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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

R_Chance

Adventurer
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.
Actually wargamer / miniature gamers were the whole market for the game in 1974. It eventually spread to others. TSR sold miniature rules to miniature gamers. As for bolting things on, we expected that. I think I mentioned that pretty much every group I played the same miniature rule sets with had different house rules, even in the same town. It was typical. So, no D&Ds sparse three booklets wasn't a big deal, it was larger than most miniature rules out at the time. The individual booklets were a bit shorter, but three of them, in a box! That was BIG. Looking at the shelves full of RPG books I have right now (and the boxes of stuff I have in the closet) that is funny :D

OD&D had a three plus year run before Basic and AD&D came along. The original Basic D&D was a level 1-3 intro set based on D&D and Greyhawk (OD&D Supplement 1). That came out in 1977. AD&D rolled out over a three year period from 1977 to 1979. One hard back a year. That would drive people crazy now wouldn't it? :D The Monster Manual came first (1977), the Players Handbook second (1978) and, finally, the DMG (1979). As a complete rule set, 1979. Until then we treated the Monster Manual like we did the D&D supplements that came out in 1975-6. The PHB made some changes, but really not too much. After the full AD&D rule set was published they revamped Basic D&D... in 1981 iirc. At that point you could see the differences clearly.

Different world back then in terms of RPGs. It is absolutely huge now in comparison, and obviously much more diverse.
 

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R_Chance

Adventurer
Compared to even referee overseen wargames by the same company?
Using referees in miniature wargames was pretty much an option. We did it when we could because it allowed for things like hidden movement on a battlefield and using campaign maps like wargame boards dragging out the miniatures when they met and having battles then. That added a real strategic element to the games.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip
You wouldn’t expect the actor to go changing the script without getting it approved.

After all, we don’t want to go encouraging That Guy.
Umm, actually there are all sorts of the best quality actors out there who go about changing scripts, ad libbing, and outright ignoring scripts all the time.

Indiana Jones shooting sword guy in the market was 100% not in the script.
 

TheSword

Legend
Umm, actually there are all sorts of the best quality actors out there who go about changing scripts, ad libbing, and outright ignoring scripts all the time.

Indiana Jones shooting sword guy in the market was 100% not in the script.
In this metaphor the script is the rules of the game, not what characters do.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
I meant on the same footing at the table: that everyone there is operating on the same basis as to how this two-lance business is likely to go.
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).
And this is more or less the same result you could easily get using D&D rules, though it'd be much more granularly played out with initiatives, attack rolls for each lance against each Orc*, probably some sort of roll to see what effect the horse's charge had; all along with return attack rolls by the Orcs against both horse and rider.

As a side note: I much prefer this greater level of granularity over the level in the example you provided.

* - and I for one would give that two-lance guy a stupendous chance of fumbling at every opportunity - that's just comedy waiting to happen! :)
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.
You quite correctly used the word 'guidelines' two or three times in your post; and it's that they're guidelines rather than rules which in part makes Rule 0 necessary: it's Rule 0 that turns guidelines in the books to rulings (and thus rules) at each individual table.
 

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.
Seeing Gygax's own advice in dragon magazine, Gygax advocated for a somewhat toxic "punish your players for knowing the rules" approach. I often wonder how much of that was wanting the company to fail?
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.
That was a lot of words just to say, "no." ;)
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
* - and I for one would give that two-lance guy a stupendous chance of fumbling at every opportunity - that's just comedy waiting to happen! :)
Sir Ganador, inventor of the pole vault. As a side note, not only did he invent the pole vault, but he simultaneously came up with a new way to get inside castle walls during a siege.
 

Actually wargamer / miniature gamers were the whole market for the game in 1974.

Not by the fall. I could point to massive chunks of active SF fandom who were playing it who'd never touched a wargame, let alone a miniatures game in their life playing it by then. It was a very well developed subset of fandom. There was some overlap of course, but I'll go as far as to say in some areas wargame players were the minority of D&D players even by then.

At the time the three original books dropped, and I'd guess for the first six months you were probably right, but the heavy spread of the game was not through wargamers, even if they were the first ones to see it.

It eventually spread to others. TSR sold miniature rules to miniature gamers. As for bolting things on, we expected that. I think I mentioned that pretty much every group I played the same miniature rule sets with had different house rules, even in the same town. It was typical. So, no D&Ds sparse three booklets wasn't a big deal, it was larger than most miniature rules out at the time. The individual booklets were a bit shorter, but three of them, in a box! That was BIG. Looking at the shelves full of RPG books I have right now (and the boxes of stuff I have in the closet) that is funny :D

I think there's issues of scale, however; when you have people doing whole extra subsystems and character classes, I'd be willing to bet that's beyond the degree of houseruling most wargamers were doing (though I can only speak of the hex-and-chit end of it, not the miniatures end of it).

OD&D had a three plus year run before Basic and AD&D came along. The original Basic D&D was a level 1-3 intro set based on D&D and Greyhawk (OD&D Supplement 1). That came out in 1977. AD&D rolled out over a three year period from 1977 to 1979. One hard back a year. That would drive people crazy now wouldn't it? :D The Monster Manual came first (1977), the Players Handbook second (1978) and, finally, the DMG (1979). As a complete rule set, 1979. Until then we treated the Monster Manual like we did the D&D supplements that came out in 1975-6. The PHB made some changes, but really not too much. After the full AD&D rule set was published they revamped Basic D&D... in 1981 iirc. At that point you could see the differences clearly.

Different world back then in terms of RPGs. It is absolutely huge now in comparison, and obviously much more diverse.

But the real buildup of the system, the place where most people were encountering it was not at the beginning of that. I also should note that there was already a great degree of third party support for the game by then, so that the upward pressure was reduced; people who found OD&D insufficient could be buying Arduin or a million more obscure add-ons, because the hobby was still small enough for that to propagate around a bit during that period.
 

Using referees in miniature wargames was pretty much an option. We did it when we could because it allowed for things like hidden movement on a battlefield and using campaign maps like wargame boards dragging out the miniatures when they met and having battles then. That added a real strategic element to the games.

I was being very specific, and comparing is to games that did expect a referee, because blind orders (i.e. simultaneity) were the gig.
 



Hussar

Legend
In this metaphor the script is the rules of the game, not what characters do.
But, that's still an issue. You are saying that the director (DM) can change the rules of the game, but, the players must not. I'm saying that the best movies allow EVERYONE to contribute to the script (ie rules of the game) and don't especially privilege anyone. A great GM, just like a great director, will permit players, like actors, to contribute all sorts of things to the game outside of simply what their characters do.

Granted, this is a very different approach to gaming than what would have been seen back in the early 80's. We have learned that insisting that only the DM must have control of the rules is not the only way to play and not even the best way to play.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Granted, this is a very different approach to gaming than what would have been seen back in the early 80's. We have learned that insisting that only the DM must have control of the rules is not the only way to play and not even the best way to play.
For you.

Personally, as a player, the more rules and under-the-hood mechanics the DM takes care of the better I like it.
 


But, that's still an issue. You are saying that the director (DM) can change the rules of the game, but, the players must not. I'm saying that the best movies allow EVERYONE to contribute to the script (ie rules of the game) and don't especially privilege anyone. A great GM, just like a great director, will permit players, like actors, to contribute all sorts of things to the game outside of simply what their characters do.
Agreed.
Granted, this is a very different approach to gaming than what would have been seen back in the early 80's. We have learned that insisting that only the DM must have control of the rules is not the only way to play and not even the best way to play.
Wrong. Some of us were doing group-think on rules in 1981. I know that Aaron and I were doing so.
 


Aldarc

Legend
Yes, because in general people buying OSR games don't need to have rule zero spelled out for them in print.

The only reason any kind of "Rule Zero" is spelled out in D&D is because it is the gateway drug into the hobby. And new people may have little to no cultural assumptions about the RPG hobby.
Not sure if I entirely agree with that. That's probably closer to the truth for the straight-up OSR retro clones, and a number of OSR games also include Rule Zero, but I'm not sure about some of the others. There is certainly a "DIY approach" that is part of the culture, but I don't think that we should conflate Rule Zero with an openness to kitbash the game. Fate, for example, does not have Rule Zero, but it also encourages people to tinker with the game and make the game their own.

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.
I also recall reading that the only time that Pathfinder surpassed D&D 4E was when WotC basically dropped support of 4E and stopped publishing for it as it began in-house development of D&D Next. 4E may be regarded as D&D's "New Coke," but New Coke still outsold more than Pepsi, which did its best to capitalize on the backlash against New Coke. And brand loyalty to Coke resulted in grassroots organizing to bring back "Old Coke."
 

pemerton

Legend
Rule Zero has been in almost every edition of the game since inception. It’s also present in some of the other RPGs I love to play.
That strongly suggests that you play games like D&D (other than 4e), GURPS, HERO, Rolemaster, perhaps RuneQuest. And that you don't play games like Burning Wheel, any PbtA system, any Cortex+ system, HeroWars/Quest, Over the Edge, etc. etc.

Some of the systems in the former category are pretty simple (eg Moldvay Basic). Some of the systems in the latter category are pretty complex (eg Burning Wheel, 4e D&D. What differentiates them, besides - I am conjecturing - your preferences, is that the first category are "rules first", with the fiction being read off the rules at every point, and that the latter category are "fiction first", in the sense that the mechanical processes of the game take the fiction itself, and not just a mechanical expression of the fiction, as input.

Systems of that latter sort don't have any need for "rule zero" as a method of adjudication. They may be houseruled or "kit bashed" from time to time (some actively encourage such an approach, eg HeroQuest revised, Over the Edge, recent Cortex+ publications) but no one needs a game to state a rule in order to be permitted to alter its rules.
 

TheSword

Legend
That strongly suggests that you play games like D&D (other than 4e), GURPS, HERO, Rolemaster, perhaps RuneQuest. And that you don't play games like Burning Wheel, any PbtA system, any Cortex+ system, HeroWars/Quest, Over the Edge, etc. etc.

Some of the systems in the former category are pretty simple (eg Moldvay Basic). Some of the systems in the latter category are pretty complex (eg Burning Wheel, 4e D&D. What differentiates them, besides - I am conjecturing - your preferences, is that the first category are "rules first", with the fiction being read off the rules at every point, and that the latter category are "fiction first", in the sense that the mechanical processes of the game take the fiction itself, and not just a mechanical expression of the fiction, as input.

Systems of that latter sort don't have any need for "rule zero" as a method of adjudication. They may be houseruled or "kit bashed" from time to time (some actively encourage such an approach, eg HeroQuest revised, Over the Edge, recent Cortex+ publications) but no one needs a game to state a rule in order to be permitted to alter its rules.
Firstly 4e D&D did have a rule zero. It can be found on pg 192 of the 4e DMG. I quoted it earlier but here it is again.

“The D&D rules cannot possibly account for the variety of campaigns and play styles of every group. If you disagree with how the rules handle something, changing them is within your rights.”
- 4e DMG pg 192

Secondly, it’s a truism to say simplified, generic rules that can be applied in any circumstance don’t require a rule zero. If nothing is specific then nothing will come into conflict. That kind of approach doesn’t work with D&D.
 

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