Jenn’s 9 Rule 0s

Posted By on August 27, 2010

It seems that when two roleplayers reference “Rule Zero” there’s only a 1 to 4 chance on 2d6 that they’re talking about the same thing. So I asked my Twitter-sphere just how many Rule Zeroes there are? Jenn, from the Trap Cast and now the Jennisodes, informed me that there are 9. Strangely, she didn’t tell me what they were, so I took that as a quest and swore not to rest until I discovered them all. Fortunately my Twitter friends helped me and we discovered them in a short couple of hours. And then I took a nap.

When I woke up, I decided to blog about the 9 Rule Zeroes in an attempt to determine which should be the one, true Rule Zero! I’ll take them from worst to best:

#9 Never do anything that might help the GM

I learned this one playing Living Greyhawk (the 3.5 version of Living Forgotten Realms) from another player who I thankfully only played with one time (no, most “living” players aren’t at all like this; I don’t care what you heard!). I can’t imagine a worse Rule Zero – it basically says, “Don’t play your character, don’t engage in the story, just stay in a tight formation until we get the XP and treasure.” While it was probably created in response to killer GMs, it just serves to reinforce that behavior as the only way for the GM to interact with the group is to throw more monsters at them!

While this is the most dysfunctional Rule Zero, it is fortunately rather rare, in my experience.

#8 The GM is always right

Sure…but only if you’re playing D&D…and you’re in Middle School. Really, adults don’t need this rule and they know better than to think that their friend running the game is right when they are clearly wrong. Better to say that the GM has the final call, but that’s not always the case these days. Group consensus or veto-with-seconds rules have proven just as effective at maintaining a fair and consistent fictional world. Overall, this one is a relic of the past.

#7 Never split the party

- Suggested by Eric from the Podge Cast

This is almost as bad as #9 in creating static, boring play. It may be tactically prudent, but if doesn’t fit the tone of the fiction (Star Wars characters always split up) or make sense for the character or their situation then how does it help the game? This is also a cause and effect of an infinite loop of Player-GM distrust – but this one is a lot more common than #9. And it’s intended to create peer pressure not to break ranks and play how you might want to play, which is pretty dysfunctional.

But then again…a lot of times…it’s right! A lot of table-top RPGs are balanced around a full party of characters taking on a threat. Facing the same threat with a split group might lead to quick character deaths – even TPKs. Still, a good Rule Zero should be near-universally true and not primarily a D&D in-joke.

#6 Roll on the fucking table

- Suggested by David from the Backseat Producers

It really hacks me off when my fellow players can’t keep the dice on the table, want to count the dice that landed on a high number on the floor (but not when they’re low), roll them in a shoe box – or a shoe, and a hundred other annoying things that human beings have found to do with their dice. Let’s all roll the dice on the table, where everyone can see them, and no funny business. Is that too much to ask?

But at the end of the day, this is trivial and more of a pet-peeve than universal directive. Just be aware of your groups’ expectations and try to play nice.

#5 Never touch another man’s dice (aka “The Herzog Rule”)

- Suggested by Tim White from Return to Northmoor

This one’s cool. It sounds like an Old West proverb and that makes it bad ass! Some people spend a lot of time and money on their dice, dice bags, dice towers, dice poppers – I could go on. Of course we should respect other people’s property and sometimes geeks need to be more aware of personal boundaries and the rules of polite society.

But can we just grab the women’s dice all willy-nilly? Definitely a double-standard, but that’s the Old West for ya. What really kills this rule is that most players don’t take their dice so seriously and share them out no problem. It’s far from universal… but that feller in the wide-brimmed hat over in the corner will take your hand clean off if you touch his speckled D20!

#4 Don’t be *THAT* guy

- Suggested by Talulla

*THAT* guy is the one that becomes an example of what not to do at the table. It could be the guy who is never prepared, or takes far too long to play his turn, or wears shorts that expose…things. This one is very context based and is probably a better Rule Zero for life than for RPGs. We need to realize when we’re annoying other humans or just completely missing the boat and try to fix it where we can.

But it’s also rather judgmental. We were all *THAT* guy or *THAT* girl to someone at some point in time and most of us will be again. The heart of this one is to know your group and try to find a play style that you can enjoy that works with that group – or maybe find a different group. None of us want to be *THAT* person but it’s not always worth conforming just to fit in.

#3 If the rules don’t work for your group, change them

Thanks to D&D 3E, this is the most common of the Rule Zeroes. So why doesn’t the game designer make better rules or explain their rules better? That’s usually the real problem that makes this rule necessary. I don’t think you would see this as a Rule Zero for board games or minis where the rules are expected to work and no one has time for broken or incoherent games. But for some reason roleplayers often give big problems with the rules a pass or they don’t bother to try to learn the rule and just play it “our way”. Maybe I’ve always been a rules lawyer at heart, be it traditional RPGs or Story Games, but this attitude always grates on me. Furthermore, it makes all our game tables little islands of incoherent house rules that are bound to frustrate new players if they travel from group to group.

So while I’m clearly not a big fan of this rule, I still rated it third place. That’s because the heart of this rule is that having fun together with the game should be more important than following the rules and certainly more important than arguing about the rules. And that certainly rings true.

#2 It’s a game, have fun

Yes, sometimes we need to be reminded. It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal politics, rules disagreements, disappointment over bad outcomes in the game, or even problems from home and work that we forgot to leave in their places. Don’t do that. Have fun with your friends and if the game isn’t fun do something else together.

Here comes the other hand again! Some games are cathartic or intense or disturbing. What do you mean by fun? I think those things are fun to experience, but this rule can be warped to mean, “I don’t want to go there and neither should you.” Fun doesn’t have to be goofy and light, but some people will always interpret it that way. And sometimes your funs won’t match, so this rule won’t always hold true.

#1 Don’t be a dick

- Attributed to Jesus Christ via Clyde from Theory from the Closet

This isn’t always the easiest Rule Zero to follow in every group, especially if you play with random people at a con and encounter someone that really presses your buttons. Try to remember that the game will end…eventually. But if you play with friends – or at least people you want to be friends with – you should definitely try your best to follow this one.

So is it universal? The only, very minor exception I can think of is if your character is supposed to be a dick, but then that should be understood and playing him or her as a dick doesn’t count as being a dick to your real-world fellow gamers. In fact they are meant to enjoy your character’s dick-ish behavior and will likely be disappointed if you don’t ‘bring it’ – especially as the GM.

But is this a Rule Zero for gaming or for life? It can be real easy to forget this rule when you’re in the thick of the game, immersed in the fiction, and fighting for what you want. You should be playing RPGs with passion and that passion is what can blind us and why we need this as our Rule Zero Supreme.

And in real life? Well that guy that just cut me off deserves the middle finger! Does he have any idea how hard it is to Twitter and drive!?!

About the author

I'm from Colorado - but not originally. I like roleplaying games - obviously. I have a wife and three kids - shockingly. I also enjoy video games (XBox, Wii) and boardgames. I love to run RPGs at conventions and game days for the focus and intensity. I'll talk about RPGs all day with those who are willing.


5 Responses to “Jenn’s 9 Rule 0s”

  1. Rob says:

    I recently embarked upon writing my own RPG and I actually wrote a sidebar to address the Rule Zero thing. While I don’t have my writing in front of me, I can say that I looked to one source for what the true Rule Zero is. That source, is Urban Dictionary.

    With 182 up and 28 down the top definition is “The unwritten rule of tabletop Role Playing Games: The Game/Dungeon Master has the right to veto anything any player says, he has the right to change any rule or make up his own, he need not explain why he choses to do these things. If players complain the GM may choose any of the following to do to the player; slap, call a dumbass, restrict snackage privileges and/or threaten injury to ingame character(be it through loss of xp, health, items or gold)”

    The next two listing are re-phrasings of the same concept with 130 up, 38 down and 50 up 2 down. For a total of 362 ups and 68 downs. That seems reliable enough to me.

    The new Rule Zero I proposed in my game was your #1 Rule Zero: Don’t be a dick. Which I directly lifted from John Wick in Houses of the Blooded and I’m sure he lifted from somewhere else.

    To me, this is an important rule for life but it never hurts to reiterate it in print. Even if you’re at a con and someone else is being a dick that doesn’t make it right for you to be a dick. Just… Don’t be a dick people. That’s all I want when you sit down at the table.

    It covers the other rules too, “Don’t help the GM”… sir, Don’t be a dick. “The GM is always right.”… as long as he’s not being a dick, sure, why not? “Roll on the table”… how about we just not be dicks about rolling dice? “Have fun”… by not being a dick.

  2. Scott says:

    I think the Urban Dictionary has more to do with pop-culture perceptions where a lot of people who don’t currently game but did once a long time ago are unduly influencing the vote. All pop-culture perception of RPGs are based on AD&D 1st Edition and probably always will be. Most of the roleplayers I have known that have stated this as Rule Zero had held on to a lot of other 1st-ed-style-ideas as well.

    I still see the D&D 3E Rule Zero as the most commonly cited amongst active gamers – and a version of it was 3rd on the Urban Dictionary.

    Because I couldn’t be sure who first said “Don’t be a dick” I went with Clyde’s suggestion that we cite JC as the originator. It’s certainly a version of “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, so that works for me. Of course, there are no claims to originality in this blog post. It all came from somewhere – I’m just holding it up to the light.

    Got any links to your new game?

  3. Troy says:

    I’ve always heard #1 described as “Wheaton’s Law” since it’s appeared at the top of his blog page ( for forever. My rule 0 has always been “Have fun.” I think it was listed as such in a version of GURPS or Marvel Superheroes when I was a kid. “If the rule sucks, change it” is sort of a corollary to that. If the rules interfere with having fun, change or ignore them.

  4. Ken says:

    I think you are missing the point of “Don’t Split the Party”. It has nothing to do with trying gain an advantage over the GM, or any type of “distrust”. It’s just a simple rule of efficiency. If you split the party, then the GM has to run two different threads, and half your players end up sitting there doing nothing. It’s a rule that benefits BOTH the GM and the player, by keeping everybody involved.

  5. Scott says:

    That’s a very good point Ken, and I agree with the benefit you point out there. I definitely think that’s a valid thing if the group talks about it and agrees that staying together is best for that reason. But a lot of GMs can be very effective at switching back and forth between separated characters and keeping everyone involved. That can make for a much more dynamic game, at times. Also, players whose characters aren’t in the scene can play NPCs in a lot of game systems.

    The word “never” is the key thing here. I can understand “Don’t split the party if it’s unnecessary” but “Never split the party” is far too restrictive. Also, I do think the point most gamers are making when they say “Never split the party” is the stereotypical one I used in the blog post and not the more sensible one that you’ve made.

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