Rules Do Not Protect Players from Bad DMs

This post started out as a comment on Geek Ken’s post about Rules as Insurance. It then got too long to be a productive comment. I’ll also admit that it started out with a bad attitude (“you’re wrong”) and that’s why I didn’t leave it as a comment. He’s not wrong. He’s expressing his perceptions about the game and what works for him. I can’t fault that. I have a different view of this interaction though and I decided to express it here.

The rules of a game cannot protect a group from a bad DM. Only the group can do that. Doesn’t matter if they play D&D4e or Barbarians of Lemuria or Old School Hack, the DM can still be bad and the game can still suck. And I’m not just talking about story here. The rules in every game can be used to defend a DMs poor choices just as much as they can defend the power gamer monster who is ruining everyone else’s fun as a player. You cannot legislate a good DM with more rules and the players will suffer just as much in a game with a lot of rules as they will in a game with few.

I agree with the original post that the rules are a framework to hang expectations on. The rules assist in establishing a framework of expectations for a game and what is considered “even” or “fair.” That’s certainly true. But a by the book DM can be just as domineering, difficult to work with, and able to work the rules to the players’ detriment as any DM working in a rule-light system.

It might help to define what I think is a “Bad DM” for clarity sake.

A DM is bad if:

1. He (or she) only puts their own interests forward at the game table.
2. Doesn’t listen to or communicate with players.
3. Isn’t respectful of players time and energy at the table.
4. Hides behind the rules to protect bad behavior.

A good DM can make a bad call at the table. When the “rule” is pointed out, a good DM will likely respond respectfully and work with players to make the game better. A bad DM can use the rules to the letter to make players miserable and then what? Who do the players have to turn to?

I will happily concede the case of organized play. A bad DM can utterly ruin and organized play event and in this case players might have some recourse to get that DM changed/removed. I’ve played in enough poor OP events though to say that it’s not likely to happen but it bears mention. Having clear rules for a game might be enough to weed out some of the Bad from OP and might protect players to some extent. But then again, I’ve played in some organized play events of games with more subjective rules (Amber/LARPs/Old school D&D) that went just fine with mediocre DMs. Because the rules aren’t the issue. Being respectful of the players and remembering that gaming is a cooperative rather than competitive enterprise.

And that’s the other point. In war games — like say 40K or Malifaux, or even Diplomacy or Risk — there is a rule book to turn to and say, no, your armies cannot just jump over other units or board spaces. Because the expectation here is that (first) everything is out in the open and the playing field is actually completely level and (second) the game is competitive.

A game where the players feel the need to “go the rules” to have insurance from a bad DM is probably already a bad game. At this point, shoving the Players Handbook in the DMs face and saying, “this is the rule” is not going to solve the problem. Telling the DM that you will not continue playing in his (or her) game unless the game is more respectful and cooperative might work. Ultimately, you may have to run your own game and get away from a bad DM. Rules will not protect you though.

Further, rules that attempt to overemphasize balance and “fairness” can be as detrimental to a good time as less strict rules that can be more “interpretable.” I’ve seen this happen with 4E quite a few times (and with war games to the point where they are simply unfun). And don’t get me wrong. I played a lot of 4E and I think it has some good qualities. But from my first read through I was concerned by the “your DM is gonna suck, but don’t worry, we got your back” tone that some of the rules seemed to set. I’ve been writing about this since fairly early 4E so I’m not coming to this party late.

In the end, the rules do set up a framework of expectation. But whether those rules are super-tight or super-light, each group is going to use the rules a little differently and each group is going to have somewhat different expectations of the same rules set. When this happens at the same table between DM and Players that is not a problem that rules can solve, it is a problem of communication. If a DM is consistently “against” his (or her) players, the players will eventually need a new game. They might play with the same rules and get a different result. They might change systems and realize that the game is still bad. This happens because everyone at a table needs to be collaborating on the main goal of playing an RPG — to have an enjoyable time as a group. Rules cannot insure that.

Thanks for reading.


20 responses

  1. I agree.
    I’m a little saddened that so many people “bought” the idea that you need everything codified and BtB to protect players from psycho DMs, that rules are either ‘correct’ or ‘broken’, etc.

  2. It strikes me as bizarre that so many people are willing to put up with bad DMs and that so many DMs are willing to put up with bad players. I know you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but at the same time, why waste precious hours of your life playing a game you don’t want to play?

    Excellent point about stressing communication, though.

    1. I’m with you on this. I’ve never understood why people are willing to be miserable in a game (or even just blah). Gaming is supposed to be a fun thing we do. If you are sitting there wishing you were somewhere else… be somewhere else.

  3. I liked the feel of D&D back in the day, where ‘throw a rule out ’cause it’s not fun’ was employeed freely and frequently.

    I don’t think rules are at all related to GMs either, I’ve had bad ones that play strictly by rules, and I’ve had bad ones that hammer the rules. Good / Bad Gms are a mix of communication skills and imagination.

    In most of my games I institute a ‘what I say is right and we can fix it after the game’ rule. I have had good success because the players realize this is a rule to prevent interuption, and they trust I’m not trying to screw them.

    1. morrisonmp – “Being respectful of the players and remembering that gaming is a cooperative”
      GMBill – “..they trust I’m not trying to screw them.”


      Trust and cooperation are two of the most important keys to a good game.
      Sadly rules have been written to fix all that’s wrong with a lack of the two.

  4. Trust is a big issue. I’ve written about this before too. Thanks for the comments.

  5. @Kevin

    “Sadly rules have been written to fix all that’s wrong with a lack of the two.”

    And this is my primary problem with a lot of “modern” games.

  6. @llanwyre, 1) not everybody is lucky enough to have a wide variety of people to game with. 2) Some DM’s are really good with some parts that makes it worth it to deal with their faults.

    @morrisonmmp – I don’t like the term “bad DM”. there’s lots of skills in DM’ing and I know lots of people that are good in some areas and bad in others. Including myself. A DM that spoke in a droning monotone and took his plots exclusively from episodes of Dora the Explorer would be a bad DM despite meeting your criteria

    One of these skills is consistency. I know lots of DM’s that rule differently each time. These are the people that are helped my more thorough rules. As a player, I want to have a good idea what I can do and how likely that is. My character would have that from the experience of living in the world. If I jumped a 30′ chasm last week and I run into a 25′ chasm this week, I don’t want to find out that the jumping rules are now different when I’m in midair.
    When I GM, I like the rules to be complete enough that I don’t need to think about them. I like messing with rules, but not in the middle of the game. The rules should cover the expected situations and give me enough of a framework that I can use for the unexpected situations.

    1. @Philo

      First, I would submit (respectfully) that I have gone through those periods of not have a wide variety of folk to game with (going through one now actually) and that I’d choose no game over bad game every time (or start my own game as soon as possible). Which is what I think we are advocating for here… And, second — you are right, some DMs are better at some parts than others. I’m great at people and awful at places when it comes to description and making them seem interesting and real. But those aren’t really what this conversation was about (mostly).

      “A DM that spoke in a droning monotone and took his plots exclusively from episodes of Dora the Explorer” would probably not meet my criteria (or meet since they were negative… I just confused myself). Meaning — a DM that did those things is probably in breach of at least criteria number 3 — but the DM will only know the players aren’t satisfied if the players speak up and tell the DM they aren’t satisfied — leading us back to the issue of communication as key.

      I would again say that a DM that “rules differently each time” or is inconsistent is (at least) also in violation of #3. That DM is also probably in violation of number 1 and 2 as well because players are not going to consider this DM to be interested in the game or their fun if the rules are that inconsistent. These players will probably have told the DM that they don’t like it when the rules for jumping change in mid-air. If that DM ignores them, then that DM is violating the criteria.

      You are right. I could be more specific to say that consistency and fairness are a part of the “Good DM” template — but I thought they were covered by the above. Amend the list as appropriate. I agree that some rules are necessary, as you say, as a framework — but rules themselves, no matter how complete, will not protect a group from a bad DM. And that is my whole point.

      1. I’m trying to say there are good DM’s that may have some areas that they aren’t so strong in. And rules can help some issues. If you define a “Bad DM” and prove that rules will not fix all of his problems, then you are correct. But you are using a straw man argument. Especially #4

        I’m saying a more complete rules system can help a DM that isn’t so good on ruling on the fly. I’ve seen that much more often than a DM “hiding behind the rules”.

  7. Philo:

    I think the real key to #4 is in the hiding. To me that denotes an active use of the rules to justify not attempting to improve.

    Though you do have a point that sometimes the failure of a novice DM is a fear of ruling on the fly and more rules tends to allay those fears and make a DM more comfortable behind the screen.

    1. @ Kevin, it’s not just fear. I prefer to do less ruling on the fly even though I’m very comfortable with many rules sets and I have three decades of experience. I just prefer to put my focus into the story and characters instead of the making up new rules for how X interacts with Y.

      I’ve been playing for 30+ years. In the olden days, DM’s had to improvise all the time. You had to be decent about it. It also brought up lots of rules arguments as people read things into the way different parts are worded. Now I usually run 4e and there aren’t many cases where you need to interpret existing rules. They’ve put a lot into the wording and it’s usually pretty precise. You still need to make stuff up when there’s something outside of the rules, but I find it easier because the rules that exist give me a good framework to build off of.

      1. That’s fair. Not my style, but fair enough.

        These days the people I play with want more freedom from rules than rules dictated to/for them (and yeah, that’s how my current group sees the rules-heavy modern systems.)

        And before this turns into another “well you can just ignore the rules” vs. “well you can just create more rules” argument a la “less filling” / “tastes great”, I’ll just assume your group isn’t like that.

        I can see the lure of a heavy rules system under specific circumstances, it’s just not where my heart is in RPGs right now.

  8. @Philo

    I don’t want to get into a tiff about this, you seem like a decent fellow. I hate to be misrepresented though, so I want to clear up something.

    I think (and I could be wrong) that you’ve misrepresented my point a little. I am not, in any way, making judgements between rules light and rules heavy as being better or worse. I run Pathfinder every Sunday. Pretty rules heavy. I ran 4E for 2 full years before giving up on it. As you say, pretty rules intensive. I’ve also run very successful Amber Diceless RPG games (virtually the “interpretative dance” of RPGs). Both play styles work for me and both games are successful not because of the rules but because of the collaborative effort of the group. Pathfinder does not make my players “safer” than Amber. Their trust in me as a fair person who cares about doing my part to make a great game for everyone makes the game work.

    I’m also not, in any way, saying that individual DMs don’t have strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t like ruling on the fly then play a more rules intense system. That’s not a problem and it provides the support you like for your play style. I completely agree with that. And I certainly have my own weaknesses as a DM.

    What I am saying, and all that I’m saying is this… the cornerstone of being a good DM is respecting your fellow players, cooperating to make a great game, and listening to your players when they do actually tell you something about how they feel the game is going. These points — and my points above — are divorced from system, mechanics, or any other game artifacts. I have met terrible “by the RAW” DMs and terrible “loosey-goosey” DMs. More rules do not necessarily make better DMs. More rules do not necessarily make players “safer” in a game environment. By themselves the more rules do not insure a “better” game. That is what I’m trying to point out.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    PS — I was unsure about writing this last part because I really don’t want to offend anyone… like I said, I think you are respectful in your comments and you make good points even though I think we missed on our communication a little.

    But what made me decide to write this was your comment about the Straw Man and your 30+ years of gaming experience… That kind of stuff is the reason I’ve had to self-select to stay away from the majority of gaming forums. They are filled with spurious invocations of “logic” and people whipping out their “geek cred.” I don’t think that’s what you were doing here — please don’t take it as an accusation. But that kind of stuff immediately triggers my personal “web alarms.” My points above are not a straw man. A straw man “attributes to opponents erroneous and ridiculous views that they do not hold so that their position can be easily attacked” (Argument, 2010). I did not put words in the mouth of the original post I was responding to (which is also why I did not want to comment there) and I did not, I believe, put words in your mouth in my comments. And #4 above is specifically, as Kevin mentions, about a DM who willfully uses the rules to continue to browbeat or otherwise abuse players “but it’s all legal and RAW.” It has nothing to do with a DM who likes a lot of rules and uses them in service to their group and game to make the game better. I also mostly conceded the case of Organized Play (though again, I’ve been on both sides of this, too). Finally, please note that I did not leave the onus of responsibility entirely on the DM. I made sure to mention that it is up to players in a group to do something if they are playing with a “bad DM.” It is everyone’s responsibility to improve life at the game table and for the group. Again, I don’t believe that rules heavy or rules light accomplishes this by itself — it is just one variable of a particular group’s make up. My argument is solely against the belief that more rules always equals better game because players are protected from their DM.

    PPS — Please forgive me that last PS. Like I said, I don’t like being misrepresented — even on my own blog.

    1. I’m not offended, and I didn’t mean to offend you. I agree with your points, as you’ve stated them. I just think you are addressing a different case than I am.
      The original idea (as painted by Geek Ken) was painted a little broad. I’ve tried not to bring in absolutes. My idea is that added rules can help some DM’s to be better. Thus, sometimes rules can protect you from some types of “Bad DM”. But you seem to be trying to say a bad DM has specific attributes that cannot be fixed by rules and then saying that therefore the original conclusion is wrong. We’ve both redefined the problem. I’ve tried to limit the scope of what I’ve said. You seem to be expanding the scope.
      You use yourself as an example. You don’t have a problem with different rules complexity games. That doesn’t mean that it’s not an issue at other tables. I don’t mean this as an attack on you or that everybody needs to play a specific way.
      I understand that communication can help. I agree – I like communication. But it doesn’t always solve the problem. I know one GM that are really fun to play with, but he has his faults. And we’ve talked about our issues as a group and personally. He tries to change. But he falls into old habits really easily. Then he started running 4e. It fits his style, and we don’t have a problem anymore. Other GM’s get defensive when talking about their weaknesses. And some players don’t want to be confrontational when its an issue. In these cases communication can be harder than just switching to a different game.
      I don’t disagree that some DM’s can use rules in abusive ways. It’s just that in my experience that is a much rarer problem than GM’s using fiat in abusive ways. I can’t think of any experience of the GM abusing RAW except where the rules are bad. I’ve seen lots of bad uses of GM fiat.
      I didn’t bring up my experience as “Geek cred”, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I meant it to explain that I’ve played a lot in games that didn’t have a lot of rules. I’ve seen games where it’s been a problem and games where it hasn’t.

  9. […] Rules. Every game has them. Some games have a lot of them, others not so much. There has always been a lot of talk about how many rules a game needs. Some prefer a lot of rules guiding every decision, others want just the bare minimum for their game. With the announcement of D&D Next there has been a resurgence in talk about rules and just how many it should have. Several of the recent conversations that have drawn my interest were whether rules are insurance against a bad DM or how rules do not protect players from bad DMs. […]

  10. You make some solid points in your post. I’ll be the first to admit the majority of things that make a bad DM have nothing to do with the rules. You can have the best, most elegant, balanced RPG ruleset at your table and it can still be tanked by a DM railroading the story, or simply taking an antagonistic stance against the players at every turn.

    On Fearless DM’s blog he lamented the status of organized play with 4E (OP). I think he has hit the nail on the head that OP with D&D is now being run like a Magic tournament, something that doesn’t fit well. I think a key reason for this has been a shift for providing a framework of rules to cover just about every situation with a clear cut mechanic. In effect, the rules have migrated to a point where (at least in a skill check/combat situation) interpretations by a DM are minimized. Something that doesn’t quite capture the feel of D&D.

    D&D currently does fights pretty well. But there is a lot more out there that should (and can) be explored with OP. More emphasis has been made on this idea of making play experience so structured that a bad DM could still run a reasonably fair, and balanced game. There are rules and ideas in 4E that adopt a more free-form philosophy, it’s just something that seemed tacked on at the end of an expansive list of rules. I’m hoping in the next iteration with D&D they push this to the forefront and emphasize rules that encourage a DM to improvise, with more clear cut rules as a backup, rather than dumping everything and placing it all in the camp of DM interpretation.

  11. Thanks for dropping in to comment. I think you are absolutely right in what you say here. It’s true that organized play would seem to lend itself better to a more structured environment with less interpretation… because you want (as an organizer) to have the play experience be as similar as possible for people playing in any region, at any con, etc.

    And it’s hard, because you don’t have control over your DMs in a direct sense. That is, you really can’t “vet” them before they start running events.

    My only point — and the reason I think I the discussion frustrates me — is that there are tons of games out there which are rules light (or at least, light-er) which produce good DMs. If a player/group/DM wants a rules heavy “rules over rulings” game, then that is completely fine. But rules alone cannot make a better game.

    I just don’t buy the argument that rules “protect” players and one of the things that drove me away from 4E was the feeling that the designers intentionally marginalized the DM so severely. Rules can help insure a flat play experience. They can’t make a good play experience (to be fair, neither can rules light). It’s a matter of a group (players and DM) working together in the same spirit that will make a good game — and the only thing that will really protect players is to tell their GM when the game is “bad.”

  12. […] [The Rhetorical Gamer] Rules Do Not Protect Players from Bad DMs ( […]

  13. Before I was introduced to this blog today, I had written something similar on the topic of table manners for my players on their blog, citing page 110 of the AD&D 1e DMG. I perceive the crux of the discussion here to be about trust and communication rather than rules or rulings (the letter vs. the spirit). I run an OSR modified D&D 3.5 game for two types of players: those that have never known anything but a rule system game and new players who never played RPGs before. Re-reading the section “Conducting The Game,” written in 1979, make some realize that wisdom never goes out of style but it requires some understanding going in.

    As I read through the postings here I want to add my voice in 100% agreement with this article. I have not read the article that got the author fired up but I do agree with his assertion that more rules do not insure player protection. In fact, I believe, more rules might achieve the opposite. YMMV, as I expect what each person experiences with their own group will form a different gaming experience altogether – a social, collaborative experience that rules heavy systems like computer games with slick computer graphics can never hope to achieve. And maybe that’s the reason tabletop RPGs didn’t disappear with the introduction of colour monitors….

    RPGs are a game of imagination. That was how they were sold in TV advertisements when I was a kid featuring a bunch of people enjoying themselves around a tabletop. A rules debate in a game session, whether it is a game relying on a rules lite system or a rules heavy system, only leads to bickering. During the heat of the moment things get said, And system discussions defeat engrossment. Part of the trajectory from bad DM to better DM is having the permission from the other players to learn. Sometimes an inconsistent or unrealistic ruling will slip in to a world of magic and fantasy like an oxymoron. Laugh. Communicate with the player who is DM. Share the fantasy together.

    Handing someone a script to do their job, officially brow beating them for any inconsistency or variation of a rule, and then wondering why they never develop from bad to better at their job is a very poor management tactic. Touting that players now have the power of rules over rulings is, in my very humble opinion, anathema to the tabletop RPG experience.

    Thanks to for introducing me to this place.

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