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.


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

Yes, which is why robust session zeros are a good idea. Lay out what the game is, what it's going to be about, and the kinds of things to expect during the game. If people's preferences and expectations don't line up, no harm no foul. Maybe we'll play together next time. This is also why I prefer open-world sandbox games. I set up the world and the players are free to explore it. If they are bored with something they chose to do in the game, they can stop and go do something else in the world. I won't railroad them into whatever storyline or prep I want them to experience.
I generally prepare a lot of little things vs one big thing. Session zero is great, though often one has to deal with players coming in afterwards which might not be on board with what everyone else has decided. I have seen them get mad about everyone else not turning away to follow their lead in another direction, and at me for not wanting to run two games simultaneously if they run off alone. Honestly, one of the most difficult things is to kick players out of games, probably my least favorite job as GM.

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Thomas Shey

It was taught in older editions quite regularly. It's only with 4E and 5E that has shifted to a more balance-centered approach. It might have been part of 3E, but I never played it so I don't know. In TSR D&D you fight whatever the world says would be there, regardless of your comparative hit points and levels or hit dice.

It was taught by some GMs in older editions. The fact it wasn't baked into the systems didn't mean that most GMs had a habit of setting up encounters you were supposed to run from. That didn't mean it still couldn't be a good idea in some cases even with them, but that usually had to do with some combination of misjudgment on the GM's part and bad luck than it being a deliberate choice on those GM's part.

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