Today I’m looking at a topic that became a really hot-button issue in the early 2000’s. And even to this day, arguments over it will arise on one online forum or another. It’s called “Rule Zero.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s probably a good thing, but more than likely, you’ve had some experience with it whether you know it or not.
Rule Zero basically states, “If you don’t like something about the rules [provided for you in this game’s text], change it!” Well, that’s the nice way to put it. I’ve sometimes seen it also called “The Golden Rule” which basically says, “The GM may ignore or change any rule at any time.” If that looks like a Social Contract disaster filled with GM Fiat punts, then you are right.
I wish I knew who coined the phrase “Rule Zero” in this usage. My first contact with it was in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying System, where it comes right out and says that the GM can change any rule he or she wants. I know the White Wolf Games used the “Golden Rule” terminology in its texts. I suspect, whether this empowerment of the GM and/or players to just change the rules on a whim was officially termed early or late in RPG history, people were doing it from the beginning. I don’t know who first recognized this was going on, but the point is, once the idea took hold, designers started incorporating it into their games and RPGs have suffered ever since.
Why was Rule Zero/The Golden Rule invented?
Rule Zero/The Golden Rule came about because the early RPG texts that set the template for all RPGs to follow did a horrible, awful job of communicating how to play. You don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to what the man himself, Gary Gygax, had to say about his own game in his introduction to AD&D1e, “D&D hasturned into a non-game. There is so much variation between the way the game is played [that] there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.”
This could only happen if the text did not explicitly lay out what the game was about, what the players were supposed to do, and what the characters were supposed to do. I have my copy of the 1978 AD&D Player’s Handbook right next to me, and there is not one page devoted to what players should be doing at any given moment of play, during a session of play, or for an entire campaign.
As a result, it became necessary for the DMs to improvise, change, and modify the rules at will. D&D never empowered the group as a whole to make these decisions and since the DM was seen kind of as a replacement for the referee in wargaming, the players looked to him/her for what to do when nothing made sense.
Why is Rule Zero/Golden Rule bad?
There are several reasons why relying Rule Zero is a rotten idea for designers. If you haven’t read my article on The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, it’s some good background knowledge to have for this article.
The first reason Rule Zero is awful is that it encourages lazy design. By including it, often in the introduction to a game, the designer is letting himself/herself off the hook. Why worry about making all the rules work tightly together when the GM/Players will just change them anyway? While it’s true that the designer cannot control how people actually play his game, it seems contradictory to in one breath prescribe how to play your game and in the next tell the players to just make it up as they go.
Second, players are disinclined to actually try playing by the rules. By including Rule Zero in your game, you give them carte blanche to start changing things before they even play. Thus, they often try to bend some new game into some old game they are more familiar with. Consequently, they miss out on a new experience. Is that what you would want for your design? Wouldn’t it be best if they were encouraged to at least try to play by the rules? Isn’t that why your wrote your game in the first place?
Of all the games that have been Rule Zero’ed more than any other, OD&D stands first. Yet, read this account of a group howfastidiously followed the rules of OD&D (as much as humanly possible) and how much fun they had as a result and how much they learned about the emergent properties of the game. It’s brilliant! But I know of very few groups and very few players who’ve stuck by the letter of the OD&D books, or any version of D&D for that matter (with the possible exception of 4th ed. at game shops while playing Tuesday Night Encounters).
Incorporating Rule Zero in a text shows me that the designer has a lack of confidence in his or her game. Be confident. As a customer, I am naturally pre-disposed to trusting you to produce a fun game. I WANT to play the game the way you intended. If you tell me upfront I don’t have to, then you break that trust. And I probably won’t play the game the way you envisioned.
Third, incorporating Rule Zero/The Golden Rule overtly into your rules can often lead to heavy use of force by the GM or players to “keep things on track.” This could be an entire article on its own (again see my entry on TITB4B). Force is basically covert, social manipulation used by the GM to nullify player input in order to form a narrative during play that fits the GM’s vision alone. How many of you like to be manipulated by other people? How many of you enjoy having your creative endeavors subverted then negated by someone else? That’s what the use of force and application of Rule Zero often bring to the table. And it’s something we’ve hopefully left behind for the most part.
Finally, no other type of game invokes anything like Rule Zero. One of the things that really bugs me about this is that this sort of behavior would be totally unacceptable in any other format. Imagine if Pat Sajack suddenly started changing the rules for Wheel of Fortune right in the middle of an episode! Or what if Dr. Richard Garfield had written into the original rules of Magic: the Gathering- “Eh, if you don’t like the mana system or any of the other rules of the game, just make them up as you go. It won’t matter.” It would be a catastrophe. Now, creating recognized variants of the game (say, Commander or Cube in the case of M:tG) is fine, because everybody is on board with the modified rules set from the beginning. But imagine if Rule Zero applied to something like Poker at something during a Pro Tour? If other games don’t tolerate this, why should we?
Wait, you might be wondering, if variants are okay, then is Rule Zero actually a real thing? What about house rules and hacks?
Good question. So, after everything I’ve said, I’m going to contradict myself for just one tiny second. If you take the “you” in my original definition of Rule Zero to mean the play group as a whole, then it’s not really a bad thing at all. People can play however they want. Coming to a group consensus on how a game should be played is a very functional thing. Who hasn’t hacked a game they loved or mashed two great games together to form something new? We’ve all done it and had a blast! As far as play goes, the real problem with the rule comes when that “you” is interpreted to mean just one person- usually the GM. In these cases it is one person coercing the players to play according to a single, non-negotiable vision. This can very often lead to arguments, disenfranchisement, and a big ‘ole heaping helping of the 20:4 ratio most ESPECIALLY when rules are ignored, modified, or added during play without group consensus. I don't see this as a particularly desirable design element. Do you?
So, when making your game, I suggest not even including anything in the text that even remotely resembles Rule Zero/The Golden Rule. It’s not helpful, since people will ignore/modify your rules anyway if they want. It’s poor design, because you're letting yourself off the hook instead of working to find a real solution. And it just obfuscates the real intent of your game, which is why you're writing this thing in the first place, right?