Check for Traps
Judgment Day After Day

Alexander Macris | 28 Sep 2010 21:00
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It should be obvious that this is not a healthy manner in which to run a game. A game run like this is a game that lacks fairness, common sense, and verisimilitude. Yet it's very common when playing a rules light game to experience this sort of arbitrary decision-making on the part of the gamemaster out of an insistence that "there aren't really any rules!" This attitude derives from a failure to recognize that, just like a common law judge creates law when he issues a ruling, a gamemaster creates game rules when he decides things. Fairness to the players demands that the rules for any given situation be the same for each player in each situation.

Rules Light Games are Just Games That Haven't Been Played A Lot Yet

It's common to call games like Basic Fantasy, which heavily depend on the GM's judgment calls, rules-light games, in contrast to rules-heavy games like Pathfinder, which provide exhaustive mechanics. But with our deeper understanding of common law and civil law, we can see that a gamemaster's ruling is functionally a law, just like a game designer's rule is a law. Every rules-light game will over time become rules-heavy as its judge makes decisions about how things work. Rules-light and rules-heavy are only descriptive of the starting state of the game.

This being the case, when you are running a game, you need to remember that every time you issue a ruling, you have added to the "common law" of the game design. You need to write down your rulings, and apply them again to similar situations in the future - or distinguish them from prior rulings to explain why they aren't being applied. The very best gamemasters do this so consistently that over time that their long-running campaigns begin to develop an entire body of house rules covering the many special situations that have arisen in their campaign.

My own body of D&D jurisprudence, developed over 67 sessions of Classic D&D in the last 18 months, is currently up to 27 pages. It includes rulings such as

  • "Spells which effect every creature in an area (e.g. Fireball) or a random number of creatures in an area (e.g. Confusion) cannot be cast on targets in melee without affecting opponents with whom the target(s) are fighting."
  • Wands that are empty of charges no longer glow as magical.
  • When detection spells and items illuminate a target, the glow is visible to everyone as if cast by a torch.
  • The target of the Talisman of Pure Good is considered to be killed and his body destroyed. He cannot be raised or reincarnated, but a Wish spell could return him to life.

Of course, my 27 pages of rules are nothing compared to the old masters. After all, the entire corpus of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DM's Guide is just Gary Gygax and crew's common law rulings on Original Dungeons & Dragons.

So next time you look at that sleek little rules light game you just bought and think about what a breeze it's going to be to play, remember that it's not really rules light. You just haven't played it enough yet to make it rules heavy.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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