(from the forthcoming 7th Sea: Second Edition Game Master chapter)

People always ask me how I feel about hearing GMs change the rules of games I’ve published. I always say the same thing: “Great! I’d love to see what they came up with.” That answer tends to confuse people, so then I often have to explain that I see RPGs as a kind of oral tradition. You can go to different cities, sit down at different game tables and play different versions of 7th Sea. To me, that’s exciting. And it was hard for me to explain why… until recently.

A few months ago, I read an article online called “How I helped to pull the rope that tolled the bell for OD&D.” (You can read it here.)

The article stunned me. In summation, the author—a kindly gentleman named Tim Kask—talks about the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, and how the rulebook wasn’t a rulebook at all, but a list of example rulings. The difference, he argued, was that rulings gave the Dungeon Master freedom to improvise creatively while rules limited the DM’s ability to run the game. He lamented that later editions went to the side of rules vs rulings and the game has suffered ever since.

Like I said, the article stunned me. (I could talk about it for hours, really. And have.) And it also got me thinking about how I run my own table. Many times, if I can’t think of a specific rule, I make something up on the spot. A quick ruling that’s fair, but also fast. I make the promise, “After the game, I’ll look up the rule,” and I do and try to keep it in my head for the next time. But, generally, if I can’t think of a rule, I ask for a quick roll of the dice. If the player has an Advantage that would benefit him, I let him use it. Sometimes, I even ignore an existing rule and create a new one that better fits the circumstance.

That’s how I want you to look at these rules. These are the rulings we’ve come up with, that we’ve found fair and useful. Sometimes, they’ll get in the way and a quick roll of the dice may be a better solution. Sometimes, the rules we’ve given you will fit like a glove and add to the fun.

The end result of all this navel-gazing is a simple piece of advice. When it comes time to run the game, you don’t need to have all 300 pages memorized. Just stick to the basics:

  1. You Create a Scene.
  2. Players Create Raises.
  3. Players use Raises to change the Scene.

That’s really all you need. Those are the only rules. All the rest is rulings. Suggestions we found useful. You may not find them useful. You may ditch one in a moment of forgetfulness or panic or dramatic necessity.

That’s okay. Nobody’s sending the 7th Sea Rules Enforcement Force to your door to make sure you get everything right.

Improvise. Have fun. And remember: it’s a storytelling game. And these are your friends. More importantly, this is your game. You bought it. You can change whatever you want in it, including the rules. Sometimes, especially the rules.

Rulings, Not Rules

10 thoughts on “Rulings, Not Rules

  • I agree with the general idea, but I find that the freedom of the first RPGs was because they haven’t rules for many things. So, you needed to improvise.

    RolePlayGame = background + humans (players and GameMaster) + rules

    Some people enjoy more one factor than the others. And also each game have its own strenghts and weakness.

    When you make a RPG, you are giving to the players 2/3 of it: the background and the rules.

    Rules and ruling are not our enemies. They are a tool that allow you to set what you can or can’t do in a imaginary world. Without that, you have a collaborative novel, something fantastic, but not a RPG. Maybe the storytelling game it’s something inbetween?

    You can also change the rules. That’s wonderfull and sane. But there it’s a point when the number of changes needed makes you easier use the rules of other game, or even make your own rules.

    More changes means that the rules are weak. So, from the 2/3 that you are giving to the players (customers), 1/3 it’s not enought strong. A lot of rulings (optional rules) it’s really confussing and unbalancing.

    It’s like go to IKEA, buy a wonderfull closet, but with that instructions: “Use your imagination!”.

    When that happens, the game (or the closet) it’s a failure as set of background + rules.

    Thats my point. The people also enjoy have wonderfull and complete rules ; )

      1. Challenge accepted!!!!!!! (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ (Just kidding. Thank you so much for the repply)

        I think that, in between “Use your imagination!” and “The complete and ultimate encyclopedia for mounting closets in thirty volumes bounded in mermaid leather”, there is a lot of maneuvering space.

        If your game it’s going to be about Post-Apocalyptic future, it’s going to be really nice have good rules like: “Build your rolling scrap”, “alternative sources of energy and imaginative rust-resistant”, “barter with junk” and “rules to open the doors of a safe enclave”. Sure that all of that examples are the most usual mechanics and charismatics in a Post-Apocalyptic future (The things of the films/novels/comics that the players will like to imitate). So rules instead rulings. Why? They are integral part of the universe that they try to evoke.

      2. Of course, many people are going to tell “I need rules for”. But you makes the background. So, you know wich are the mechanics that most of the players are going to use.(I would add, they are going to do it if they really want to use them).

        So, I think that that basic idea between rules/rulings can be good for a generic system, but not to a game with a carefully elaborated background.

        Ps: How it’s going the not-Challenge, avoiding politely make an entire set of rules in a chatbox? xP

      3. Complete is easy, specificity is the problem.

        A game that has a ‘Do Stuff’ ability is complete. Open a locked door? Do stuff. Jump over a chasm? Do stuff. Slay a god? Do stuff.

        But for some reason players don’t like this level of generality. So most RPGs divide doing stuff between at least physical and mental activities. Solve a bar puzzle? Do thinking stuff. Punch a guy in the face? Do physical stuff.

        But even that’s too general for most, so they go further and further down this particular rabbit hole until they lose sight of what the game was originally trying to be about and it becomes about these fiddly details instead, and the primary activity moves from interpretation to application.

  • Completely agree with this article. I’m a spanish 7th sea DM, and I’ve changed the combat rules to fit my players and our style of gaming, and I never felt like I was betraying the game’s spirit.
    I’m looking forward to read the changes on second edition!

  • Right, so, I am going to be the unpopular guy who brings some uncomfortable concepts to the party.

    1. I already knew it was up to the GM. Of course it is up to the GM. If I want to resolve my challenges through interpretive dance, I could. I am probably capable of building my very own rules set from scratch without burning the house down, but I wouldn’t pay a dime for a system that told me to do that. When I purchase a book, I am not paying the author for her imprimatur or seal of approval; I am paying for her expert guidance. I have, effectively, hired her as a consultant and, just as in professional life, I neither need nor want my consultant to tell me “it’s up to you, boss.” I want the consultant’s opinion and if possible to understand her logic as to why she holds that opinion and not another. I can then take it or leave it, but I can do so in an educated way which doesn’t require me to be an expert in every field.

    2. I work in a field, fortunately, with rules and rulings. The mark of a good rule is the ability to both anticipate and predict rulings. A well-written statute contains within in definitions which make the operation of the statute clear in most cases. A well written RPG rules set both anticipates that characters might want to do a certain thing (knock someone out, disarm them, etc.) and will contain sufficient, if general, guidance on how to negotiate that class of situations (“when someone attempts to inflict a harm or detriment other than wounds…” ). When there are large gaps in the rules, rulings get made to fill them in; rulings which are based on best guesses and “sound logic.” There are reasons, however, a statute can be struck down as “void for vagueness:” the rules must be concrete enough that their application cannot be arbitrary. My players are fond of fairness; it is why we play games instead of just tell stories. Both they and I believe that, if something worked in one way on one occasion and another way in the next, they are entitled to ask why; not because we love rules questions but because we believe that by understanding the rules we’re playing by, we can play the game more freely.

    3. My issue is not that a rules set might not be “complete” but rather that it lacks sufficiently solid foundations to be built upon until it reaches my desired level of completeness. If a system of rules is not robust enough to demonstrate its internal logic in such a way that I can reasonably guess how it would handle an unforeseen situation, then I cannot build on it and I might as well begin from scratch. In short, the rules should tell me how to make rulings; no specific rulings, but rather how the rules intend for certain types of problems to be resolved or the criteria the system values when adjudicating between interpretations.

  • I have an issue with rulings heavy games. When I make the social contract to play in a game, part of that is the agreement of which game we are playing. I don’t want that gaming changing between every table or region. It’s essentially brand recognition. I want to see the same familiar setting in every McDonald’s I enter. While every GM and group of players imparts their own flavor onto the game, I want that familiarity in the underlying structure of the meta of the game.

    As other posters have mentioned, older rule sets were not very complete and required rulings in order to function well. This is not often the case anymore. Instead rulings end up as a way for the GM to impart their will upon a game that is not happening as they would desire. I respect the power of the GM to narrate as they will. It is their decision when the rules should come into play. Once they decide to bring out the rules, they should abide by them though. This is a basic part of the social contract we all entered into when we agreed to play the game in the first place.

  • The rules in an RPG are only there to make sure the conversation is about what the conversation is supposed to be about. Even Improv has rules which if ignored would make the activity impossible. Rules help everyone at the table clearly communicate their expectations through resolving uncertainty or disagreement through constants or conditionals. Too many and the game plays itself. Too few and there’s nothing to make rulings on.

    Even without a rulebook you’re still playing to the expectations of the GM, which means play depends on asking lots of questions or knowing them well enough that you don’t have to. And based on the article you linked to these questions were so numerous in the early days that groups spontaneously created social roles (the ‘Caller’) to mitigate the negative side effects of literally asking too many questions at once. I’m not sure going back to that is a net benefit.

    This is why RPG design is difficult. You have to create a set of rules which focuses play in the direction you want by leaving just the right elements hidden, defined, or open to interpretation.

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