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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

I think we can attribute Pathfinder's success to two things: They made great products starting with Rise of the Runelords and continued making quality game material. The new Pathfinder RPG was perfectly poised to take advantage of the lackluster reception of D&D 4E with fans who decided they'd rather stick with something that resembled D&D 3.5. But it's not like Pathfinder was a completely new product. It's basically just D&D with some tweaks.

Pathfinder 1e in particular was a directly derived offshoot of D&D 3.5 and easily recognized as that by anyone who had played the latter. I'm hard pressed to think of two game systems by different publishers who are as obviously related.
 

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I don’t disagree with a lot of this. That may be the case now, but it wasn’t 8 years ago. There is a reason D&D has risen to such prominence the brand isn’t it. Because the D&D brand has been around throughout.

I think you're seriously underestimating how big D&D was even at its weakest (probably in the 4e period). All that happened during that period was that a lot of people stuck to 3e or 3.5 period D&D, or played some other immediately recognizable offshoot, because the D&D network was still well established. No one was really challeging it other than perhaps PF, and as noted, PF was riding the success of 3e era D&D. But it was still about the established extent D&D network.
 

Yes. This.

D&D got this brand loyalty by being First.

And by its rules being Good Enough.

Especially with the common B/X sets that made D&D early on they were easy to pick up and play for newbs because they hit certain RPG design points that worked really well together:

1: Easy PC creation.
2: Graspable Rules complexity.
3: Easily grasped Default play mode.
4: Easily understood setting.
5: Straight-forward reward mechanism.

But being First and Good Enough are very big trumps. Once you have established market dominance it can be very hard for any competitors to mount a real challenge without "help" from the market leader in the form of mistakes.

As we can see in places Like Japan with Sword World, and Germany with The Dark Eye...

If someone hit all/most of those design points in their respective native languages First; they were able to shut D&D out of the top spot of fantasy RPG's in their respective countries.

Where 4e failed against Pathfinder 1e was that a lot of D&D players felt that the 4e rulesets was no longer Good Enough for the way that they wanted to play and experience D&D.

.

I tend to agree with most of this.

To be honest, on any real engagement with the rules, OD&D proper was kind of a crap game. What it was, was dirt simple for the most part, and it was first out the door. It expanded wildly early on for the other reasons you say, and by the time anyone else was even in motion, they were working against a serious uphill fight, both in expectation and network externalities.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Maybe I didn't make myself clear.

Rule 0 is only needed in rules-first games, because only in rules-first games there may be a situation where the results of rules at work don't make sense -- because rules exist separately from the fiction.

In rules-first, rules represent fictional concepts and events. Examples:
  • Lance theoretically can be used when unmounted, but it's supposed to be used by mounted warriors, who wield it in one hand. So, we come up with a rule: "a lance requires two hands to wield when you aren't mounted."
  • Using two weapons should allow making more attacks than you can do with one weapon. So, we come up with a rule: "When you take the Attack action and Attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can use a Bonus Action to Attack with a different light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand".

In a fiction-first game, a lance is just a lance, a heavy weapon, used by mounted knights and holding two weapons means just holding two weapons -- the character "on screen" is using a lance (or two daggers) in a way that makes sense within the fictional context.
Thing is, how is "a way that makes sense" codified or sorted out in play such that everyone - both at the table and in the fiction - is operating on the same footing? (see answer below)

Also, how is it codified such that a situation can't be taken undue advantage of, by players who look for such? (see answer below)
So a situation like "ok, so there's nothing in the rules that forbids me from dual-wielding lances if I take a Dual Wielder feat and ride a horse" just can't happen -- because riding a horse with two lances doesn't get translated into "I'm using Mounted combat rules and dual-wielding two D12 Piercing weapons with Reach" -- the character on-screen is wielding two lances, which on-screen would lead to a spectacular failure, unless the character in question is an enhanced super-soldier or something.
Again, how is that spectacular failure codified? (see answer below)
In a rules-first game you need to invoke rule 0 in order to forbid ridiculous knight with two lances who can fight even more effective than a reasonable knight with one lance. In a fiction-first game you don't need to invoke rule 0, because dual-lanced knight is gonna get reasonably screwed already.
How? (see answer below)

Answer: if there's no rules or guidelines to sort out these questions, the default becomes either a) GM fiat or b) consensus agreement around the table; which in either case is a straight-up application of Rule 0.

You're not specifically invoking Rule 0, that's true, but it's not because you don't need it; it's because Rule 0 is already foundationally baked into the system to the point where you might not even realize it's there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Nope, that's just an easy way for designers to say "ok, do whatever you want, I'm done here". What actually makes game flexible is a solid, understandable framework and loose tolerances.
I agree about the framework.

From there, however, Rule 0 takes over; allowing (and in some cases outright encouraging) the GM to build on to that framework rules and systems that make the game work for her.
Dungeon World that doesn't have rule 0, but has comprehensive GM Agenda and GM Principles is more flexible than, say, D&D 5E.
5e isn't as flexible as it could be. Oddly enough, a nice side effect of 1e's different-system-for-different things approach is that it becomes more flexible: you can change things to suit a different style of play without doing too much damage to other parts of the system.

The idea of GM Principles (and perhaps, Player Principles) seems as worded to want to shift rules codification away from the rulebooks and into the social realm; it assumes by default a GM and a group of players willing and ready to adhere to such principles. Well, in real life that just doesn't work that well that often. :)
You want to play a high-magic fantasy with floating ships and enormous cities, lit up by arcane lamps and with glorious Academy of Natural Philosophy, where illusionists give mind-blowing shows every now and then? It works. You want to play a low-magic game, where magic is a power beyond mere human comprehension and each wizard risks tearing the Veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead with each cast spell? It works too. You make the same Moves with accordance to the same Principles, but within different fictional contexts -- in a world of ubiquouts and well-understood magic, consequence for failing to cast a spell properly probably would be something along the lines of "While you were citing magical formulas, an ork archer shot his bow at you. What ya gonna do?", but not "You feel air around you go cold, the arcane vibrations of your spell attracted something that doesn't belong to this world. In a split-second, a horrendous canine creature, dreaded Hound of Tindalos, forms from the nearest corner and latches on your leg. What ya gonna do?".

Or, maybe you want to play a superhero game, where people are thrown through brick walls, get smacked by sledgehammers and then get up and fight, maybe bruised slightly? It works -- you just don't use long-term injuries as consequences. But in a gritty game, where ribs break, lungs get punctured, internal bleedings makes people pass out -- you do, and the system works too.

You don't make any alterations to the rules, but you make alterations to the fiction.
That all sounds rather GURPS-like, as that was the vibe they were going for.
In a more rigidly-structured game, like, again D&D 5E (or 3.5, or AD&D 2E, or even White Box), you'd either need to brew some new rules at home, or to apply ad-hoc patches with rule zero, because there's no flexibility and no framework that goes beyond "just figure it out".
"Just figure it out" is the most flexible structure you can possibly have.

What it means - and there's those who don't like this but it's fine with me - is that the end result of said figurings out is going to be different at almost every table because it's been figured out in a way that works for that specific group. And while this ethos flies against the tenets of organized play e.g. AL (or, in the past, RPGA) so what? I'm not figuring things out for that, I'm doing it for my own table either by kitbashing the system ahead of time or making a ruling on the fly in play.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Well, at the very start of D&D, at least the "fill in the blanks" really was expected to be used willy-nilly because OD&D as a rule set was downright skeletal. Any mechanics being combat a couple other limited areas beyond the completely ad-hoc were going to have to be made up as you go along, or pre-constructed houserules, because there just wasn't much to work with.

I don't really consider that willy nilly because the rules where created because you hit a point where there were no rules OR you hit a point where you KNEW the rule would likely not give an effect or outcome that matches the probability of the genre you were going for.

So technically it willy nilly since you got the rule "whether you liked it or not". However I was going for a personal preference and change rules because they could be changed "whether you liked it or not"

Rule Zero was designed as a hole filler. However many modern TTRPGs go out there way to fill most of the holes. What they filled the hole may not be great but they were filled before the group got the material.

So Rule Zero morphed from mostly being a hole-filler or floor-smoother rule to a more of a wall-painter rule. Rule Zero became a rule to change what exists drastically over removing a void.
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
To be honest, on any real engagement with the rules, OD&D proper was kind of a crap game. What it was, was dirt simple for the most part, and it was first out the door. It expanded wildly early on for the other reasons you say, and by the time anyone else was even in motion, they were working against a serious uphill fight, both in expectation and network externalities.

Truth.

By today's design standards OD&D's system was a bit pants. But as a game it was lightning in a bottle.

By the time The Modvay B/X hit - no can defend...

While general play/design preferences have changed, B/X are quite playable games RAW..

And even though RQ landed in 78, it went in a direction that would not compete with D&D.
 
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MGibster

Legend
To be honest, on any real engagement with the rules, OD&D proper was kind of a crap game. What it was, was dirt simple for the most part, and it was first out the door. It expanded wildly early on for the other reasons you say, and by the time anyone else was even in motion, they were working against a serious uphill fight, both in expectation and network externalities.
A crap game compared to what? Was there anything like it in 1974? I tend to put more stock in opinions from the same era of the work that was produced. If OD&D was a terrible system, or thought of as a terrible system, it wouldn't have spread like wildfire.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I tend to agree with most of this.

To be honest, on any real engagement with the rules, OD&D proper was kind of a crap game. What it was, was dirt simple for the most part, and it was first out the door. It expanded wildly early on for the other reasons you say, and by the time anyone else was even in motion, they were working against a serious uphill fight, both in expectation and network externalities.
The original game did everything we (see below for who "we" were) needed it to do in 1974. That's not "a crap game". We had all been playing Chainmail (and other miniature rules) for years. We were familiar with the fact that each group modified / added to the rules as they saw fit. A framework was all that we needed. I played a dozen plus different miniature rule sets with as many groups over the years and they all had their own house rules. No two groups were identical in what they played. Some were closer than others of course.

I had been playing board wargames since I was about 8 (Avalon Hill for the win!), miniatures since I was 10, and started D&D when I was 15 (1974). We (me and my friends, most of whom were older than me) were thoroughly acculturated. We wouldn't have expected more and probably wouldn't have wanted (much) more. Sure, the English could have been better, the descriptions less... baroque, but it was what we expected, were used to, and wanted. Modern games with piles of multiple hardbacks and labyrinthine rules would have horrified us.

Over the years rules expanded (SPI board games, miniature rules, AD&D, etc.) but it's just as well it didn't start out like that... I'm not sure anyone would have played it. The slow expansion of rules gave us time to get used to it :D
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
Thing is, how is "a way that makes sense" codified or sorted out in play such that everyone - both at the table and in the fiction - is operating on the same footing? (see answer below)
But they aren't supposed to be on the same footing in the fiction -- someone wielding a lance properly is going to have an edge over a dude struggling to operate two lances.

Again, how is that spectacular failure codified? (see answer below)
How? (see answer below)

Answer: if there's no rules or guidelines to sort out these questions, the default becomes either a) GM fiat or b) consensus agreement around the table; which in either case is a straight-up application of Rule 0.
There are rules and guidelines, and that's precisely why rule 0 is not necessary.

In the case of a dude with two lances (mechanical stuff is in parenthesis and italicized):
Ronald the Madman: I mount my mighty steed and grab two lances, readying for battle. (the players looks at the GM to find out what happens)
GM: That's very unwieldy and you ain't gonna use either of them with normal deadly precision. (GM makes a soft move, in this case: Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment).
Ronald the Madman: I'm going to charge into enemy lines anyway! (the player ignores the soft move, which is a Golden Opportunity to make a move as hard as the GM wishes)
GM: So, you charge and you crush a couple of orcs (the GM may ask for a damage roll if they want to, but that's not important to the point), but because you were wielding two lances, you couldn't command your mount good enough to retreat in time. Orcs surround you and pull you from the saddle and deliver some nasty blows, take 14 damage. So, what ya gonna do? (GM makes a soft move: Separate them, and a hard move: Deal damage to boot).

The idea of GM Principles (and perhaps, Player Principles) seems as worded to want to shift rules codification away from the rulebooks and into the social realm; it assumes by default a GM and a group of players willing and ready to adhere to such principles. Well, in real life that just doesn't work that well that often. :)
Well, no rule can enforce itself, obviously.
In dungeon world a Battleaxe and a Longsword do damage according to your classes base damage. There are no meaningful mechanical differences. (If you are a fighter you can select enhancements to your signature weapon, but another fighter can easily choose the same enhancements for his as well. My "Axe", my "Sword" - It's all just flavor.
They deal the same damage, yes, but weapon doesn't boil down to damage. What the character needs to do in order to deal said damage? How the damage actually manifests within fiction?

Yes, the group can ignore the differences, if they don't care about medieval weaponry or don't know anything about it.
AW games are all about the GM making constant rulings /judgement calls because of their relatively rules light structure. They just provide good framework and guidelines for GM's to use when making those rulings.
Good framework and guidelines is... exactly what I'm talking about.

"You gonna make a great deal of judgement calls, and here's how to make them good" is very different from "here are rigid rules that don't require judgement calls, but you can change everything you want, but we won't tell you how to make changes good", just as "here are rules on character creation" is different from "here are your pregens, but you can come up with another character if you want to, figure it out".

I'm not arguing that we should strip the rule 0 from existing rigidly-structured games or people shouldn't be allowed to change things (lol) or something, I'm arguing that good design removes the need for an implied asterixis "*you can change this if you want" after every rule.
 
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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
A crap game compared to what? Was there anything like it in 1974? I tend to put more stock in opinions from the same era of the work that was produced. If OD&D was a terrible system, or thought of as a terrible system, it wouldn't have spread like wildfire.

OD&D is a bad game by the standard of modern game design. It's not a fair comparison as TTRPG design was in its infancy. It's not fair to rate OD&D based on games that game decades after it when game design developed.

But it is nearly impossible to defend it as being "purposely designed to create a specific style or genre of game" or "purpusely having mechanics to fill most of the slots of and archetypes of the style/genre it wants to make". It was full of holes and required a constant stream of tweaks to get the right feel.

And that's why it heavily used Rule Zero.
 

Truth.

By today's design standards OD&D's system was a bit pants. But as a game it was lightning in a bottle.

Yeah. No wide-spread group had seen anything like it before, and it spread like lightning. Best I can tell when I was introduced to it (in West Coast SF and wargaming fandom) about six months in, it was all over those groups. It had expanded the way a lifeform does when it moves into an ecological niche with no competition.

By the time The Modvay B/X hit - no can defend...

While general play/design preferences have changed, B/X are quite playable games RAW..

And even though RQ landed in 78, it went in a direction that would not compete with D&D.

Whether it theoretically could or not (in hindsight, I suspect not) the niche was already filled; T&T didn't really make a dent, nor did C&S. There's some speculation Dragon Quest could have (I'm not convinced, but the argument isn't stupid) but, well, TSR took care that never became an issue. And of course the SF and superhero games that sprouted early on were fishing in slightly different ponds in the first place and didn't have quite as simple and low-overhead play-cycle.
 

A crap game compared to what? Was there anything like it in 1974? I tend to put more stock in opinions from the same era of the work that was produced. If OD&D was a terrible system, or thought of as a terrible system, it wouldn't have spread like wildfire.

Yeah it would, because as the prior poster put it it had no competition. It was conceptual wildfire, and its substandard mechanical structure couldn't hurt that.

A lot of really objectively poor products can get by and even flourish when they have no competition. By the time there was any real competition, at least modestly better mechanically versions of the system were in play, and the general structure had set expectations so any problems there were only going to be pursued by a subset of users.

It'd be far from the only product to ever do well even though there were better versions of them when they moved into a market first and fast. Its really hard to dislodge a product that fills a market unless its not just mediocre but really is missing components for the majority of its market, and that's not even accounting for the intrinsic benefit an RPG has in usage and networking over products that are used individually. And for all its problems, later, but still early versions of the game like the B/X line and AD&D did at least supply a structure with less massive holes than OD&D had. Though I doubt there's any way to prove it, I'd be willing to put money that by 1978 the people playing OD&D were a minuscule part of the RPG playing populace; the vast majority had moved to AD&D, B/X or one of its kin, or out of D&D entirely.

All OD&D had to be was good enough to expand like crazy for the first year or two to fill the niche, and then its successor games could take advantage of that while still only leaving a limited amount of room for the various other games emerging at that time.
 

The original game did everything we (see below for who "we" were) needed it to do in 1974. That's not "a crap game".

You, however, weren't the whole market. It absolutely wasn't doing everything its whole market needed, as even the ones staying with D&D were bolting things onto it regularly. If OD&D had stayed the schematic thing it was, that would have caused serious problems for its market over time...but it didn't. Within two years there was the Basic line starting, and within three AD&D had landed.
 

OD&D is a bad game by the standard of modern game design. It's not a fair comparison as TTRPG design was in its infancy. It's not fair to rate OD&D based on games that game decades after it when game design developed.

I'm not. I'm comparing it to other games that were contemporaries of related but similar types (referee administered wargames) or RPGs of very near vintage where, while you could argue they had D&D to learn from, but they certainly weren't decades along. TSR itself produced games with better and more coherent design at the time; heck, Chainmail was a better game.

What D&D had going for it was originality and hitting the zeitgeist.
 

MGibster

Legend
Yeah it would, because as the prior poster put it it had no competition. It was conceptual wildfire, and its substandard mechanical structure couldn't hurt that.
As you point out, D&D had no competition back in 1974 because it was the first of its kind. And as it was the first, there was no standard by which it could be judged. So if you want to say the rules were crap it begs the question, compared to what? I do not believe the general consensus of contemporaries believed the game to be crap, and, if it was the general consensus, I do not believe D&D would have become popular.
 

As you point out, D&D had no competition back in 1974 because it was the first of its kind. And as it was the first, there was no standard by which it could be judged. So if you want to say the rules were crap it begs the question, compared to what? I do not believe the general consensus of contemporaries believed the game to be crap, and, if it was the general consensus, I do not believe D&D would have become popular.

Compared to even referee overseen wargames by the same company?
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
I'm not. I'm comparing it to other games that were contemporaries of related but similar types (referee administered wargames) or RPGs of very near vintage where, while you could argue they had D&D to learn from, but they certainly weren't decades along. TSR itself produced games with better and more coherent design at the time; heck, Chainmail was a better game.

What D&D had going for it was originality and hitting the zeitgeist.
I didn't say you compared it to modern games. I'm just saying by modern standards, OD&D would unfairly be rated as bad as it leaned hard on Rule Zero to get its cobbled together sets of rules to work.

Luckily it was first and modern game design didn't exist yet.
 

MGibster

Legend
Compared to even referee overseen wargames by the same company?
Do you have evidence that there was a general consensus among contemporaries that the rules for D&D were crap compared to the more traditional war games? If you think they're crap, okay. Personally, I'd rather pop boils on my body with a crab fork than run AD&D games again so it's not like I'm a big fan of those old systems. But for the era they were produced, they weren't crap.
 

Do you have evidence that there was a general consensus among contemporaries that the rules for D&D were crap compared to the more traditional war games? If you think they're crap, okay. Personally, I'd rather pop boils on my body with a crab fork than run AD&D games again so it's not like I'm a big fan of those old systems. But for the era they were produced, they weren't crap.

The problem you'll run into with that is the people most capable of generating opinions of the rules were wargamers; and the wargamers split pretty heavily on how accepting they were of the RPG idea. So its going to be hard to tease apart the people who disliked OD&D because the rules were crap and the ones who disliked it because they were hostile to the idea of RPGs that were also cutting into what they viewed as their turf.

On the other hand, I can't recall back in the day anyone complimenting OD&D on its rules. It was either a case of "good enough", doing their own reworks to various degrees, or, in extreme cases, writing whole new games. It wasn't until the OSR days I saw anyone seem to think much of the rules, and that was amid the pile of various editions.

Now, as always, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but if there was a big set of respecters of the OD&D rules, they hid it pretty well. The best you'd say was that there were people who thought AD&D was bloated, but it seemed like most of those were in the B/X camp or its close kin. So if there were many people who really thought OD&D was a good rules set, they hid it pretty well, and there were plenty who clearly thought to the contrary.
 
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