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The Origins of ‘Rule Zero’

Jon Peterson discusses the origins of Rule Zero on his blog. It featured as early as 1978 in Alarums & Excursions #38.

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey



Blue Orange

Explorer
It's an interesting philosophical point though. I mean, we all know it on some level--ultimately they can't stop you from running your game the way you want to. (As I recall Hackmaster made a joke about this, encouraging people to snitch on people playing illicit Hackmaster to the company.) Having it officially in the rules might make some people feel more comfortable about doing it, though.
 

Cool, though I prefer Kam-Pain's "GM's Cloak." Sounds much more mysterious and sinister.

Interesting that over the years Rule 0 went from being on the 1st page (Basic D&D 1980) to buried at page 263 in the DMG as "you aren't limited by the rules," so here's some more rules you can use.
 

Blue Orange

Explorer
They have to sell books, no? They have to pay all those writers and artists who make those nice hardbound volumes.

If they encouraged everyone to make up their own rules for everything they'd sell the basic 3 books and nothing else.
 
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The only real problem I have with Rule 0 is when it is used abusively--because a lot of people talk about players using all the other game rules abusively, and pretty much never talk about DMs using Rule 0 abusively.

By which I mean: When the world can change underneath the players' feet, not simply without them noticing but preventing even the possibility that they ever COULD notice, you're treading on some real thin ice. Or if you capriciously override the rules in one situation but do not do so in a seemingly-identical later situation, such that the players now don't really have any ability to prepare for the future. Or when the DM's rulings deviate from the rules in biased or manipulable ways (e.g. always favoring their spouse/SO, being bribed with out-of-game benefits, giving IC punishments for OOC actions or events, etc.)

Again, none of this is to say that Rule 0 shouldn't exist. Just that it should be employed very carefully, a judiciously-applied fix, avoiding both deficiency and excess in its use. In that way, it's a lot like salt. The right amount of salt elevates a dish, making it so much more flavorful and pleasant. Too much, and the dish becomes inedible. Too little, and while the dish may still be edible, it will not taste very good. Yet where "the right amount" lies is a judgment call.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
The only real problem I have with Rule 0 is when it is used abusively--because a lot of people talk about players using all the other game rules abusively, and pretty much never talk about DMs using Rule 0 abusively.

By which I mean: When the world can change underneath the players' feet, not simply without them noticing but preventing even the possibility that they ever COULD notice, you're treading on some real thin ice. Or if you capriciously override the rules in one situation but do not do so in a seemingly-identical later situation, such that the players now don't really have any ability to prepare for the future. Or when the DM's rulings deviate from the rules in biased or manipulable ways (e.g. always favoring their spouse/SO, being bribed with out-of-game benefits, giving IC punishments for OOC actions or events, etc.)
These are social issues that game rules can't solve.
 



I don't know what that means. Rule 0 is about game rules. Your post was about apparently abusive social dynamics. I don't turn to D&D books to deal with the latter.
But Rule 0 isn't part of the books either. I mean, they describe it, but by definition--from even those descriptions!--Rule 0 stands outside the rules. It is part of the social structure surrounding the rules. It seems obvious to me that saying "don't do things that make no sense" and "no set of rules can ever be totally complete" means "engage your group socially to resolve anything that can't be resolved inside the rules given." It would seem to be literally the POINT of "proper use of Rule 0" to talk about social dynamics.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
But Rule 0 isn't part of the books either. I mean, they describe it, but by definition--from even those descriptions!--Rule 0 stands outside the rules. It is part of the social structure surrounding the rules. It seems obvious to me that saying "don't do things that make no sense" and "no set of rules can ever be totally complete" means "engage your group socially to resolve anything that can't be resolved inside the rules given." It would seem to be literally the POINT of "proper use of Rule 0" to talk about social dynamics.
Well, OK then. I don't think we're really talking about the same thing.
 


MGibster

Legend
But Rule 0 isn't part of the books either. I mean, they describe it, but by definition--from even those descriptions!--Rule 0 stands outside the rules. It is part of the social structure surrounding the rules. It seems obvious to me that saying "don't do things that make no sense" and "no set of rules can ever be totally complete" means "engage your group socially to resolve anything that can't be resolved inside the rules given." It would seem to be literally the POINT of "proper use of Rule 0" to talk about social dynamics.
I think Rule 0 is about making decisions when the rules either don't exist, are otherwise inadequate for the situation at hand, or just interfere with the fun. The classic example I can think of us from Palladium game system. The old Palladium games used both Hit Points and Structural Damage Capacity to keep track of damage. Most of the time when your character took damage it was applied to SDC and only when it ran out would you start taking HP damage. Rules as written, you could just pick up a pistol and to demonstrate how tough you were shoot yourself with it taking minimal damage. Some GMs might think, "That's ludicrous!" and cause the damage to go straight to Hit Points instead.

When I ran Savage Worlds games I thought it was silly that both Swimming and Climbing were separate skills. Given how few skills there are in the game, it seemed like a terrible waste for most players so I just said we'll make an Athletics skill that covers all that. And apparently the fine folks at PEG, Inc. have seen things my way as Throwing, Swimming, and Climbing have been rolled into Athletics in the latest edition of the game.
 

Hussar

Legend
There's a bit of history to remember too.

In 1978, we were all pretty much fumbling around in the dark. What was this new "RPG" thing? No one really knew at the time. Coupled with AD&D's rather baroque language and (from a modern perspective) gaps in the rules (how far can my character jump?), there really was a need for a "Rule 0" because so many times the rules were completely silent on how to adjudicate an action.

Now, coming up to 2021, we have people who have been gaming for decades. There are literally millions of play hours to reveal the bumps and issues in different rule sets. Rule 0 still needs to be there, but, frankly, it's becoming more and more corner case as the rules become more elegant with each iteration.

@MGibster 's Savage Worlds example is a perfect illustration of this.

But, yes, there should be some more attention paid in the various DM's advice books as to when to use a Rule 0 and how. I've seen far too many games go pear shaped because the DM figured he or she knew better than the rules, invoked Rule 0 to change the rules, only to make the game worse because the DM didn't understand the rules in the first place. The more complex the system, the easier it is to make mistakes like that.
 

You need to be careful with rule 0. An important advise is that you should announce rule changes ahead of time. Only optional rules that favour players might be held in secret, as they can give a surprising edge to them.
 

MrZeddaPiras

[insert something clever]
I think rule 0 has been interpreted in at least two very different ways: one is the "old-school" rule 0 where, since the rulesets are open and sketchy the GM needs to prioritize fairness and logic over strict rules application. The other is the more modern approach where the GM is a benevolent dictator guiding the group through an enjoyable narrative experience, and needs on occasion to bypass the rules to do so.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think rule 0 has been interpreted in at least two very different ways: one is the "old-school" rule 0 where, since the rulesets are open and sketchy the GM needs to prioritize fairness and logic over strict rules application. The other is the more modern approach where the GM is a benevolent dictator guiding the group through an enjoyable narrative experience, and needs on occasion to bypass the rules to do so.
Agreed. These are very different things.
 

Legion of Myth

Villager
I think Rule 0 is about making decisions when the rules either don't exist, are otherwise inadequate for the situation at hand, or just interfere with the fun. The classic example I can think of us from Palladium game system. The old Palladium games used both Hit Points and Structural Damage Capacity to keep track of damage. Most of the time when your character took damage it was applied to SDC and only when it ran out would you start taking HP damage. Rules as written, you could just pick up a pistol and to demonstrate how tough you were shoot yourself with it taking minimal damage. Some GMs might think, "That's ludicrous!" and cause the damage to go straight to Hit Points instead.

When I ran Savage Worlds games I thought it was silly that both Swimming and Climbing were separate skills. Given how few skills there are in the game, it seemed like a terrible waste for most players so I just said we'll make an Athletics skill that covers all that. And apparently the fine folks at PEG, Inc. have seen things my way as Throwing, Swimming, and Climbing have been rolled into Athletics in the latest edition of the game.
Palladium partially resolved this in The Compendium of Contemporary Weapons, which introduced shock, penetration value, and more. When I run modern Palladium games I tend to use these rules.
 

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