The Alexandrian

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Eclipse Phase - The Fall of Earth

Infallibility is not, in fact, a requirement for a game master. Indeed, the idea that the act of GMing requires some sort of savant is a pernicious one which was, sadly, robbed the world of many fabulous GMs and many tables filled with happy gamers.

With that being said, one of the GM’s responsibilities is, in fact, to provide a certain level of rules mastery. How you achieve that level of mastery is largely dependent on your own personal study habits. For me, the typical procedure is:

First, read the rulebook cover-to-cover. If you haven’t read a rule at least once, then you’ve really got no chance of getting it right.

Second, prepare a comprehensive cheat sheet for the system. The process of organizing and compiling the cheat sheet is, by itself, a great way to get a grasp on how they work and relate to each other (and also sussing out those minor mechanics you would otherwise gloss over). Once you’re done, of course, the cheat sheet becomes invaluable at the actual gaming table, artificially supplementing your own knowledge. As we’ll see, being able to quickly and accurately reference information is almost as good as knowing it off the top of your head.

(I’ve also talked before about how the hierarchy of reference can be used to progressively gain system mastery.)

Third, when I think it might be warranted (or fun!), I’ll also run “playtest” one-shots using the system. These are a great way for both the GM and the players to gain familiarity with the system and work out its kinks before diving into a long-term campaign. (For players, I’ve tangentially found that this familiarity often makes for a richer and more engaging character creation process. Knowing how a game works provides really valuable context for the mechanical decisions you make when building your character.)


Some may wonder why this rules mastery is important. I’ve even met GMs who, for nearly incomprehensible reasons, take great pride in being largely ignorant of the rules. (This seems related to the school of thought which maintains that the rules of an RPG are just kind of a pleasant fiction that the players improv vaguely around / the GM uses only when necessary to reign with an iron fist.)

First, presentation and pacing. Nothing deflates excitement or undercuts tension at the gaming table faster than, “Hang on, let me just figure out how the rules for this work.” The Art of Pacing mostly discusses macro-scale pacing, but pacing at the micro-scale is just as important: Keeping things flowing smoothly; maintaining (and escalating) the mood; sustaining player focus and attention. All of these things require the rules to flow out smoothly, cleanly, and accurately not only to minimize friction, but also because high quality rules that are effectively applied will enhance these things.

Speaking of which, quality rulings require both knowledge and comfort with the rules. Any master craftsman or artist knows the importance of being intimately familiar with your tools, and the art of the GM is no different. A good GM will make the rules sing, finding ways to combine and recombine them to achieve (and help their players achieve) delightful and unexpected things. But you have to fully understand your tools before you can start truly playing with them.

Third, consistency. In many ways, this is actually just a special case of GM Don’t List #1: Morphing Reality. If the GM doesn’t know the rules, then their application of the rules will become inconsistent and unpredictable. This inconsistency results in the game world acting in weird and unpredictable ways, which inevitably frustrates the players: They see a lock and expect that they’ll be able to use their Criminal skill to pick it because that’s what they did last time; but this time the GM decides (or realizes) that it should actually require an Infiltration check to pick a lock and the players discover that they’ve sent the wrong person to deal with the problem.

Finally, when the GM doesn’t know the rules — and isn’t using them correctly — it preemptively shuts down certain styles of play. For some players, these elements of play are very important; for others less so. But either way, their loss will generally result in a flattened and less interesting gaming experience.

Not infrequently when I’m discussing these issues, these styles of play will be dismissed by the narrow minded as just “goofing around with mechanical widgets”. But it’s not that simple. Yes, there are those who play roleplaying games, in part, to have the satisfaction of overcoming (or outsmarting) specifically mechanical challenges. But mechanics permeate every aspect of an RPG, and their effect can be felt in many different styles of play. For example, there is satisfaction and enjoyment to be had in building a character who is very good at something and then doing that job well (just like the satisfaction of any job done well). When the rules suddenly shift and the mastery that you should have had suddenly ceases to exist, that can be an incredibly frustrating experience for players.

(And, in this sense, you may realize that GM Don’t List #4: Thou Shalt Not Hack is, in fact, a special case of this general rule.)


As a corollary, it’s also important that GMs don’t habitually ignore the rules.

As I can already sense hackles rising across the internet, let me make it clear what I’m NOT talking about:

  • House rules. You’re not ignoring the rules when you decide to explicitly change them in order to better your game.
  • Variant stat blocks. If you decide to give an orc a +1 sword or bump up a troll’s Strength score, that’s not ignoring the rules either. (For some reason there are people who think so, or who categorize this as “cheating”. These people are, frankly, insane.)

Now that I’ve hopefully soothed some hackles and raised a different set of them, let’s delve into this a little bit.

The main thing to notice is that when you ignore the rules you are actually stumbling directly into almost all of the exact same problems that occur when you’re simply ignorant of them: Consistency necessarily deteriorates, which subsequently tanks the quality of your rulings and also creates the same frustrations from players depending on consistency in order to understand both the game world and their characters.

If you consistently find yourself ignoring (or wanting to ignore) a particular set of rules, that’s an indication that those rules are fundamentally broken (at least for the experience you want to create) and you should be looking to fix them (or replace them entirely), not simply ignore them.

A common example of this are grappling rules. (Across most systems, really, but infamously so when it comes to virtually all editions of D&D.) And the solution is, in fact, to apply house rules which make grappling appealing instead of a chore.

One particularly pernicious example of this which certain GMs endemically suffer from is, “I’m bored with combat let’s skip it.” (Or, really, any other aspect of game play. It’s just that combat seems most common here.) This usually takes the form of resolving 1-3 rounds of combat normally and then saying, “Eh. Fuck it. Let’s just sum up what happens and move on.”

The GM’s intention here is good: They sense that the game is getting boring and they want to fix it. But in doing so they systemically create a number of other problems:

  • Characters built to enjoy their spotlight time during combat are being punished.
  • Strategically clever and creative players often spend the first few rounds of combat setting up an advantageous situation that will give them a big, satisfying pay-off as the combat continues. By cutting combat off just as they finish their set up, the GM is perpetually blue-balling them.
  • Because they’re never certain exactly when (or if) a particular combat is going to be summarily dismissed, players become uncertain in their use of limited supplies. Burning a one-use potion or once-per-day ability only to have its use become irrelevant when the GM decides combat has become too “boring” to continue is incredibly frustrating.

All of these problems only get worse when the GM defines “boring” as “the PCs are winning”, while remaining fully engaged and excited as long as his bad guys have the upper hand.


“But it’s the GM’s god given right to change or ignore the rules at their whim!”

Sure. But insofar as we agree that this is a power which a GM has, I would argue that its use should be considered, deliberate, and, above all, limited. More generally on this topic, I would tend to make three final observations:

Calvinball is a really funny joke, but it is, in fact, a joke. There’s a reason why games have rules, and RPGs are no exception. System matters.

In my experience, the motivations GMs have for unilaterally ignoring the rules tend to be shitty ones. Virtually all of them, in fact, rhyme with “tailroad”.

But let’s assume that the GM has accurately identified a truly singular instance in which the rules should be ignored (instead of permanently changed) without letting their players know (instead of explaining the ruling they’re making and why it varies from the norm) in order to truly increase the table’s enjoyment of the game. Here’s my question:

What gifts the GM with the unique capacity to recognize when the application of a rule would be a bad idea for the game?

If you’d be equally happy with the other players at the table unilaterally deciding to fudge a dice roll or pretend that their skill rating is higher than it is or act as if their character has an ability that isn’t on their character sheet, then more power to you. But what I see at the table (and usually observe in these hypothetical discussions online) are hypocrites who simply feel that their opinion is infallible, but the judgment of everyone else at the table can’t be trusted.


In reality, of course, nobody is perfect. Nobody is a walking encyclopedia. (Or, if they are, it’s the result of years or possibly decades of experience with a system.) Mistakes will be made. Rules will be forgotten or overlooked. That’s okay. The GM has to become comfortable with their fallibility so that they can deal with the consequences when they arise.

So what happens when you forget a rule at the table?

I’ve already mentioned cheat sheets. Permanently bookmarking frequently referenced sections of the book also helps. (Post-It Memo Flags are great for this.)

Also: Use the expertise of your players. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Does anybody remember how much damage a fireball does?” There are far too many GMs who are so terrified of the rules lawyer boogeyman that they won’t take advantage of the communal brainpower of the gaming group as a whole. (I’ve also found that some rules lawyers behave better when they can apply their rules expertise in this way. Not all, but some.)

Another very effective technique, particularly in combat, is to delegate someone else to look up a rule while you move onto and begin resolving the next action. You can then jump back to the original action when the rules reference is ready. (The multitasking keeps the game moving forward through the rules reference instead of creating a dead space.)

Finally, if a particularly obscure rule is escaping all efforts to clarify it, don’t be afraid to make an ad hoc ruling while making a note to come back and check what the actual rule is during the next break or after the session. It’s okay to trade strict accuracy to keep the pace up. (It’s also, in my experience, a good idea to openly tell your players what you’re doing. It doesn’t hurt if you give the PCs the benefit of the doubt when making these sorts of rulings, either. Default to yes, after all.)

Mistakes will be made and sometimes your current mastery will prove insufficient for the challenges of the moment. But as long as you handle these moments with openness, clarity, and goodwill, you’ll come out on top. And, of course, the cliché is true: Every mistake is a learning opportunity. Every mistake can make you a better GM… if you let it.

Eclipse Phase - Fractal

Go to Part 6: Choose Your Own Adventure

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18 Responses to “GM Don’t List #5: Not Knowing the Rules”

  1. Gamosopher says:

    Very good article, as usual. I’m sometimes under the impression that I’m weird because I don’t take lightly the ignorance of a rule. I mean, there are some instances where it’s appropriate, but they are rare (as they should be).

    About the “rule zero”, I encouter players, not only GMs, that believe that’s it’s perfectly fine for a GM (and only a GM) to ignore rules when they see fit. Most invoke the “cool” factor. But I don’t think a railroaded story is “cool”. And a supposedly-cool-awesome scene that can happen only by ignoring rules is ipso-facto uncool to me. All of this feels like cheap tricks, unearned, fake. It only breaks my immersion, like a bad videogame cinematic.

  2. gaynorvader says:

    The main reason I, as GM, will ignore a rule is to give the players some plot armour. An example is D&D 3.5 is VERY lethal around level 1. Since it’s not much fun for players playing spellcasters to stay out of combat until they have more hitpoints, or invest in toughness or CON, I tend to ignore crits the enemies get at level 1. I agree with the sentiment that this shouldn’t be taken too far and I do let characters die, just mitigate the chances somewhat to let them feel like the heroes the game is supposed to let them feel like.

  3. Alsadius says:

    One event back when I DM’d a lot in university comes to mind.

    It was a D&D 3.5 camapign, and the big bad of the campaign was a lich. The players were trying to kill it, and I sent them off after a magic staff(in gameplay terms, a staff with Mordenkainen’s Disjunction charges, which could be used to disenchant the phylactery). Once they figured out what it was, they asked why it was needed – a phylactery can be broken with an easy attack roll in the default rules. I made a comment to the effect that “That’s stupid, no way it should be that easy to take out a massively important artifact like that!”, and one of the players said something to the effect of “That’s the first time you’ve sounded like a real DM”. She *expected* DMs to house rule occasionally on important issues, and started judging those who didn’t. I find it really interesting in this context.

    Also, great work as always.

  4. Chris Rice says:

    Which is precisely why I prefer simple rules which follow a unifying logic (as much as possible) and ideally which I’ve devised myself. Then I know them back to front and sidewise and there is never a situation where I don’t know, or can’t explain, a particular rule.

  5. Mark says:

    I’ve been running 5E for nearly three years without having a firm grasp of anything beyond the basic rules. I know the player handbook basics, I trust my players (some of whom verge on power gamers in their fondness for “exploits”) to use their character abilities honestly but double check them if something seems ridiculous or unclear, and rely on rulings and consensus at the table for anything beyond the basics, the guidelines being what “makes sense” within the context of the fictional world. It works fine, and smoothly. It has nothing to do with railroading or storytelling, my game has a fault the other direction if anything. I would say that most RPGs can be run effectively with knowledge of nothing more than the fundamental rules, the rest of the rulebook usually being character options plus assorted dross.

  6. brotherwilli says:

    We’ve run into an interesting twist on this with Starfinder. After 18 years of running 3.0/3.5/PFRPG, we’ve had to take time to carefully review and run Starfinder with the rule changes that aren’t identical to the previous systems. These changes aren’t bad, per se, they’re just different and run counter to our expectations from previous systems. It means some slower sessions to start as we go through things to “get it right.”

    But I played with a number of people who went from 1st Ed. to 3rd Ed. D&D, and it was problematic playing in a 3.5 game where suddenly 1st Ed. rules would govern.

  7. J.D. says:

    @Gamosopher, I find it more disrupting when a player comes up with something awesome and the GM answers: “well, there’s no rule for that so it can’t happen” or “it seems like this minor rule might contradict something minor in your plan, so it won’t happen”. There’s a whole spectrum between ignoring any rule at random and playing strictly by what the PHB says. IMO, it’s okay to push rules around to make room for things to happen. An RPG is not like chess in any way imaginable, the rules are not the game.

  8. RedQueensAce says:

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you used art from Eclipse Phase. The rule set was a doozy for myself as a first time GM, but with we made it work.

  9. Justin Alexander says:

    @Mark: I may need to revise the essay to include a more specific proviso about character options. While I think it’s important for GMs to have a good understanding of what the specific PCs in their group can do and a general understanding of what the rules allow characters to do in general (for example, a GM running D&D should never be caught off-guard when someone tries to speak with dead), I have never found encyclopedic knowledge of every character option to be a necessary level of mastery.

    (Same thing with, say, memorizing every stat block in the Monster Manual.)

    This IS something I talk about more explicitly when it comes to prepping cheat sheets, referring to them as “character option chunks”: “Feats. Disadvantages. Spells. Powers. Weapons. Any small packets of specialized mechanics that are only invoked if the character has that selected packet.”

    For PCs, this is, as you note, a perfect example of the type of knowledge load that should be off-loaded to and distributed among the players.

    For NPCs, a similar principle abides through the hierarchy of reference.

  10. robbbbbb says:

    We had a quite different experience in our 4e campaign, which ran for 3 years between about 2010-2012. We had another guy as GM, and I often functioned as the “rules expert” at the table. The GM had enough system mastery to be able to put together scenarios and drive the plot, but anytime there was a rules question they tended to default back to me, as I had made an intense study of the rules.

    Since 4e’s design goal seemed to be, “A rule for everything and for everything a rule,” I was often consulted about how things would work in the middle of combat or at crucial story points. Essentially, the GM offloaded the system mastery to me and instead spent his time and effort on building encounters and story. It worked quite well.

    This is not to say that he didn’t understand the rules at all; he had at least some grasp of the system and understood its basics. (Heck, we’ve all been playing D&D since 1e.)

    This also leads me to one of my favorite sayings about RPGs: “The correct number of rules lawyers at the table is one.” Zero means that rules are an inconsistent mess. Two or more means disputes at the table.

  11. Jhansenhimself says:

    The only time I ever skip a bit of combat is near the end of a fairly long and involved one, when it’s entered the “mopping up” phase – the final outcome is clear, it’s just a matter of rolling the dice enough times to make things official. Usually I have the remaining monsters flee at that point, but if that doesn’t make sense for some reason, I’ll ask the folks around the table if they’d like to just take X points of damage and move on. If everyone is on board, that’s what we do. If even one person says “Wait, I want to try something,” we finish combat normally.

  12. Pelle says:

    Regarding rounding off combat early, you may be right Justin about player feelings. However, I feel those are often more irrational than not.

    If the players face a goblin horde, and the wizard spends his once-per-day fireball to take out most of them, rounding off the combat instead of spending time on killing the 3 goblins that are left standing doesn’t make spending the fireball irrelevant. It is precisely what made it appropriate to end early, and the player should feel victorious, not cheated.

  13. Justin Alexander says:

    @Pelle: It can be. But it has to be framed very, very carefully. And it can be difficult to judge whether you’re getting it right or not because players often won’t speak up about this.

    I think it can help to make the “cut-off” allow one or two moments of “crowning awesome” to the PCs (instead of just saying something like, “Okay, that wraps that up. Let’s move on). Although, again, still hard to get the balance right.

    It can help if the players have discussed a specific tactical goal (“I’ll hit them with a fireball, then Agnarr can run in and mop them up!”) because then you can pay-off the tactical goal in your sum-up and still have that pay off. The problem is that players don’t always articulate their multi-stage tactical goal, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less invested in seeing it pay off.

    In practice, this can be very similar to having the players plan out an elaborate heist and then saying, “Okay. Great. You do that and you get the thing you want. Now what?” (Which is far rarer than the “cut off combat” thing, IME, but I’ve still had it happen to me.) The cool pay-off for putting together a plan isn’t necessarily success (although that’s nice); it’s putting the plan into action.

  14. John says:

    I very much agree with this. When I started GMing, I didn’t have a good handle on the rules but many of my players did, and I listened to them and tried to apply things fairly and consistently. If we established a house rule, we kept to it. This sometimes caused headaches as players would relentlessly push for advantage, and I rarely said no, but it worked well.

    Over time I’ve come to see the value in knowing the rules well and being confident enough to politely shut down this sort of pushing (it’s natural, but it’s time wasting).

    I think those who prefer completely loose rules are not really playing a game. They’re telling a collaborative story. But to me the gamist elements are important – they act as seeds, provide surprising new twists and turns, and sometimes bring about more interesting stories than we would have discovered on our own. As a GM, I enjoy being surprised by the world and the players, rather than always having complete control. Having systems and using them to spur creativity works much better for me.

  15. Mengmoshu says:

    In support of John’s bit about seeds, though I might take a roundabout route to it:

    I’ve been trying to work out a setting where player characters start out already pretty strong. Sometimes as high up as a superhero game, but without the usual superhero tropes and flow. What I keep running into is that epicly powerful characters lack a natural “shape” and thus also a discernible direction for both mechanical and story advancement. The more successful thought experiments I’ve done so far all have one thing in common: Constraints. A price to pay for power, or a requirement of specialization, or an obligation taken up, or being embedded in some strong culture.

    System rules, and setting features, provide seed like John says, but they also close off some directions so that the choice space is small and clearly defined enough to prevent characters and stories from growing nebulous and undistinguished.

  16. Allan says:

    I have had this conversation with people online, almost beat for beat, and when I get to the part about “What makes the GM uniquely capable? How would you feel if a player did the same thing?” and have gotten a surprising number of people who freely admit to lying to the rest of the group about the dice rolls / the numbers of their sheet, and further more they do not think it is cheating and feel that it is fully justified. Their justification is usually along the lines lf “I dont have the time / natural talent to make / play as strong a character as the rest of the group OR I am really unlucky with the dice, so I am just applying ad hoc modifiers to fix game balance and get the game back on track, and since this is a cooperative game where everyne (including the GM) wants the players to suceed I am actually doing everyone at the table a favor.

    To me this is flabbergasting and imo is just a post hoc rationalization for good old fashioned cheating, but I was surprised by how many people defended or even advocated this behavior.

  17. Jack V says:

    Interesting! Yeah, I think this sums up a lot of things I think of how to do things well, and avoid doing things badly.

    My rule of thumb is to try to read the table, it’s often reasonably obvious what players are putting effort into and what they’re not, but if I’m planning to skip something which is already happening, I’ll ask, “I think you’ve basically won here, how about we skip to the end of combat?” or something.

    Things which haven’t been revealed yet I can fudge fairly freely. If I’ve not let on if the goblins have reinforcements, they can, or not, depending if the fight feels like it needs to have an “oh shit” moment, or is already too dangerous, or too boring, and no-one needs to know if I changed something or not. I would fudge die rolls if I had to, but I’d rather arrange things so I don’t have to.

    And I’ll streamline rules but only if everyone is uncertain about them, and things don’t hinge on them.

    I suspect many groups muddle through learning which rules their group pays attention to and which they don’t, and that works well as the equivalent to house rules, but presents a problem if people transition to other groups or the group transitions to another system.

    I do try and roll with it if a GM is not enforcing rules how I’d expect, but I can find it discordant if we whipsaw back and forth from “Don’t overthink it, just charge forward and attack, and let the GM adjudicate how many turns that takes” to “OMG! How did you not know to do this thing which is much more efficient?”

  18. Elda King says:

    If by using the rules wrong or ignoring them the game is somehow better (or even if it just makes no difference), it is a bad game with bad rules. If the rulebook is too long for someone to read, the person should probably pick a game with a shorter rulebook. But people insist on playing games where they think the rules are both bad and too long. Often those same people that advocate against the rules of a game are the most vehement defenders of that game (because they manage to “rule 0” all possible flaws in the game into flaws in players).

    But then, knowing the rules doesn’t make someone a better GM. It just makes him a minimally competent player, for any role or game.

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