Dude, Where's My Rule Zero?

This morning started with a D&D 4e Tweetalanche, touched off by @DreadGazebo in this post. His point was that D&D draws gameplay ideas from video games, and that there's nothing wrong with it. I followed up to agree, and it got me thinking. In the middle of looking through the 4e rulebooks, I uttered something I never thought I'd hear.

Dude, where's my Rule Zero?

What is Rule Zero? Briefly, the GM is always right. To me, this means whenever there's a question about what happens, the GM makes the call to keep the action moving and sorts it out later if necessary. In my mind, this has morphed into "The Story Trumps The Rules". Heroism and creativity should be rewarded even at the expense of the rules as written. In my mind, this has been part of gaming rule books since time immemorial, so not finding it even mentioned in 4e shook me.

Gather round, kids! History time!
Let's look at how Rule Zero has appeared in print.

D&D original Blue Book, page 41:
A final word to the Dungeon Master from the authors. These rules are intended as guidelines.
The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!

1979 AD&D Player's Handbook, page 8 (emphasis as written):
This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places they are guidelines and suggested methods only. This is part of the attraction of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and it is integral to the game.

My first D&D set, the 1980 Magenta Box - Basic Rulebook, page B2:
In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.
And page B3:
While the material in this booklet is referred to as rules, that is not really correct. Anything in this booklet (and other D&D booklets) should be thought of as changeable - anything, that is, that the Dungeon Master or referee thinks should be changed.
The purpose of these "rules" is to provide the guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don't feel absolutely bound to them.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't think AD&D Second Edition was a significant change to the rules when it came out, so I essentially skipped it. To me, using THAC0 wasn't worth the $60 investment in what was essentially a minor edit to the three books I already owned. So no AD&D 2e quotes for you.

1992 Vampire: The Masquerade, page 60 (yeah, it's not D&D - sue me for reaching outside D&D to illustrate a point):
The rules are there to help, not govern - freedom of action is the key. The players should possess maximum freedom of action, and should never feel that their decisions and actions do not make a difference.

2000 D&D Dungeon Master's Guide (3e), page 6:
You get to decide how the rules work, which rules to use, and how strictly to adhere to them.
And in the "Changing the Rules" section on page 11:
Every rule in the Player's Handbook was written for a reason. That doesn't mean you can't change them for your own game.
Given the creativity of gamers, almost every campaign will, in time, develop its own house rules.

2000 D&D Player's Handbook (3e), page 4 (See? It's even Step Zero of character creation!):
0. Check With Your Dungeon Master
Your Dungeon Master (DM) may have house rules or campaign standards that vary from the standard rules.

And finally, let's take a look at 4th Edition D&D. Here's what the Player's Handbook has to say about the DM and the rules on page 8:
When it's not clear what ought to happen next, the DM decides how to apply the rules and adjudicate the story.
Nothing about checking to see if there are house rules, indeed, nothing that even hints that there may be other rules outside the books.

Yes, there's a half-page in the Dungeon Master's Guide about Creating House Rules (page 189 - the other half page is an example house rule for crits and fumbles), but even that writeup removes house rules from the Run-Time realm and puts it squarely in Design-Time (details in my previous post), which makes it a "how do I want my campaign to run" idea rather than a "how can the players creatively overcome problems" idea. Further, the wording seems to discourage the creation of house rules by asking twice if a rule change is really necessary.

Yes, 4e is easier for newbies to pick up, especially when you use power cards. Yes, I think 4e streamlines the rules and makes for quicker combats. Yes, I like that the system helps prevent player brain lock by reducing the variables they need to deal with in the heat of combat. Yes, these improvements originally come from the video-game realm. I'm OK with all of that.

Here's where I have an issue with 4e. RPGs have always been about having fun with friends. A big part of that for me is rewarding creativity by bending the published rules in favor of the story. The 4e rules don't even mention that as an option. The rules seem much more immutable than in previous editions and the tone treats what's in the books as Rules and not as Guidelines to let you create a maximally fun experience. It's harder to improvise solutions with powers far more well-defined than in previous editions.

I'm not saying it can't be done. Far from it. I love @gamefiend's At Will site, specifically his work on using powers in role-playing in Off The Grid and @ryvencedrylle's explorations of offbeat skill uses in Serious Skills, not to mention all the ideas about Skill Challenges, and if you have a few shekels to spare, keep an eye out for the Worldbreakers book which is funded and in production.

Cool fan-based rules mods aside, does this mean that we can't use Rule Zero even though it's not written anywhere? Absolutely not - I plan to keep on keepin' on, and I think plenty of GMs plan on staying in the same boat with me. Did the 4e design team take Rule Zero as a given and decide to not even mention it? Possibly, but the tone of the rules makes me feel like they intended to essentially close the system to third party tinkering, like Apple did during the PC/Mac wars. Not surprising after the explosion of third-party crap on the market during the 3e OGL days, but I think that may quash some fan creativity.

Does this make me an Old Sk00l curmudgeonly grognard gamer partial to phrases like "I remember when..." and "Hey, you kids! Getcher new-agey rules the hell off my lawn!"? Probably. But I think 4e shifted the RPG paradigm a little too far away from the rules-as-guidelines idea that gets me juiced as a GM. And I fear that we're entering a time when more and more often we'll hear, "But that's not in the rules" in response to creativity, especially among younger gamers. That bothers me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not so curmudgeonly that I won't play - that's just silly. There's a lot to like in 4e. I enjoy the "Yes, and..." writeup on page 28 of the DMG, as it's near and dear to my own improv-trained heart. I'm stoked to whip together an epic-level Dark Sun one-shot. I'm totally behind the idea of "winning" D&D on page 6 of the Player's Handbook:
...but if you had a good time and you created a story that everyone remembers for a long time, the whole group wins.
That's the essence of gaming right there: If it ain't fun, it ain't worth it. having fun is the whole point of 4e, which is as it should be.

But I still miss Rule Zero.


  1. Well said, I still have rule 0 the same as the other editions but perhaps it's printed a little more obtusely. Cheers! :-)

  2. I think that the deletion of rule 0 is less of a singular rules issue and more indicative of a real shift in the way that 4e's rules have changed. I think that you're right about the paradigm change to a computer based model - and I think it's unfortunate.

  3. @Jerry: I think that's a huge shift between gamers joining the hobby today and Old Sk00l gamers. Rule Zero encourages thinking beyond the character sheet, and the 4e rules tend to stick within the rules as written.

    @Colin: I agree. I think today's gamers are more trained to think within a closed system rather than approaching problems with a "Can I try this?" attitude. I think we're losing some creative potential in our games because of that paradigm shift.

  4. I find it odd that you would need a rule to allow you to modify the rules. Don't get me wrong; it is perfectly logical, and I understand the reasoning. It just seems to fly in the face of the spirit of what you're doing in the first place.

  5. Personally, I don't need Rule Zero explicitly stated in the rules. For me, it's a given. But for people who are used to, say, board games who pick up D&D, they'll be stuck int he same mental trap as a board game or a computer game.

    The rules for a board game are a closed system. You can't get away with saying, "OK, I start with hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk" and expect to have people play with you again and again, unless you're younger than age 6. But that same behavior should be possible if not rewarded in RPGs. If someone wants to play the earthly aspect of a god, that should be possible.

    The point is, Rule Zero has moved out of the rule books. It's still in the community and eminently usable, but it's not as actively encouraged in 4e, which I think ties into making creativity harder as talked about in the very next post.

  6. Rule zero has fallen away in use for some time now - look to all of the build discussions and such that have come to dominate even older versions of the game. I hold up 3.5e Pun Pun as a prime example - back in the day, nobody would bother with something like this, since it would be blatantly obvious that even a worthless GM would gut you for even a fraction of the rules abuses required to come up with this (or any of the other ridiculous, game breaking builds seen across D&D forums).

    4e simply finallizes this falling away. Of course the game it still fun with a good group of buddies. Sure, it is more accessible to the newb. But 4e feels ever so much like a P&P adaptation of a MMORPG, which, in a lot of ways, is more than a little sad.

  7. Social Media Guide to Gaming Success.

    1. Publish your own Rule Zero as a PDF on your blog.
    2. Advertise it as a secret sauce to get the best out of your game.
    3. Profit.

    Nice post - it would be a shame to see Rule 0/The Golden Rule become an unspoken... :)