Worlds of Design: Golden Rules for RPGs

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

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

goldenrules.png

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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clearstream

(He, Him)
Player Agency is Sacred.
On the one hand I do appreciate your intent here, on the other hand to play a game is to voluntarily give up agency to do certain things.

Sometimes there are arguments between adherents of different modes of play that simply amount to failures to realise which elements of agency players are choosing to give up (and which they expect to retain) when they choose to play in other modes.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
On the one hand I do appreciate your intent here, on the other hand to play a game is to voluntarily give up agency to do certain things.

Sometimes there are arguments between adherents of different modes of play that simply amount to failures to realise which elements of agency players are choosing to give up (and which they expect to retain) when they choose to play in other modes.
Hard disagree. Players don’t give up agency by agreeing to play.
 





RareBreed

Adventurer
Players making meaningful, impactful choices in the game. Railroading, quantum ogres, etc destroy player agency. That's mostly what I'm talking about.
Is railroading inhibiting player agency or character agency?

I've often been fond of the idea of the Kobayashi Maru scenario. A scenario where, no matter what choices the agent (character OR player) makes, they are bound to lose. Take for example being a Spartan at Thermopylae, the French at Dien Bien Phu, or the Americans at Wounded Knee. You're going to lose no matter what choices the player makes (via proxy of their character). So does the "impactful choice" here imply being able to allow the player to tell the story he wants played out or does it mean you can not restrict the actions the player wants his character to do (and letting the chips fall where they may)?

If the former, does the GM also have a say in how the story will unfold?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Is railroading inhibiting player agency or character agency?
As the player and character kinda represent each other, the answer is "both".
I've often been fond of the idea of the Kobayashi Maru scenario. A scenario where, no matter what choices the agent (character OR player) makes, they are bound to lose. Take for example being a Spartan at Thermopylae, the French at Dien Bien Phu, or the Americans at Wounded Knee. You're going to lose no matter what choices the player makes (via proxy of their character). So does the "impactful choice" here imply being able to allow the player to tell the story he wants played out or does it mean you can not restrict the actions the player wants his character to do (and letting the chips fall where they may)?
Except - as Kirk proves with the Kobayashi Maru scenario - that loss isn't necessarily guaranteed. Now sure, Kirk's "player" metagamed the hell out of it, but then the KM scenario isn't fair to begin with and Kirk's player could be said to merely be fighting fire with fire.

Upsets happen; and while those historical situations you mention ended up being pretty one-sided there's always the chance - however small - that they could have turned out differently.

And a GM who doesn't allow these upsets to occur when the tactics and-or dice say they would is trampling player agency.
If the former, does the GM also have a say in how the story will unfold?
The GM presents situations and, oftentimes, has a great deal of influence over the bigger-picture story. That said, the GM IMO also has to allow that story to go in unforeseen directions should either the players or the dice take it there.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Is railroading inhibiting player agency or character agency?
Mostly player agency. Things like stuns or hold person or fear effects inhibit character agency. Railroading and quantum ogres inhibit player agency. But there's bleed from one to the other. You can't limit one without limiting the other.
I've often been fond of the idea of the Kobayashi Maru scenario. A scenario where, no matter what choices the agent (character OR player) makes, they are bound to lose. Take for example being a Spartan at Thermopylae, the French at Dien Bien Phu, or the Americans at Wounded Knee. You're going to lose no matter what choices the player makes (via proxy of their character). So does the "impactful choice" here imply being able to allow the player to tell the story he wants played out or does it mean you can not restrict the actions the player wants his character to do (and letting the chips fall where they may)?
But the players and characters can still choose to go the other way. They can still choose to run. They can still choose how they respond to the situation, and if the referee respects the players' agency, the referee will continue running the world in reaction to that choice and honor it. When the referee moves the challenge to always be directly in front of the characters, that's eliminating player choice and agency. If the referee puts the situation in front of the players/characters and forces them to engage with it, that's eliminating player agency. And yes, if the referee decides beforehand that no matter what the players or characters do they'll lose, that's eliminating player and character agency. If the players' choice is beef, they don't really have a choice.
If the former, does the GM also have a say in how the story will unfold?
Story in RPGs should be 100% emergent from play not decided beforehand by the referee or the players. If the referee simply decides all the outcomes beforehand, there's no point in having players at the table. They're not participating in a game, they're being told a story. The referee runs the the world; the players run their PCs.
 

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