Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Everything is a Ruling

One convention of playing role playing games via a forum system is that players will preface all meta-game type remarks with “Out Of Character” tags. So you’ll often see players posting stuff like this:

  • [OOC]Oh no… not again![/OOC]
  • [OOC]We are so dead. Doh![/OOC]
  • [OOC]There is no way these guys are on the level. I’m being extra careful in how I do this.[/OOC]
  • [OOC]Will my Diplomacy skill do anything for me in this situation?[/OOC]
  • [OOC]There’s got to be some sort of sewage system under this building. Is there any way I can get to it?[/OOC]

This provides a mechanism for commenting on the game and asking rules questions without muddying the Method acting material that is the primary substance of player posts. When I started up my Donjebruche Campaign again, I temporarily went on a kick where I marked everything that was a Game Master Ruling in order to be separate raw fiat element of my posts from all the other “fair” stuff that I supposedly do when running the game. I quit, though, when I noticed that I was pretty much tagging everything as a game master ruling.

Sure, role playing games are often loaded with rules. But even with a bog standard skill roll, the game master has to rule on whether it’s necessary to even roll. On the spot, he has to rule whether failure is dangerous or not given the circumstances. If there is a failure and it was dangerous… he has to rule if there is some sort of appropriate saving roll for the situation that could conceivably ameliorate the consequences of a fumble.

And settings that are loaded with canonical material… these things can only address the macro level. Even if the books contain information that is directly relevant to the adventure, the game master again will execute a series of rulings in order to apply it. (“Okay… this world is Law Level 7 and a Charismatic Dictatorship… so… your vehicle has a 70% chance of being stopped. You might be able to fast talk or bribe your way out of an encounter, but this is more banana republic type thing than it is like China or Saudi Arabia.)

Some adventures are painstakingly spelled out and can take a load off game masters that are sick of pulling all these rulings out of thin air. Still… role playing games are inherently wide open. Players can inadvertently trigger new house rules and setting detail on the spot just by asking an innocent question. Even in games that are primarily a series of combat encounters, the game master still has to set things up in response of how the players proceed. If the players are thinking outside of the box at all, he is immediately back into ruling territory whether he likes it or not.

Ultimately, a role playing game is nothing more than a situation that the game master has imagined. The world it is set in is so vast, it can only be created on the fly. Players and dice being so unpredictable, there is no way to fully plan for all eventualities. All inputs into the situation that can change its state are filtered through a series of game master rulings: rules, setting material, and player input are all processed the same way once things start.

This can make a guy wonder how he can possibly run a game in a faithful or fair manner. For me, I lean on the rules, setting, and dice results as much as possible. At the same time… with a system like GURPS where people have paid points for various abilities, I try to be consistent in how those points impact the session. Finally… if something as going on that at all fits with a cinematic trope, I will nudge the game in that direction. Maybe this is tacky on some level, but faithfulness to dramatic conventions seem to be far more relevant to running a game than just about anything else. That last bit is, ironically, the thing that is least often addressed in gaming materials!

Note: My play-by-forum game currently has an opening or two if you’re interested. See here for details!

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4 responses to “Everything is a Ruling

  1. RogerBW October 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I think your last point ties into the historical development of RPGs. Early games tended to say “here’s a set of rules that describe the way a world works, but the stories you tell are up to you”. Later games have tended to have rules that act in service of a particular story style / set of dramatic conventions, with the extreme of this being indie games that explicitly support only one specific style.

    On another axis is the amount of GM input, with Neverwinter Nights sitting at the bottom end of the scale – the GM is quite literally a robot that implements the rules, and nothing more – and a completely freeform game at the top end.

  2. Earlburt October 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    This may not be a direct response, but it brings the following to mind. I kind of think of the Player–GM contract as, among other things, a willingness to give the other some slack (and some respect) in their respective spheres of play.

    For the GM, this means allowing character types the players want to play, and laying down plot threads that enable them to use/explore those characters. For players, it means paying attention to the GMs conception of the game world, and exercising freedom of character action within that framework.

    In settings of my own creation, I almost always have an idea about how the environment would respond to any given stimulus. Sometimes I need a moment to think it through. Sometimes it’s really new territory, and I’ll use the events as they unfold to actually create subsets of the setting on the spot. But I always expect my players to pretty cheerfully accept a ruling about how the world works. And I think it works because they get lots of latitude elsewhere.

    “Honoring” a gameworld is actually one of the very few things I demand of players. And it’s also most of what I WANT from them. Plotlines and adventures are kind of what I provide to them for the privelege of having them inhabit my world.

  3. Pingback: How Role Playing Games are Played « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

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