Monday, June 29, 2015

Three Rule Zeroes...

When people talk about games and unwritten rules, frequently you'll have things come up and be referenced as "rule 0." In other words, it is a rule that comes before any of the rules in the book and thus takes precedent over them. Sometimes this is just a world advice or philosophical point for the game. Othertimes it can be something more. Strangely enough, from various conversations with people in my group I've come to realize that depending on who you ask what rule 0 is changes. Today I thought I'd share three of them, what they mean, and ask what other rule zeroes exist at your table.

#1 Real Life Before Game
Real Life Before Game is a simple rule. In short it means that game is secondary to things you need to do for real life. Yes, game is a serious commitment to be some where and hang out with specific people on a regular basis, but sometimes life happens. Work gets in the way, you have to do something for your family, it is your significant other's birthday. This rule 0 tells you that it is ok for these things to happen. Tell the group you'll be missing game as quickly as possible and everything will work around your absence. Interestingly enough, this isn't cart blanche to just miss every session if you want. Every group has certain thresholds, and if someone crosses it they may have to decide if they can stay with the game or not. However, leaving because RL is in the way tends to not cause problems. After all, RL before game.

As a note, this has numerous and more specific variants such as: work before game, significant other before game, health before game, and so on. RL before game just catches all that in one go.

#2 Remember Why You're Here
Everyone games for different reasons. Ask six different gamers and you could get ten different answers why they show up to their various RPGs and table top sessions. However, it is important to remember why you're there. Yes, game time is a great chance to catch up with friends, joke, laugh, and tell stories about the work week, but everyone has agreed to play a RPG and that is why you're there. If people want to get down to game, try not to distract or take away from it. This is less about forcing people to shutting up and playing their character as it is about respecting the reason the group is there as a whole. You may not care about playing the game or not that night, and just want to see some of your friends, but others may have been looking forward to the session all week and really want to get into character for their own reasons. Ultimately, everyone agreed to get together to play the game, so when you show up be prepared - and willing - to play the game. If you can't do that, let folks know. Maybe it will be a better night for you to not be around. Or maybe the group will agree to do something else. But be respectful about it.

#3 All Rules Are Subject To The GM
There is a longer form of this rule and it shows up in some books that goes more like this: the GM is the final arbiter and decider of what rules are in use and how they work; they can change that definition at any time but are encouraged to be consistent. In short it means that the GM has the final say on all outcomes involving the game and mechanics of the rules. If the GM says you can't use a technique in a certain area, then you can't use it. If something is ruled to be possible or impossible, then it is possible/impossible. It means the GM can hand waive complicated mechanics in the name of fun, and over-rule the rule book when a straight reading threatens to violate the consistency of the game. It means you have to trust your GM to be fair and run a game that is fun to play in, but it also means that the GM wins all arguments during play about how things work and in what way they will be applied. This is the oldest reference to rule 0 I know, and is one I heavily use in my games. I try to be fair and by the book when I can, but ultimately the rulebook is secondary, especially when looking up exactly how a certain thing is supposed to work will kill the tension in a scene.

What about you? Does your table have other rule 0s? If so, what are they? How do they work? and what are they supposed to solve ahead of time for you?


  1. I would have never thought of this as a topic; that's why you're the writer & I'm the reader. I'd only read/heard of your #3 as Rule Zero before.

    I'm not sure a Real Life Before Game rule is really necessary. Real life has a way of asserting itself without a rule. If Rule Zero is going to be about real life, my experience suggests real life can take care of itself, and the rule should be something like "A good game needs reliability".

    There's a lot of different kind of RPG groups out there. Some games the GM has no idea who's going to show & there's a carousel of different players every session - but if that was the understood social contract at the beginning then, of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, there's no point in the PCs having backstories & the GM's prep is rolling to see if they're killing orcs or kobolds that night.

    Macro-plots, micro-plots, investigations, backstories coming into play, intrigue, party cohesion & a good shot at immersion require reliable attendance. The number I've come upon myself & have heard from other GMs that run those kinds of games is 90%. To not routinely have someone missing, you're looking for folks who can show 90% or more of the time (and of course the GM has to be rock solid & well organized). Not easy to find, and nor are really good campaigns.

    1. I agree with you, and my Friday group has asked people to withdraw from the game when they couldn't attend regularly enough for us. On the other hand, our Saturday group has a drop in/drop out policy that works but still ends up with a select few "core" players and then a cast of regular supporting characters. The people who show up the most, and put the most into the game, tend to get the most back out of it and that is about right/normal.

      Obviously every rule 0 isn't needed. They're unspoken rules. For us, we haven't had to invoke any of them in a long time. However, they are what they are and how we learned them. Life > Game is not just about "when you can miss game" but also to help alleviate the guilt of it. Sometimes life happens, we accept that your life is more important than the game, and so should you. It also helps remind us (having it this way) when people drop game due to RL commitments that they are doing the right thing.

      Different strokes for different folks and all that, but it works. I also tend to agree that 90% is a good rule of thumb for more intricate games. I prefer more, but I don't think anyone can give more with any degree of realism involved in the promise.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Had to fix a few typos.

      You seem to say Real Life Before Game rules are not important, but you have some very well thought out and well-defined rules for it. If you don't voice them or right them down, how does the player know what is expected?

      I know I have never heard of the 90% rule. I'd be fine with 75% attendance, but I expect attendance notification closer to 100% of the time.

    4. A.L. I love your comment, "I prefer more" regarding the 90% attendance benchmark. I think there's a reluctance of GMs to even propose high standards, much less methodically enforce them. I have two players who, after two years of bi-weekly gaming, are at 98% and 94% attendance. (Another player after ten months is right at 90%.) They're not the only reason the campaign's lasted over two years, but they're a big one.

      Jonn, I was meaning that I don't think rules *defending* Real Life are necessary. However, rules defending your game *against* Real Life I think have merit.

      Oh indeed Jonn, if anything one should assume that player candidates are almost surely not going to be initially thinking the game is expecting 90%+ attendance from them! I do think it can be a little tricky how/when you communicate your game's requirements to new players. Putting up a post for new players requiring 90% attendance would be intimidating to anyone - I don't think my 94%-attendance-after-almost-60-sessions player would have joined if the first thing I told him was he had to be there 90%+.

      Jonn, I hear you on attendance notification - a high degree of professional courtesy I've made non-negotiable. GM'ing is a part-time job I do for free. I don't ask for marching bands or money - but getting blown off is not part of the deal (and definitely worsens the game for everyone).