It’s an old adage, and a good one—but it can lead even well-meaning GMs astray. Because the rules are important. They carry weight, and meaning, and it is because they are important that so many arguments are had about them.
The temptation is always to become the Authority, He Who Is In Charge. This can be both a blessing and a curse: it is a blessing, because it makes you the final arbiter of how things work, regardless of any books, any dissenting opinions, or the like. This ensures that any information you do not want in your session, story or campaign simply does not exist for the purposes of your game. This would go for rules or, if you are playing in a shared worlds (like Pathfinder, Buffy or the Forgotten Realms), story information as well.
But being an authoritarian is also a twofold curse. First, though it gives you a firm hand with which to guide your players, it requires you to always be on top of the rules, on top of the adventure, and a step ahead of the players. Second, and completely avoidable, taking this tack may lead you ever-further down the path of absolute control over your table.
It may seem at first that needing to be sharp on the rules and story and a step ahead of the players is just what a GM is supposed to be. But there are consequences to this style; by crafting yourself as an authority, the players will turn to you to be their guide and governor. Moving forward, you run the risk that any tentativeness you may experience as you calculate your options may be seen as fumbling. Fumbling will increase player frustration, and frustrated players will be more likely to challenge your authority, either by trying to find ways to stymie you (players who try to push and push to find your limit), or by trying to find maybe-too-creative interpretations of the rules.
To combat this, you will need to develop an excellent poker face and you will need to be ready to shoot down any “rule-bombs” (challenges brought forward by Rules Lawyer-style players) with exacting knowledge of the rules. Because of this, the authority is always on the verge of becoming a Rules Lawyer or Mathematician herself; someone who must be able to calculate and cross-correlate often complex rulesets into a smooth and cohesive experience. Unfortunately, many players see this as a further challenge to try to overcome, and rules knowledge becomes an arms race that can completely derail story altogether. This harkens back to the early days of gaming, and for some groups this is a very good and comfortable role for GM and players alike.
Second, and avoidably, being an authoritarian is the first step in becoming a Tyrant, a GM whose opinions are so absolute they allow no room for divergence. Tyrants are not only in charge, but their interpretations of the rules are the only interpretations that matter—right or wrong. This is, of course, a role to be avoided at all costs, lest you find yourself devoid of players.
So how do you ensure that you provide proper rules governance, while avoiding letting the rules overcome your story and ensure a good time is had by all? The key is in understanding what the rules themselves provide both the GM and the players, and why no game can exist without them. The rules are important because provide both players and GMs a common and consistent framework from which they can attempt to accomplish their goals. Rules allow players to know where they might succeed or fail independent of GM fiat, and as a result rules provide the structure that frames a player’s actions and help the players to drive the story. The reason players are so passionate about rules isn’t because they necessarily want to bend or break them; the rules are what the players are able to use to take the reins of their characters’ destinies.
And it is for this reason that GM fumbling over the rules can be so frustrating for players—if the rules are applied inconsistently, then the players have an inconsistent amount of control over the game and the world. Because the rules are predictive, they suddenly find themselves stripped of their ability to determine with any reasonable efficacy the consequences of their actions. Imagine, if you will, the chaos of driving around the city when there are no traffic laws and the police make up the rules of the road on the spot—this will help you to understand the perspective of a player in a game where the rules are inconstantly applied.
Understanding this, the wise GM may adopt the approach of the Adjudicator, trying to maintain a balance of rules consistency through her own interpretations and the interpretations of her players. If players feel (and make no mistake—this is very much about feelings, not necessarily logical though processes) they can get a fair hearing on their interpretations of a rule in case a dispute arises, then they are much more likely to approach the subject of rules collaboratively instead of competitively. And just like with storytelling, collaboration on the rules often yields better results for everyone involved.
One good way to foster this feeling among your players is to let them know that you can be wrong, that you don’t know everything. Let them know your goals in how you use the rules. And when the players find a way within the rules to accomplish something that you did not anticipate—say, they successfully snipe your Ultimate Bad Guy from half a mile away, killing him in a single devastating critical—well, let them have it. I say this because the ultimate consequences of continually removing or reducing the success and cleverness of your players will naturally reduce the cleverness and high-spiritedness of your players.
I am reminded of the GM who has several traps in his dungeon. The party rogue, who has focused his entire character on finding and removing traps, is tearing through the dungeon’s pitfalls and fire jets and spiked pits like nobody’s business. The GM had meant for these to be a challenge; so he secretly starts upping the difficulty of the traps. By performing this action, the GM is eroding the trust the players have in him; he is saying, “what you have been able to accomplish does not fit with what I want, therefore I will reduce the measure of your accomplishment.” In so doing, he is in effect saying what I want is more important than what you want.
This is distinctly different and decidedly more insidious than fudging the dice, a common practice wherein the GM ignores a secret die roll to modify the result of a roll. Fudging the dice is entirely appropriate when used on rare occasion, and is usually used to modify the result of a roll in combat that would otherwise have potentially devastating consequences for the players. It’s important to be able to fudge the dice because sometimes probability just isn’t working out the way anyone intended.
When, as a GM, you subvert the players’ rules usage for your own gains, the players will eventually figure this out to some degree. The consequences could branch down a couple of paths: one, your players could decide that the degree of specialization in their chosen direction (in the example of the rogue, trap mastery) is not yet enough, so they try to find ways to become even better at it. This leads to another arms race, of modifiers and penalties and ever-increasing numbers with no end in sight. Alternatively, the players could decide that if even specialization doesn’t help them accomplish their goals, nothing will, so why bother? This is far more devastating, because this is a shot right at the morale of your players, who—if they feel there is no chance of success no matter which way they turn—will simply become automatons making perfunctory die rolls when instructed.
Granted, the examples above are long-term consequences; there are many gives and takes which can prevent this from happening. And maybe if only it wasn’t your Ultimate Bad Guy can be an acceptable excuse for brushing aside the players’ success this one time. That depends entirely on your players and your ability to read them. But the less you arbitrarily modify the rules, the better.
Because the role of the GM as Referee is about building a relationship of trust between you and your players. If the rules change, arbitrarily or not, that fosters suspicion on the part of the players. Even if a decision doesn’t go their way, there will be a little voice in the back of your players’ heads that asks, “Did the GM make that decision because it was the best decision, or because if he ruled differently, we would be interfering with what he wants?”
The best way to help build trust and acceptance of your decisionmaking is by explaining the logic and reasoning behind the decisions you make on the rules. This logic should be clear: “that’s broken!” isn’t going to cut it. Relate your decision to other rules in the system, or other decisions, and make sure your own logic is consistent. Consistency in the interpretation of rules is one of the reasons Organized Play is so popular; players know what they are likely to get, and they don't have to worry about this, that or the other in the books they paid for not applying. Consistency in reasoning will also help build trust with your players. If you are open about your logic and the way you apply the rules, you will build trust, and if you build trust, your players will be readier to accept your logic: the circle of good judgment.
This will help prevent an escalation of rules-lawyership, but it is not a bulletproof solution—some players just prefer to try and dominate a table with their rules knowledge. A good rule of thumb to use when confronted with such players is to give them an amount of time—say, a minute or two—to make their case. Genuinely pay attention and genuinely consider their case. Those are important; it is meaningless to even allow a case to be made if you are not going to attend and contemplate. Once the case has been made, make your on-the-spot judgment, and say you will review more in-depth after the session. This provides a twofold benefit: your players know they will be heard, and you don’t have to lose too much of your pacing to cover a rules discussion.
One way to avoid dealing with lots of rules discussions is to use a rules system that doesn’t have very many rules in the first place. GURPS, Pathfinder, and Shadowrun are among the more complicated systems on the market, because they have complex rules that often interact with each other in unusual and sometimes contradictory ways. Many players and GMs love these systems for their “crunchiness;” others hate them for the very same reason. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are a step down from the pinnacle of complexity, while Savage Worlds and the World of Darkness are a step down from them. Some of the simplest rulesets out there are 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and Fudge, which are specifically designed for fast, simple play. This of course isn’t a comprehensive list; if you know of any other systems, and would like to rate them in comparison to the above, please do so in the comments!
Generally speaking, the less complex the ruleset, the more it focuses on story and characterization. But the rules and story don’t have to compete—they can work together. Clever use of the rules can create new and interesting challenges for the players at every turn; this is usually how new monsters get created in the first place. Just remember: the only absolute rule of GMing is that there is no absolute rule.
Get out there, mix it up, and remember: have fun! In two days, we’ll talk about the GM’s role as the challenger of the PCs. Does that mean for all his fairness, the GM is ultimately an adversary of the players? Let’s find out together, next time.