The Alexandrian

Rules vs. Rulings?

March 9th, 2009

I’m calling shenanigans.

Of late the meme has arisen that the difference between “new school” and “old school” gaming is “rules, not rulings”. The free Lulu PDF A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming seems to be a primary infection point and I don’t think we’ll go too far wrong by quoting it:

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.

There are several problems with this meme.


The Spot and Search skills tend to get targeted a lot by people trying to explicate the “rules, not rulings” concept. For example, the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming goes into a pair of lengthy examples of “old school” vs. “new school” play.

In the “new school” example, a player says they’re searching a hallway. They find a pit trap. They ask the GM if they can disarm it. The GM rules that they can. They jam the mechanism. (The results of the search and disabling attempt are handled by skill checks.)

In the “old school” example, a player says they’re checking the hallway. They fail to find the pit trap, but they’re suspicious so they try a different method of searching. They find the pit trap. They ask the GM if they can disarm it. The GM rules that it can’t be disarmed. They go around the trap instead. (The results of the search and disabling attempt are handled by GM fiat.)

Now, if you’re trying to establish that the difference in play here is GM fiat vs. dice rolling, then these examples would be just fine. But what the author actually does is load up the “old school” example with a bunch of details — using a 10-foot pole; carefully inspecting the floor; pouring water onto the floor to detect the edges of the trap — and then tries to attribute that additional detail to the GM fiat.

But the GM fiat has nothing to do with it. It’s an artificial conflation of two different distinctions between the examples. The use of GM fiat vs. predefined mechanics only matters in he moment of resolution. The amount of detail that goes into searching a particular stretch of hallway, on the other hand, is an entirely separate issue.

The “old school” example could just as easily read:

GM: A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.
Player: I carefully check the floor for traps.
GM: Probing ahead you find a thin crack in the floor — looks like a pit trap.
Player: I try to jam it so it won’t open.
GM: No problem.

And the “new school” example could just as easily read:

GM: A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.
Player: I’m suspicious. Can I see any cracks in the floor? Or a tripwire? Anything like that? [makes a Search check]
GM: Nope. There are a million cracks in the floor. If there’s anything particularly sinister about any of them, you certainly don’t see it.
Player: Hmm… I still don’t like it. I’m going to take my waterskin out of backpack. And I’m going to pour some water on the floor.
GM: [calls for a new Search check with a circumstance bonus for using the water] Yeah, the water seems to be puddling a little bit around a square shape in the floor.
Player: Can I disarm it?
GM: How?
Player: Jam the mechanism? [makes a Disable Device check; it fails]
GM: There’s no visible mechanism. The hinge must be recessed.
Player: Is there enough room to walk around it?
GM: About a two-foot clearance on each side.
Player: Okay, we’ll just try walking around it. Everybody watch your step!

Here’s a different example:

What I like mostly is more of the focus on descriptions rather than mechanics.

Player: “How wide is the ledge?”
GM: “Maybe 2 inches..”
(New School) Player: *seeing the modifiers of the Balance skill for that short a span* “Oh, nevermind, I better find another way across.”
(Old School) Player: “Okay … can I press myself up against the cliff face and side-step across?”
GM: “Sure. Since you aren’t pressured and can take your time, you don’t even have to roll anything.”

In other words, it’s more about player (and GM) creativity.

The poster here ascribes the difference to “creativity”, but that’s not what the example is actually demonstrating. Although the poster obfuscates it by giving different outcomes to the “old school” and “new school” games, the core of the example boils down to a single question: “Will I be able to cross this ledge?”

In the “old school” system the GM determines this by fiat (automatic success, automatic failure, or some probability of success based on an arbitrary dice roll). In the “new school” system the chance of success is determined mechnically.

Isn’t the “old school” GM getting to be “creative” because he determines the probability of success? I guess. But, of course, the “new school” GM also gets to determine the probability of success — he set that probability as soon as he described the ledge as being only 2 inches wide.


So we’ve discovered that “rulings, not rules” is really just a mantra for, “I like GM fiat.” Fair enough. What’s the problem with pervasive GM fiat?

The loss of consistency.

Ben Robbins’ essay “Same Description, Same Rules” is an excellent summation of the problem. Here’s a quick quote:

Rules should not surprise players. More specifically, if you describe a situation to the players and then describe the rules or modifiers that will apply because of the situation, the players should not go “whaaaa?”

If they are surprised it’s either because you specified an odd mechanic (a will save to resist poison) or a really implausible modifier (-6 to hit for using a table leg as an impromptu weapon).


On the other hand if the same thing uses different rules on two different occasions, it’s hard to see how it makes sense no matter who you are. This might just be the result of inconsistency (oops) or you might intentionally be using another rule to get an advantage.

I recommend reading the whole thing. Robbins’ basic point is that players cannot make logical, informed decisions if their actions have inconsistent results.

The problem with pervasive GM fiat is that you are either (a) creating inconsistency or (b) creating house rules on the fly. And if you’re creating house rules on the fly then:

(1) You have to keep track of them.

(2) Hasty decisions will frequently have unintended consequences.

(3) Even if the house rule you came up with on the fly is good the end result is no different than if you’d had a good rule to start with.


So you say, “Screw that. Ben’s wrong. Consistency is vastly overrated.” Well, sure, that may be true. Everyone’s entitled to their own tastes and opinions after all.

But that really brings us to the crux of the issue: The whole concept of using “rulings, not rules” as a distinction between “old school” systems and “new school” systems?

It’s complete, unmitigated bullshit.

For example, take a peek at the example given in A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming: The difference between GM fiat and mechanical determination of success in disabling traps. That’s a distinction that’s been around since the Thief class was first introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk.

In 1975.

And if your contention is that the New School started in 1975, then I think it’s safe to say that your use of the term is out-of-synch with the way that most people use the term.

But this extreme example only highlights the other core failure of the meme: It claims that the great thing about the “old school” is the lack of rules (which, in turn, allows for GM fiat). But all of those “old school” games seem to feature all kinds of incredibly detailed, nitpicky rules — betraying a bugaboo for the exact sort of constistency that the “old school” movement is now trying to forswear.

Having a Search skill changes gameplay? Sure. But let’s not pretend that’s any kind of systematic preference for rulings vs. rules, because you know what else changes gameplay? Explicit mechanics for determining the loyalty of hirelings. And those rules are part of OD&D, but not 3rd Edition or 4th Edition.

The truth is that the game has moved towards GM fiat in some cases and away from GM fiat in other cases.


There is, I think, a legitimate philosophical divison being alluded to here: The difference between “do what you want and we’ll figure out a way to handle it” and “you can only do what the rules say you can do”. But let’s not pretend that this is a division between “old school” and “new school” play. The term “rules lawyer” is older than I am.

In addition, I think the truth is that a properly structured rule system facilitates rulings — assuming, of course, that you’re not using the word “rulings” as an ad hoc synonym for “GM fiat”. The 3rd Edition skill system doesn’t just give you a tool for differentiating character concepts — it also provides a robust and open-ended mechanic which can be used to make any number of rulings.

It’s certainly possible to look at any ruleset as being a set of shackles that prohibits you from doing anything not explicitly proscribed. But, in my opinion, a properly designed ruleset is a flexible foundation on which an infinite number of structures can be securely built.

Honestly? The whole “rules, not rulings” thing was a valiant effort. But you’re going to have to keep trying if you want something more than “old school is what I point to when I say ‘old school'” as your definition.

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7 Responses to “Rules vs. Rulings?”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    I’m torn here. On the one hand, I agree that a set of well-designed rules certainly make it easier to deal with unexpected situations. On the other, it’s been my experience that players in particular (myself included) tend to approach such situations via the rules, because players tend to like success. In my experience, this encourages less engagement with the fiction, and more engagement with the rules.

    I’ve been playing Basic D&D for about 18 months now ( and it’s not the lack of a solid skill system or anything like that which makes the game run so differently. It’s the lack of options in character building and combat, and the monster reaction table.

    Making a character and fighting monsters requires less system mastery in BD&D. In fact, my experience is that since you have fewer tools (skills, feats, etc), the real “mastery” in BD&D is mastery of the fiction by ambushing, gathering information, forming alliances, betraying allies, exploring, shooting and of course, lighting stuff on fire. Not that you don’t do this in 3e, but since you’ve got other options, you don’t have to spend as much time on it.

    The monster reaction table means that you talk to the vast majority of monsters you meet first, before getting into a fight with them (if at all). This also encourages more engagement with the fiction, because the monsters become people with needs, enemies, etc, rather than an interesting combat challenge that rewards system mastery.

    YMMV. The rules not rulings thing is a red herring, IMO.
    Thursday, July 01, 2010, 4:30:53 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Interesting POV. In my experience, rules tend to encourage players to consider options they wouldn’t otherwise consider. For example, the counter-intelligence rules I introduced to my 3.5 campaign. Before the rules were introduced the option was rarely considered. (I think I could count instances of counter-intelligence featuring in a D&D session on on one hand in 20+ years of gaming.) After the rules were introduced, the option has been regularly used.

    Another example: When I first got into gaming, the group I was playing with ignored all the rules dealing with surprise. Too complicated. Result? Stealth was essentially a non-existent part of our game.

    Intriguingly, you also describe the same scenario happening at your table: The monster reaction tables are a set of rules which introduce possibilities beyond “the monsters fight you”. It’s had an effect on your gameplay.

    But this can also be a good example of how you don’t need the rules to achieve those results. For example, I don’t use monster reaction tables, but that hasn’t stopped my players from successfully forging alliances with multiple monstrous groups in the underworld beneath Ptolus. (Recently they went to extraordinary lengths to protect an allied group of goblins against the potential danger posed by another group of dungeon delvers.)

    In general, however, I find that play at the table gravitates towards where the rules are. Sometimes these are the rules from the rulebooks; other times they’re robust bodies of written or unwritten house rules. But the stuff with the fiddly bits is what attracts attention.

    A final example: If you look at a lot of old school adventure modules you’ll find frequent references in the dungeon keys to strange gusts of wind that woud blow out the torches and lanterns carried by the PCs. Why? Because in the original 1974 edition of the game the rules for exploring the underworld took up approximately one page. On this page, one entire paragraph was dedicated to light sources. And in that paragraph on light sources, prominent attention was given to a rule about strong gusts of wind blowing out torches.

    As a result, for a decade or more, strong gusts of wind figured prominently in D&D games everywhere. And what’s interesting is that the “gust of wind” style of play, as tracked in published modules, continued to persist for several years after the rules for blowing out torches lost their prominence in the rulebook. (IOW, the rules weren’t removed because the style of play became less popular. The style of play became less popular because the rules changed.)
    Monday, July 05, 2010, 9:35:27 PM

    Now that you mention it, I’ve seen what you’re talking about (ie rules opening up avenues of play) in other games. And thinking about it a bit more, I think the real difference with the BD&D reaction table has little to do with there being a reaction table, and more to do with the reaction table forcing me as a DM to consider other reactions besides combat. 3e D&D is by far my “baseline” game, since it’s the one that caused me to rediscover rpgs, and it’s the one that I played relentlessly for years, and I think 3e D&D emphasizes combat. It certainly rewards the players for fighting and defeating monsters.

    So now I’m not sure what I think. Maybe what I’ve observed has less to do with the presence/absence of rules and more to do with other factors…
    Monday, July 05, 2010, 11:37:11 PM

    Justin Alexander
    I’ll flip back the other way now and say that rules definitely will have an impact on gameplay, but quantity alone isn’t going to do it.

    For example, it was fascinating running the Caverns of Thracia using strict OD&D time-keeping (highlight: 1 turn = searching 10′ of wall) and wandering monster rules (1 in 6 chance per turn). While my gut told me that the wandering encounters would happen too frequently, the resulting gameplay was actually very effective: It immediately created the sensation that the dungeon complex was active and alive, and it forced the PCs to focus their attention if they wanted to accomplish anything meaningful.

    And this was within the context of the bloated monster XP awards of the original LBBs (100 XP per HD, don’t divide it). Reduce those values to as much as 1/100th their former size (as happened with Supplement I), and it becomes even more important for the PCs to focus their attention in order to push farther into the unexplored portions of the dungeon where meaningful treasure might be obtained. Constantly skirmishing with wandering monsters in the dungeon’s entrance just isn’t going to cut it.

    OTOH, if you applied these same guidelines to 3rd Edition’s XP rules (eliminating XP for treasure and putting at least 90% of the XP award on overcoming monsters) the result would probably be exactly the opposite: Players would have virtually no incentive to leave the entrance of the dungeon. The high rate of wandering monsters would literally deliver the XP to them.

    I recently posted a comment over on Grognardia that also dealt with some old school XP and pacing issues.
    Tuesday, July 06, 2010, 3:35:58 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Washington: First, if that works for you then it works for you. Nothing wrong with it.

    But, for me, well-designed rules don’t preclude thinking about the situation. I make just as many rulings in my 3rd Edition game as I do in my OD&D game — the only difference is that in the 3rd Edition game I have a set of rules which gives both structure and consistency to my rulings.

    @Starfox: While I’ve played many enjoyable games of Amber Diceless Roleplay, I would tend to agree with you that using the same structure as a diced RPG and simply removing the dice is not an ideal structure.

    OTOH, I think there are other structures for diceless play that work well. Most of the structures I’ve seen that work particularly well are those that share narrative control — de-emphasizing or even removing the traditional role of the GM.
    Thursday, April 16, 2009, 11:50:23 PM

    I’ve never been partial to the “diceless” games I’ve played. From my experience they become an exercise in convincing the GM that what you want to do will work. That kept putting the players in the position of not actually knowing how good they were at any task which in turn made planning anything difficult. It also seemed that success or failure had more to do with the mood of the GM at the time. At least with a good rule set there is in essence an “impartial arbiter” of success or failure at a task and a guage of what a character is capable of.
    Handling a character death was another touchy subject when a character was killed because the GM disagreed with a plan and decided that the character was going to die. In one game I never felt threatened by anything and in another game feathers got ruffled when the GM “personally” decided to kill a character.
    I don’t mind a little GM fiat here and there to keep a good story going, but I like some knowable and consistant rules to be able to make decisions with.
    Thursday, April 16, 2009, 8:40:17 PM

    Washington Hercules McPornstar
    I’m with Tom on the “ruling by fiat encourages thinking about the actual situation” thing. A GM is a human being and as such will have to base his decisions on _something_, he’s not likely to just flip a coin for “can” or “can’t”. Without a rule to use as a crutch, he will think about the game situation because that’s all he can do, and the players will think about the game situation because that’s all _they_ can do. If the GM views role playing games as (rough) simulations of a make-believe world, it will encourage him to make his decision based on how he imagines the situation to be in his mind. If he views role playing games as interactive group storytelling, it will encourage him to make his decision based on what he imagines would make the “story” work better. Either way, he will base it directly on the thing he wants from the game, without the middleman of a ruleset trying to (imperfectly) approximate what he wants from the game.

    Our group has a practice that we have always followed, right from the start: the players do not get to know the rules of any game we play. Only the GM does, and he is not obligated to follow them at all. At first this may sound like our games are a chaotic mess, but they’re not, because the real game happens in the mind of the GM – the GM is the real game. The rules are just a bookful of helpful suggestions for him to how to resolve certain things, and they can and should be ignored whenever they are unhelpful to that goal. And the players, having nothing else to rely on, will focus on the logic of the game world and their common sense, instead of metagame concerns. This trick results in deep immersion for very little effort, and it’s based on Tom’s idea – sometimes less is more, and more is less.

    (This by the way is the reason why I will never touch D&D 4e – it’s designed in such a way that it’s impossible to play without the players knowing the rules.)
    Thursday, April 16, 2009, 5:52:33 PM

    Andy Bates
    I agree that the original author makes a false correlation between the complexity of a rules system and the use of GM fiat. The only definite correlation is that a system without certain rules requires GM fiat. However, that does not mean that a complex system prohibits GM fiat. If you have a sufficient grasp of the complex rules, you can use them (or whatever level of complexity you feel is appropriate); if you don’t, you can use GM fiat. The option is yours.
    Thursday, March 12, 2009, 1:11:03 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Hey, like I said in the essay I think everyone is entitled to their own preferences. I’m just pointing out that (a) the difference being described is the difference between defined mechanics and GM fiat; and (b) it’s not particularly accurate to claim that earlier editions of the game preferred GM fiat over rules. OD&D itself has rules covering situations that D&D3 says, “Handle that by fiat.”

    Further, I think complexity of ruleset is a completely separate issue. There are plenty of people have applied this “rulings, not rules” meme to AD&D1. And I’d argue that AD&D1 is far more complex than D&D3.

    So complexity isn’t really the name of the game here. I get that the complexity level of D&D3 is not going to appeal to anybody (I’m the guy developing Legends & Labyrinths after all). In fact, I don’t even find the D&D3 level of complexity to be any kind of “perfect fit” — there are lots of games I prefer to run using 1st Edition BESM, for example.
    Thursday, March 12, 2009, 12:51:31 AM


    You’ve mastered the d20 mechanics to a degree that I’ve never managed to reach. In my hands they’re slow, clunky and a distraction to the group’s immersion.

    If it’s a great system for you and your group, obviously the “old-school” POV won’t be able to convince you. I suspect that few DMs get to be as good and comfortable as you with complex systems though, and they end up engaging mechanics and numbers on a sheet more than the imaginary world itself.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 5:56:14 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Changling Bob wrote: Dissociated mechanics are kinda the new meme for hating on 4th edition, when they aren’t necessarily actually a bad thing.

    If you care about immersion they’re absolutely a bad thing.

    IMO, roleplaying is the process of making decisions as if you were your character. Associated mechanics make that possible, acting as your interface with the character’s world.

    Dissociated mechanics, on the other hand, actively interfere with the process of making decisions as if you were your character. The decisions you’re making have no analog to the decisions of your character and, furthermore, the character’s reality has no meaningful relationship to the mechanics.

    With associated mechanics you make in-character decisions and then use the mechanics to translate them into the game world. with dissociated mechanics you make out-of-character decisions to manipulate arbitrary mechanics and then use the mechanical outcome to inform a semi-related improvisation.

    The difference is huge.

    It should also be noted that the specific example you give — setting a DC for breaking through the floor — is not dissociated in itself.

    The dissociation in your example only arises in aggregate — if you use pg. 42 to always set the DC for such a task at a “level appropriate” level. At that point all floors become equally hard to break (regardless of their relative weaknesses) and all floors become harder to break as the PCs gain levels (even if it’s the exact same type of floor that they had a much easier time breaking before).

    In that situation, any given resolution is still associated (there is a clear analog between my decision making and the character’s decision making). It’s just the result is an incoherent and nonsensical world. If I actually tried to interpret such a world rationally, my character would have to assume that the Gods were personally screwing with him.

    (There’s also the associated problem that it makes all player progress meaningless.)

    RL wrote: I assume you have little experience making these rulings on the fly…

    Actually, no. I got my start making these kinds of arbitrary decisions by GM fiat. I’ve been doing it for 20+ years. And if I have to do it, then I do it.

    But a solid mechanical structure simply makes those rulings easier. They also make the rulings more consistent — not only in identical situations, but between similar situations as well.

    And in my experience, consistency is extremely valuable. Its essential for immersion. It gives a basis for meaningful comparison (allowing players to have a tangible sense of their character’s basic improvements). And it encourages player creativity, because it creates a meaningful environment and provides the basic tools.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 4:34:36 PM

    Andy Bates
    “Dissociated mechanics are kinda the new meme for hating on 4th edition, when they aren’t necessarily actually a bad thing.”

    I’m not sure if it’s a “meme,” but I hated the dissociated mechanics before I had a name for them. For my money, if you can’t find a real-world explanation for an in-game mechanic (even if it is somewhat abstracted), then it’s not worth using. If anything, those mechanics discourage creative thinking, and make players think within the game system, instead of within the game world.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 11:30:54 AM


    We really do get a lot more done in a session, especially with the fast-paced combat. The players no longer look at game situations through game-mechanics glasses: “With my ability bonuses I should easily beat that break DC; how many squares are actually weakened?”.

    I assume you have little experience making these rulings on the fly, and you find yourself outside of your comfort zone and somewhat at a loss without the heavy numbers backing up your decisions. But this style does work well, and a faster-playing game is very stimulating. It’s worth trying it for a few weeks, and I think if you do you’ll find yourself rapidly improving at making rulings and as a DM in general. You might not adopt this style forever, but you’ll have gained some insight and perspective on its advantages.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 10:23:08 AM

    Justin says: “For example, in my 3rd Edition game an enlarged barbarian on the second floor of a building wanted to smash the weakened floor underneath a monster, causing it to fall through to the first floor. There are no rules for that — I have to make a ruling. But I can make that ruling within the defined mechanical structure of Break DCs and Strength checks.

    If they tried the same thing in OD&D, I’ve got no mechanical support. Do I make an arbitrary yes-no decision? Do I set a probability? Do I use some sort of house-ruled ability check?”

    Now, what is the floor made of? Wood or stone? How did it get weakened? How large is the weakened area? How severely weakened is it? How is the character attempting to bash through the floor? By stomping his foot, with a large rock, or with an enlarged mace or sword? Or maybe even by grappling and powerslamming the monster? If it succeeds, does it work only beneath the beast’s feet, or does the character possibly fall as well, or does the entire area cave in? If the beast falls, do large debris also fall upon it and cause additional damage?

    There’s a lot to take in when adjudicating this situation, and a standardized approach still doesn’t encompass everything. So while you’re at it, you might as well trust your judgment and gut feeling for the whole situation. Look at everything quickly, resolve it and move on.

    My approach: never an ability check, it imposes too much of the character upon the game world. A strong character will enjoy too much success at any type of strength-related feat, for instance, regardless of the actual game situation.

    In this case, it isn’t an automatic success or failure, so depending on the specifics I’d probably ask for a d6 roll, stating the minimum to succeed and why, based on the info available to them. (“The floor is already somewhat caved-in and is creaking under the monster’s weight; you’ll need a 3 and up.” And the actual results will be different depending whether the roll is a 3, 4, 5, or 6). Oftentimes the players will try to influence the chance stated, sometimes they’ll succeed if they make a really good point.

    Special and extreme results could happen on a 1 or 6, like a massive cave-in that swallows the party, or a best-scenario success with a piece of structure striking the monster’s head for extra damage. A 2nd d6 roll could be used to confirm a critical success or failure.

    Why I like the d6 is that it’s easy to assess the situation this way: 3-in-6 when it could really go either way, 2 or 4 in 6 when one side has an advantage, 1 or 5 in 6 for near-guaranteed successes or failures. The d8 is useful for the in-betweens the d6 doesn’t cover. And once in a while, I throw a curve ball by stating a very precise percentage chance to roll on a d100.

    Heavy mechanics really get in the way of fast-paced play for me. I like not opening rulebooks and not looking up rules and numbers. I assess the situation quickly, resolve it and move on. We really
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 10:08:22 AM

    Jeff Rients
    “As a GM these are the details you need to supply — sometimes on the fly.”

    As a GM these are details you _get_ to supply on the fly.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 7:57:18 AM

    Changling Bob
    Player: “How wide is the ledge?”
    GM: “Maybe 2 inches..”
    (New School) Player: *seeing the modifiers of the Balance skill for that short a span* “I press myself up against the cliff face and take 20, slowly side-stepping across?”

    The rules are merely the structure that the players (including the GM) build their story around. You can have verbose descriptions, and still come to a 3.5-style skillcheck, or you can use OD&D-style ‘I look for traps’ without any roleplaying at all.

    Incidentally, I think you’re cutting short 4th Edition on this matter. Granted, 4th is more gamist than simulationist, but if you, as in your example, want to break the floor underneath an enemy, strength check using the table on page 42, enemy’s immobilised (save ends) (as he falls into the floor), and low limited if the description warrants it. Alternatively, the enemy falls right through the floor, and rejoins the fight/warns his buddies/whatever after a bit of time.

    Dissociated mechanics are kinda the new meme for hating on 4th edition, when they aren’t necessarily actually a bad thing. I will grant the arbitrary scaling of any given action based on level seems weird, but although breaking the floor in the example would be harder for a higher level character, but overall any given character of given strength has about equal chance.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 6:45:29 AM

    Andy Bates
    Anyone who has played Paranoia knows how entertaining it can be to play characters who know less than the players do. Good characters, fun characters, often have flaws, and the better players I know are more concerned with telling a good story than with min-maxing their fighters.

    As for game balance, the author draws a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Even if there were some way of determining which set of monsters is completely balanced against a given party, that doesn’t mean that the DM will necessarily use only level X encounters for a party of level X players. A good designer will vary the difficulty according to numerous factors, not just set every encounter to the level of “perfect balance.”
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 1:37:11 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Tom: Those are good points. However, I think you over-generalize. Because the GM fiat conversation can just as easily go:

    Player: I try to disarm the trap.
    DM: You can’t.


    Player: I try to disarm the trap.
    DM: You do.

    There’s no inherently greater need for additional detail when you determine by fiat. The point you make about the psychology of the situation is a good one — but, IME, I don’t see a difference in how new players approach either edition. (Dissociated mechanics in 4th Edition, OTOH, do seem to be legitimately changing that.)

    @Raphael: I’m glad that lighter rule systems seem to have that effect on your players.

    Fortunately, my players never had any problems being creative when playing in 3rd Edition. The only difference in playing OD&D with them has been that I have a lot less support for dealing with their creativity.

    For example, in my 3rd Edition game an enlarged barbarian on the second floor of a building wanted to smash the weakened floor underneath a monster, causing it to fall through to the first floor. There are no rules for that — I have to make a ruling. But I can make that ruling within the defined mechanical structure of Break DCs and Strength checks.

    If they tried the same thing in OD&D, I’ve got no mechanical support. Do I make an arbitrary yes-no decision? Do I set a probability? Do I use some sort of house-ruled ability check?

    (I have a similar problem with 4th Edition although for very different reasons. Dissociated mechanics, like those in 4th Edition, makes it even more difficult to deal with player creativity — not only do you have no mechanical support, but the mechanics are actually an impediment. BID.)

    @tussock: The artificial limitation on circumstance bonuses is pretty much the only thing you need to ignore RAW-wise. And even if you don’t ignore them, as a DM I’ve got plenty of control over the difficulty of tasks — after all, I determine the DC.

    Even in the extremely rare cases where there is a hard-and-fast rule for the DC (like jumping across a crevasse), I still indirectly set that DC by determining the width of the crevasse.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 1:35:21 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Andy: I was actually playing another session of OD&D this evening and I had one guy playing a complete coward who kept running and hiding in a blind panic.(Until push came to shove and the fate of the party rested on him, at which point he stepped into the breach and… well, he was killed horribly by a lizardman. But everyone else appreciated the sacrifice.)

    In a 3rd Edition game a few weeks back, OTOH, I had a guy playing his 6 INT to the hilt.

    In neither case was there any sort of optimal mechanical play going on. Both characters were awesome to have at the table. So, yeah, like you I reject the entire “don’t roleplay outside of this narrow little range” meme he’s got going on in that PDF, too.

    And, similarly, the whole “heroic, not superheroic” is just rife with problems. Yes, 4th Edition made 1st level characters significantly less fragile than in previous editions. But he’s specifically targeted 3rd Edition in his comparisons and there’s just not that much difference. Yeah, the shift from OD&D to AD&D1 changed the characters from “don’t breathe on them” fragile to “don’t drop them on the floor” fragile, but fragile was still the name of the game until 4th Edition turned 1st level into the new 5th level.

    And I think he vastly underestimates the effectiveness of high level “old school” characters, while strawmanning 3rd Edition characters (who are hardly “invincible”).

    I think the only legitimate point he raises in the entire PDF is “forget game balance” — which is something I touch on with Fetishizing Balance — but even there he ends up significantly missing the mark through the use of excessive hyperbole.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 1:16:19 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @James/Jeff/John: The methodology for handling Search checks is an interesting question of technique. There were really two scenarios that started me thinking carefully about this issue, both of them the result of clever play in my adaptation of the Tomb of Horrors.

    (1) “I search it without touching it.” (Prompted, of course, by touch-activated traps.) Well, wait a minute… is that really searching it? OTOH, shouldn’t it be possible to look something over for signs of danger?

    Mechanically I handle this by imposing a -10 penalty on Search checks made without touching anything. (But such Search checks carry no risk of triggering anything.)

    I also allow Spot checks to notice traps at a -20 penalty. (This is mostly irrelevant for level-appropriate traps, but is nicely empowering for specialized PCs who are slumming it. Gives you a nice Indiana Jones feeling.)

    (2) “We head down the hall, prodding with out 10-foot pole.” Well, shouldn’t that pretty much automatically trigger the pit traps? Sure. Which is how I’ve been playing it. Similarly, if I know the secret door is triggered by pulling a fake book off the shelf and the players specifically start pulling all the books off the shelves, I know the secret door is going to get triggered.

    Interesting thing about the 10-foot pole technique, though. At some point during my D&D-hiatus in the late ’90s, I’d forgotten that traps only intermittently triggered in previous editions (1 or 2 on 1d6 in OD&D, for example). Thus, the 10-foot pole technique wasn’t infallible (since it had only the same chance of triggering the pit). I like the idea of intermittent triggers (which model both age and “did they step in the right spot on the floor?”) and will probably start using them more in my 3rd Edition games.

    But, in general, doing exactly the right thing or looking in exactly the right place obviates the need for a Search check. Laying a piece of plywood over the pit trap or prodding at the trigger until all the arrows in the trap have been shot obviates the need for a Disable Device check.

    It should be noted that this is no different than making it easier to climb down a cliff by securing a rope. Or obviating the need for a Climb check entirely by going down the stairs in the next room or using a feather fall spell.

    All of this is greatly aided by actually knowing what your traps are and how they work, of course. Lots of published modules don’t actually do that — but that’s a problem older than 3rd Edition. I’ve been running OD&D sessions using Caverns of Thracia — which, it should be noted, is an unmitigated classic — and it’s just as vague about how the traps actually work much of the time. As a GM these are the details you need to supply — sometimes on the fly.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 1:02:38 AM

    I think the main difference is not creativity, but the knowledge of the mechanics.

    In newer games, the player has his skill check chances predetermined, while the GM applies a few small rule-determined modifiers based on what the players do from a list (typically +10%). You know the optimal mods, so you do X, Y, and Z where you can, and you succeed, just like it says on the character sheet.

    Old school (in terms the primer uses) is instead where the GM knows the odds and the modifiers, potentially changing them all the time. Players can add modifiers that they don’t even know the size of, some might be negative this time (some times oil slows the swing of a blade, other times it speeds it).
    The trick then is not to follow a formula, but to see the challenge as the GM does, figure out what will work descriptively.

    Explore the problem; shine a light on it, poke it, throw something at it, cut the rope, jam the gear.

    And yes, one can play that “old-school” way in d20 games, but not by following the RAW. Get rid of take-10 and take-20, using big stacking modifiers (+5, +10, or maybe -10) for description instead, and require players to describe what the characters are doing or face overwhelming penalties.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 12:14:32 AM

    My favourite aspect of “old school” gaming is the emphasis on engaging and challenging the actual player.

    I like my players to think creatively to overcome a challenge, and if they’ve clearly beat the imaginary situation with their own wits, they’ve earned their automatic success. There’s enough danger out for them already.

    These players are guys who learned the ropes with d20. Yet, after the initial shock of OD&D’s deadliness, they’ve improved dramatically in playing skill. I’ve also improved as a DM.

    I think OD&D and other rules-light systems (Lejendary Adventures for non-dungeon focused adventures in my case) have had everything to do with our gaming group improving our creativity, reasoning, tactics, and historical interest.

    To me, that’s the most valuable thing this hobby has to offer.

    Monday, March 09, 2009, 8:09:43 PM

    One reason I think people feel this way is because of the subtle pyschological effect lack of rules can have:

    Player: I try to disarm the trap.
    DM: (Can they disarm the trap? Crap, I have no idea) Uh…how do you disarm the trap?
    Player: Hmm.. I’ll try to jam the hinges.
    DM: Yea, that will work, it’s disarmed.

    Here the DM can’t make a judgment, so he asks for more information to help decide. Compare to a system where there are well structured rules:

    Player: I try to disarm the trap.
    DM: Roll a disarm device check.

    The DM knows exactly how to decide, so no more details are needed. The results can be less satisfying. More so when you replace disarming a trap with a social encounter like trying to bluff or use diplomancy.

    Of course, there’s nothing stopping the players or the DM from adding details when there are well structured rules, but it easy to forget them when they aren’t necessary.

    In extreme case of adhering to structured rules, these details may even be actively withheld, both on the players’ side (why should I know how to disarm/bluff/diplomancize? My character does!), and on the DM’s side (I don’t care how cleverly you pour water on the floor, your search check wasn’t good enough!).

    It can be difficult to find a good balance between the two extremes.
    Monday, March 09, 2009, 6:54:41 PM

    Andy Bates
    I am only halfway through the article, but I have already noticed the multiple flaws in his arguments. In his examples, rules and creativity are mutually exclusive: The old-school GM is able to come up with creative on-the-fly rulings, while the new-school GM can’t find a rule for a particular situation, and is hopelessly flummoxed. Oh, and he makes a bad house rule, which just shows how bad he is.

    The rest of it seems like a conglomeration of personal preferences masquerading as facts about “the way things should be.” For example: “these games aren’t simulations of what a dwarf…having a particular level of intelligence, would do when faced with certain challenges.” Oh really? There aren’t stories or games where the characters have flaws, or where the dumb course of action is sometimes more interesting?

    And then there is the claim that characters don’t start off as powerful, but instead start off as average. You mean like Conan, that average guy? What if players want to start off as high-powered adventurers who face extraordinary challenges? Those are certainly valid (and interesting) options. Starting with a low-powered character is A way to play, but not THE way to play.

    I might have more to rant about after I finish the article. No promises!
    Monday, March 09, 2009, 6:02:52 PM

    “John Lee”
    I’d have to agree with the way Justin put it. A search check represents just basic skill. Using water is an impromptu aid, a circumstantial bonus, and provides a bonus to the check. Other mechanics (as Jeff Rients mentioned) might trigger/reveal the trap altogether, regardless of whether or not the user knows how to search; and those bypass a check. (traditional example: using a Bag of Tricks as trap fodder)
    Monday, March 09, 2009, 4:05:27 PM

    Jeff Rients
    “And if your contention is that the New School started in 1975, then I think it’s safe to say that your use of the term is out-of-synch with the way that most people use the term.”

    You’ll find adherents for that line of thought, especially with regards to the thief class in particular.

    Personally, when it comes to many operations I opt to have my cake and eat it too. Anyone can opt to just say “I check for traps” and a die roll decides the day. But if you describe how you are checking for traps and it happens to line up with the details of the trap as presented, then I will skip the roll.
    Monday, March 09, 2009, 2:52:10 PM

    James Richmond
    The first example with the trap (before you observe how it can be rewritten) does have me wondering what a Search check actually represents. For example, is a Search check assumed to utilise equipment the character has (like a 10-foot pole), and can the check fail or be at a penalty if they have insufficient equipment? Would realising the usefulness of water (still ‘equipment’) in revealing a trap in the floor be the result of a good enough Search check, and/or a required component in succeeding at the Search check?

    Our group doesn’t use a 10-foot pole. I think I might now bring one, to test the DM on its use… then again, I’m the Wizard and therefore not at the front of the marching order. Something I might bring up to that Rogue…

  2. Justin Alexander says:


    Quote from the Old School Primer:

    “Note: The modern-style GM in these examples is a pretty boring guy when it comes
    to adding flavor into his game. This isn’t done to make modern-style gaming look
    bad: we assume most people reading this booklet regularly play modern-style games
    and know that they aren’t this boring. It’s done to highlight when and how rules
    are used in modern gaming, as opposed to when and how they aren’t used in old-
    style gaming. So the modern-style GM talks his way through all the rules he’s
    using, which isn’t how a good modern-style GM usually runs his game.”

    I fail to understand how you seem to think (at least by the tone of your article) that this is somehow an attack
    on modern game design. The man is simply trying to point out the differences and benefits (as he sees them) to old school RPGs.

    Anyway, I didn’t enjoy this article one bit. It came across as combative and mean spirited as if you had a score to settle. And it is DEFINTELY as if you missed the entire above quote.

    You know another philosophy of old school gaming? There’s no right or wrong way to play if you’re having fun. So glad you enjoy the way you play your games, and we’ll enjoy the way we play ours.
    Friday, October 07, 2011, 7:24:17 PM

    That quote pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with the Primer: It is designed and executed to be nothing but a double-standard.

    For example, you claim that applying a “just the rules ma’am” approach is reasonable. Okay. Fine. What happens if we apply that same standard to the old school example?

    PC: “I I carefully check the floor for traps.”
    GM: “You can’t. There are no rules for that.”

    I guess old school play just sucks.

    Or maybe it’s actually just the Primer’s double standards that suck. (I suspect it’s the latter.)

  3. Frank Lazar says:

    I really don’t think the problem here is “old school” vs. “new school”. After all cinematic style roleplaying in the form of White Wolf’s Storyteller and other less known games has been kicking around since the days of AD&D First Edition.

    The problem seems to be more the tension of incorporating a rules light style of play into a game where the expectations are rules intensive. In games with cinematic styles of play such as White Wolf and Amber Diceless, this would simply not be an issue, as variance is an accepted occupational hazard AND feature of such styles of play.

    People who play cinematic games as their main style of fare accept that there will be GM variance. Indeed as a necessary requirement of playing such games, (especially Amber) there is an implicit trust in the Game Master that has become increasingly absent in the vocal posters of D20/Pathfinder messageboards. Which is not too surprising given that D20 has it’s origins in Wargaming which tends to be about as ruleslawyer intensive as you can get.

  4. Rule Zero Over The Years | Geek Related says:

    […] Some, however, consider this to be a bit of a retcon of how old school gaming actually worked. As you can see from this research, it is and it isn’t – the “rulings vs. rules” concept was very strong especially in B/X and 2e, somewhat less so in 0e/1e, and actively militated against in BECMI. Hackmaster and the Knights of the Dinner Table comic prominently parody the not uncommon rules-adherence mode of play in AD&D. As all nostalgia does, the Quick Primer picks certain elements out of the past to bring back and leaves aside some other elements. […]

  5. My favorite articles on Gamemastering | Spriggan's Den says:

    […] Rules vs. Rulings by The Alexandrian […]

  6. Charlie says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement. I just read that article a few days ago, and I was thinking almost the exact same thing. There is a number of problems in all that “old school” statement, and one of them you pointed it out perfectly: it’s GM fiat vs. rulebook mechanics. I prefer the latter for two reasons: as a player, to evaluate risks properly, if I have a +40 on a determind skill, and I know I have to bypass 100, and the GM tells me it’s a difficult action with a -20 penalty, I can assess the risks as if I were the character, knowing exactly how dificult it is, in this case, I have to roll an 80 in a d100. As a GM, it provides you with a most objective measure to make a ruling, and you don’t become a “slave of the system”, after all, you are determining the penalty or bonus after all, you still make a ruling, but within the rules.

    The other argument I have is that it’s easier to skip, erase or modify an existing rule than it is to create one from scratch. If I have to determine if a character can jump a wall before the wolfs catches him, then it’s easier to use a rule for movement than to make up an arbitrary ruling. It also relieves you from the burden of killing a character, I rather have a PC killed by the book, than killing it by fiat.

    It also limits the amount of injustice, and complaining from the players when the villain escapes. If I’m using the same rules for them to chase him that I used for them to escape the wolves, then there is a lot less complaining and the notion that the GM is being unfair.

    Finally, as I mentioned earlier, it helps immersion with the game world. The rules are, after all, the physics law of that fantasy world. It’s not the same a great swordsman fighting 6 oponents in 7th seas than it is in D&D or Rolemaster. In 7th sea the character knows he has a great chance of success, because that’s how the game works. In D&D, it depends on the level of the character vs lvl of the enemies. In RM, even if you’re a lvl 20 you’re still in for a big challenge. The player can make rational decisions as if he were the character because he knows how the game world works. “I’m not skilled enough to face this number of opponents, I better look for another way.” “6 mooks against the greatest swordsman of the North? HAHA! Bring it on!!!”

  7. Charlie says:

    (Argh, I’m not a native english speaker, so sorry for all those grammatical mistakes and such -_-) “wolfs” “most objective”(I meant *more*), etc… Unfortunately I can’t edit those.

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