Over the last three decades, I’ve noticed many shifts in gaming culture and practises. A lot of these are driven by technology, changes in society, expectations of the gaming experience and so on. One of the most marked changes I’ve noticed is a subtle shift in who seems to actually be “in charge” of a game or campaign.
In the good old days (the days of 1st Edition), the DM ruled supreme—the master of all he surveyed by dint of his creative efforts and the power bestowed on him by the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Hell, fully fledged combat rules didn’t even appear in the AD&D Player’s Handbook!
Of course, that didn’t stop a certain special kind of player making his views known and arguing voraciously for them.
With the advent of 3rd Edition, if anything this type of player seems to have become more common. With a rules system as complex as 3rd Edition (or Pathfinder) and its descendants there are obviously going to be disagreements about the rules as written, but such discussions often bog down play and lead to bad feelings or an awkward atmosphere around the table.
At the end of the day, if no PC dies or suffers some other horrible disadvantage or penalty what does it matter who was right?
It seems there has been a subtle change in attitudes. Instead of seeing winning as simply enjoying the game, winning is now defined as defeating the PCs’ enemies no matter the cost. Of course, most players enjoy crushing their enemies and taking their stuff—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but I’d argue the mood around the table is just as—if not more so—important.
So what did Gary say?
“It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule books upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, you campaign next and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be.”
Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 230), Gary Gygax
It’s interesting that Gary places players last in the pecking order of what’s important (after the game itself and the campaign). I’ll have to ruminate on this further, but it is pretty clear Gary viewed the campaign as more important than any one player’s desires or interpretation of the rules. I wonder in this age of gaming and player empowerment how sustainable Gary’s approach is.
I’m sure every GM reading this has had spectacular “heated discussions” with at least one player at his table. Sometimes these can be fun—I personally love discussing and dissecting the minutia of the rules.
The other day, though during a Shattered Star session, we were discussing a ranger’s favoured enemy and if the ranger should get the bonus to damage and suchlike even if the target hasn’t been identified as a favoured enemy. I thought the bonus wouldn’t apply, while one of the chaps thought it would. One of the players offered to check the FAQ. Without thinking, I said, “I don’t care what the FAQ says.” That’s quite a rare thing me to say—I think a hint of rules lawyer lurks deep in my blood and I like to play the official rules—but once I said it, I felt so liberated.
More importantly, my statement killed the discussion dead and we got on with the game—which we were all enjoying. As I said above, given that no one died or suffered undue hardship I’m fine with making that kind of pronouncement. It kept the game moving forward which, I think, is the important thing.
(And—at the very worst—if we have similar discussions in the future and it turns out I’m wrong we can always work it out in between sessions and make a ruling without wasting precious game time.)
Do You Cuddle the Rulebook?
Are you a rules lawyer? Are the rules—and the slavish adherence to them—the most important aspect of the game? Let me know, in the comments below.