D&D General Rules, Rules, Rules: Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of D&D

Oofta

Legend
There is always going to be a balancing act between rules lite and rules heavy. The thing is that the previous two editions went the route of more and more rules. But all it did was add a layer of finicky rules, the DM still controlled the narrative and game as much as they wanted.

Giving the players detailed rules constricts PCs just as much or more than the DM. Bob can look at the influence chart and say "Hah! I got a 20 on my influence check and now the ogre has to let us pass!" but it doesn't really mean anything. The DM that doesn't want the players to get by the ogre with an influence check they will just make up some risk or sacrifice for the ogre that means the influence check doesn't work. Meanwhile if the players didn't have that chart in front of them maybe they would have tried tricking or bribing the ogre. In my experiences with this over the years having one specific route to achieving a goal spelled out tends to limit the imagination of people when it comes to problem solving.

In addition, D&D at various points has tried to steer everyone to play a very specific way, the way it was "supposed to be played". IMHO it's always been a mistake. I think one of the strengths of D&D is that people have always had the option to make the game what they want. If the developers think PCs should be able to hide quite often, there should be a section in the DMG talking about it and telling the DM what the intent of the designers is and the logic behind it. Then the DM can look at that advice and learn from it instead of trying to force it on them because that never works.

Last, but not least, I really don't understand how this shifts power in any way or somehow makes good DMs out of bad ones. Inexperienced DMs need advice and guidance, not more rules lawyers.
 

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On the issue of GMs as designers, here I think people who prefer systems that rely more on rulings by the GM, don't see rulings as design.
I mean....I don't see how there's any way they could be anything but objectively incorrect.

"Rulings" are ad hoc, contextual rules. I mean, it's literally in the name--the act of making a rule. Making rules, in TTRPGs, is called "design."

But all it did was add a layer of finicky rules, the DM still controlled the narrative and game as much as they wanted.
Recognizing the request for greater respect: I am deeply frustrated when you say things like this. This is not the only thing it did. It did a lot of things. This was one possible result.

Another result--one with quite a substantial cultural demonstration--is a massive increase in shared vocabulary. Consider, for instance, the TVTropes page, "Took a Level in Badass." This is, very directly, drawing on 3e vocabulary, the idea that one can "take a level" in a particular class. Prior to 3e, at least to the best of my knowledge, there was no such thing as à la carte multiclassing. Certainly that way of phrasing--to "take a level in" something--was specific to 3e. There are various other ways in which the standardization and systematization of 3e made a permanent and, I would argue, positive impact on not just D&D, not just TTRPGs, but nerdy culture in general.

Continually demonizing things as this pernicious obsession with legislating table morality is not productive, and portraying anything that doesn't conform to your tastes as a dead-end, destructive waste needlessly raises the temperature of the conversation.

Last, but not least, I really don't understand how this shifts power in any way or somehow makes good DMs out of bad ones. Inexperienced DMs need advice and guidance, not more rules lawyers.
As I've said repeatedly, and as I believe literally everyone here agrees: it doesn't. No one is making that argument, and it is not hard to see why, given it is so trivially wrong. Please consider other interpretations of the things being said, ones which do not hinge upon this obviously foolish goal. For example:
We can do better. No, rules cannot make good faith actors out of bad ones. But by putting the effort into rules design, we can make better results more likely, forestall common problems before they even happen, and significantly reduce the experiential burden required to learn to use the rules well.
Improving our rules design does not mean making it impossible for people to do bad things or behave poorly. It means finding places where we can close the experiential gap better than we have in the past. It means critically examining whether the rules actually achieve the goals for which they were intended, and if they do not do so, to repair them, or replace them with ones that work better. No rule is perfect, but we can still do better. Advice can only go so far; actually improving the tools themselves is of greater impact. To turn an old phrase, no amount of advice, no matter how superlative, can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.
 

Oofta

Legend
I mean....I don't see how there's any way they could be anything but objectively incorrect.

"Rulings" are ad hoc, contextual rules. I mean, it's literally in the name--the act of making a rule. Making rules, in TTRPGs, is called "design."


Recognizing the request for greater respect: I am deeply frustrated when you say things like this. This is not the only thing it did. It did a lot of things. This was one possible result.

Another result--one with quite a substantial cultural demonstration--is a massive increase in shared vocabulary. Consider, for instance, the TVTropes page, "Took a Level in Badass." This is, very directly, drawing on 3e vocabulary, the idea that one can "take a level" in a particular class. Prior to 3e, at least to the best of my knowledge, there was no such thing as à la carte multiclassing. Certainly that way of phrasing--to "take a level in" something--was specific to 3e. There are various other ways in which the standardization and systematization of 3e made a permanent and, I would argue, positive impact on not just D&D, not just TTRPGs, but nerdy culture in general.

Continually demonizing things as this pernicious obsession with legislating table morality is not productive, and portraying anything that doesn't conform to your tastes as a dead-end, destructive waste needlessly raises the temperature of the conversation.


As I've said repeatedly, and as I believe literally everyone here agrees: it doesn't. No one is making that argument, and it is not hard to see why, given it is so trivially wrong. Please consider other interpretations of the things being said, ones which do not hinge upon this obviously foolish goal. For example:

Improving our rules design does not mean making it impossible for people to do bad things or behave poorly. It means finding places where we can close the experiential gap better than we have in the past. It means critically examining whether the rules actually achieve the goals for which they were intended, and if they do not do so, to repair them, or replace them with ones that work better. No rule is perfect, but we can still do better. Advice can only go so far; actually improving the tools themselves is of greater impact. To turn an old phrase, no amount of advice, no matter how superlative, can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.
We just disagree.

Give me one scenario where more rules make a difference and I can explain why it does not. I'm not demonizing anything, I just have a preference which differs from yours: more rules lead to rules lawyers arguing their narrow case and reduced player's imaginations. I've played every edition, pretty much for the length of their release, you're allowed to have a different opinion than mine but if you think more rules makes the game better show how.

We're not going to agree, but instead of just throwing assumptions and assertions around if we talk about real concrete scenarios there's a possible conversation to be had.
 

We're not going to agree, but instead of just throwing assumptions and assertions around if we talk about real concrete scenarios there's a possible conversation to be had.
I'm not sure how it is possible to do so, considering we have never played together nor is there much chance we would ever do so. Anything we discuss will be abstracted from its specific details--the players, at the very least, will be abstract. Could you give an example of something that would meet this "concrete scenarios" requirement?
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Pre-WotC D&D, however, had no problem with this; as simultaniety of actions was accepted and allowed.
IF you were using side-based initiative. 2e had an option for individual initiative a lot of tables used.
But ultimately the issue of adjudicating a simultaneous action is something DMs have always been able to do if it made sense and even WotC editions had ways to make it easier. 3e allowed players to delay so they could go at the same point in the initiative list. And though 5e doesn't include delay as an option, holding your action to do things when another player's turn comes up is in the rules.
And, let's be honest, in both of those cases, it would be some pretty big DM asshattery to rigidly require the players to do things in a sequentially segmented way.
 
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I mean....I don't see how there's any way they could be anything but objectively incorrect.

"Rulings" are ad hoc, contextual rules. I mean, it's literally in the name--the act of making a rule. Making rules, in TTRPGs, is called "design."

This strikes me as a very black and white framing of the issue. It is not the same as rules design in my experience. A ruling could be inventing a rule whole cloth or it could simply be deciding which existing mechanic in a game to apply to a given situation and how to apply it. Deciding to call for three Dexterity rolls in a row for a success is, I would say, a pretty effortless decision, especially once you get used to the idea. That may involve some elements of design (for example if you make it more involved to suit the situation and say something like the first success will get you X, the second Y and the third X+Y (and in this instance Y and X could be relatively simple things like bonuses to damage). They don't have to involve that, but they can. And in those instances, that isn't the same as building a system from the ground. Generally what people want in a system favoring rulings is the ability to drawn existing mechanics in the game creatively so that whatever it is the players are specifically saying they want to do, can be modeled. That is one of the big advantages of taking a more open, light and rulings over rules approach. Doesn't mean every GM will like it. Doesn't mean it is the way D&D should or shouldn't be. But I think fans of this approach don't really see themselves as being called upon to do the work of the designer (as sometimes this approach is criticized as).
 

This strikes me as a very black and white framing of the issue. It is not the same as rules design in my experience. A ruling could be inventing a rule whole cloth or it could simply be deciding which existing mechanic in a game to apply to a given situation and how to apply it. Deciding to call for three Dexterity rolls in a row for a success is, I would say, a pretty effortless decision, especially once you get used to the idea. That may involve some elements of design (for example if you make it more involved to suit the situation and say something like the first success will get you X, the second Y and the third X+Y (and in this instance Y and X could be relatively simple things like bonuses to damage). They don't have to involve that, but they can. And in those instances, that isn't the same as building a system from the ground. Generally what people want in a system favoring rulings is the ability to drawn existing mechanics in the game creatively so that whatever it is the players are specifically saying they want to do, can be modeled. That is one of the big advantages of taking a more open, light and rulings over rules approach. Doesn't mean every GM will like it. Doesn't mean it is the way D&D should or shouldn't be. But I think fans of this approach don't really see themselves as being called upon to do the work of the designer (as sometimes this approach is criticized as).
I don't see it as "black and white." I see it as recognizing the fundamental commonality between all the things you've described here. All of them are design. Some of them are smaller. Some of them are larger. That doesn't change whether they are design.

I never made any mention of "building a system from the ground." Something being "design" doesn't require that in the least. Especially because, in a very real sense, D&D hasn't been designed that way in decades, possibly not since 1e and certainly not since 2e. No heartbreaker has ever been designed "from the ground up," for example; by definition they ride on the coattails of some other game or games. Doesn't make them any less efforts of design.

By expecting the DM to be doing this all the time, though, one is asking for an entire additional weight on top of the world-creating, the procedure-enacting, and the opposition-leading. Whether it is a thousand small rulings over six months or a whole subsystem over six months, it's still a continuous effort of design. Indeed, in some senses, the former is more of a burden than the latter; if developing large, chunky rules, one has time to pause, reevaluate, and revise. There is no such thing for the vast majority of "rulings" made in games. Any deleterious consequences they have are just...there, forever, because it's too much effort to go back and fix them. Per most advocates of this kind of thing, this should be happening near-constantly, at the very least several times every session. That's just too much stuff to go back and address for where it might have gone wrong or why--and, indeed, where it might have gone right and why, so that those successes can be replicated and (hopefully) expanded further.
 

Continually demonizing things as this pernicious obsession with legislating table morality is not productive, and portraying anything that doesn't conform to your tastes as a dead-end, destructive waste needlessly raises the temperature of the conversation.

I don't think there is anything pernicious or bad, or less fun about more narrow rules, heavier rules sets, rulesets that are more constraining for the GM when it comes to formulating judgements, etc. Nor do I think rules lawyering is bad on its own (I think we sometime poke fun at different play styles but all play styles can look funny from certain vantage points, our own included). I actually quite liked 3E for example, and would consider that to be an edition that was heavily invested in delineating rules down to pretty extreme edge cases. It was also an edition that saw a culture shift towards players rather than the GM. And it was a golden age of rules lawyering (someone being a rules lawyer was an asset in that edition because system mastery was so important). I've moved away from that style, but I still like 3E for certain kinds of campaigns. To me this stuff really is just about taste and preferences. Sometimes preference that an individual has, but often someone can have different preferences over time or mood (there are days I want a more comprehensive rules system and days I don't: sometimes you just feel like playing a crunch heavy game). So I don't see this as something where there are sides that need to be in opposition to one another. I think where the contention will fall is on where D&D should go in this respect. But ultimately it will go where it goes and there isn't much I can say or do about that, so it isn't any skin off my back.
 

I don't see it as "black and white." I see it as recognizing the fundamental commonality between all the things you've described here. All of them are design. Some of them are smaller. Some of them are larger. That doesn't change whether they are design.

I never made any mention of "building a system from the ground." Something being "design" doesn't require that in the least. Especially because, in a very real sense, D&D hasn't been designed that way in decades, possibly not since 1e and certainly not since 2e. No heartbreaker has ever been designed "from the ground up," for example; by definition they ride on the coattails of some other game or games. Doesn't make them any less efforts of design.

By expecting the DM to be doing this all the time, though, one is asking for an entire additional weight on top of the world-creating, the procedure-enacting, and the opposition-leading. Whether it is a thousand small rulings over six months or a whole subsystem over six months, it's still a continuous effort of design. Indeed, in some senses, the former is more of a burden than the latter; if developing large, chunky rules, one has time to pause, reevaluate, and revise. There is no such thing for the vast majority of "rulings" made in games. Any deleterious consequences they have are just...there, forever, because it's too much effort to go back and fix them. Per most advocates of this kind of thing, this should be happening near-constantly, at the very least several times every session. That's just too much stuff to go back and address for where it might have gone wrong or why--and, indeed, where it might have gone right and why, so that those successes can be replicated and (hopefully) expanded further.

I think we are not going to agree on the objectivity or subjectivity of the term, which is fine. Again, if you feel it is too much of a burden, and if you feel it is too much like doing design work, fair enough. That is a totally valid reaction to a system. But people are here who prefer rulings approaches and are telling you they don't find it burdensome and they don't see it as anything like design, or being asked to do the designers work. I certainly don't.

I think what you are looking for in mechanics is a consistency (correct me if I am wrong as I may not understand your meaning), and rulings aren't really about mechanical consistency or probability consistency. They are about equipping the GM to fluidly respond in each specific moment, to the things the players are specifically asking to do, and to use the mechanics creatively so that they can bring the game to life. For me that means, I am not especially precious about whether this ruling or that ruling chart equally over time (i.e. if I make four different rulings about cats biting a person, I am less concerned about consistency over time of mechanics or probabilities than I am if it felt right for that moment). This may be too much handwaving for you, which is fair. Like I said, I don't think this is the one true objective style to play. It is just a style, and an approach to design, with its upsides and downsides. Ultimately though it is the one that produces better play for me as a GM and Player most of the time.
 

Making rulings within the context of a rules lite system is a lot less of a cognitive load for me than running a more codified, rules heavy game. The DM 'support' that I'm looking for in a game is a very simple framework that allows for relatively easy ad hoc rulings. If I have to look anything up during a game or keep track of player information to make sure the game is running correctly, I get tired quickly. Interesting questing beast video today about this topic.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Second, D&D today is not defined by its ruleset alone.

Great post, and there are a ton of things I could discuss or elaborate on, but I want to pick out that one to talk about why D&D is weird compared to the modern RPG experience. (But in the end how that only matters a bit.)

First, no tabletop RPG is defined by its ruleset alone. How you prepare to play the game and how you think about playing it is just as important than the rules. The rules inform the processes of play at the table but they don't define them.

Two big things contribute to D&D's weirdness.

First, the creators of D&D did not set out to create a particular type of game or particular kind of experience. They were as Jon Peterson said, "Playing at the world." They were to try to simulate whole worlds in their totality with no preconceptions about what their games would be about. Indeed, the focus on dungeons was something of an accident, and not even Arneson's original intent. Dungeons were intended as a minigame that ended up becoming the main game through player interest and demand. The result of this lack of preconception was that D&D rules were more organic than planned, arising from the need to solve problems as they came up in play with no prior guidance as to how problems could be solved. The D&D rules were "rulings not rules" in a way that no subsequent game could be, because the D&D rules were the ultimate example of ruling codification. Every single rule had at one time been a ruling that became standardized through play. And indeed, that might be overstating it, because in 1981 the game's co-creators were still experimentally altering the rules at their own tables. AD&D's 1e DMG is a disorganized record of possible house rules that Gygax is using or thinking about using at the time, some of which would survive playtesting and some of which he likely soon discarded as not really workable.

And secondly, the process of play of D&D wasn't strongly codified. It's really only in the last 10 or 15 years that the designers of games have started to realize how much traditional RPGs left unsaid about how to play the game and designers started to codify the basics of processes of play into the rules. How to play an RPG much less this RPG wasn't really codified in the rules. What D&D however did probably better than any game then or since was provide examples of play. That is, in the 1e DMG there are several pages devoted to a realistic description of one possible process of play using the rules in the book. But even more so, the actual meat of the D&D game wasn't in the rules but in the modules. The modules codified not only the preparation for play, but also some of the processes of play and in many cases also rules. It was the adventures as interpreted by the DMs that taught people how to play - including the DMs. And since the modules all differed in their rulings and processes of play, how you learned to play and how you handled different situations all differed.

The three different rule sets only added to the variation, as a GM could learn with one rule set, then move to another adopting portions of the ruleset and not others based on an adaptative process without realizing that a particular rule or process of play changed subtly between the three in print editions.

No modern game is going to function like this. The rules in any modern game are going to be written to a standard of completion before the game is ever played. And the designer is going to have a vision of what they want the rules to be (or to not be) that will be informed by existing rules sets. No serious modern designer is going to neglect the importance of process of play and if they are trying to achieve a particular game will go into great detail about such things as to how a social challenge is to be handled in the general case, or how to handle the case of searching for clues or loot with respect to player skill vs. character skill.

That said, I maintain that this is merely a difference of degree and not of kind. First, because no RPG can be defined by its rules alone, and secondly because no GM is actually constrained by the rules - least of all an experienced one, least of all one that grew up on traditional RPGs. (But even an inexperience one will be unconstrained by accident, simply because they will make mistakes and invent their own processes of play in ignorance of the rules and the designer's intent.) I can learn to play a modern RPG by sitting as a player at the table of that RPG's author, and yet no matter how well he communicates his intent regarding the rules and processes of play, if you sit at my table you will end up with a slightly different game both by intention and accident. I will decide that there are particular frictions in the rules I can't tolerate and so will want to change with house rules, and at the same time I will have different judgements and incomplete knowledge of the rules that will lead me off into my own version of the game.

So while what you say is true of D&D and is true to a very great degree, I think the argument you advance is also true to a lesser degree of every single RPG. D&D is weird, but it's also weird in the way every RPG is also weird just necessarily more so.
 

Making rulings within the context of a rules lite system is a lot less of a cognitive load for me than running a more codified, rules heavy game. The DM 'support' that I'm looking for in a game is a very simple framework that allows for relatively easy ad hoc rulings. If I have to look anything up during a game or keep track of player information to make sure the game is running correctly, I get tired quickly. Interesting questing beast video today about this topic.

Out of curiosity have you tried the Cubicle 7 Doctor Who RPG? I have the boxed set from the Matt Smith era. Haven't had a lot of opportunities to play it, but did run some campaigns when I first got it and the way the core attributes and skill rolls worked always struck me as great for this kind of GMing.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
In addition, D&D at various points has tried to steer everyone to play a very specific way, the way it was "supposed to be played". IMHO it's always been a mistake. I think one of the strengths of D&D is that people have always had the option to make the game what they want. If the developers think PCs should be able to hide quite often, there should be a section in the DMG talking about it and telling the DM what the intent of the designers is and the logic behind it. Then the DM can look at that advice and learn from it instead of trying to force it on them because that never works.

Last, but not least, I really don't understand how this shifts power in any way or somehow makes good DMs out of bad ones. Inexperienced DMs need advice and guidance, not more rules lawyers.
The ironic thing about the bolded above, is that when you listen to interviews/watch game play with "game designers" whether RPG or TT, what you invariably see (in my experience) is that these "designers" who want you to "play a certain way", DON'T actually play that particular way at their own tables. They pick and choose rule applications, make rulings on the spot, change things up to suit their campaign, etc. They also tend to get quite a bit of stuff wrong. However, the RULES they put out to the rest of us say "play this way".

So, no thanks. I'll continue to use older/Basic/OSE DnD, with more flexibility, and build the games that I and my players want to play, rather than play "how things are supposed to be played". 🤷‍♂️
 

Celebrim

Legend
To the whole thread, as far as the larger argument that is raging, saying what AD&D 1e was is really only saying what you experienced because 1e AD&D was no one single thing.

But to almost the same extent, saying what 3e D&D was is the same sort of classification error, because while 3e D&D might have had somewhat more uniformity than 1e AD&D it was still so varied in its actual processes of play and even the rules which were in effect at different tables, that really to say what 3e D&D was you are really just equating "in my experience" with objective fact. The same sort of weirdness was there, if albeit perhaps to a less pervasive degree.
 

Celebrim

Legend
So, no thanks. I'll continue to use older/Basic/OSE DnD, with more flexibility, and build the games that I and my players want to play, rather than play "how things are supposed to be played". 🤷‍♂️

I totally respect that but at the same time I think what is really going on here is not that those older systems are objectively more flexible, but rather that you either think about playing them differently or else you have more system mastery with them and as such are more comfortable making those games into what you want to play. As a guy with like 20 years of 1e experience and 20 years of 3e experience, I don't believe either is actually more flexible than the other. It's just a matter of whether you see yourself or the rules as the boss.

I'm always the boss.
 

They also tend to get quite a bit of stuff wrong. However, the RULES they put out to the rest of us say "play this way".

Something I have seen in my own experience is that 'drift' from the rules as written and how the designer plays that game over time occurs. You can have a system you have thoroughly play tested and release, and play RAW for a time, but I do find it inevitable in my own games I eventually start drifting either due to: convenience, natural evolution towards more efficient or more workable approaches and sheer forgetfulness...even something like having different people at your table can change how you approach a rule. What I try to do is have any game that comes out reflect how I am playing that game at that time, but again, I may feel very different about how a particular skill or procedure should be used two, three, four years later. And I always give myself at least two years of pure playtest and development so it isn't like the stuff I put out are just initial ideas. I think this is simply something that organically happens.
 

Out of curiosity have you tried the Cubicle 7 Doctor Who RPG? I have the boxed set from the Matt Smith era. Haven't had a lot of opportunities to play it, but did run some campaigns when I first got it and the way the core attributes and skill rolls worked always struck me as great for this kind of GMing.
I have not!
 


Celebrim

Legend
Give me one scenario where more rules make a difference and I can explain why it does not.

I don't feel this is a fair challenge, since one can always play devil's advocate and argue against anything however reasonable it might be. Your ability to be curmudgeonly or critical is no more in question than mine is.

But I will give you examples were I think having rules make a difference, and that is any time the game moves off the rules map.

Every game has expectations about how it will be played that came up when the designer imagined the game or began to play it, and the designer will provide rules for that situation. But since table-top RPGs are defined by the freeform agency of the players, every game has the potential to morph into some other sort of game the original designer didn't foresee as some table jumps on some element of the fiction as important and interesting that the game designer didn't foresee.

An obvious example might be that over the course of some lengthy campaign, the players become influential and in response to a problem decide to raise an army. It makes a very great difference whether or not your game has a supplement for handling mass combat or not, both in the likelihood that this situation will occur and the ability of the most well intentioned and even experienced GM to handle it well.

I make an analogy here to the discussion in B2 Keep on the Borderlands about what to do if the players leave the wilderness map. Several suggestions of varying complexity and requiring varying skill are provided, but as the module was intended to be played with the Basic rules and wilderness travel was a concept silo'd off into the rules of the Expert set, it very much probably mattered whether the GM had exposure to even the concept of campaign building and wilderness travel how that situation would be handled.

It's a huge burden on the GM's ability and skill to be faced with a situation where the players take the game off the rules map in some fashion, and you can't possibly expect that the absence of rules to handle something doesn't matter.
 

Conversely, pretending that there isn't a problem here, or that literally nothing useful at all can be done, will never be any more productive.

The middle between "you are puppets dancing to the Viking Hat's tune" and "the DM is a slave to the rules, unable to ever make any decisions" is vast and feeling very excluded.
I do not know if there is or isn't a problem within the hobby now but I am willing to declare that my game has improved from my time on Enworld, because of the sharing of knowledge, experience and creativity. Tables who are not exposed to forums, podcasts, youtube and other social media, I would imagine, having a great chance of experiencing the problems you fear from MMI or the rule-slavish DM.
 

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