Rule Zero: All other rules can be changed by the GM.

I appreciate that there is a massive amount of work that goes into being a GM and the last thing that any GM wants or deserves is to have his players constantly questioning everything they do. However, a group I am currently playing with has been having a huge problem with a GM who has been using rule 0 to deny virtually every skill check and give all his custom enemies powers that have either no save or unbeatable DCs. Then, whenever he realizes he has made the fight unwinnable he brings in one of his level 60+ GMPCs to instantly win the fight, making us feel even more helpless.

We try to hold our tongues and not be the dreaded Rules Lawyer, but he keeps pulling out stuff so ridiculous that we have to question it… and every time we do we find that he is either misunderstanding or completely disregarding the rules. When this happens he always jumps immediately to rule 0. He probably cited rule 0 around 6 times in our last session (and we only had one combat encounter).

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    \$\begingroup\$ While not specifically the same, for anyone who is having a similar problem to this, I would suggest checking that the rest of the group feels this way; if not, try checking out this question: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/18762/… \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Mar 8 '13 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I always thought Rule Zero was "We're all here to have fun, don't let the rules get in the way." \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Mar 8 '13 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ The limit of rule 0 is the will of the players to accept that specific person as the DM, and common sense of course... \$\endgroup\$ – Maxime Cuillerier Jan 1 at 6:08

12 Answers 12


A DM should not think of himself as having the right of Rule 0, which is why he controls the game.

A DM should instead think of himself as having the responsibility of controling the game, and therefore being given the tool of Rule 0 in order to do so.

Because ultimately, that is what Rule 0 is: a tool given to the DM to keep the game fun, engaging, and moving. It is not a right to do whatever he likes to the people playing under him.

In other words, Rule 0 is a not a matter of “with great power, comes great responsibility,” but rather the reverse of that: “with great responsibility, comes great power.”

So yes, there are limits, and yes, this DM has clearly gone well past them. He is not fulfilling (most? any?) of the obligations of the position of DM; he’s just power tripping on the tools he’s been given to fulfill them.

That said, it very much sounds like a case of naïveté and inexperience, not necessarily malice. It sounds like you would be best served by explaining the obligations and responsibilities of the DM position to him, explain why you do not feel they have been satisfactorily met, and suggest that the campaign get restarted with more equitable rules. As a new DM, he should stick fairly closely to most of the guidelines given in the book for things like levels, level disparities, wealth, and so on. The characters in question should be salvageable, though you’ll probably have to redo the mechanics and character sheets.


The limit to Rule Zero is what the players are willing to accept. It's that simple. Unless you can convince him to change what he's doing, your only option is to walk away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ And if the game is bad, then invoking Rule 0 to establish that the DM is allowed to run a bad game doesn't make it any better. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Sep 7 '15 at 18:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, sometimes no [game] is better than bad [game] \$\endgroup\$ – sirjonsnow May 24 '19 at 14:03

Yes and no. The limit to Rule 0 is defined entirely by agreement of the people playing the game. If such a limit existed, it would be created by a philosophical limit on the ability for human beings to cooperate to achieve consensus, which would lie somewhere far outside the scope of the roleplaying game they're playing. So in theoretical terms, there is no limit to Rule 0, because one could posit an group of players who are trusting of a GM to the limit of human capacity.

However, in real practical terms, GMs will break the trust of their players long before that. If a GM is leaning on Rule 0 too much, eventually Rule 0 itself will not break – rather, the group will refuse to play under that GM. The abuse of Rule 0 will break the group, not itself. Since the position of "GM" is a social role that exists only insofar as the other participants agree on who fills the role, straining Rule 0 doesn't discover a limit of Rule 0, it rather causes the GM cease being the GM. In this practical sense of limits, the limitation is the social contract of the group and the resilience of that social contract.

So yes and no. No, because the real limit is that the game will break down if Rule 0 is abused, so a limit to Rule 0 independent of the limit to GM-ship is impossible.


For the direct question of What is the limit of Rule 0?

The answer is, it depends on the social contract. When I GM, I use it flagrantly, but I let all new players coming in know that and give them a general idea of how I use it. I know other groups that constrain it ruthlessly with just about everything being RAW, and that is a fine style as well. Particularly in combat heavy games that emphasize tactics.

If its not spelled out explicitly by the group, I think the default assumption is that it can be used within reason. In other words, its a tool in the GM's kit, but the players in a normal game expect it to be invoked only judiciously to serve a good purpose.

But that is the direct question, from the context you provide, it seems the real problem isn't the use of Rule 0 per se, but How to Help a new GM struggling with balancing?

Since that isn't actually what was asked, I won't go into tons of detail, but for a few brief suggestions:

  1. Nudge him to run a prebuilt module. Personally, I don't like prebuilts. But they really are a great way for a new GM to get their feet wet and have most of the balance predone for you.

  2. Gently suggest that they should let you know fairly early how they are tweaking things so people can plan. Like I said, I tweak the settings ruthlessly, but I try to let people know at least the general ways ahead of time. Surprise is great in the plots, but the rules should follow the principle of least astonishment.

  3. Remind them gently that well balanced encounters are more fun (praise for when they get it right is good) and that if they do realize that something isn't quite synched up that tweaking behind the scenes is better than bringing in an NPC to rescue the PCs. For instance, the party is being overwhelmed by the Elder Red Dragon that the GM thought they could handle. Instead of the GM-PC showing up to save the day, they notice an old scar on the chest where the scales are missing and the dragon's armor is weaker, so targetting there with physical attacks will be much more effective. And they notice this particular dragon seems to have allergies and would be dramatically more vulnerable to magical gas based attacks...Sure those things were on the character sheet from the beginning [Scribbles them on while talking.]


TLDR : No, there isn't a limit to Rule 0, because Rule 0 is more what you'd call "guideline" than actual rule.

I'm arriving late with what is probably just cheap wisdom, but I think there is a rule that is written or at least hinted in every RPG manual, without ever giving it a name as big as Rule Zero. But I think this rule predates the Rule Zero and is even more fundamental to RPG. The rule is :

The ultimate goal of Role Playing Games is to have fun

If the GM or the players are not having fun, something is wrong.

I think that it's paradoxical and absurd that the GM is explicitly invoking the Rule Zero, because, in my opinion, the meaning of Rule Zero is to remember that it's not a competition, and to not take the rules too seriously, because the important thing is having fun. It's ironic having someone justifying himself by invoking a rule about the importance of not following slavishly the rules. It gives me the the impression your GM is someone pretty new to this RPG and GM stuff.

If your GM can't realize you have a problem with his way of playing, talk to him. If he doesn't want to change, maybe he's not the right GM for you and/or maybe you are the wrong players for him.


You say it yourself that this is a somewhat new game for him. What I would do is scrap the current game, create a new one with decent limitations using the knowledge you all have learned from this horrific experience, and try not to hold it against him too much. He also needs to understand that just because he's the gm it's not his game, it's everyone's.


You don't have to abandon the group - but my gut reaction is that this game has fallen prey to Too Awesome To Be Cool and See My Setpiece. It would be very worthwhile talking to your GM about the issues raised by KRyan and SevenSidedDie about Rule 0 being a tool for helping everybody have fun.

The numbers you have given are far beyond standard expectations for almost all games. They are certainly well beyond normal expectations for a second-time DM.

If you can persuade him to try a different game, starting at level 1 with an adventure path (and limiting to the core rulebook) will give him a chance to learn all of the basic tools. When he's got more experience then he should be able to balance encounters for a party with a difference of 42 in AC.


No, there is no limit to Rule Zero as you articulated it.

  1. The GM has an absolute right to run the game he wants to run.

  2. Players have the equally absolute right to not play in it.

    If how the GM exercises his right is too egregious, the players exercise their right to leave and the game dies. Usually an acceptable compromise is worked out.

Because there is typically a large imbalance between the supply of GMs and the demand for them, the bargaining power often favors the GM, and that is how it should be given the extra work the task demands.

If you, as player, think you can do the job better, do it and poach away all your current GM's players. Good form permits the expression of a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the status quo before you walk away to allow the GM to adjust his style if he is so inclined, but if he makes clear he does not intend to, either accepting it or leaving are the only proper options.

Attempting to stay while complaining merely results in your own dissatisfaction becoming contagious, at which point the GM is entirely justified in booting you (you have an absolute right to not play... you do not have an absolute right to play).


If your first paragraph is anything like an accurate description of what your GM is doing, they clearly would rather be playing than GMing. The quicker you quit, the happier everyone will be.

You say "whenever he realizes he has made the fight unwinnable" -- are you sure the condition isn't actually when you realize he has made the fight unwinnable?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Better to speak to him and ask if he's more interested in being a player, or about whether he's interested in learning to GM well, than to just go make assumptions about things he could answer for you and act on them. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Mar 6 '13 at 21:45

However, a group I am currently playing with has been having a huge problem with a GM who has been using rule 0 to deny virtually every skill check and give his all his custom enemies powers that have either no save or unbeatable DC’s.

This is that nasty place where Rule Zero and railroading intersect.

For the immediate issue, the answer is to stop playing with this person. You're not talking about a one-off or rare case where they took away choice and options for you, this is multiple instances and practiced, which means he's knowingly and repeatedly doing this, even though, it should have been obvious after the first time, that this particular thing wasn't that fun for the people playing.

The bigger issue is pretty simple: What is a game when someone else makes all the choices for you? Not fun, that's for sure.

There's an idea that more and more rpgs are getting better about stating:

If something bad is going to happen to a PC, the players should at least get a chance to do something to deal with it or avoid it.

This shows up in Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World, as a general outgrowth of their rules, but it exists so that players can have some ability to have choice. If you've chosen to specialize your character in some kind of stat/ability, you should at least get a chance to use it. It should be in a generally consistent way, so that as a player, you can make smart choices about how to do things IN the game.


No limit, he can us this “rule 0” anyway he wants.

I don’t know the experience this GM has, however I find that a good GM considers his players. If they do not notice or do not care about your feelings of the game then it’s up to you the player to decide what you want to do about it.

Is the issue so bad that at you can’t suffer through it? If not, are you willing to respectfully talk to your GM about your concerns?

If all else fails you might have to find a new game.


You just discovered in the most obvious and harsh game why the rule 0 is bad. Because it can be used this way while the GM still believes he's doing things as the game authors want to. Rule 0 says, in a few words: "you can throw the manual out of the window except for this short paragraph and bully your friends by having their characters forced to do whatever you want, if you wish so". As such, it has no limits.

And this is only one of the reasons on why it's bad (the other main one being, even used responsably: "I'm cheating and telling lies to my friends and this is completely ok")

Unfortunately, he has no idea of the damage he's causing and I guess he's not able to realize without some sort of help from you guys.

D&D 3.PF is hard to balance even without gestalt, different editions mismatches and the like so the problem is of course related to the game but scaling it down to smaller, more reasonable proportions is not guaranteed to be enough.

Since the system has tons of rules and requires long time to master, your friend (supposing he's receptive to your first plea) is going to be frustrated until he finds his own balance, his own tricks to balance encounters - and will be heavily tempted to user rule 0 again - In the bad, non-intended way. I suggest you convince him to use it less times as possible, and be sure to explain him it's not because you want to spoil it of the easy way to manage the game but because the way he's doing that isn't fun to you guys. This is important.

Being a GM is sometimes a big social issue, where the GM experiences some wish-fulfillment fantasy by being able to dominate the group thanks to rule 0. Such DMs like to be in charge, make it difficult to substitute them and refuse to let go the power rule 0 gives them. Should this be the case (I hope not), the only thing to do is to accept it or leave.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I read this question again, and read your answer again, and I find that you take issue with rule 0 when the actual problem is the DM: the "GMPC saves the day" is the red flag on this one. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 25 '17 at 19:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I think the GMPC part is just adding insult to injury. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Jan 26 '17 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, it is one of multiple symptoms presented in the question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 26 '17 at 18:33

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