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I would like to know, why it makes practical sense to have rule zero. I'm not an experienced RPG player, but we play a lot of board games with friends, and what I noticed, is that players often want to change rules. This makes me uncomfortable, because I believe that published rules are tested and thus, sticking to them will provide you most consistent, and thus enjoyable experience.

When we play a non-coop game, it's easy for me to fend off their attempts to change the rules. I simply tell them that it will be unfair on some players, and that I believe that their motivation for suggesting a change is to have an upper hand. This most of the time works.

With co-op games I'm having much harder time defending the rules. In this case, since I cannot tell them that their change would be to other player detriment they insist that their change makes the game better. Most of the time I feel that their changes are steps to trivializing the game and I'm also afraid that they can break some mechanics in ways we cannot predict. We outright had to stop playing certain games, because otherwise it would be endless arguing against rules changes. For this reason, while I personally more enjoy coop games, non-coop games in general work better for our group.

(As an example of how extremely they want to house rule games to make them easily winnable, in Pandemic, they suggested playing the Infection phase only once each round instead of after each player's turn, and removing yet another Epidemic card (down to 3) from the deck. We were already playing with only 4 Epidemic cards, on introductory difficulty. They also suggest that all coop games should be "rewindable" once we learned what was in the deck so we can optimize our actions based on that information. More than once when an unfavorable card was drawn, they suggest putting it back into the deck and drawing another one.)

I'm thinking about trying to play an RPG with them. But the DM-is-always right rule bothers me a lot. And it does not matter who the DM is. Most likely (if we play an RPG at all) it will be me. But then again, they do accept begrudgingly the argument "this is the rule, because it's written in the rulebook". But with rule zero in play they will be constantly telling me, "hey, you are the frigging DM, you can change whatever the we want, it's our game! Forget any other rules, your rule book explicitly says that we (DM) can change rules however we please!"

I understand the intent of Rule Zero. It's there because no rule author can anticipate every situation. It's to give freedom and in the end the most enjoyment to playgroups.

(Aside, I wish it was presented more like this: "You as a DM have absolute authority. If you'd like to wreck your game and have a broken system in the end, you can change whatever you want, but if you want a solid and tested experience, follow the books to the letter, this is how you get most out of them". This is how I approach the board game rules, and these, in many cases are much simpler than an RPG rules. If it was written that way it would make it easier to deal with the others, at least.)

What would be most practical way for me to negotiate a ban on rule changes with my group? We have not played any RPG before. I could be talking a complete nonsense above, that why I'm asking for your help.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been removed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 7 '16 at 21:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] Is there a limit to Rule 0?How can I decide whether being the GM is right for me? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 7 '16 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Objections to the assumptions in the question are a good starting point for an answer that untangles the assumptions and then presents a working solution built on better assumptions or facts. (We call those “frame challenges” at RPG.se, which is a bit jargon-y, but a useful shorthand term.) Please do feel free to write such answers! The comments are not a very useful place to put such things though, so those have been removed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 9 '16 at 2:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Looking at the difference between @mxyzplk's answer and mine raises an important point - how much of what bothers you is players asking to change the rules in their favor all the time, vs. the idea of changing the rules at all instead of sticking with what's there? I focus on the former point, mxy on the latter, and we end up with very different answers. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec May 9 '16 at 3:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SirTechSpec I appreciate both of your answers, and they are both valuable to me. His main point is that it might be that I'm trying to solve a problem, that does not even exist. While I'm sure that it will surface in one form or another he is right in that it might be more practical to let that happen, and then address that with full information. That's fair. Your answer is also very good because you are considering things that could help us minimize the problem happening in the first place. So thank you for that! \$\endgroup\$ – Andrew Savinykh May 9 '16 at 4:04
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As your clarifications to the question suggest you realize, the problem is not Rule Zero; it's your group wanting to change the rules to make the game easier for them, and you not wanting to. That's certainly understandable, but try looking at it this way: Your players are telling you something important about the kind of game they want to play. Specifically, they're telling you that they really, really don't enjoy losing.

Pandemic, with the kind of changes you mentioned above, leaves very little chance of failure. It's not so much a "game" with risks (Will we save the world or not?) as it is an exercise or puzzle (How can we go around cleaning up these diseases? What would the sequence of events look like? If a move has bad consequences, let's undo it and see if there's a better way.) So if you want to have fun playing RPGs together, I think you'll have to make sure it's that kind of game. There are a couple different ways to do this while still sticking with your goal of following the written rules given.

Picking a game

You have a big advantage here in that you're just beginning the hypothetical process of picking out a game. I can't give you a laundry list of recommendations, but I would strongly suggest going in one of two directions:

  1. A game where you are expected to fail, and fail often, and that's all part of the fun. Paranoia is one example of this. It's probably more competitive than cooperative, and you start with backup clones, which you're expected to go through several of as you die several times a session. It's not so much about succeeding as it is failing as hilariously as possible.
  2. A game where there there's really no mechanism for failure. Microscope is a great example: there's no GM at all; the players take turns dictating that something happens, and with few exceptions, that's now what happened. If another player doesn't like it, you can just create new story points before or after that point and not think about it too much. There's literally nothing that could be called success or failure; at the end of the session, you've got a story. At worst it might be more satisfying to some than others.

What these two games have in common is that they're not really so much about winning or losing; characters can die, but they're not associated as strongly with the players, and the point is to have a good time building a story together. You can ask in a forum or in chat for more examples; searching for humorous games and "story games" respectively might be a good start.

Picking a game style

If you want to stick with a more "normal" RPG like D&D, however, it will be important to establish an atmosphere early on. What some people forget is that D&D is not a game; it is a system of rules, which you can use to create a game. Each individual game will have different "settings". The Same Page Tool is one way to think about the things that the rulebook doesn't lay out for you, like how cooperative or deadly the game is going to be. These are decided in every game, consciously or unconsciously; in your case I'd say it's important to be deliberate, especially if your players have heard that D&D is a game of the DM against the players. That's true only if you want it to be; in my games I usually explain to the players that I see us as partners in creating a story about overcoming obstacles, and while I'm more responsible for the obstacles and they're more responsible for the overcoming, I'm rooting for them the whole time.

Here's one example of what that looks like in practice. The key point here is this one:

[This game] uses “cinematic” realism, where setbacks will put you further away from your goals, but it’s expected that you’ll achieve them eventually.

In other words, in that particular game I went so far as to say I'm not really going to let you die, unless you tell me you want to do so dramatically.

The core issue here is trust. You have to explain to the players that you're not going to kill them; they have to believe you; and then you have to stick to your promise (and depending on their experience and attitude, you might have to go out of your way not to kill them, even accidentally.) How to establish that trust is another question, but at least it should grow with time.

Note that none of what I've said so far necessarily involves changing any rules. It's certainly easier to keep the PC's alive if you're willing to fudge the occasional die roll, but you can also do it just by exercising the control you have over what there is in the world, how it responds to the PC's, and how it behaves if it takes a dislike to them. The GURPS 4e Basic Set has a whole section on Keeping the Characters Alive on p. 496, including this gem:

Not every encounter turns hostile; not every hostile encounter turns violent; not every violent encounter involves weapons.

In particular, there are very few things most creatures, sentient or otherwise, are willing to fight to the death over, particularly if it starts to look like it could possibly be their death.

Once your players understand that you're not out to get them, and they're free to explore, they'll probably cool it with the requests a little - not because the game isn't easier than an average RPG, but because you're in charge of making it so. You, as the GM, have the lion's share of the responsibility of creating a fun experience, adjusting or following the rules in whatever way seems best to you to accomplish that goal. That's what Rule Zero is really about.

A couple of final thoughts:

  • It's always good to talk to your group and ask what everyone wants. I hope my ideas are a good starting point, but firsthand info is much more reliable than the musings of some Internet stranger.
  • If one of the options I've described doesn't sound fun for you, then either don't play it or don't volunteer to GM it. You are also one of the people who needs to have fun here, and if you're all about the rules (called "nomothetic") and everyone else is all about changing them, it can be a bad time (though that's an extreme example). Keep in mind that, as mxyzplk and WrongOnTheInternet point out, no standard game has rules for every situation, and you'll probably encounter some where the rules as written lead to weird results, so you're almost certain to have to make or change rules sooner or later. (Indie games are more likely to "cover everything" by having very broad rules for how the story goes and none for action resolution, but you may find that unsatisfying as well.)
  • I can empathize with your players a bit. Though I wouldn't carry it that far, I too have been known to think "life is tough, when I'm gaming to relax I want to win, not die." You or your players may find the answers to my question How can I get less attached to my characters? helpful; I know I did.
  • Start small. While I think it's worthwhile to try to anticipate problems in time to avoid them, mxyzplk is correct that you and your players will develop your attitudes and play styles over time, so it's best to not commit to a many-week endeavor without some idea if you'll like it or not. Microscope, mentioned above, can be introduced and run in 3 hours (though 6 may be more satisfying stopping point if people are enjoying it; there's no end as such.) Some games are specifically designed to be even shorter, and even complex ones like DND can be taught and run in a single session with careful management.
  • By the way, having beaten Pandemic a few times on introductory difficulty, my group now plays on the hardest setting, sticking with the rules. Once they feel safe enough, maybe yours will grow to appreciate a challenge as well :)
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretty sure the "Not all hostile encounters will turn violent" bit is from the GURPS 4e Campaigns book, section "Keeping the Characters Alive", p. ~496. If no one beats me to it (hint hint), I'll include a proper and correct citation next time I've got the book on me (and daylight). \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec May 9 '16 at 3:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good memory! That's the section title and page number. The exact quote and its surround is “Not every encounter turns hostile; not every hostile encounter turns violent; not every violent encounter involves weapons.” \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 9 '16 at 4:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "your players are telling you they really, really don't enjoy losing". \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B May 9 '16 at 4:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I wish I could take credit, but I had the page number in my notes for another reason. Anyway, thanks - edited. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec May 10 '16 at 21:49
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Disclaimer: Some games lack Rule Zero, explicitly or implicitly. These games are generally designed to have a tighter focus, have explicitly defined creative roles for players, explicit rules for Game Masters (if the game has GM's at all), and they tend to spread the GM "power" around to all participants to a degree. I'm not going be talking about those games.

There are a few things you need to understand about these games to understand why Rule Zero is a thing.

First, the rules for these games are often incomplete, deliberately so. It would be impossible to cover everything that can happen in the game in a sufficiently detailed way. Since the game takes place in an imaginary world where the player's characters are free to try anything that's possible in that world, they might start a farm to raise poison dart frogs. You probably won't find rules for this, even in the most rules-extensive games, so as a GM you'll need to come up with rules for farming poison dart frogs yourself. This is one of the purposes of Rule Zero.

Second, the rules that are written in these games often work, but they may not work for your group. In fact, if a rule is cumbersome or draws unnecessary focus on something you and your group don't find interesting, it's often best just to pitch the rule. For instance, if the game has extensively detailed Cost of Living rules for month to month upkeep, but your group mostly finds it a petty and annoying distraction from the fun parts of the game, Rule Zero is there to tell you that you have the freedom to pitch those rules. There has never been an RPG system written with rules that work for every group.

Most of these games are written with a broad focus, and need rules to cover lots of situations, so the rules that are included are often intended to allow for many possibilities unrelated the game. These games are generally full of Ingredient Rules, which the game expects you, the GM, to sort out to taste for your group. Opposite that are what I'd call Recipe Rules, the kind you'd find in a board game that tell you the goal and outline explicitly what you can and can't do.

RPG's are open-ended with their rules to allow for the infinite variety of situations that can come up, and infinite possibility can't really be tested. It's up to you to add, subtract, and change rules to suit the game you and your group want to play.

If you want to run the game by the book at the beginning, that's great! You'll figure out fairly quickly what works and what doesn't just by playing, and may feel more comfortable making modifications, or you might like the rules as-is. However, you will run into a situation that isn't covered by the rules if you play long enough; you'll need to use Rule Zero at that point.

A link that might help explain my point here (the linked page isn't NSFW, but other places on that site might be). It hopefully should help with understanding why Rule Zero exists.

This answer is effectively a frame challenge to a certain degree, but I do have a bit of advice about players asking for easier house rules. It could be that your group has no tolerance for challenge, in which case somebody (you or your group) simply isn't going to get the game they want. Most people, however, are going to be okay with playing a game even if there's a few rules they don't agree with. You can open with something to the effect of, "Look, I don't quite know what I'm doing yet, so I'm going to trust the rules the game has written for these first few sessions and not change anything. If this makes the game harder or more lethal, we're just going to stick with it for now." Nobody knows what they're doing the first time they run an RPG, particularly if nobody else in the group has experience either. Chances are, either you'll feel more comfortable with modifying things after running a few sessions, or you'll decide that running games isn't for you.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "There are a few things you need to understand about these games to understand why Rule Zero is a thing." I began reading this thinking you were referring to the games from your Disclaimer paragraph. (Even with its finishing sentence, somehow...) Might be worth resetting what kinds of games "these games" is referring to. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener May 9 '16 at 10:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the last paragraph tying your answer back to the question, but I would add "running games for this group isn't for you." There's probably a group out there that likes RAW as much as OP, especially in league play or the equivalent. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec May 9 '16 at 12:16
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You are talking complete nonsense. (Hey, you asked...)

Board games are one thing, where you are trying to simulate a very narrow range of actions. In RPGs, you are trying to simulate an entire world with active players in it. No RPG has rules that are complete or without conflict and very few try. Really only the more minimalistic storygames that switch their rules focus to controlling storytelling or spotlight time instead of action resolution are even playable in the long term without some rules tweaking, and that doesn't mean that even they can't benefit from tweaking.

Your contention that games are "solid and tested" and that game designers fix their bugs in some new version is contravened by 40 years of RPG history. The vast majority of RPGs are side work from one or two hobbyists and receive informal playtesting at a table or two at some local con at best. Only the games from the 5-6 most major game companies could be said to be well-tested to a non-anecdotal level by any measure.

And the problem is - game designers know better. They know no game can provide a perfect, complete, non-contradictory experience and they say so. It's not just indie game forums that are full of "hacks" - even the Pathfinder and 5e developers come right out and say "there's no way to make our game complete, and even if it were, that doesn't mean it's right for your table - change it as needed."

You are trying to put an expectation onto these games that even their designers do not place on them; as a result you are doomed to disappointment.

Some tables play RAW, but they knowingly play "RAW, right or wrong" because they value the standard (for player empowerment, or cross-table consistency) even though they know they're not getting the best possible rules experience and that RAW is often very imperfect and exploitable. You can certainly do that, and ask a question "how do I get my players to accept RAW play," (in fact, I think that's already been done, see: How do I teach players to engage with a game in a rules-first way?) but you need to get over your faulty understanding of why you would do so first.

In general, trying to decide on your philosophy of play before you ever play a RPG is prima facie ridiculous, you are stabbing in the dark in a situation where there is no way to make an informed decision. Play the game, see what works and what doesn't, then decide what you want to do. Different games have very different ways of controlling difficulty explicitly outside "house rules," for example - if you are playing Pathfinder you can just always throw encounters equal to or less than party APL and it becomes a cakewalk, without changing anything. If the group is more concerned with the story and examining it over challenge, then there's games and game modes good for that. But you are trying to make a decision with so little information that you are guaranteed to make a bad decision. Just start playing a game that interests all of you and learn from that. Then you'll be equipped with enough understanding to make playstyle decisions that aren't entirely cargo-culted.

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What would be most practical way for me to negotiate a ban on rule changes with my group? We have not played any RPG before. I could be talking a complete nonsense above, that why I'm asking for your help.

Well, you mention that in non-cooperative games, it's easier to ban rule changes because it could unbalance the game. The same can be said for any tabletop RPG, cooperative or not.

RAW doesn't just exist to give rules lawyers something to optimize around, it exists because it gives everyone reasonable expectations about the game. Rule 0 is there to iron out inconsistencies and keep play from being bogged down by digging through manuals or developer comments on intention. This doesn't mean you eliminate the rules entirely.

For a similar reason that rule-changes are banned in competitive boardgame play, you should feel free to ban rule-changes in an RPG because they might upset expectations of how one player's character fits into the party, or they might trivialize a planned scenario that would take some thought/roleplay otherwise.

Remember, the DM is supposed to have fun as well, not just the players, and part of your fun is building interesting challenges and situations. Similarly, part of the fun of being a player is being able to visualize a character and how they interact with the world, and using the rules-as-written gives them traction on how to do that in-game.

To use DnD 5e as an example, this often comes up with spells - spells give players a very specific rule-affecting and supported way of changing the world. Someone may very well plan their character around being an Eldritch Knight, taking the Jump spell and the Combat Superiority feat and leaping around the battlefield tripping foes with a billhook. A houserule that made encounters too easy for them to have fun with it, or made other character do the same thing with no investment would diminish their pride in the character they built from the mechanics.

Taking away RAW, you risk isolating players who brought something interesting to the table but were overshadowed when someone insisted that their character can fill everyone else's niche. The other risk is preventing satisfaction of overcoming a challenge because you houseruled a training-wheels solution.

I'd suggest bringing up the potential imbalance of player interaction first, since that sounds like it would have the most traction with your players.

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Most RPG games will involve the DM making a lot of rulings. "Is the orc close enough for me to swing my sword at him, if I move toward him first?" "Are silver arrows available for sale in this village?" "How easy is it to climb this tree?" Unless you spend your whole adventure having grid-based combats, you will be making these sorts of decisions every time anyone does anything. If your players challenge these decisions when you make them, it will be really hard to play the game.

As an aside: if you do want to spend your whole adventure having grid-based combats, you might try D&D 4E (Fourth Edition). That was the edition where they tried to make rules for as many things as they could. If you combine that with a published adventure, I think you could mostly avoid making rulings. If you do this, you could tell your players: "We're going to embark on the adventure from this book. Lots of groups have tried to do this adventure using these same rules. We're going to stick to the rules exactly, because otherwise it won't count -- if you change the rules, you won't be able to say that you actually beat the adventure."


Having said that: you might try your players on a storygame instead. I like Microscope and The Quiet Year because they move the focus away from "winning" versus "losing" and instead ask players to narrate something interesting happening.

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