Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Does Rule Zero Empower Game Masters To Handle Problem Players?

Over at Talking Game, Eric Franklin makes the Sad Puppies out to be like the very worst sorts of gamers. “The folks involved with this are using the ‘We didn’t break any rules,’ argument,” he writes. “As a gamer, I am well aware that ‘We didn’t break the rules,’ is shorthand for, ‘I know I’m being an asshole.’ Because I hear it at the table all too often.”

This got a hearty Amen from Rev. Bob at File770:

Oh, exactly this. Min-maxers, munchkins, powergamers… the breed goes by many names, but it’s all the same thing. These are the guys who comb through the rulebooks, searching for that golden combo that is technically legal yet completely broken. They’re why Rule Zero of every role-playing game is that the GM gets to say no, with as much vehemence as needed, when such a situation surfaces. (And then he puts a house rule in place to keep it from happening again, but there’s always another loophole. Nature of the beast.) I’ve been that GM, and sometimes I’ve thought I would have to kick a player out of the game for that nonsense.

This is something that’s been kicked around quite a bit in the game blogging scene, but I don’t think this is entirely accurate. You see, Rule Zero is not in the roleplaying game books because gaming attracts toxic, competitive jerks. Rule Zero is fundamental to rpgs because they cannot function without it. In traditional rpgs, even in situations where there are rules that bear directly on what is happening in the game there is a great deal of judgement involved. Players make appeals, and a good game master doesn’t provoke the players unnecessarily, but even a guy that attempts maintain a perfect consensus at the table has to exercise his authority continually in ways both subtle and broad-gauged.

(Oh… if those min-maxer types are a hassle, consider going back to a game where characters are created by rolling 3d6 in order six times. Also, embrace and encourage the sort of play that goes beyond the strict boundaries of the rules and module definitions. You have to do it to play anyway, but you don’t have to fight it so much. And yes, I’m aware that some rpgs are more like board games and that other recent games distribute gm authority more among the group as a whole. I’m not talking about those games.)

“Booting someone because he’s a jerk who sucks the fun out of the room” is something that people and groups end up having to do on occasion, but I think that’s an entirely different subject. Social concerns such as who gets to play, where, when, how, and/or whether or not people can eat in the living room are outside the scope of what rpg rules actually address. Anyone at anytime can declare that they refuse to participate or host as long as a given person is involved. That’s not gaming. That’s people. What’s required when those situations come up is a combination of grace, tact, and good sense. Rule Zero has nothing to do with that and is no help there in any case.


13 responses to “Does Rule Zero Empower Game Masters To Handle Problem Players?

  1. Cirsova May 7, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    There is so much insane rationalizing about things at this point, I no longer feel it worth trying to call it out.

    The best part of running B/X is I don’t think I’ve ever had to use rule zero. The most I’ve had to worry about is dealing with the world-building obsessed player who wants to know things like tidal patterns, prevailing winds, and watersheds. I think if he starts asking me about lunar phases, I’ll tell him there’s no moon. That’ll show him. ::kicks back in DM’s chair, knocks beer all over printed notes::

  2. MishaBurnett May 7, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    What I find interesting about the “rule zero” argument regarding the Sad Puppies is the unstated (and possibly unconscious) assumption that there is a game master in the Hugo award process. I think that this shows the degree of arrogance in the reigning clique–they feel that the awards are their game, and that they have a right to control it.

    • jeffro May 7, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      Maybe if David Gerrold just threw out any ballot that smelled funny to him they can get the results they want. Sort of like how I skip Wandering Monster results that don’t fit with that’s happening.

      • Keith Glass May 8, 2015 at 10:33 am

        To the powers-that-be, we Puppy supporters ARE the Wandering Monsters.

        Except they expected the occasional gelatinous cube or rust monster, and got a troop of Mind Flayers instead. . . . (evil grin)

  3. D. May 7, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    The funny thing is that I end up with better games when I say yes – and the players know that there is a direct correlation to how much they abuse the rules to how much I will (and I invariably know the rules better than they do). Yes, I agree with Rule Zero, I’ve used it, I’ve even thrown people out of my house for being jerks and arguing with me overmuch.

    But I’m much more likely to give my players anything they ask for, and then let them choke on it…


    • jeffro May 8, 2015 at 4:48 am

      Oh, yes. This. It’s like the guy that died because he needed magical healing immediately. He actually had a healing potion but forgot he had it. I love it when the death comes directly from player choice and there are nothing remotely like objections from the players for it. “We had this coming.”

      • D. May 8, 2015 at 4:22 pm

        Exactly! I think that there is also a large bit of, “Please don’t forget that whatever weird/cool/superpowerful thing I give your character, I can give the bad guys something just as bad, twice as bad, or 10x as bad…”

        So, find the rule-breaker but legal combo? Fine. You’ll surprise it me with it one time, then you’ll start seeing the bad guys using it in direct proportion to how badly the players abuse it. I want my players to have fun, and I want to have fun, so I’m really far more interested in saying “Yes and…” instead of “No but…”


  4. BobtheCertifiedIdiot May 8, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Tabletop gaming, MMOs, video game tournaments score comparison, sports and contests have a thing in common. This is the value of sportsmanship, the self imposed restrictions that make competing more fun. As opposed to the behavior mentioned in ‘Playing to Win’, using social pressure to exclude things deemed cheap, actions which the unskilled do not see the counter to.

    There’s a Rory Miller book with a pretty good illustration of this, but I forget the title.

    Your normal sort of team enjoys beating an opponent playing by the usual sort of rules. A winning team will not be disheartened by losing, and will learn from it. A tough minded and skilled team will play diligently even against a team which calculates precisely what fouls it will commit for what penalties.

    One of the people associated with Sad Puppies married her GM, after seeing that he gave her the exact same consideration he gave a similar new male player.

    Most people will avoid an event with secret special rules for select contestants. The more an event is decided by things like intimidation, the more it will draw people who like such, or consider such endurable.

    Look at Kloos. Kloos apparently withdrew because of a strong sense of personal loyalty to Scalzi, PNH, and several others partisan to opposing those that nominated him. Who would want to get into an event that produces messes like that? Pushing things that direction just ensures that the mix of people involved is more like Beale.

    The status quo of the Hugo is toxic to people who are in it for fun and who don’t deeply care about knowing the rules perfectly. Rapid Puppies is viable precisely because the event repulses those who are not insiders or extremely competitive, interested in system mastery, tolerant of the level of risk involved, and willing to pursue social metagaming. It is a boxing tournament where the mob has been known to beat boxers who won’t throw the match.

    • jeffro May 8, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Yes. My idea of the ideal game mastering is one of studied impartiality– adherence to the rules is mainly about a means of creating consistent gameplay so that the players can actually learn to plan and adapt. The primary thing is that I am not invested in any particular outcome and I give the players every benefit of the doubt that I can because everything is pointless if they don’t actually have the capacity to make informed decisions while accepting the consequences of those decisions as well.

      This idea that Rule Zero means “I can boot you out at any time” is completely foreign to me. When I’ve had problem players, I leave that as an exercise for the players as a group. When the guy really goes too far for them, they work out a way to frag him. It’s hilariously entertaining for me– much better than any sort of story or conflict that I might want to come up with.

      • BobtheCertifiedIdiot May 8, 2015 at 1:31 pm

        It all comes down to a group with a consensus about what rules are fun. Whether a baseball league, or a roguelike’s mailing list for victory or death announcements.

        Some groups will prefer an adversarial GM. Some an impartial. Some a hand holder.

        Absent consensus of that sort, there will be drama and hurt feelings no matter the GM. Like a football game between a grid iron team and a soccer team.

        The core of Hugohate ’15 is that whether by failure to attract or running off, the event is much smaller than the potential interest for it as described on paper. Under the running off model, it makes sense that the outsider residue that remains is relatively hard to coerce. Dave Freer has been a conscript soldier, I gather in a war. I understand Amanda Green has been a criminal prosecutor. Sarah Hoyt grew up vandalizing street signs in a bit of a dictatorship. John Wright has been hunted by the police. That notorious misogynist, K. Paulk, has been successful despite some medical challenges that might’ve been crippling were she weak minded in any way.

  5. kamas716 May 8, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    I could maybe take the analogy between what Sad Puppies did and what happens in a game more seriously if Sad Puppies had done it out of the blue instead of being challenged to do it. One of the things that puts a smile on my face is when people ask for something, then moan about getting exactly what they asked for.

    • jeffro May 8, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Well hey, I was told that we can’t take what we already have. I feel like all we did was show up, but the whole scene is suddenly all “Aaaaugh! Our way of life is under attack!”

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