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RPG groups have a unique relationship to rules: we have total control over them. Sure, we choose a ruleset and study it, but it's up to us how much of the rules we ignore or modify, and we can add extra rules as much as we like. Carefully following the system rules exactly as written is an option too.

Many groups leave these choices to the GM. This is common enough that it's sometimes considered a default state --or even considered a mandatory part of the RPG experience. But ultimately Rule Zero is an expression of the entire group's ability to make rules choices: we choose to make the GM the final arbiter. Just like a group can ignore or change a rule about re-rolls or language proficiency, we can also override a system's ideas about Rule Zero or any other rule.

However, some groups won't even realize that these are choices they could talk about. Most other types of structured play have explicit rules that an individual group doesn't get to mutate: nobody cares that you don't think three of a kind should be worth 6 points, and if you can pick up the ball with your hands it's not soccer anymore.

Failing to realize the unique nature of RPG rules, these groups find themselves stuck with decisions they don't realize they have control over. This leads to each player having a slightly different idea about the group's relationship to the rules and no open lines of communication for even noticing this is the case.

For groups laboring under such an unstated and conflicting social contract, problems which may seem like mechanical debates (like whether to ignore boring dice results in favor of interesting events or how to interpret a poorly-worded ruling) or conflicts of personality (rudeness, submission, expectations of privilege) often rise from the fact that some players think we're playing one kind of game when others expected an notably different playstyle. Because they don't recognize it as a perspective problem, each member thinks the other is being deliberately obstructive or is just stupid.

  • What can a GM or player do to help mediate a discrepancy in the participants’ desired relationship with the rules?
  • What constructive action can a participant take if he feels like the rest of the group isn't interested in giving due consideration to his desired relationship with the rules?

I'm phrasing this very broadly because details specifying the exact nature of the debate tend to attract opinions about who was right, instead of addressing this as a social issue: this isn't about the value of Rule Zero, for instance, because Rule Zero is just one potential symptom of the issue, not the root of it. Whether the discrepancy is between GM and player or between player and player, there's a conflict of perspective that will fester unless addressed.

Please remember the good subjective / bad subjective guidelines, and “kick him out / find a new group” answers will be considered lazy.

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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The hardest part about conflicting expectations is identifying them. It's all well and good to sit down and set expectations as a group, but that discussion is only going to be as constructive as you all have knowledge of the RPG-specific points of friction that need to be discussed. We all play how we learned to play and assume our own default is normal, but in a hobby as diverse as roleplaying games, there are almost as many ways to play as there are groups.

My go-to resource for the things that are typically taken for granted but which actually need the whole group to agree on to have a functional group is the Same Page Tool. It consists of a list of specific issues (is there a prepared plot, or does the GM follow where the players go? is PvP a betrayal, or is it the point of play? is PC death a concern?), options for how to handle them, and instructions for how to use the tool. (In particular, it can't be used as a survey; it's only useful when part of just the kind of sit-down discussion being talked about here.)

Using the Same Page Tool uncovers assumptions, and makes the mode of play explicit. A group that finds they can't happily agree on all the points – at least for this one campaign – also learns that they're not going to be compatible before anyone gets their toes stepped on in the middle of playing.

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I've always avoided the SPT because I saw it as a survey and suspected that while administering it would clarify problem areas, it might also congeal expectations instead of opening up a space for negotiation. +1 for making me see it in a new light. –  BESW Mar 16 '13 at 19:56
    
+1 for the expectations based on prior games –  CatLord Mar 17 '13 at 14:51
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I think this is a subtle but very important issue in a gaming group, particular one using a game that is rules-heavy. In my opinion, the rules of the game shape the players' concepts of what they can and cannot do with a given resource (money, time, etc.). I mainly play D&D 3.5, a rules-heavy game, and I've been frustrated at times when I have built my character to leverage rules A, B, and C, only to find out when I actually attempt to do an action based on this leverage, the DM says "I don't quite see it that way. You can't do that in your turn."

I would suggest two primary ways to handle these conflicting rules interpretations:

  1. At the start of the gaming campaign, as a GM / referee, plainly lay out every sourcebook rule in use, every optional rule in use, and every "houserule" that will be incorporated into the game. WRITE THEM DOWN. I use the term "houserule" loosely - it could be a complete deviation from a standard rule, or it could simply be a clarification to a standard rule. These lists may be living lists - they grow from campaign to campaign, even across game systems somewhat.
  2. When a rule interpretation conflict arises, as a GM, do the best you can during the game, then talk with the player (or all the players) out of game, before the next gaming session, and make a consensus decision. Don't leave the players out of the final decision. Then add this decision to the written list of rules interpretations / houserules. For some conflicts where it is obvious that the players were under a completely different impression of the rules than the GM, you may wish to allow a little Deus Ex Machina to fix the problem and bring everyone back into "compliance" with the group's set of rules.

Obviously, the key is the keep the rules in use, including all common usages of "Rule 0", as transparent to the players as possible. And try to handle as many of these issues out of game as possible. The players will need to contribute a bit of faith in the GM for that to work, but if they do, the GM should reward them with attention, inclusion, and clarity.

It's not necessarily possible for the GM to write down every house rule ahead of time since they are likely to be emergent, but all of the rules for a game need to be understood and readily available to both the GM and the players. Most of the rules will be contained in rulebooks. Some of those rules (customizations, deviations, or additions) are in the head of the GM. Most rules conflicts I have witnessed come about not because the players disagree with the GM, but because the players are not aware of the GM's "special rules" - i.e., lack of transparency. As long as the players are kept aware in some fashion, those rules do not need to be painstakingly catalogued.

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I don't consider myself a tyrannic GM, but when comes to rules and setting definition the GM is the authority.

I consider a GM as a host. He prepares the game, the setting and the plot. That is a lot of work, and in return players should show the trust and respect to allow him to determine which rules work better with the setting and plot he has prepared.

I also consider that the GM is the better suited to know how some rules or even some aspects of the setting must be changed to achieve the desired game experience. The GM prepares the setting, and the plot, and he set the scenes, the descriptions, NPCs reaction, the story (and character's) themes and the general and location's ambient. Players control their character's actions and determine the direction of the story, through their character's action. But the GM is who has the greater control of the game experience. If players trust the GM to determine this experience, they should trust him to have the final word on rules, as he is the one who better knows all the other elements.

I'm not saying that rules and decissions cannot be discussed between all players, but when I am the GM, I expect the players to accept my final word. In the same way, I accept the game styles of other GMs when playing as a regular player.

Note: To be better understood, I must say I don't think rules are the most important part of roleplaying. I use them as guides and suggestions and ways to solve situations. I try that players don't focus on them too much and instead think what their characters would do.

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-1 This doesn't answer the question; You've explained how you think things should work, but the question was about how you mediate between multiple such opinions. –  GMJoe Mar 20 '13 at 3:21
    
@GMJoe As the rules of good/bad subjective demand, I tell what I do when I play when I have a different opinion on rules. As a player, I respect the GM's approach. As a GM, I try that the players understand and accept my style. This is what have worked for me in my many years of gaming, with a unique ocasion in which a conflict escalated to an unpleasant discusion (later the player just reconsidered). –  Flamma Mar 20 '13 at 8:27
    
You said that you expect players to accept the GM's final word, but that does not in itself allow mediation of discrepancy in the participants’ desired relationship with the rules, nor does it describe any constructive action that a participant can take if he disagrees with the group. Describing your experience is a good beginning, but you need to clarify how it relates to the question. –  GMJoe Mar 21 '13 at 1:07
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I think that the best option here is to openly sit down together and discuss what type of game it is everyone wants to play. This is really true for any group exercise: everyone should be in trying to create a fairly uniform product, or else the group will have the propensity to diverge and create friction.

That said, sometimes there is an unavoidable conflict in mindsets between two or more players. In my experience, the best method of resolving this is to include the rest of the party in the debate. Once a decision has been made, it can be made the default for the group, or it may be decided that this is a one time thing.

Rerolls

Some groups are very serious about their rolls, and in this case there's not an awful lot you can do about it. So die, or take a setback, or fail the campaign entirely. That's life. If that's what the group wants, there's not an awful lot you, the individual player, can or even SHOULD do about it. Learn to enjoy the play-style or find a new campaign.

When the DM does decide to change a player's fate (this is generally an issue in GM'ed/DM'ed games in my experience, in headless games rerolls tend to be less of a sticky issue for various reasons), it helps to consider whether the roll can be reflavored in a way. D20s have Saving Throws and allied players' skill checks to save you when your own abilities fail you, Dogs in the Vineyard and FATE's entire systems are basically built around it, and in every system I've played outside of Paranoia, there is a way for players to redeem one another (or themselves) to prevent catastrophes, at a cost. So if your halfling misses a jump check, maybe someone can take a reflex check to catch her, but now they're both prone. If your Badass Mormon Mailman takes a shot to the chest, stopping the bleeding is simply a new encounter. If your troubleshooter is about to be executed by Friend Computer...well you knew what you were getting yourself into.

Maybe there's no way to give anyone a check to save the character. Maybe everyone failed, or flat-out refused. It is then still in the DM/GM's power to give the character a form of success, but in a way that increases tension/character development/Fun, whatever people in your group are after. Perhaps the falling halfling, on her way down, offers a 'blank check' to any god that can stop her from hitting the ground. Miraculously, she sees a vine along the cliff and grabs hold. All is well, she can climb up the cliff. But her destiny now belongs to someone...or something!

Alternatively, you can just hand out the reroll. I don't personally like this option because I feel like it throws away a perfectly good opportunity to do something really cool, but sometimes it's necessary to get the game where it needs to be going.

Homebrew/Custom Rules

In a perfect world, the homebrew rules are all laid out in advance, everyone agrees to them, and the campaign benefits from it. But in a realistic setting, there will be custom rules that come up which happen in the spur of the moment, or which players were unaware of. Generally I recommend that you talk about these with your DM. Discuss them openly as they come up and you shouldn't have much of a problem coming to a consensus.

But this rule breaks my character! If a rule you did not know about ruins your character, talk with your GM after the session about the possibility of changing the ruling, explaining that your character hinges on an alternative reading/rule. If the GM flat-out refuses or seems reluctant (maybe she really likes the rule, or the other players are fond of it), discuss the possibility of a character reroll/retooling. I find that generally, people are more likely to work with you if you offer them several options.

But this rule breaks my immersion/makes the game not fun for me/is overpowered! Talk with the other players about this. Do they agree? If you're the only one speaking against it, give it a chance. If after a couple sessions you still just can't stand it, maybe you do need to find a new group.

Finally, remember that everyone is here to have fun.

Concessions will be made. Remember that even if you really want a reroll/campaign flavor/whatever, if you find yourself consistently in the minority opinion, it isn't fair for you to infringe on others.

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This is good stuff, but could you talk about the "talk with the GM" points from the GM's side of things? As it stands, some of your suggestions are essentially just expecting a GM to know how to deal with these issues by virtue of his GMosity. –  BESW Mar 16 '13 at 20:38
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All social contract issues should be handled similar to below:

  • Announce you want to talk about the issue in lieu of game, give everyone a chance to know what the discussion will be about and why.
  • Bring up the issue (whatever it is, in this case when to rule0 and when to use the book). As the person leading this discussion, state the issue, state a situation where you think everyone would agree to go X direction, and a situation (if applicable) where everyone would agree that the solution is to go Y direction. Then try to break down where the grey area is between the two options.
  • Then pass the issue to the table. If the discussion starts to get too lively with people talking over each other, you will likely need some method to control who talks and who do needs to not talk, in the past my group has used the "talking stick" from kindergarten, it helps those who have a less dominant personality to be able to speak their piece. Luckily on the rulings vs. rules argument is much more likely to be a cold and rational discussion (unlike the overall tone of a campaign being too dark, or players feeling marginalized by other players, etc.)
  • Most importantly, make sure anyone who wants to speak has a full and unfettered ability to voice their opinion, even if it's "George is 100% correct". Although if it is to agree to a single point that is made, our group has had the nod an point method to agree.
  • When everyone has had their turn to talk and rebut anything brought up a general consensus on how to handle the issue should be obvious. Maybe not what you want, but there has always been a consensus whenever we've had to discuss social contract issues. Likely the outcome will be that between A and B is one way, E and F is the other way, and C and D is roughly the boundaries of a gray area that people agree will either be handled on a case by case basis, or will be avoided to help stave off future group conflict.
  • Once the solution has presented itself and the group seems to be getting on the same page, call a vote. If you agree with the consensus that has been hammered out, happy days!
  • If anyone disagrees, handle the issues that the dissenter(s) has. Maybe they misunderstand something, maybe it comes down to an "agree to disagree" situation that resolves the issue as best as possible.

However, based on the number of Rulings vs. Rules questions that have hit this board over the last 6 months or so, I think the likely solution will be to either boot the offending player, or find another group (even if it is the easiest thing overall).

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I've used the "talking stick" in the game proper, for large and talkative groups. I learned really fast to use a very soft object, like a stuffed animal. –  BESW Mar 15 '13 at 20:29
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