top of page
  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

GM Advice: Rulings vs Rules

A popular bone of contention is discussions of game mastering advice is around the concept of rulings versus rules. It has sparked many a lively Reddit discussion as well as more thoughtful consideration from folks like Justin Alexander and others. Some games even go so far as to take a position on this, leaning into the "rulings not rules" mantra.


I'm going to attempt to sidestep the argument. There's nothing wrong with rules. There's nothing wrong with rulings, either. Both are necessary in a role-playing game. The balance is in understanding what the advantages and disadvantages are of each approach and then finding when and how to leverage them. And it is a balance, and the balance will vary from one game master (GM) to another and from one table to another.


Let the flame wars begin!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rules and Rulings

Let's establish some linguistic clarity first, shall we?


When we talk about rules, we are talking primarily about the operational mechanics of the game. These may be printed in the rule book of your role-playing game of choice, but they may also be established house rules your table plays by. This includes everything from conflict resolution, progression mechanics, narrative mechanics, and everything in between. There is a shared expectation of how the mechanics of the game work, and that shared expectation is codified in the rules. They apply to both players and GMs, though each may leverage, adapt, or be bound by different sets of rules. A rule is what tells us the area of a fireball spell, how many hit points a goblin might have, and even how to use mechanics like Inspiration and Advantage in a game like 5th Edition D&D.


When we talk about rulings, we're specifically referring to the GM's role in adjudicating situations. Adjudication comes into play in the basic operation of a role-playing game, but we don't talk much about it. That basic operation looks something like this:

  1. The GM describes a situation

  2. The players describe how their characters react to the situation

  3. The GM describes the outcome of the character's action, which, if uncertain, may require rolling dice

  4. The GM describes how the situation has changed, prompting a repeat of the cycle


It's that number 3 that is the sticky wicket. Because, rules or no rules, EVERY interaction between a player and a GM goes through this step number 3 and step number 3 requires what? You guessed it: adjudication, i.e., making a ruling.


They do this by leveraging the rules, which provide guidelines on how to adjudicate the situation. The amount of adjudication versus how closely the game hews to the rules is going to vary by the nature of the game and by the GM. Some games are very explicit on the mechanics while others encourage you to decide the specific outcome yourself. Likewise, some GMs and tables prefer to hew closely to the rules while others treat the rules as a loose guideline.


Dragons from Scratch GM Christopher Campbell sees it this way: “I look at the rules as an indication of the designers’ framework for the power level of the game. For example, proficiency bonus in D&D has a likely ceiling for an attack bonus to reach about 14 at level 20 (+6 proficiency; +3 weapon; +5 stat). So the RULE gives me an intended range of around 1-14ish. Cool. Framework/designer intent established. Now I can make a ruling that a Dark God can have a proficiency bonus of +20 because I view that to be in line with the power level I wish to bestow upon it. But I came to that ruling after seeing the rules and gave it a bonus that I felt accomplished my goal, even though it wasn’t technically something the rules covered or allowed.”


But why do we need rules at all? Aren't RPGs about shared storytelling?


Well, yes, they are, but the thing that makes a role-playing game a "game" and not an improv session is the existence of rules. (Though even improv has rules, which begs the question of whether improv is a game itself, a topic for another article.) Rules establish the guidelines for when and how we as players and GMs do things within the game. GM rules are different from player rules, and as GMs we often have more flexibility to change, bend, or adapt the rules to meet the situation, but that establishment of guidelines and boundaries is one of the key purposes of having rules.


It's not the only one. The second benefit of having rules is that it helps to establish the framework of the shared creative space. Rules help to create clarity in the imaginations of the players and the GM. If I, the GM, tell you that the evil wizard points at you and fire shoots out of his fingertips, you the player are going to want to know if your character is at risk of getting hit or not. The rules can help to tell you that (the wizard cast burning hands, range 15', you are 10' away, hence you are within the area of effect of the spell, etc).


A third benefit of rules, rarely discussed, is the mental load rules save the GM. GMing can be hard work and requires lots of creative energy. Making rulings increases the mental load on a GM. Leaning more heavily on the rules to adjudicate a situation can give the GM’s brain a tiny break!


How I feel when my players ignore the quest hooks...

“Take a fight with a group of Ogres or a well-written, pre-planned mechanical trap,” says Campbell. “The Ogres smash things and the trap does what it's programmed to do. I don't need to think of the ogre's deeper motives or witty banter nor the ‘grand plan’ of the trap's secret occult design. They just run their programs. These can still be fun encounters for everyone. But I can take the 20 or so minutes for the first 2 rounds and give my brain a breather before jumping back into the fight/trap and mixing things up for the second half. When the ogres do ogre things and the trap does trap things, the creative mind gets a beat to reset, step back, and plan next steps as the rest of the tactical mind just runs the program and the rules as written.


Sometimes the ogres do engage in witty banter - thanks Baldur's Gate 3!

“Is it possible that some small situations will pop up that require more intense adjudication? Sure. RPGs always throw curveballs. Expect the unexpected. But the chances of the rules doing most of the work for us in a situation like this are usually higher than if we are running, let's say, an intense RP dinner party with Strahd von Zarovich.”


Going back to our four-step operation between GMs and players, when the GM makes a ruling, they should generally consider what the rules say, adjudicating the situation accordingly. But what if the rules are silent on the matter? The D&D rules say zilch about investment in fantasy real estate, but your players might want their characters to become real estate tycoons in the Forgotten Realms. So how do you handle this situation? Well, you either have a passing dragon burn them to a crisp so you don't have to deal with it, or you make a ruling.


Some games actively encourage the "rulings over rules" approach. In a game like Shadowdark, the rules are lean and sparse and rely more on GM adjudication, actively encouraging it. Consider conditions that can affect a character, like Poisoned or Stunned. In D&D, there are extensive rules on how to address each of 14 different conditions. The Exhausted condition alone has 5 paragraphs of text and a table! Shadowdark, in its rules on conditions has four sentences intended to address the topic entirely. In fact, these four sentences can be boiled down to two: "Advantage and disadvantage apply to most situations. Use common sense." That is a dramatic difference in approach between two games that otherwise look similar on the surface!


Another situation in which rulings become especially important is when the rules get in the way of the fun. Rules can slow down the game, by forcing players to spend time measuring distance, consulting detailed spell descriptions, rolling multiple rounds of dice, etc. Additionally, rules, while helping to establish boundaries on the shared creative space, can sometimes stifle creativity. This is when the dramatic, exciting moments of a fierce battle between the party and a band of bloodthirsty trolls devolves into a series of numerical interactions and dice rolls.


In these situations, it can be advantageous for the GM to simply make a ruling to keep things moving quickly or to amplify the drama. This ruling may lean into the rules but more likely disregards the rules in exchange for pacing or for maintaining the fiction.


However, before deciding to simply lean fully into rulings and ignoring the rules entirely, consider the impact on your players. Players have an expectation of how the gameworld works, that expectation being established by the rules. Abruptly pulling the rug out from under them by making a ruling that ignores or violates the rules can make players feel like their decisions don't matter. And nothing is more destructive to the fun of the game than robbing players of their agency.


This is one of those topics where there isn't an either/or answer. The point is understanding how the rules work, why they are there, what you gain from having them and what they cost you. As a GM, the most important thing you can do is to understand what your players like and want, and communicate how you run a game. If you run fast and loose with the rules but your players like a tightly structured game leaning into tactical combat, and you fail to understand this, you're liable to come into conflict. Conversely if you and your players are clear about what kind of game you like to play and run, that shared creative space is going to be a lot more fun to play in together.


 

What do you think? As a GM do you lean harder on rulings or rules? What advice would you share with other GMs? What about as a player? How do you feel about the GM making rulings? Is it thrilling or frustrating?


If you enjoyed this blog, please like and share it on social media. If you want more content on game mastering, follow me at www.shannonrampe.com/signup and the GM Cellar YouTube channel.



Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page