Rule Zero is RPG Storytellers’ Best Friend

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Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted drill down on what’s known in tabletop roleplaying games at Rule Zero, more specifically as this gaming tradition is described in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The common understanding of Rule Zero as it pertains to RPGs like 5E D&D is a reminder to players that a Game Master has to exercise common sense and can to supersede the rules when the they would ruin enjoyment and fair play. With this in mind following Rule Zero in practice comes down to one thing: trust. There’s a responsibility from all participants in an RPG, GM and players alike, so this trust goes both ways and the results are fun experiences for everyone involved.

Rules as guidelines

Since the bulk of my experience with RPGs and the primary focus of our Nerdarchy efforts falls within 5E D&D it’s a good idea to start with how this particular game and edition incorporates Rule Zero. You don’t need to go far to find it either — the first page of the Dungeon Master’s Guide lays it out plainly.

“The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.”

For a great number of DMs this passage is a breath of fresh air. I know at least one DM for whom this blurb in the DMG changed their whole perspective. In earlier editions of D&D the rules were much more heavy, laden with circumstantial modifiers and complex dissertations on various actions. Comprehensive rule sets can be found in lots of games, classic and modern, and for many players this is the juice. Working the system, squeezing mechanics and options for numerical advantages and overcoming challenges set in a characters way through mathematical superiority provides the fun. Now, the text of the game itself squarely empowers the DM to adjust or ignore rules as they see fit to facilitate a better game experience.

Do you see how this could lead to tricky scenarios?

Without a level of trust among players for a GM, rulings during a game session might seem arbitrary or even punitive. Especially for players who might be more intimately familiar with the rules of any particular game it can grow frustrating when the outcomes differ from the intention because they possess certainty (or at least high probability) of success before any dice hit the table. For these players the trust lies primarily with the rules themselves and this makes perfect sense. Whatever challenges their characters face they find comfort knowing it all breaks down to the numbers.

Even in the crunchiest, most tactical game though, you’ve got to imagine a GM’s intention is for a campaign to continue. Sure, there’s killer GMs out there and players tell horror stories of how no one survives their game sessions. I suspect a great deal of these adversarial GMs, if they continue to run games consistently, are actually quite good. It takes confidence in system mastery to challenge characters with precision rules implementation so if this sort of GM doesn’t quickly gain a reputation for running games where everyone dies and no one has fun, they must instead offer an experience certain players crave.

This is where trust comes into the mix when it comes to Rule Zero. Do you trust the GM to work with players to create fun, memorable experiences together?

I consider myself pretty competent when it comes to 5E D&D rules. After all these decades gaming through earlier editions and many other RPGs I find a lighter approach to running games incredibly refreshing and exhilarating. When I play with new people for the first time I make sure to encourage the same approach from them in play as I happily expect from players new to a game. Put the crunchy stuff on your character sheet aside, imagine your character’s place in the world and tell me what you hope to do in any given situation.

This illustration comes from the book Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D. Written by David Kushner it tells, in graphic form, the story of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the most influential games ever made. Like the game itself, the narrative casts the reader into the adventure from a first person point of view, taking on the roles of the different characters in the story. [Art by Koren Shadmi]

Rule Zero in action

In the course of my own 5E D&D games I lean heavily into the idea of rulings, not rules. For most of my life this applied to a small, consistent group of players. These players, my friends, trust me to help them tell the story of their characters in a fun, exciting, dramatic and memorable way. At the same time I put trust in players to think past their character sheet and to an extent the rule system as a whole. Here’s a few examples from my own games where Rule Zero came into play.

  • With their ship anchored in a bay a sea elf ranger in our Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign dove into the water to scout around. A roll on one of the random tables in the back of the book resulted in a blue hole beneath the ship and further investigation (and a roll on another table) revealed 8 sahuagin lurking down there. Rather than roll initiative and hash out what happened with movement speeds and so forth, I offered the player an opportunity to use their Inspiration and make a special Strength (Athletics) to speed away without getting caught. (They escaped back to the ship.)
  • In our April fan one shot the characters encountered an unusual animated skeleton that was missing their legs. One of the side quests in the adventure involves finding their leg bones and returning them but one of the characters, an artificer, wanted to affix the skeleton to their steel defender. For the cost of one of their Flash of Genius features, sure!
  • During a session of a longrunning Spelljammer campaign a monk character whose player imagined was a martial artist practicing animal styles encountered a mutated saber toothed tiger. The player wanted to use their ki to sort of connect with the beast on a spiritual level and quell it’s aggression. I had the creature make a saving throw against the characters ki save DC, which it did not succeed on, and the monk could keep it calm while the rest of the party moved forward past the thing.
  • After the party bypassed a medusa gang leader’s lair basically in entirety by discovering a perilous shortcut, they confronted the medusa in its inner sanctum. Missed were all the clues leading to this area like the ubiquitous stone garden. The party was quite surprised! The medusa was defeated but not before one of the characters failed their saving throw against its gaze by more than 5 and was instantly petrified. Between sessions the players hemmed and hawed about what they could do. No one would be able to lift the petrified character and carry them out, no one had any means to restore them and they were really worried. The warlock character beseeched their Otherworldly Patron for help, so I spoke with the petrified character’s player and the player of the warlock privately. If they wanted to go through with this, there’d be a hefty price to pay. They agreed, the character was unpetrified and the two character shared a dark secret from then on, which played out in explosive fashion later in the campaign.

In each of these cases you can see the players wished to do things not explicitly covered by the rules or that we played out in differently in spite of the rules. The first example could easily have been managed following the rules, but I decided against this. Why? There are two reasons. First, the character was hundreds of feet away from the ship so handling the scenario with initiative as a quasi-combat encounter meant the rest of the players would have nothing to do while this played out in the water below, which their characters were completely unaware of and second I didn’t want the sea elf to die. Sure, you could say that’s what the game and dice would (more than likely) dictate. At the same time I felt the scenario already had impact. The player got to do something special with their character’s abilities, satisfied their curiosity and also learned there’s potential danger all around.

The second case lead to increased fun around the table with me included. There is no reason the skeleton needed to remain in the room where it was found, and the player expended a valuable resource to accomplish their goal. Going forward the skeleton became a memorable NPC, and in fact after finding the legs they gave the skeleton a magical trident they’d brought along on the adventure. In the final encounter, it was the skeleton (who as yet had contributed not at all to any combats) rushed in and dealt the final strike. One of the players handled any dice rolling for the skeleton so I didn’t rob anyone of the spotlight. By the end of the session the skeleton became a well liked NPC they made sure to account for in the final outcome.

The tiger scenario went far afield of any specific character abilities. Since I don’t construct adventures in any intricate way to tax character resources leading up to a climactic encounter, getting past the creature without a fight didn’t alter the dynamics of anything ahead. The monk’s connection required they remain behind concentrating on the tiger while the rest of the party went ahead into the unknown. Rather than roll initiative and more than likely overcome the tiger in combat in short order, the moment became very important to the monk who felt like they gained a deeper understanding of their own martial discipline.

Finally, the petrification outcome led to so many complex interactions from that point on I consider it a turning point for the whole campaign. At the time the two characters did not even fully understand the consequences of this secret deal and the rest of the characters — and their players — were unaware of the actions they took to repay the bargain.

In all four examples the common thread they share is substituting hard coded rules for unique resolutions leading to more interesting stories. Even in cases where consequences worked against the characters like the warlock deal the players put trust in me that their choices meant something. From players’ perspectives their trust is repaid. But this also benefits me as a DM. I know I can trust players to explore their creativity and imaginations, placing themselves in their characters shoes. Players grow more willing to try different things and not assess their options through the lens of numbers and features on their character sheet.

Your Rule Zero experience

Are you a DM who follows the rules without question, or do you lean more towards rulings than rules in the RPG sessions you run? As a player do you find more comfort in system mastery and exactly knowing the probability of a potential action or do you enjoy looser games, trusting the GM to interpret rulings with a goal of increasing the fun and memorable experiences together? If running or playing 5E D&D appeals to you more from a narrative perspective than a mechanical one I’m certain you’ll enjoy Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition. Don’t worry — there’s plenty of opportunities to utilize existing and new mechanics for 5E D&D throughout the 55 encounters ready to drop right into your game. At the same time one of the most important design goals for this project was recognizing (and encouraging!) out of the box thinking from players and providing guidance for GMs to incorporate these outcomes into larger campaigns. Check it out here.

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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