2017-04-27 Rulings

One of the defining statements for the Old School Renaissance is often said to be “rulings, not rules”. So what are rulings? How do they come to pass?

One fascinating document is the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

I want to talk about the process that leads to the proposal of rules. Here is something that happened recently in one of my games:

The party is fighting ghouls at a tunnel entrance. The last ghoul looses initiative but survives. On its turn, it paralyses a party member. Nobody objects, it’s by the book.

The next round, the ghoul wins initiative and drags the helpless character into the tunnel to kill them. The players object and I relent: it drags the paralysed character into the tunnel and whoever wants to follow the ghoul and attack can do so. (More about the ensuing discussion on G+.)

What exactly happens when I say “the players objected?” The way I run my game is I often suggest a plan of action and some of my players like to then think of ways to prevent it. I start by saying what happens: “OK, so ghoul hits and you roll a save vs. paralysis.” Some dice are rolled and then I provide a suggested course of action: “OK, so the ghoul is going to drag the unconscious Ishirou into the tunnel.” And since ghouls killed a character in those very same tunnels last session, the players all know what’s coming and they’re groaning and interjecting: “Hey, it can’t drag a corpse!” or “But it can’t kill Ishirou!”. I make my argument or propose an alternative to resolving this: “Sure, he’s helpless. But OK, let’s say that retreating and dragging a body prevents it from attacking, sounds fair?” So what happens is a short negotiation. When I say “the players object and I relent” then this is what is happening at the table: I propose how this is going to fall out and there’s a little moment of silence where players can interject or propose a different ruling until we’re all as happy as can be, and play proceeds.

How did it turn out? The players follow the ghoul into the tunnel and since the ghoul wasn’t fleeing but making a retreat, they can all reach it and attack, but they all miss. Then we roll initiative again. The ghoul wins and the players object again and we agree to make a morale check (9) but the ghoul makes it and therefore decides to not flee. Instead of retreating any further, it kills the helpless character for a little snack. The rest of the party then hacks the ghoul to pieces in a bloody fury.

Should the ghoul have fled? The cavern it had retreated into was a dead end and the players controlled the exit. Sadly, I forgot to have the ghoul talk. It was a murderous killer ghoul and those are boring compared to murderous smooth-talking ghouls.

But really I think the question boils down to this: here we have a monster that eats characters. If it only ever eats characters once they’re all dead, then the character eating part isn’t all that scary. In this situation I think I favour a monster that does the thing that’s less smart and more scary.

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On G+ I just had another discussion on this topic. Aaron asked: What are your favorite pieces of OSR games? And I think that’s a weird thing to say.

For one, many referees online turn into part time authors. This is great. We can all play more or less the same game and still make something. I think the do-it-yourself aspect of easy desktop publishing and print on demand and sites like RPG Now made a huge difference. +Rob Conley said it in a blog post, recently: What everybody forgets about the OSR.

That is why I have no actual favorite pieces. It’s the act of enthusiastically presenting them to the world that makes all the difference. Spells, monsters, house rules, advice. I just love being part of the conversation without having any particular favorite words.

You already know that I think the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign is the best. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

Just read the first three posts by Eero in the thread and you’ll have the gist of it.

“My viewpoint on this ultimately indicates that most of D&D writing is necessarily of secondary concern, as most of that writing focuses on mechanical resolution concepts. This means that these writers, starting with Gygax, have failed to actually address the first-order concerns that gamers need to be able to overcome to play the game successfully: instead of telling us how he set up his sandbox campaign and how his group negotiated challenges, Gygax tells us about the outcome of this process of play. He tells us that after playing the game their group had established these sorts of character classes, and this is how their thieves picked pockets, and this is how shields worked vs. polearms. However, he never tells us the bit that I’m absolutely convinced about today after playing the game myself, that the GM’s referee position cannot work without a clear system of precedent. He also doesn’t tell us how these rulings need to be rooted in the fictional concerns of the group, and how there are no absolutely right or wrong choices for how to handle the individual resolution details. What we get instead is this myth where a long playtest has stabilized a genius rules system, and you’re not really playing AD&D if you don’t follow every brainfart rules subsystem written down by Gygax. I think that history has amply shown that the way D&D uses rules means that these rules are necessarily tied into a time and a place, into specific nuances of how people play and what they care about their fiction.”
– Eero Tuovinen

So this is where I get my position that I care about how rulings get made. I am much less interested in the actual rules themselves, the “pieces of the OSR.”

– Alex Schroeder 2017-04-29 21:18 UTC


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