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Saturday 16 January 2016

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: The Buck Stops Somewhere

It does. Ultimately someONE has to be the ultimate arbiter of an RPG game.

There are essentially three possibilities:

1. The GM is the ultimate Arbiter. He is allowed to break the rules. This is really the healthiest choice. Someone chosen by his peers to run the game who is then given extreme authority; he knows the group in question and its needs.

2. The Players are the ultimate arbiters. This is an invitation to chaos. There are two ways this can go: either the Players are allowed to break the rules, but the GM isn't, or the Players and the GM are both allowed to break the rules. In either case, the end result is basically a pushing match where the biggest primma donna ends up dominating the game and eventually ruining the fun for everyone else.
If the GM is the ultimate arbiter, yes, if he's a Dick he could ruin everyone's fun. But there's a certain inoculation against that in that the GM doesn't have a PC. Yes, a bad GM will make an NPC his pet, he'll lord over the players, etc... but in all those cases the problem is NOT that the GM has power, the problem is that the GM in question is a dick.
Whereas trying to present some kind of dictatorship of the playertariat as the alternative is stupid. It only takes one dick with power to ruin the game; and the odds of there being a single dick in a group of 5 people is going to be considerably higher than the odds of a single GM being a dick.

3. The "rules" are the ultimate arbiter... which is really a lie. The Rules didn't spring out of nothing. They were written. So in this scenario, what you're really doing is saying that its the Game Designer who has the ultimate power, he's the only one who can "break" the rules because he's the one who got to set them in the first place.
This is quite possibly the MOST idiotic of all options. Here, you aren't trusting Bob the GM who you've known for years, you aren't even trusting power to all six gamers and hoping to god no one ruins it, you are instead giving absolute power to some asshole who might live thousands of miles away, who's never met you nor will ever meet you, but has decided that he knows better than you do what's best for you and your group.
This is utter bullshit. This is the reason rules do not survive first contact with a group. It doesn't matter how perfect and all-inclusive and self-contained a set of rules are; the point is they are not rules that have been specifically written FOR your group (unless you happen to play with the game designer, then its a different story, but that's beside the point). The rules MUST be broken to suit the gaming group, or you will end up with a bunch of idiots running around playing in a sub-par way all for satisfying the whim of someone who's never met them and won't even know they exist.

Of course players will think it'd be cool if they have the power. Usually, what they really want is for "they, personally" to have the power and not the other players. The whole idea becomes a lot less appealing once you realize you'll also have to trust the whims of 3-5 other people.

And of course, there are some game designers, would be "geniuses" who are basically megalomaniacs, who would like everyone on earth to have to play THEIR game exactly how THEY designed it, no changes allowed. They will often talk about the evils of the GM and how the GM must be neutered for the players' sakes, but they are in fact the worst of hypocrites, all they want is for everyone to be forced to admire their own "artistic" vision. They don't give a shit about the other players, they want to be sure they, the "bolshevik" if you would, get to control how a game gets played, and not the "bourgeoisie" GMs or the "proletariat" players; though like any good group of autocrats they'll claim that its the proles who come out winning somehow.

The only real solution is what works, and has worked for well over 30 years now; the GM is the ultimate authority. The Buck stops with him. Period.


(Originally posted March 23, 2009)


  1. Could you describe any real-life examples from your own play experience where you had to unilaterally break the rules your group used?

    1. Sure, tons of times, in one sense. I don't make NPC statblocks. I roll on random tables, and if I don't think what I got makes sense or is to my taste, I roll again. I change rules about spells, classes, character creation, etc. etc.
      My players can like it or leave. Given the HUGE waiting list of people I have desperate to play my campaigns here (tonight I start my new Wild West campaign with the most I could possibly think to manage: six players, and had to turn down four others. And that's NOTHING compared to the mile-long waiting list of people who want to be in my next Lords of Olympus campaign), I think I'm good.

    2. Thank you, but this does not quite answer my question. You have repeatedly made that bizarre claim that breaking the rules at some point is inevitable for a successful game, and I am interested in any concrete, real-life examples that could corroborate this.

      So, I would like to hear about a game where:
      (a) you violated a rule that you have been adhering to earlier in the campaign and your players expected you to stick to;
      (b) you did it on the go, during play;
      (c) if you had not done this, the game would have suffered.

      And naturally, it is the HOW part of (c) that is of most interest.

    3. On my part, I don't break the rules. I wrote them. I take great care to outline the situations in my game, and the behavior of the antagonists in all major contingencies, so that what my players overcome, actually exists on paper before the game and I can show my players what they were up against, whether they succeed or fail. I add to it after each session as the situation develops.

      I think that my players sense my fairness to them and trust in my rules, that I don't explain unless asked, and my narrative.

    4. Dmitry, as always you're trying to engage in semantic bullshit. But yes, I've done that too. For example, several times where I change rules on some spell or another because it was clear that some player had figured out a way to take the literal meaning of the spell to give himself a campaign-breaking advantage.
      Of course, that's a very extreme example. It's not something any GM would want to do at all frivolously, because it creates a lot of potential problems with Immersion. But the GM has an ABSOLUTE RIGHT to change ANY rule at any time. Having the right and it being a good idea are two different things, of course.

      Mostly, a GM will find themselves forced to do it because a player is acting badly.

    5. What you are saying, is that you will not allow a player to out-think you, and you will bend the rules to get your way.

    6. Dmitry, are you talking about breaking a rule as in roll low instead of roll high with a d20 in D&D or are you talking about the thieve's climb wall modifier or magic user's cast-some-spell duration?

      Regarding your point a, if the breakage is of the later and not the former then in my case yes, all the time. It's called setting, setting specific events, situation modifiers, etc.

      Regarding your point b, did I do it on the go during play. You think Arneson bought "Blackmoor The complete guide" at a local bookstore or he wrote it as he went along? Clerics didn't always turn undead, they were made to do so at some point, for some purpose, but they can very well be made unable to turn undead. Once again, that's setting.

      Regarding point c, yes, it would. Once again if I played by the book then we'd play the same'ol and there would be no surprises, and without surprises what's the purpose of adventuring?

  2. I am firmly on possibility ONE. I never had to deal with a rules lawyering player, because I developed largely my own game I run. It is set in a low magic, low treasure world, where players are happy, because the tough decisions they make and chances they take pay off in terms of in-game victories and successes. Game sessions covering celebratory balls and tournaments, and if they score a large enough victory, they will get their own triumphal arch.

    Getting back to your post, Pundit, I think that you lay the blame for the chaos at the gaming table on the cult of the game designer and The Forge, while forgetting for the moment, that it was the folks publishing D&D way back at the Second Edition, who decided that they cam make more bucks selling supplements for the players to help munchkins customize their character as opposed to publishing books for DM's. What was it that the company bean counter tell me, You got one DM and six players, why publish books for one person, when you can do it for six?

    The buck stops with the corporate strategy zombies at the TSR and WoTC.

  3. I wonder if there is a connection between appeals to "the rules as written" as ultimate arbiter and electronic gaming platforms where there may be little or no social connection to Bob or any of the other players at the virtual table. Maybe a parallel relationship to how convention gaming influenced TSR as seen through official rulings (by complete strangers) in the pages of Dragon Magazine.

  4. I wonder if there is a connection between appeals to "the rules as written" as ultimate arbiter and electronic gaming platforms where there may be little or no social connection to Bob or any of the other players at the virtual table. Maybe a parallel relationship to how convention gaming influenced TSR as seen through official rulings (by complete strangers) in the pages of Dragon Magazine.

  5. Sawdust, pencil and paper gaming has mirrored a lot of things in the real world, and one of them is the inquest process. In the real world something that happens that takes a few seconds, but will result in grave consequences, such as massive loss of life and property (think plane crashes and industrial accidents). Thereafter there will be months of analysis, investigation, bickering and litigation over the rules to figure out what happened, learn the lessons and prevent it from happening in the future.

    In gaming, adult players will sit at the same table, state, their intentions, roll the dice, possibly argue about the rules, and sometimes after a while will arrive at a fantasy event, that will take a few seconds, maybe up to a minute of game time, often with the same dire consequences for one of the parties involved.

    RPG process is often committee work in reverse and just as boring.