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.