the downside of all of this was both the lack of clarity in the rules, with many "base" rules being seen as optional, and the incredibly variability of DMs- the amount of power that a "neutral referee" could have inevitably meant that some referees would abuse that power, play favorites, or behave in an adversarial manner.

Eventually, these issues led to more modern forms of D&D (3e). Which tried to be have more unified rules, yet added additional rules for realism, and had more rules that tried to constrain the DM. Past is prologue.


3. RPG Theory has what plants crave- it has electrolytes! System Matters and Worlds, not Rules.

There is a recurrent debate that I have seen here regarding "system matters." I don't really want to get into it, primarily because I am reasonable certain people in the comments will re-create that debate for you. Very simply (and I will again quote Malmuria)-
But {Apocalypse World} a fairly influential example of "system matters"--the rules and mechanics are telling you what the game is about. Similarly, basic dnd has save vs dragon breath and save vs spells; that's also a game that tells you what it's about. There might be charm effects in basic dnd, but there is not "save vs seduction," and so the game doesn't account for that roleplay space. AW, on the other hand, lists seduction as a basic move.

At a certain general level, this makes sense. A game that has a lot of rules and mechanics about riding dragons, for example, will likely have "dragon riding" as a likely play scenario! Or, to use an analogy (because analogies always go over well at enworld!) you probably don't want to use a regular screwdriver on a phillips head screw- perhaps you can, but the tool you use matters. It makes a difference.

But that's not always the case; early D&D (for example) either implicitly or explicitly left open space assuming that neutral referees would be making decisions based on the input of players- the FK model of play. The absence of rules in some areas was not an absence, so much as it was the presence of the assumption of the FK model. Many of the earliest debates in D&D were that the codification of abilities would preclude the employment of those abilities; in effect, the creation of additional rules might stop adjudication by ruling, and transmogrify D&D from a "FK" system to more of a rigid Kriegsspeil system. To use a concrete example- some of the early pushback on the thief was from the perspective that if you gave the thief specific skills (like hide in shadows) that meant that other characters couldn't do that. This debate would continue and repeat over and over again- such as with the later use of the skill system / non-weapon proficiencies.


4. Conclusion. Play D&D and you’ll win at everything forever. You’ll win at running, football, arson, weddings, and art! You’ll even win at irony!

The reason for this post is I was reflecting on what I see as a certain tension, if not irony, that underlies a few discussions. D&D, from the beginning to 5e's emphasis on "rulings, not rules," is a game that cries out to be FK, to be a game of players doing whatever they want with a neutral referee providing the results ... yet ends up encumbered by rules, cruft, and debates about RAW. As a reaction to this, you have many excellent games that arose from a different context- but instead of using the high-trust model of FK, they instead use various ways (either through explicit rules or norms) to create FK-like experiences that bind the referee.

This isn't meant as a slam on any particular approach, or even advocacy for any approach. But I am putting out the topic in case people find it interesting!

Note: I may choose NOT to participate depending on where the thread goes. But please feel free to carry on!
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
The reason for this post is I was reflecting on what I see as a certain tension, if not irony, that underlies a few discussions. D&D, from the beginning to 5e's emphasis on "rulings, not rules," is a game that cries out to be FK, to be a game of players doing whatever they want with a neutral referee providing the results ... yet ends up encumbered by rules, cruft, and debates about RAW. As a reaction to this, you have many excellent games that arose from a more theoretical context- but instead of appropriating the positive aspects of FK, they instead devote themselves into various ways (either through explicit rules or norms) to create FK-like experiences that bind the referee, and specific rules for the situation that remain "general purpose."

It's the essence of the compromise. Sometimes it's bad, and satisfies no-one, sometimes it's good, and it satisfies many people, each in their own way. And sometimes there are people who are not completely black and white and are even more fond of the compromise... :)
 


clearstream

Be just and fear not...
The reason for this post is I was reflecting on what I see as a certain tension, if not irony, that underlies a few discussions. D&D, from the beginning to 5e's emphasis on "rulings, not rules," is a game that cries out to be FK, to be a game of players doing whatever they want with a neutral referee providing the results ... yet ends up encumbered by rules, cruft, and debates about RAW. As a reaction to this, you have many excellent games that arose from a more theoretical context- but instead of appropriating the positive aspects of FK, they instead devote themselves into various ways (either through explicit rules or norms) to create FK-like experiences that bind the referee, and specific rules for the situation that remain "general purpose."
Perhaps it depends on what you view as the purpose of RPG rules. Bernard Suits put it that we accept game rules just so that we can have an experience that could not exist in their absence. How far that goes is a matter for debate.

I think we accept RPG rules because they regulate and validate leverage over the emergent narrative - to say what the narrative will include and influence where it might go. FK had a teaching agenda. I'm not sure that I share that agenda. Mine is more to experience an emergent narrative, and to empower each player to tell us what happens.
 
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Some of the most pure rpg experiences are when you play the game wrong. You pick up a book, try to understand it, try to explain it to your friends, but by the time you are actually in play you are making stuff up left and right. This especially happens when kids get into a game, especially if their entry point isn't a starter set, but even if it is. But also seems to have been part of the appeal of OD&D and what makes it interesting is the fact that it was unplayable and originated so clearly in one cultural/geographic context meant that players had to fill in a lot of the gaps and that when the game reached a different context (the UK, California) different styles of play would emerge.
 

I think both rules and rulings are simply types of systems. D&D, even the earliest forms, had both types of systems. They had codified rules like AC and HP and the like, and they had the open rulings of a DM as neutral arbiter. I think the decision on these elements....when to use rules and when to rely on rulings.....has a huge impact on how a game plays. I think both clearly show that system matters.

Look at the example of seduction. As designed, barring the use of magic such as Charm Person or similar, early D&D doesn't address this in any real way. It would likely fall into the area of DM rulings, but even that is suspect since it would potentially involve a DM deciding the emotional state of a PC, which is very often considered poor form. But what if it did have rules for seduction? What if it had complex rules for social interaction and conflict? What if it relied on DM rulings to resolve physical conflict?

If so, and then we assume (a big assumption, perhaps) that the game continues to go through several iterations over many years where rules and processes are refined and redefined.....how different would that game be from what D&D is today?
 

Campbell

Legend
Fundamentally I do not see much of a connection between a game like Apocalypse World and Free Kriegspiel. Not because AW is afraid of judgement calls. It certainly is not. On a fundamental level a lot of what the indie space has been about are creating roleplaying games that are not descended from the war gaming tradition.

Apocalypse World adamantly rejects the neutral dispassionate referee and bespoke scenario design. Instead it promotes an active, passionate GM who is there to keep things interesting for the characters, make things personal. make things feel real and sustain conflicts. They do so with pretty broad authority, but it's a pretty firm rejection of the process of play that undergirds wargame style scenario design and neutral refereeing.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Fundamentally I do not see much of a connection between a game like Apocalypse World and Free Kriegspiel. Not because AW is afraid of judgement calls. It certainly is not. On a fundamental level a lot of what the indie space has been about are creating roleplaying games that are not descended from the war gaming tradition.

Apocalypse World adamantly rejects the neutral dispassionate referee and bespoke scenario design. Instead it promotes an active, passionate GM who is there to keep things interesting for the characters, make things personal. make things feel real and sustain conflicts. They do so with pretty broad authority, but it's a pretty firm rejection of the process of play that undergirds wargame style scenario design and neutral refereeing.
Within FK, different officers could have had differing views on effective training. Some might have felt coming in with strong opinions - making things personal - was the right way to go. FK didn't so far as I know call for neutrality by the overseeing officers, but experience.

That said, a common wargaming situation is multiplayer PvP. That puts the referee in a different position, because a ruling that is made personal to one player, might favour or disfavour the other player. What you are identifying as a rejection of a wargaming process of play is perhaps just not commensurate. RPG typically (but not always) puts all players on the same side. Where players can be on different sides... well, you can easily see how that informs the refereeing.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
There's a large disconnect between applying Free Kriegsspiel to fantasy D&D -- the nature of the authority the umpire/GM claims. In FK, the umpire's calls were respected because they had the experience. So, when they were adjudicating the play, they were bringing a direct experience with the matter to hand -- the evaluation matrix was their experience. When this concept shifts to the idea of fantasy wargaming, however, this authority is completely lost. There's little to say about how a person reacts to a threat, so you're not perpetrating the FK concepts when you say that a GM should just issue rulings as to how they think things should go. Rather, you're actually engaging in a different concept which is consensus storytelling with a non-neutral judge. Which is fine, but it has little actually in common with Free Kriegsspiel except that one person gets the say in what happens.

I'm generally non-plussed by the attempts to claim FK as top cover for justifying GM-says play. You don't need it -- if it's fun for your table, that's enough. There's no need to take a very tightly focused wargame, who's rules were what the veteran umpire said and trusted because they'd been there and seen it, and then claim that the same idea of one person having the say what happens when set in a fantastical and far more complex fictional space is the same. They have one thing in common -- one person has the say as to what happens. The differences, though, are legion. Foremost is that the players are against a scenario proposed by the one person deciding what happens vice competitors in a wargame overseen by an umpire who has no stake in who wins (or shouldn't).
 

Argyle King

Legend
Something you mention is that the FK players could play roles using their own understanding of the situation and experience.

What's missing from highlighting that is the realization that the players were all people in a world they could all see, hear, feel, experience, and understand.

A fantasy rpg assumes a world different than our own, so I believe there to be merit in building a shared foundation of understanding through rules. What does my character see, hear, and experience; are there aspects of the game world which work differently from that which is familiar to me as the player?

In that regard, I believe system matters because the system is telling a player how the world works, especially when it works differently than our own world.

To use a crude example, what happens when I stab the orc with my sword? Is it something different than I'd expect when compared to real-world violence? ?
Does it mean just marking down some HP loss?
Does it mean causing wounds?
Some narrative effect?
Damage and force movement activated by an encounter power?

I'm in the minority of people who believes that touches of reality can enhance (rather than inhibit) fantasy because it helps to build a shared understanding of a world.

Which isn't to say that things need to mimic reality. I simply believe that starting from a foundation of shared understanding facilitates the ability to make rulings because there's a shared mental space from which those rulings can be derived - even after the fantasy elements are layered on.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Fundamentally I do not see much of a connection between a game like Apocalypse World and Free Kriegspiel. Not because AW is afraid of judgement calls. It certainly is not. On a fundamental level a lot of what the indie space has been about are creating roleplaying games that are not descended from the war gaming tradition.

Apocalypse World adamantly rejects the neutral dispassionate referee and bespoke scenario design. Instead it promotes an active, passionate GM who is there to keep things interesting for the characters, make things personal. make things feel real and sustain conflicts. They do so with pretty broad authority, but it's a pretty firm rejection of the process of play that undergirds wargame style scenario design and neutral refereeing.

I'm reasonably certain that was what I wrote in the conclusion. Yay, agreement!

That said, I will disagree with you on the bolded part, only to the extent that the many people involved aren't fully familiar with the wargaming tradition (as opposed to what they believe it to be); those that are more familiar in the indie game community wouldn't be so keen to express it in those terms given that there are indie games that are very much in keeping with certain wargaming traditions.

Maybe ... maybe I should write a long essay about this! Oh, wait ... :)
 
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Voadam

Legend
Something you mention is that the FK players could play roles using their own understanding of the situation and experience.

What's missing from highlighting that is the realization that the players were all people in a world they could all see, hear, feel, experience, and understand.
From the given example I did not think Arneson was actually in a helicopter over a burning banana republic throwing out physical leaflets.

I can see imagining a Conan or Tolkien scenario similar to imagining a banana republic one and in both cases using my own understanding of the situation and my own experiences to play a role in the scenario or to be a judge/DM.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Would be cool of Matt to cite his sources: https://friendorfoe.com/d/Old School Primer.pdf

Also, not sure if this is true but FWIW:
It was my impression that he was just using the 4e session as an example of a way that ignoring the Rules as Written in the moment can enhance the fun at the table (by preventing the game from stopping to look up some obscure rule), not using it as an example of "this game was designed for 'Rulings, not Rules' in mind from the start". IMO, that tweet misses the point of the video.
 
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Chaosmancer

Legend
Perhaps it depends on what you view as the purpose of RPG rules. Bernard Suits put it that we accept game rules just so that we can have an experience that could not exist in their absence. How far that goes is a matter for debate.

I think we accept RPG rules because they regulate and validate leverage over the emergent narrative - to say what the narrative will include and influence where it might go. FK had a teaching agenda. I'm not sure that I share that agenda. Mine is more to experience an emergent narrative, and to empower each player to tell us what happens.

I think this gets at something important. Rules also tell us what we can do.

I've noticed this in a story/solo-quest-post game I've been running for about a year now, but the main character that my readers control has magic... and so she can basically do anything. The system is very light and encourages this, and you can use magic to justify powerful leaping (enchanted boots), blasts of energy, shields, summoning allies, there has been quite literally very few things that "more magic" hasn't been a good answer to.

Conversely, one of the side-characters power is that he is a perfect martial artist. He can pull off insane stunts, but it is also limited by being something that a martial artist with no other powers than martial arts (no ki or magic dragons) can do.

So, I think quite often in RPGs the rules exist to tell us what incredible, sense-breaking thing we can do. The types of things that would get a referee to question it if it wasn't supported by the rules. Absolutely the opposite can be true, and rules can get in the way, but I think there also is an inherit value in seeing a rule that tells you you can do something you would never have considered.
 

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