In the past, we determined that The GM is Always Right is stemming from the early heydays of Dungeons and Dragons and its origin in games like Chainmail, though the Braunstein games might also be a way it came to be.

In either way, many of the more modern editions of games have lines that account to "If you don't like the rule, change them". As far as I found, these calls are usually are in the GM chapter. Some examples (and yes, Paranoia's call is both GM is always right AND change the rules):

  • Werewolf the Apocalypse 20th anniversary edition (2012) page 231

The rules are what you make of them.

  • Exalted 2nd Edition (2008) page 260

Take what you need, ignore what you don’t, and run the best damn Exalted game you and your players can come up with.

  • Paranoia: Troubleshooters 25th Aniversary Edition (2009) p40

We have tried to make the rules as helpful and powerful as we can, but if you don’t like a rule, the rule is wrong.

However, when grabbing older game manuals such callouts to just alter the rules seem absent:

  • The 1999 core rulebook for the 3rd edition of MechWarrior, I could find a direct callout to GM as a referee on page 203, but no make the rules fun or change the rules as needed like in the more modern editions.

  • Shadowrun First edition (1989) has its GM chapter starting on page 152 and again, calls out the GM as a referee with a sentence describing pretty much "A good GM listens, then decides and is right". The rest of the chapter is dedicated to giving advice for the GM and how to determine difficulties and such, but no direct callout to if you don't like the rules, change the rules.

  • The 1981 Bushido on the other hand does always speak of itself as if the book is the final authority and does not even have a GM chapter in "Book I". That is all put into "Book II", together with the land. There is no flexibility given to the GM. Or the role even described as something of an arbitrator.

So, when and where was the first call out to a GM to just change the rules in case it would benefit the game/narrative in some way or another?


1 Answer 1


For TTRPGs, it was in volumes I and III of OD&D (1974)

New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. {snip}
If you are a player purchasing the DUNGEONS and DRAGONS rules in order to improve your situation in an existing campaign, you will find that there is a great advantage in knowing what is herein. If your referee has made changes in the rules and/or tables, simply note them in pencil (for who knows when some flux of the cosmos will make things shift once again!), and keep the rules nearby as you play. A quick check of some rule or table may bring hidden treasure or save your game "life". (Men and Magic, p. 4, emphasis mine)

Additional emphasis on the referees making rules modifications was in the Afterward (at the end of volume III; emphasis mine).

In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing. (Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, p. 36)

Further amplification on this was found in the letter by Gary Gygax to Lee Gold (publisher of "Alarums and Excursions") in 1976.

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D.

In the AD&D 1e DMG (1979) it got a fuller treatment, but the seeds were planted in the first of three little brown books.
(Men and Magic is volume I of the three brown books that comprised the original Dungeons and Dragons game published in 1974 by TSR; Underworld and Wilderness Adventures is volume III).

This philosophy can be traced back to the Blackmoor, and the Braunstein, games that predated published TTRPGs.

Pre publishing...

Based on interviews with Dave Arneson he indicated that as he began and developed the Blackmoor campaign, he kept a black binder (IIRC a loose leaf notebook) and continually adjusted or changed the rules as play revealed more nuances and things that needed adaptation, improvement, or correction.

Excerpted from A Quarter Century of Role Playing? By Dave Arneson

Almost immediately, like during the first game, things got changed. I started making notes in a black binder and the seeds took root and germinated. {snip}

Well since there were NO rules for practically anything the players wanted to do the game was "loose" and "unstructured". The old referee got VERY good at thinking on his feet. I say I was good because the game, and I, both survived the player's onslaught. And even without a lot of rules we had rules lawyers back then too! Thank the lord for that black notebook. Even if the rules weren't all in there I was usually able to convince the players that the rule was in the black folder, or at least would be soon.

From the Kobold Press interview with Dave Arneson

KP: What is at the heart of a good game?
Arneson: As far as I am concerned it is the story. It can make or break a game quite easily.
KP: Rules… strict or loose?
Arneson: I like loose so you can change things that are not working. I dislike “Rules Lawyers” intensely. I regard them as the enemy.
KP: What role does improvisation play in game design in general?
Arneson: Lots. The rules cannot cover every possibility. And frankly speaking, they shouldn’t. The referee needs the freedom to keep making the game fun.

Going further back, Dave Wesley changed the rules of each of the Braunstein games (fiddling with and adjusting them as his players did things that surprised him) before each session as he tried to fine tune that style of game for his wargame players. (The play of that game is similar to a game of Diplomacy). There are a number of points focusing on this made by Mr. Wesley in the Kickstarter funded film The Secrets of Blackmoor.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Trish I added the more explicit excerpt from Wilderness and Underworld adventurers. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Love this answer, can you add a similar reference for the Braunstein games like you did for Blackmoor? \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Aug 17, 2021 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu I did. It's in the film. I watched almost all of it a few weekends ago, since I got a free down load for backing the kick starter. Not sure when I'll get to watch the rest. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu There's a hint of it here but Dave Wesley was quite explicit in the film about how he changed what he did after Game I, found that Game II and III weren't as good (since he realized that he had put too much referee control/input into it the change from Game I, and so he changed again for Game IV. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 14:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic answer--I feel like this probably answers dozens of other "As GM, should I...?" questions on the site. You can read this and really understand the original intent of the role of the "referee". \$\endgroup\$
    – msouth
    Aug 18, 2021 at 13:45

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