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


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.

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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.


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". 🤷‍♂️


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.


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!


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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