30 December 2016

How to make rulings in RPGs

Some will say that “rulings instead of rules” is one style of playing role-playing games. I say, “rulings instead of rules” is a defining feature of role-playing games.

But I’m not here to convince you of that point today; it is just some context for what follows. Rather, I’m inspired by a post on the Goblin Punch blog to give some advice on how to make rulings.

Don’t make rules: Making rulings is not making rules. We’re not talking about a method for developing yet another game with a large set of complex rules. We’re talking about playing without a large set of complex rules. For me, the ideal role-playing game has no rules. It can be handy to have some guidelines to help get us started, but no rules.

Don’t try to make a general rule. Concentrate on making a ruling for the exact situation at hand.

And don’t be afraid to overrule the written guidelines when they give unsatisfying results.

Rulings don’t have to be perfect: Since we’re talking about role-playing games, it is OK that our rulings won’t be perfect. The bar is simply this: That they are good enough for everyone currently at the table.

Don’t worry about making the perfect ruling. Just make the best ruling you can now.

Which brings us to: You are not alone: We grant the referee the power to make the final decisions because it is one way to solve the “No you didn’t! Yes I did!” problem of playing “make believe”. And, if the referee isn’t a jerk, it can be a very satisfactory solution.

But the players know some things the referee doesn’t. The table can make a better ruling than the referee alone.

Now, often the referee has knowledge about a situation that the players lack. But a good referee will take the advice of the players into account when making rulings.

Consistency is overrated: Worrying about consistency leads us to making rules rather than rulings. So, the “rulings rather than rules” referee should avoid worrying about it. Consistency also suggests that we should be bound by any poor rulings we made in the past. To me, that’s crazy. We always want to strive to make better rulings than we made in the past.

But isn’t consistency important? Don’t we need consistency to ensure fairness? ...for immersion? Fairness and immersion are—in some degree—important, but consistency itself is only important to the degree that it supports fairness and immersion.

Here’s the key to consistency: Everyone around the table needs to feel free to point out important inconsistencies when they arise. The referee then has a chance to consider it when making the current ruling.

If no one at the table notices an inconsistency and thinks it is important enough to mention, then the inconsistency isn’t important.

Not using dice (or similar tools): Before calling for a roll, ask is whether the situation warrants rolling dice.

It has been said: Only roll the dice when the outcome is uncertain. That may seem obvious, but many of us have fallen into the trap of calling for dice rolls too often. And it is also OK to simply rule something a success if the chance of failure exists but is low.

Also, even if the outcome isn’t certain but it is a minor thing, it is sometimes better to just rule yea or nay and move on.

Using dice (or similar tools): When you do call for a roll, simply take into account all the prevailing circumstances and come up with a chance of success.

You can ask the players to suggest factors you may have not considered. You can also ask the group if they think the percentage you came up with is reasonable.

Before the roll is made, it is also a good idea to state what a successful roll and a failed roll will actually mean.

If you aren’t good with probabilities, it is good enough to always express the chance of success in percentage and roll percentile dice.

Be careful about repeated rolls.

Let’s say you rule that each character in a four character party has a 50% chance of sneaking. Then you make rolls for each character individually and count one of them failing as the party failing. Then the party has less than a 6% chance of success

If you make them roll for every, say, 30 feet of movement, then their chance for sneaking 60 feet drops to less than 0.4%.

When in doubt, it is probably better to determine a single percentage for the entire party to sneak an entire distance rather than try to decompose it into many individual rolls. Because composing and decomposing probabilities isn’t easy (for most of us).

That said, you don’t want the entire adventure to be summed up in a single roll. You want multiple rolls with meaningful decisions between them. So, it is always a balancing act. And that’s a big topic that I don’t have any more to say about at the moment.

Rulings should be fast?

In the Goblin Punch post, Arnold said that probably the most important point is that rulings should be fast. I’m not sure I agree.

If, as I contend, rulings are a defining feature of role-playing games, then perhaps rulings being fast is not important.