Worlds of Design: Golden Rules for RPGs

There are several Golden Rules, really. These are my three for role-playing games.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Practicing the Golden Rule is not a sacrifice, it's an investment.” Byllye Avery

The topic today isn’t the one people are familiar with from religion and philosophy: treat people as well as you yourself want to be treated. That Golden Rule is present in some form in most religions and in many philosophies. These rules are the ones I use in my games.

Rule #1: The GM is the Final Arbiter​

The much-debated Golden Rule, also called Rule 0, is expressed many ways but amounts to “the GM is always right but should exercise that prerogative with much restraint.”

Especially if you favor storytelling RPGs, this is an obvious rule to follow, as the storyteller must be able to arrange things as they wish. On the other hand, if the storyteller promulgates outlandish conditions, the entire enterprise may fail as immersion is broken.

The reason this rule is sometimes controversial is because some players want the GM to only be the arbiter of the rules, not the rule-maker. This arbitration tends to happen with games that have enormous quantities of rules, many hundreds of pages; it’s not practical in games with short rules.

In team sports terms, some want the GM to strictly apply the rules, as many sports referees do, but others prefer that there is a large number of judgment calls for the referee.

Rule #2: Whatever PCs Can Do, NPCs Can Do​

The second RPG Golden Rule is, “whatever the player characters can do, the NPCs should be able to do, and vice versa.” Or to put it another way, “what's practical for the good guys is practical for the bad guys, and vice versa.”

If the good guys can kill an unconscious opponent with one blow, then the bad guys should be able to do the same thing. And since most players don't want that to happen to their character, then they will be reconciled to making it harder for them to kill an unconscious opponent. Saving throws may be required in certain situations as well.

When an RPG is played as a storytelling device, rolls can be as lopsided as you like. In stories the protagonists or heroes are often incredibly lucky. In games this luckiness happens much less often. This most common application (or lack thereof, depending on the game) involves critical successes and fumbles. Because players roll less frequently than monsters, critical hits or fumbles happen more often when monsters are using this rule because there are generally more of them.

This is something a GM should explain to the group before the campaign starts. Most players will see the logic of this when you explain it. It depends on the idea that they're playing a game and not telling a story, because it relies on the idea of applying the rules equally to everyone in the game, PCs and NPCs alike.

This is why I always say to GMs beware of players who try to find new rules that give them advantages even if the bad guys can do the same thing. The difference is that the player will always be involved in the action, whereas only certain bad guys will have that advantage.

Rule #3: RPGs Are Played to Have Fun​

I’d add a third rule, about which there’s likely to be less agreement: “RPGs are played for the benefit of the players too, not just the GM.”

As a player I hate to be manipulated by a GM who is doing whatever they like, rather than consider what’s best for the group in the long-term (even if the players think they don’t like it in the short-term, like having their characters potentially die). If your GM plays only for their own benefit, it may be time to find another GM.

Your Turn: What are your Golden Rules?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


I disagree with rule number 2. I think that your reasoning works well in "Combat as war" systems, but it creates less than optimal gameplay patterns when you use "Combat as sport". The bottom line is to be transparent with your players on which type of combat you'll be running and which interpretation of this rule you'll be using.

Other than that, interesting read. Could've used another editing pass. There are several errors throughout the piece.

I'd also change number 2 to:

The NPCs may try to do the same things that PCs do. But they don't always play by the excact same rules (narrative protection).

In the case of killing unconscious enemies:
NPCs don't have the luxury of death saving throws. So while you can usually kill an NPC with one attack, PCs usually need at least 2 attacks from within 5ft.

This helps a lot.


I'd say nay with the rule number two in some aspects. I love to surprise my players with abilities and spells that my NPCs are the only one to have access to. It helps deconstructing the habits some players have of applying their knowledge of the game to their characters.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
The only thing that comes to mind is, "Never ever start a long term campaign with folks you don't know and/or have played with before". My approach is always low commitment and exploratory. I want to know the basics, like are they reliable and courteous. Then, I want to make sure we have similar interests in gaming, playstyle, etc... I guess Id call it building a rapport. Many folks launch right into long running adventure paths and sandbox campaigns. It never really works out in the long-term in my experience, and the quality is wanting. YMMV.


Elder Thing
My biggest rule is "Make Sure Everyone Is On The Same Page Before You Even Start."

I think of this as having a Session -1, or maybe a bunch of them. I run idiosyncratic, personal weird fiction games with small groups, and that's not a style everyone is into.

It's imperative to make sure that potential players are interested in this approach even before having a Session 0, because otherwise we just end up wasting everyone's time.


My Golden rule is "Don't be a Jerk".

This is mostly meant as a comment toward your fellow players and DM but it also has a general signification. I don't care if that's how your character should react or if this is how you roleplay or if this is just the way you DM; just don't be a jerk.

You can play a jerk character, but be very mindful as to not be a jerk player. Your NPCs can be jerks to your PCs, but be just as mindful about not being a jerk to your players, which I assume are also your friends. Positive metagaming is a good thing.

Now I understand that being a jerk or pulling a jerk move can mean different things for different people and in different contexts bringing different expectations.

...which brings me to my second golden rule: "Know your Group".

Whether it is via session zero or casual discussion or safety tools; know your group's interests, sensibilities, and expectations. That is instrumental to golden rule #1. Playing an old-school AD&D or OSR game brings different expectations than a more "modern" campaign. Playing a cinematic Alien RPG one-shot brings different expectations from a long-term Star Wars game for example.

Hand of Evil

my adds:
  • Discuss the game before starting, things like house rule, what the players want from it and so on.
  • Don't let the players run the game.
  • and number 2 rule, player characters are a cut above NPCs. They have stuff like luck, the gods, faith on their side.
  • Get feedback on the game.


B/X Known World
Player Agency is Sacred. There are two big things that make tabletop roleplaying games distinct from movies, novels, and video games. This is one of them. The players are at the table to make choices and have those choices actually matter. Their choices are not and should not be limited to what the referee has planned. The referee should never take player agency away. Even when the player wants to do something stupid, the referee should let them. The referee should prepare NPCs, hooks, setting elements, etc but never prepare a plot or story. It's not up to the referee what the PCs do. The only exception to this is metagaming and cheating. Those players lose their agency only as much as necessary to prevent the metagaming and cheating.

Characters Can Try Anything. There are two big things that make tabletop roleplaying games distinct from movies, novels, and video games. This is the other of them. In movies and novels, the audience has no choices to make. In video games, the player has a limited number of choices to make. In a tabletop RPG, the players can try anything. Literally anything. They are not limited to what the referee decided beforehand. They're not limited to a few options from a dialogue tree. They're not limited to whatever artificial boundaries the referee tries to impose. If they try something impossible, it fails, but they can still try it. They're certainly not limited to what's on their character sheet. The mechanics aren't buttons to smash. Use some imagination.

Play Worlds, Not Rules. Immersion in the setting is wildly more important than the rules of the game. Players quickly take to gaming whatever systems they're presented with, which destroys immersion. Get the system out of the way as much as possible to enable immersion in the setting and characters. If there's a conflict between what makes sense for the setting and what the rules say, toss the rules. They're guidelines at best anyway.

@overgeeked's points are pretty good - I could add a few footnotes here and there, but overall they have my support.

In addition:
Roleplaying is a group activity. Not only the GM, but everybody on the table should be invested in creating an enjoyable gaming experience. This includes at least some effort before sessions (e.g. basic knowledge of the system) and some during sessions (creating interesting situations for everybody). Specifically, player's should think about reasons why their characters go on adventures and are willing to work together as a group.

System matters. It's not the only thing that matters, and probably it doesn't matter as much as Ron Edwards claimed, but I expect a ruleset to support the experience it strives to create. If it doesn't or if I feel I would have to do extensive modifications to make that happen, it's better to drop it and look for something else than trying to bend the game into something it is not. That might mean that some games will end after a session or two, but it's really better that way.

All play styles are valid, but not all are compatible. I firmly believe that no play style is inherently better than another, but not all of them might work in a single game. Similar things can be said about preferences regarding the use of VTTs and the preferred degree of automation. It's helpful if all people have a general idea of what they enjoy and it can be checked in session 0 if the individual preferences align. As with system preferences, it's better to stop a campaign early than drag on half-heartedly for too long.

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