I hate disagreeing with Matt Colville.
One, because he is an unprecedentedly wonderful resource for GMs, by all accounts a top-rate employer, and an exemplary creative professional. Two, because he so often gets things perfectly right and I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying Matt Colville is fundamentally wrong-headed and not worth listening to. Three, because he takes criticism kind of poorly and his community, which I consider myself a part of, is very defensive of him. In his “Language, Not Rules” video posted yesterday, he says “Take [this video] in the spirit it is meant . . . you are encouraged to disagree loudly.”
So here I go.
I Actually Agree a Lot
I disagree with that video’s conclusion, but I agree with a lot of the specific points he raises and I think he and I would ultimately come pretty close to agreement if we had a dialogue about it. He is right that 3E’s “a rule for everything under the sun” approach bogged down the game in minutiae and litigation, that rules are a language we use to communicate our role play, and that mastery of language means knowing how to break the rules to invent new expressions. He’s right that minutiae like the comma in “Let’s eat, grandma” can be omitted without anyone thinking you are suggesting cannibalism. He’s right that there is no reward for playing 100% by the rules, and that getting them right is not required to have fun.
Perhaps most of all, he’s right that you should not “waste time looking [rules] up, just guess, and if you’re familiar with the rules, your guess might not be ‘correct’ but it will be ‘good’: your players will think ‘that’s fair,’ and you can move on.” That’s what a good ruling is, and he argues, ultimately, that good rulings are what make RPGs work, not getting the rule for every possible scenario “right.” In fact, he argues that whatever rules are there are just the spelling and grammar of an emergent spoken language that can’t be perfectly described by the rules text, only indicated or approximated: the rules don’t matter themselves, they only suggest and prompt the emergent gameplay at the table. Thus “rulings, not rules.”
The Dark Side of “Rulings, not Rules”
I wholeheartedly agree that 3E’s maximalist approach went well past the point where additional detail’s marginal benefit in terms of robustness and predictability sunk below its marginal cost in terms of rules look-ups/memorization and disputes. I don’t want to return to that. However, I would suggest that “rulings, not rules” simply replaces one extreme for another.
Take the classic example of a DM imposing “realistic” limitations on feats of martial prowess while allowing magical power to increase freely since that’s what the rules indicate and the magic doesn’t run up against real-world baggage in the DM’s mind. Perhaps a more even-handed DM imposes a risk of madness when a mage uses powerful magic. But even then, PC abilities are now like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously available and not available until observed, contingent on getting the DM’s buy-in. Players have traded disputes over hard-wired rules for negotiations over quantum rulings.
What is lost in that mode is not just the players’ entitlement to the shiny buttons on their character sheet, i.e. their most direct ability to self-express, but also the players’ ability to solve problems creatively. If there are no rules for digging holes in the ground, PCs may never realize they can bypass a dungeon level by doing so, and even if they do they will have to play Mother May I to see if it might succeed. If there are no rules for what acid does to objects, it will be much harder to rely on it in concocting a way to escape the prison of the usurper king because if you pitch it to the DM who had a big thing planned in the dungeon, they might say it doesn’t work that way simply to keep you aimed at what they have prepped. Creative applications of known quantities – not undefined suggestions – are the building blocks of the kind of schemes that are at the heart of so many excellent, dramatic D&D stories.
I think Colville might agree with that in theory, but say that it’s still an improvement over death-by-rulesphyxiation, and that training DMs to be more consistent and more sensitive to and encouraging of players’ fun can prevent the bad scenarios. Lots of tables did it right back in the day, after all. It’s a personality problem, a table problem, not a design problem or a systemic problem. The language metaphor would come up: mastery of language is not obeying every rule but using novel variations of the basic rules to better express oneself. The DM and the players have to have the negotiation to truly explore and express the drama of the story they tell. But I think the problem is systemic, that the old days were full of bad tables as well, and applying individual fixes to systemic problems is a recipe for frustration and failure. I don’t think that means we need to pre-solve every rules problem with a right answer, though.
Laying Down the Law
I have a degree in the Chinese language, so I understand the language metaphor. I also have a degree in law, and I think law is the better comparison, and not just for the obvious reason that they’re both systems of rules. The law is made of rules, yes, but society uses the law’s rules to organize activities with many participants. And not just for the sake of a fair competition, but for people who want to cooperate to achieve a goal together. When two savvy businesses enter into a contract, neither of them is controlling or policing or gatekeeping the other, they are clarifying their agreement very precisely and making their cooperation as predictable as possible. Predictability enables and encourages action in a group.
But complexity undermines predictability. Law, like 3E, wants to create the perfect answer for every scenario ahead of time, so while any question has a theoretical answer, the process of making an agreement is so complex that it’s difficult to predict what will end up happening anyway. It requires immense knowledge of a complicated ruleset to execute the kind of interactions both sides want. That, frankly, doesn’t benefit the law that much, and it is certainly unacceptable for TTRPGs, where the game moving forward is more important than the answer to any one question.
That’s where rulings come in. But first, let’s talk about language as self-expression.
Fickledorfs and Padawaggers
The audience of a play or a novel or a YouTube video is passive, and the context of the invented expression will passively inform its contours. The precise meaning is unimportant because the author will simply avoid scenarios where “blue flavor” could be ambiguous, like referring to a sad flavor as well as referring to blue raspberry. But RPGs are not passive experiences, they are participatory. They don’t just tell stories, nor are their rules just there to generate improv prompts. They also create expectations and inform choices, inform role-playing.
If you’re called up on stage at a game show and told to use the fickledorf to shmurt the padawagger, you will be lost until you see more context, like a hammer lying next to a nail. But if there is a hammer, a saw, and a pair of scissors on one table and a nail, a log, and a piece of paper on the other, suddenly the invented language isn’t clear anymore because it’s no longer confined to a context that makes it clear; any one of the former could be the fickledorf, and any of the latter the padawagger you must shmurt. The language is no longer actionable, and the game can no longer be played, because neither the text nor the context give foreseeable meaning to any choice.
Rulings Require Context
We communicate a lot, if not predominantly, through context. That’s why “let’s eat grandma” is not confusing, even without the comma. It’s not that commas are actually meaningless, it’s that context does the heavy lifting despite the text. And so it is in RPGs: rulings rely on mechanical and fictional context. Good rulings flow from good rules. Colville even says good rulings come from familiarity with the rules, and the players’ response to a good ruling is “that’s fair.” And that is telling; in Colville’s own description, the DM is pitching a novel mechanical resolution and the players are assenting to it based on what, exactly? Based on the context of the rest of the game’s rules and the fiction. The DM is resolving this action in this way because that is how similar actions are resolved in the rules. That’s why it’s “fair;” it is precedented, it is foreseeable; it is consistent with other, similar resolutions.
Rulings are a useful tool in a DM’s toolbox: use the rules you know to resolve an action whose resolution is unclear, either because you don’t know the rule or because there is no rule or because the actual rule is terrible and doesn’t fit the fiction, or whatever other reason. Good rulings fill in the creases and gaps in a necessarily limited rule-set in a foreseeable way that is substantially consistent with that rule-set and the fiction of the game.
In general, though, rulings supplement rules, they don’t displace them. The rules establish the baseline expectations for both players and DM, the foundation on which players make role-playing choices and DMs make rulings.
What Even Are Good Rules?
3E’s problem wasn’t that it wanted to give DMs the tools to adjudicate any scenario, it’s that its tools were too specific, they couldn’t be generalized. You had to learn each of them, and they tended to be complicated in their operation to ensure every angle was covered. The 4+ step process to grapple is the most famous example, but building monsters was also frighteningly complicated with the number of feats and other rules you had to track and apply properly. The rule-set was robust, sure, but its tools and processes were just so needlessly difficult to learn and difficult to use.
The ideal is a rule-set that resolves similar things similarly and simply, that naturally creates the model for further rulings. Fifth Edition made a wonderfully flexible, easy-to-use mechanic in Advantage/Disadvantage, but then also adds a bunch of other ways to improve rolls, like Bardic Inspiration (+d6-d12, depending on level), the bless spell (+d4), and the Archery Fighting Style (+2), among many others. It’s inconsistent on when rider effects on monsters’ attacks , e.g. vampires and vampire spawn have multiattack and can choose to grab a target they hit in lieu of dealing damage, whereas the mind flayer’s tentacles attack deals damage and grapples and has a chance to stun the target. How stealth works is infamously open to interpretation. And let’s not get started on “melee weapon attacks” vs. “attacks with a melee weapon.” While it’s got a fraction of 3E’s complexity, it still has a lot of fiddly, inconsistent rules that offer little guidance for rulings in a game that explicitly endorses rulings over rules.
Shadow of the Demon Lord has a more consistent approach. Bonuses and penalties are condensed into a system of boons and banes, e.g. d6s that are rolled with the d20. You take the largest d6 result and add it to or subtract it from your d20 roll, depending on if you rolled boons or banes. Spells like bless, advantageous positioning, the aid of a comrade, those all give you a boon or two, consistent across the board. 5e would benefit from adopting that consistent approach, both in terms of setting expectations for players to be creative around, and in terms of making ad hoc rulings easier to be consistent about.
I think on some level Colville would agree that neither absolute rules fidelity nor absolute rules freeform is ideal for most groups. Whether you lean on rules or rulings, what you want is a consistent, predictable mechanical context in which to explore dramatic situations without bogging down the free flow of the narrative aspects with either extensive litigation or negotiation.
To my mind, that means a well-defined ruleset that uses similar building blocks as widely as possible to create clear expectations and predictability on both sides of the screen. The drama and shock and surprise should come from the choices of characters and the dice, not the ad hoc resolution mechanics.
Rulings are integral to any TTRPG, but they are ultimately tools that serve their greatest purpose in the context of consistent, clear rules. Jettisoning the latter and filling in everything with rulings can work, just as the opposite can work with the right group, too, but common, shared, comprehensible rules that set expectations for actions and for rulings will facilitate action, and thus, in the semiotics of TTRPGs, communication, more than rulings or rules alone.