9
\$\begingroup\$

Questions and answers here often say things like, "5e is a game of rulings, not rules". I think there's sufficient evidence to support that interpretation (for instance, the introduction to the DMG), but do the rules themselves ever actually say "rulings, not rules"? I searched here and everything else I could find, and could not find the source of that statement. To be clear, I'm not asking if "rulings, not rules" is a valid interpretation of how to play 5e, I'm looking for the source of that phrase.

A couple of the many questions where the phrase "rulings not rules" is used:

Up to which point does narrative/roleplaying affect mechanics?

Can the School of Conjuration wizard's Minor Conjuration feature be used to summon rare, expensive, and/or consumable spell components?

\$\endgroup\$
4
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking for exactly those words, in that order, or the origin of the idea? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 12:59
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Naively, those exact words. The origin of the idea would be helpful too. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Jan 4 at 13:08
  • 1
  • \$\begingroup\$ There was a lot of discussion from 2012 to 2014 on how D&Dnext (as it was then called) was going to change, and I seem to recall that a lot of commentary on the role of DM, rulings, rules and such were all a part of that conversation. But with WoTC nuking their forums, one probably has to hit the way back machine to find a lot of that stuff. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 20:11

3 Answers 3

17
\$\begingroup\$

July 9, 2008

This is when the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch was published online. It's the first example I can find of the exact phrasing and seems to be the original source.

This isn't a 5e thing. In fact, 4e was only a nascent edition at this point, being first released in December 2007. The primer itself is about playing 0e.

To quote:

First Zen Moment: Rulings, not Rules

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling.

Given this, I can't help but think that the sentiment is much older, but worded less memorably.

\$\endgroup\$
1
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The sentiment is certainly older. I recall reading on Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper forums in the early 2000s—before the Primer_—as Gygax, Kuntz, & Mornard discussed how it governed their _Chainmail and other wargames even before D&D. I believe Mornard worded it as "anything not forbidden in permitted" though the sentiment was the same as "rulings, not rules". Unfortunately, those forums aren't around for citation anymore. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 20:55
16
\$\begingroup\$

The Dungeon Master's Guide, Xanathar's Guide, and Tasha's Cauldron affirm a similar sentiment.

The intro to the DMG echoes this sentiment, without using the phrase exactly:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.

We also see in XGtE:

One rule overrides all others: the DM is the final authority on how the rules work in play.

Rules are part of what makes D&D a game, rather than just improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible. No matter how good those tools might be, they need a group of players to bring them to life and a DM to guide their use.

The DM is key. Many unexpected events can occur in a D&D campaign, and no set of rules could reasonably account for every contingency. If the rules tried to do so, the game would become a slog. An alternative would be for the rules to severely limit what characters can do, which would be contrary to the open-endedness of D&D. Here’s the path the game takes: it lays a foundation of rules that a DM can build on, and it embraces the DM’s role as the bridge between the things the rules address and the things they don’t.

And in TCoE:

1. The DM Adjudicates the Rules

The rules of D&D cover many of the twists and turns that come up in play, but the possibilities are so vast that the rules can’t cover everything. When you encounter something that the rules don’t cover or if you’re unsure how to interpret a rule, the DM decides how to proceed, aiming for a course that brings the most enjoyment to your whole group.

The ideas here are similar, but not the same. The official perspective put forward in the sourcebooks is decisively not "rulings not rules", rather something more like "rulings with the help of rules". There are too many rules, and too great an emphasis on their importance, in these books to say 5e is not a game of rules, but there is a clear emphasis here that the rules are a tool at the DM's disposal for organizing gameplay, and like with all tools, it is up to the craftsman to decide how to use them.

\$\endgroup\$
1
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Looks like they copied what they wrote in the Sage Advice Compendium straight into XGtE. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 13:16
11
\$\begingroup\$

The introduction to the Sage Advice Compendium appears to be the (or at least, a) source for this:

The Role of Rules

Why even have a column like Sage Advice when a DM can just make a ruling? Rules are a big part of what makes D&D a game, rather than simply improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible. No matter how good those tools might be, they need a group of players to bring them to life and a DM to guide their use.

The DM is key. Many unexpected things can happen in a D&D campaign, and no set of rules could reasonably account for every contingency. If the rules tried to do so, the game would become unplayable. An alternative would be for the rules to severely limit what characters can do, which would be counter to the open-endedness of D&D. The direction we chose for the current edition was to lay a foundation of rules that a DM could build on, and we embraced the DM’s role as the bridge between the things the rules address and the things they don’t.

In a typical D&D session, a DM makes numerous rules decisions—some barely noticeable and others quite obvious. Players also interpret the rules, and the whole group keeps the game running. There are times, though, when the design intent of a rule isn’t clear or when one rule seems to contradict another.

Dealing with those situations is where Sage Advice comes in. This column doesn’t replace a DM’s adjudication. Just as the rules do, the column is meant to give DMs, as well as players, tools for tuning the game according to their tastes. The column should also reveal some perspectives that help you see parts of the game in a new light and that aid you in fine-tuning your D&D experience.

The whole quoted section provides a strong basis for the "rulings, not rules" philosophy, but I emphasized a few points that even more specifically support that as an intentional feature of this edition.

\$\endgroup\$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .