May 5, 2009

The "Golden Rule"

Please welcome Helmsman, our newest contributor at The Core Mechanic! Helmsman is the primary force behind the blog "Taking the Wheel of Modern Role Playing Games", so make sure to jump over there and check out his other work too!
I'm about the biggest advocate for sandbox gaming there is: I've always been fine with my PC group wandering whichever way they fell they can accomplish what they need to do. I've never had a problem letting the story I'm trying to tell work around their antics, but I'll be the first to admit that my GM'ing style is far from flawless. Even when I'm at my worst my players have never walked away from a game or called me down as a GM because for all my faults I always endeavor to be fair.

When I run games I take player trust very seriously, to illustrate: White Wolf Games has an addendum called "The Golden Rule". This basically amounts to: if a particular mechanic in their rules doesn't fit, a Storyteller has the right to alter it. The spirit of this rule is that the story should always come before the mechanics.

Now, when I am GM’ing I only apply The Golden Rule in a particular way: If I have a rule I want to change, I announce it prior to the game starting and explain that it's been changed and is now that way permanently. It becomes a house-rule and for my game is set in stone and I make that clear. I do this because I don't want to be dropping rule inconsistencies on my players mid-game.

Some Storytellers I know use The Golden Rule as their own special "[I]t happens that way kuz I say so" excuse, which might be valid but I can't tolerate it. If my story has a situation where an NPC is supposed to die but a player does something unexpected and saves that NPC, I would never ever rule that the NPC dies anyway, to do so would rob the player of his victory and destroy any trust he has in my game. On the same token, if a player reacts poorly to a situation and makes things worse I believe it would be a disservice to pull punches in my reaction. This is in direct contrast to the ST's I know who make extensive use of The Golden Rule. They like to make arbitrary things occur for no good reason forcing unwanted situations on their players just because. And, if the shit hits the fan for real, they'll pull punches to prevent character death.

I once read somewhere that a competent leader needs yell only to get someones attention, once he has that attention continuing to yell only illustrates an inability to communicate. I liken The Golden Rule to that: one can use it to make things work if he needs to, but overusing it just shows that he never knew how to work things in the first place.

Overuse of golden rules shows that the GM needs to control every facet of the game, this GM will likely have a set story and won't let the players deviate from it. This might very well create an extremely compelling story but I still think that sort of behavior from a GM is inexcusable. Roleplaying is about interaction and teamwork and allowing the players to feel empowered. If someone wants to have full control over a story he can write a book, beyond that the only reason one would ever need such complete control of a game would be because he's an insecure twat that secretly desires to hold something over his friends.

So, in parting, how have you used The Golden Rule in your game? Is it something that comes up often, or do you keep only as a last resort. Leave a comment and let us know!


  1. Ah yes, we call it the Golden Railroad in my group...

    As a player I despise being forcefed a story, no matter how cool or awesome it is.

    However, if we are playing modules, there is a certain expectation to "bite" on the hooks. But no way should GM fiat overrule everything.

    I agree with you, it's fine to change/omit rules, but it has to be done in the beginning, player need to be aware of it, and the ruling remains consistent throughout play.

  2. @Mad Brew Ah the golden railroad. I remember those games, we had a GM in WFRP who would script his games so linearly that it honestly felt like a computer game with invisible walls. You had one direction and two options. You could either go, or be difficult. We made the most of it though, and there was usually one person who would occasionally joke when the path way opened up saying. "No! I be difficult."

  3. I say that a set of rules is broken to the extent that the rules can be ignored to make the gameplay more fun.

    Railroading is problem if and only if players don't know about it or know it and still resist. Personally I see preciously little value in railroaded play.

  4. It's funny - there's a third way to apply the Golden Rule that you haven't mentioned. And that's to let the /players/ control the story. If they want to do something awesome and the rules say no, I will say yes. I know a lot of GMs who operate this way. A GM fudging rules for their own benefit too often likely has a lot of other underlying problems.

  5. @swordgleam - soooo true. Players should be the driving force. But something the DM just has to do what a DM has to do to keep things moving. I mean, the DM is a player too, yes?

  6. @ swordgleam

    This is how I have applied the golden rule in my games as well. Basically if the players want to do something that doesnt fit the rules or the module, we make up appropriate on-the-fly rules right there and go with it. My players tended not to pay too much attention to walls, or the logevity of key story NPCs.

  7. note: I think two things are being confused here however: 1. changing the outcomes to force a particular story path (bad DMing) 2. and changing the rules becasue it doesnt fit the players role-playing actions (the golden rule).

    Tom W

  8. @swordgleam I personally oppose player driven RP unless I have no personal investment in the game I'm running. Having said that, my style of GM'ing is probably the most loose, free-flowing, sandbox style out there. I let the players choose their path, and thus I let them succeed or fail based on their merits and plans. I'm pretty good at integrating the story with this style so it's a nice blend. Players can basically go and do wherever and whatever they want, but my story is mine to present and I take steps to keep the player's grubby hands off of it.

  9. Helmsman, you said: "Players can basically go and do wherever and whatever they want, but my story is mine to present and I take steps to keep the player's grubby hands off of it."

    Can you give an example of this? I have hard time wrapping my head around what is going on in your games, based on this description. Is your story not about the player characters?

  10. @thanuir - As a sandbox GM I place no restrictions of my PC's activities and I tell the story through 'events' befalling them as they do their thing. Sometimes these events are simply the world reacting to their actions, and sometimes the events are connected back to a major metaplot. One of my long running stories featured a villain who would stay in the shadows and work to bring the PC's around to his way of thinking. He would do things to the PC's that were very controlling, infecting them with mind-altering diseases and that sort of thing, his methods were extremely invasive, but the further and further the players figured out what he was up to the more they found his motivations aligned with theirs.

    If I were to let a player take the wheel then they can (and have) taken ahold of NPC's connected to main villians -and sometimes the main villian himself - and played him wrong. This creates inconsistencies in my story that either force me to fix them or alter the story. Thus I let my players do what they want with their characters, I never take over their characters or force effects on them that break their abilities to play their characters how they envision them, (even with aforementioned mind-altering drugs, I was careful even with that) but at the same token, world events, NPC's and their actions relating to the players are mine and others don't get to play with those.

  11. Helmsman;

    Okay, so imagine the following situation. Your clever villain was in disguise slipping some poison in the party's drinks. One player, through sheer paranoia or quick thinking or whatever realises this; further, the player characters manage to slay the unfortunate villain. You had not planned the players to notice, much less defeat, the villain yet.

    Which of the following, if any, would be true?
    1. Stuff happens, too bad. That's a dead villain, further plots of his or her are likely to take care of themselves, life goes on. Time to craft a new villain.
    2. Never put the villain in risk so this doesn't happen. If so, what if the player characters somehow completely dodge some significant plot?
    3. It was just a decoy or the real villain was planning this all along and will consequently pull all the same strings the dead one would have pulled.
    4. Fudge dice, have a bunch of orcs/gangsters attack the tavern, have the villain use Device of Certain Escape.

    I'm trying to get a handle on how you plan and how much can the players affect your plots. I understand that you don't let players play important non-player characters. What other limits are there?

  12. Usually a combination of 1, 2 and 3. Villians at the top don't willingly expose themselves. They put layers between themselves and the heroic types they're recruiting. Layers like another minion, or a message left for the heroes, or maybe a red herring. When my top villians do appear (usually twice, a nasty fight at the beggining where they have a good escape plan, and a final culminating battle, the result of the PC's getting the jump on him) I've usually got an ace in the hole for them, plus nameless mook minions to soften the PC's up and/or expend some of that nervous energy they build up (health and mana).

    See, I keep my stories intact by using logic and smart thinking, rather than fudging dice or altering circumstances. The down-side of quick thinking is sometimes players can out-think you, in which case they win, and the repercussions of that win can begin in ernest. (Villians always have reasons for what they do, and sometimes those reasons can be worse than the villian's actions in the first place.)

  13. Again I think the best use of the Golden Rule, is for fixing loopholes, adding rules for stuff thats cool, and adjusting rules that dont make sense. For example, I was playin gin a campaign run by a rule monger DM who woul dnever deviate from the standard ruleset, and just to illustrate the point, I dropped the largest mountaintop of rock on top of his big bad guy NPC while shapechanged into a great wyrm dragon. The D&D rules that said how much I could carry as well as how much damage per weight things do when falling on someone. it worked out to be several thousands of d6's of damage, Point: rules didnt make sense, so you change them.

  14. Helmsman; okay, I think I understand where you are coming from. Thanks.

    My own default method is to set up a situation and maybe even villains such that players can then destroy it all. The unpredictability of it all is large part of the fun for me.

  15. @thanuir - No problem dude. I too like to get surprised now and then, I'm not an absolute control kinda guy. But I have a couple players who could plausibly stage an assault on the the Kremlin during Stalin's height of paranoia. I can't make things too easy for them... otherwise they'd think I was a lightweight, and they'd be ruling the game world inside 10 sessions. Can't have that. I usually push for 20-50 session global domination.


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