Worlds of Design: Golden Rules for RPGs

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

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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

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RareBreed

Explorer
Don't confuse player agency with character agency. The referee shouldn't violate the player's ability to choose, the character is a fictional construct, they have no agency to violate.
Yes, this is indeed an important distinction. But as you said, not only should a GM try to force a player to act or feel a cetain way, there's no way a GM can compel the player to act or feel a certain way, so this was not my intention. Apologies for any confusion.
Maybe read some more of my posts before you assume what I’m after. I agree with you 100%. Emergent storytelling is the only viable storytelling in RPGs.
This was more a comment in general with regards to many players, but not specifically for you.

So it sounds like in general we agree. My assumption in your post was that a player should always have control of their character's choice of action or state of mind. A subtle distinction, but an important one.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Rule #1: He who has the gold makes the rules. That is what my Dad used to say. Anyways, I think much of anything is about making a good story.
 

How do you make players afraid? You don't. It's never the referee's job to do so, no matter what horror scenario you're running.

I would push back on this idea. When I play in a horror setting, I do want to feel some level of fear akin to what I experience watching a horror movie or reading a horror novel. I don't want to be in actual fear of my life but there definitely are ways some GMs have of making the players feel dread more that works. I'm not especially interested in what my character feels in those situations, I want to be the one experiencing tension, suspense, a growing dread, etc.
 

Wow. Could not disagree more. Hard nope on this one. If we accept this, then 99% of gaming stops being an RPG because most gaming is not about "emergent storytelling".

I think there is nothing wrong with overgeeks preference. I think a share a lot of it. But I also think there are so many styles of gaming, and it's clear when you talk to other people who play many folks enjoy playing in different ways with story. To limit RPGs to one type of gaming experience I think limits the medium too much.
 

Tsuga C

Adventurer
Oh, Rule #2 made a regular appearance at my table back in the day.

Players: Well, we can do that because our characters are speshullllll.

Me: We're all special in our own minds, NPCs included.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Wow. Could not disagree more. Hard nope on this one. If we accept this, then 99% of gaming stops being an RPG because most gaming is not about "emergent storytelling".
What is it you think is meant by 'emergent story telling'? Just curious.
 

bloodtide

Adventurer
Rule One for me is the DM is God and on a whim can do whatever they want. No argument, discussion or anything. The DM makes a call or decision and the game goes on. Don't like it, you are free to leave the game.

Rule Two well sure an NPC can do whatever a PC does. I don't really see this as mattering much.

Rule Three is have fun. Ok. But that is super vague. Too many players use the fun excuse

The Don't be a Jerk rule is a good one for players, but it does not matter much in my games. Should I player be a jerk I will just alter the game reality around them, up to taking control of the character or killing the character.

There is no "player agency" in my games.

The players are welcome to try anything, but don't expect everything to work always.

I think making the players feel fear, or any other emotion is good game play.
 

Hussar

Legend
What is it you think is meant by 'emergent story telling'? Just curious.
I was assuming, and this is probably where I'm going off the rails - that emergent story telling are games where there is no "story". The oft touted sandbox where there is just a bunch of stuff that the players interact with and afterwards create a story. Thus, "emergent" story.

If you have anything like an Adventure Path or an overarching plot in the game (regardless of who creates that - depending on the system it might be the GM or it might be the players or some combination of both) then the story isn't "emergent". The details of the story aren't known, but, the general shape of the story is.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I always thought of emergent as everyone getting together, sort of like Tarkovsky said, a thousand people reading the same book is a thousand different books. It's that shared talking, or story telling space at the table.

There is another rule that should not be forgotten is the rule of cool. Plus an Italian girl once told me if it can't be fun, it can't be done, another ancillary rule.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I was assuming, and this is probably where I'm going off the rails - that emergent story telling are games where there is no "story". The oft touted sandbox where there is just a bunch of stuff that the players interact with and afterwards create a story. Thus, "emergent" story.

If you have anything like an Adventure Path or an overarching plot in the game (regardless of who creates that - depending on the system it might be the GM or it might be the players or some combination of both) then the story isn't "emergent". The details of the story aren't known, but, the general shape of the story is.
Hmm. Well, given my own definition of emergent story telling, which isn't that far from yours, I might suggest that where you go from that idea is a little odd to me. I don't think that the hard binary of overarching plot or not is really where that breaks. Lots of PbtA games, for example, have loose but very present overarching plot that is necessary to drive the game. TO take things from another angle, every game is emergent to some extent in that the details always emerge from player actions and subsequent adjudication. I'm not disagreeing with you exactly, just pointing to some additional nuance.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Rule 2 is simply a false belief held by a lot of designers, both amateur and professional. The purpose of game design in TTRPGs is to provide certain kinds of experiences.
It is not a false belief. What it is is a particular design philosophy that works and has worked for an enormous number of RPGs. And yes, it does produce a certain kind of experience that a lot of RPGers have preferred over the years.
 

It is not a false belief. What it is is a particular design philosophy that works and has worked for an enormous number of RPGs. And yes, it does produce a certain kind of experience that a lot of RPGers have preferred over the years.
Not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about the belief that this is in any way universal. Because it's not. And should not be.

SOME games work better this way. But a lot of them don't. I remain entirely unconvinced D&D is one of those games--and the fact that "monsters work like PCs" is one of the few 3e-isms 5e did not preserve would seem to have my back on this one.
 

Hussar

Legend
Hmm. Well, given my own definition of emergent story telling, which isn't that far from yours, I might suggest that where you go from that idea is a little odd to me. I don't think that the hard binary of overarching plot or not is really where that breaks. Lots of PbtA games, for example, have loose but very present overarching plot that is necessary to drive the game. TO take things from another angle, every game is emergent to some extent in that the details always emerge from player actions and subsequent adjudication. I'm not disagreeing with you exactly, just pointing to some additional nuance.
Fair enough. And I largely agree. The thing is, the point I was responding to: "Emergent storytelling is the only viable storytelling in RPGs." - isn't very nuanced. It pretty much flat out says that you must not have an over arching story since that would not be viable.
 

aramis erak

Legend
for me...
  • The full table (GM and players in equal parts" is the final authority, tho' the GM breaks ties. (GM as Primus inter pares rather than autocrat.)
  • Rules are meant to be used, so keep them usable and on point
  • a consistent approach to actions allows easy expansion at the table as needed in play
  • dice manipulations take time; use them only when they can add more than the time costs.
In point of fact, I think "all NPCs can do anything the PCs can" is a time-waster - both to elucidate, and to believe - because most NPCs should NOT do the most important thing in play: take the spotlight.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Yes, this is indeed an important distinction. But as you said, not only should a GM try to force a player to act or feel a cetain way, there's no way a GM can compel the player to act or feel a certain way, so this was not my intention. Apologies for any confusion.

That depends very strongly on how you're using "compell".
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I have some issues with both the first two rules Lew lists, but the first is an old lost cause to argue for the most part.

The second runs into symmetry problems. The fact is, there's no requirement that an RPG be about characters on both sides of the process that are the same class of being. While this is more common with NPCs than PCs, its entirely possible the other way around too; if an NPC is a god, he's going to be able to do things that are in no way possible for a mortal, and there's no assurance there's any way in-setting for the mortal to become a god. Similarly, its possible for PCs to be a particular subset of entity that there are no additional examples of, and that fact may give them the ability to do some things no NPC can do.
 

I have some issues with both the first two rules Lew lists, but the first is an old lost cause to argue for the most part.

The second runs into symmetry problems. The fact is, there's no requirement that an RPG be about characters on both sides of the process that are the same class of being. While this is more common with NPCs than PCs, its entirely possible the other way around too; if an NPC is a god, he's going to be able to do things that are in no way possible for a mortal, and there's no assurance there's any way in-setting for the mortal to become a god. Similarly, its possible for PCs to be a particular subset of entity that there are no additional examples of, and that fact may give them the ability to do some things no NPC can do.

There is also something to be said for keeping NPCs and monsters simple. In a game like D&D that simplicity can be handled through things like the MM, but in games without a massive monster manual, it can be very liberating to simplify the process of making enemies. One of the best examples of this I think is the Esoterrorists. You pretty much stripped monsters down to the bare essentials and they were incredibly easy to make on the fly.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I think that's where you have to draw a line between "PCs and NPCs can do the same things" and "They look identical in textual record". They're at least slightly different things.
 

I try to stick to a stronger version of rule #2. "Run the NPCs as if they were PCs, belonging to players who aren't at the session." No, they don't get the spotlight, except when they're providing information to the PCs., or doing things for them. But they are entitled to try to keep themselves alive and strive towards their goals. I can't spend as much time on them as players do with their characters, but none of them are "fodder" or "mooks" just there to be killed. Naturally, this style of GMing doesn't involve a lot of plots driven by fights. It's much more suited to exploration and investigation.

Emergent storytelling, to me, happens when the players have fully engaged with the setting and start understanding it subconsciously. At this point, they start realising how things work, favourable to their characters or not, and those insights are potentially as valid as those of the setting's creator. The GM does get to override them if necessary but should not do so lightly. Accepting or incorporating them makes the setting more real to everyone involved.
 

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