Retaking Rule Zero

Well, this is the big one for some. In my ninth blog I will be explaining the changes to the much venerated “Rule Zero” and why I felt it needed alteration within Faerie Tales & Folklore. This is a surprisingly polarizing topic within the tabletop roleplaying community so I felt I should give a relatively thorough explanation of this choice, and what its real ramifications are within any given game session. To begin, an understanding of exactly what “Rule Zero” is should be stated to give the proper perspective for this conversation. D&D Wikia defines “Rule Zero” thusly:

“Rule 0, or rule zero, in tabletop role-playing gaming is the unwritten but commonly understood rule that the game master can override published game rules for any reason.”

This Rule is often also understood in this way:

“The game master is always right.”

This is a common and widely accepted idea within the roleplaying world, one that I do not challenge in most situations. However, it is also a bit authoritarian and this can lead to its abuse. Neither of these points are why I decided to alter the rule a bit. Faerie Tales & Folklore is a deeply intertwined system where even the setting itself cannot be easily separated from the supporting rules. This was done with the intent of providing a high level of believability to the resulting game. Additionally, Faerie Tales & Folklore is set in the history of our own species and largely upon the Earth we consider our home. This alone can cause issues with the traditional implementation of “Rule Zero”. If by example, a referee in a game of Faerie Tales & Folklore was to say “gods are real” in my version of the setting, much of the existing rules about the Otherworld become difficult to resolve. If that same referee was to state that the Viking Age never happened or that the Mongols never invaded China, it would create a huge hole in the setting’s history that would be difficult to resolve over time.

It has been the intent of Faerie Tales & Folklore from its early conceptualization to offer a setting that resolved itself into the modern world while still offering a past rooted within the mythology of the various earthly cultures. Thus, unlike many fantasy games, history has already occurred and we know the final outcome. Knowing such should not spoil a good tale however, as most stories have a predictable ending. It is the tale itself that we enjoy, not simply its end. In the game’s setting, we know what happens, not simply in the history of our world, but with the inevitable division of the Otherworld from our own. It is in this certainty that Faerie Tales & Folklore diverges from many fantasy games. In this fact, especially considering our own history as a people, the referee may NOT always be correct and it is important for a referee to allow themselves to be corrected, even when it is not comfortable. It will be unlikely for any single referee to know the entire history of the Earth and its people. If they get a detail wrong, and it is of significant import, such a moment should not be simply “Rule Zeroed”. The players should feel empowered to call the referee out on such irregularities.

The modifications to “Rule Zero” do not include bits such as fudging dice rolls, or making minor changes to simple rules to fit a need. It is suggested that when a referee wishes to make larger changes to the structure of the rules, he puts the requested change to a vote with the other players. In a war game there is usually no referee, so such votes should be decided by majority. This should also be the form of decision in cooperative narration, as any change will effect any player when they take the role of the referee. In a traditional roleplaying narrative with a single regular referee, the other players must be united in opposition to a referee’s proposed ruling to override it. When a referee is starting a new game for a group of players, it is advised that the referee go over any changes to the rules thay may use. This gives players the chance to object, possibly outvoting the referee, or to allow them to disengage from a session and seek play elsewhere. Players themselves may also suggest alterations to the rules, this occurs in the “Example of Play” section of the game when the players ask to keep unit placement secret until the correct moment. This should not be abused however and should be done with the blessing of the referee. The example used in the “Example of Play” allowed the players to create a more realistic and effective ambush that the referee could not bypass through “metagaming”.

By and large, players should respect the judgement of a referee. This is important to keep a sense of order at the table. Coversely, the referee should respect the rules of the game so as to not slip into an ever-changing game of nebulous “make believe”. It may seem to many that these points do not need to be gone over, but it is my opinion that they do. Any game is a set of rules and the rules of any game need to be understood by all who choose to play any particular game. Roleplaying games are different in many aspects from what may be considered “standard” games, but there is no less of a need for an understanding of the game’s rules. When rules are constantly being modified, the game’s sense of “terra firma” is jeopardized. This can impede the sense of commonality among the players and the referee, leading to resentment or disillusionment with the game itself. In games that utilize “collective imagination” this becomes even more important. As children, many of us played pretend cops and robbers games, or superheroes, or any other such derivation of imagined “good guys vs bad guys”. In such games, there is often the player who makes up “rules” as they go along. This almost always would result in some form of spat and an abrupt end to the game. If it is understood from the beginning what the rules of a game are, there will be a little chance of a painful misunderstanding of the rules.

In both the rules and setting of Faerie Tales & Folklore, as mentioned above, there exists a very deep amount of interplay between the various rules and subsystems. If a referee begins to alter these rules, the resulting changes can rapidly destabilize the balance that was crafted within the game’s environment. This makes the subtle change to “Rule Zero” even more important, as even what appear to be meaningless changes can have extreme effects within the game. Allowing a common man to be a magic-user for example, erodes the power balancing of the lineages, just as letting a low man call miracles or undertake the class of fighting-man would. There are a great many games available where the rules and the implied setting can easily be devorced from one another, Faerie Tales & Folklore is not truly one such game. Though I encourage its players and referees to experiment with the system if they feel the need, I would advise them to do so with the full awareness of all involved. When you are running a game as the referee, it is wise to respect the law of the “Rules as Writen”, and as a player you should respect the referee and their ability to arbitrate those rules. A roleplaying game cannot flourish without a certain mutual respect among all the players, including the referee.

Keep all of this in mind when sitting down at the game table and try to understand why I choose to make this subtle change. No one is always right, everyone at the table deserves respect, and the rules are there for a reason. Play with the original “Rule Zero” if you like but understand the reasons it may be wise to stick with the subtle changes offered. Look toward the long term “end game” of Faerie Tales & Folklore to see why the setting is not meant to be altered and try to understand how alterations may affect the setting as well as its believability. To me, this is part of the magic I sought to create…

Enjoy your time at the game table friends and remember, while there, we are all playing a game… Even the referee.

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