Friday, 8 July 2011

Rule Zero: Don't be a...

I'm going to share the best piece of gaming advice I've ever recieved. The present form originates in Houses of the Blooded, and has been incorporated into a number of ongoing Live-Action Roleplaying (LARP) campaigns locally. It's such a good, solid, simple piece of advice that I've applied it to con games (freeform and tabletop), broader gaming contexts, and life in general.

The rule is: Don't be a dick.*

Simple, solid.

And, you know, the only penalty for breaking it is that people think you're a dick.

How it works in gaming contexts is that you don't get your fun by ruining other people's fun. You can screw over their characters to your heart's content - so long as it's within the game's rules and the game's structure - but you're respectful and reasonable with the real-world people that are playing the characters. You can beat someone at chess without shoving the pieces up your opponent's nose.

In a con setting, Rule Zero tells you to approach each game in good faith. The GM has written and prepared the game with the intention of making it fun, interesting, exciting, compelling, entertaining. You only "lose" a con game if you don't enjoy it - and odds are that if that happens, the GM will feel it worse than you. And, of course, Rule Zero dictates that the GM pays you precisely the same respect, and will assume that you're here because you like playing rpgs and you want to play theirs.

Con games often involve playing with new and unfamiliar people, in an environment that relies on a high level of consensus and trust. Making it easier for the people around you makes it easier for you. Keep conflict within the game. Don't use your character as an excuse to behave badly to other players. Share the spotlight. Don't look down your nose at someone you think is a "poor" roleplayer - don't even make the judgement. Just play the game, try and make it fun for everyone - yourself included.

It's important in any game, but the systemless form which Pheno and other Aussie cons rely on really starts to break down if anyone in the room is a dick - GM or player. One of the commonly expressed fears of systemless games, a source of real resistance, is "What if the GM is a dick?" It bemuses me somewhat, because it's really not in the GM's interest to be a dick - on the contrary, they really, really want you to enjoy their game. And I'd really not encourage any player to be a dick on the off chance that the GM might be.

I can say that in seven years of GMing at cons, I've run across very few players that I'd go so far as to describe as a dick. Dicks tend to ruin it for everyone, but since everything is not ruined, they're clearly pretty rare.

I can say that in seven years of GMing at cons, I've run across very few players that I'd go so far as to describe as a dick. Dicks tend to ruin it for everyone, but since everything is not ruined, they're clearly pretty rare.

Edited to add: apparently also known as Wheaton's Law - I beseech forgiveness for my geekly ignorance!

*Feel free to apply your own monosyllabic insult here. Like, "jerk". Or "fucking wanker" said really quickly.


  1. Awesome, Mark - had no idea. (I'm not quite at my engagement point with Wheaton - he's interesting but not fascinating. So wasn't aware of his iteration.)

  2. Also, I just love that the first response to any of my posts is a nitpick. :p :)

  3. Sorry, didn't mean to break the law :P

    But it does indicate the universality of the post, showing as it does that the concept spans the gaming metaverse.

  4. Actually, it's been around (in that form) a lot longer than Wheaton's speech. I haven't paid attention to in quite a few years, and back in the days that I did "Don't be a dick," was a common mantra there.

    The Houses of the Blooded form is "Don't be a wanker", BTW. In fact, HoB uses a more specific form of the rule. Wick refers to it as the Wanker Rule, with a dedicated sidebar using that title on page 355 (PDF rulebooks are great for seaching). "If you find a way to interpret a rule that clearly damages the play environment, sabotages other people's fun or is just plain nonsensical, don't use the rule in that way. In other words, don't be a wanker." So the rule there actually refers to a specific form of being a dick - unfun abuse of the rules.

    HoB also has another rule, also in the Bad Form section (but not sidebarred), which is of relevance. It reads "Don't make me look like a jerk." Again, it's a more specific form of "Don't be a dick." Don't put me in a position of having to correct you in public - it makes me look like a jerk. Don't get distracted and force me to drag you back to a focus on the game - it makes me look like a jerk. Don't cheat, so that I have to call you on it - it makes me look like a jerk. Basically, we are all there to help the others look good. Making yourself look bad isn't good, but making somebody else look bad is even worse.

    It can be nice to actually identify some things that count as being a dick, because sometimes people don't realise that they do.

    BTW, I do think this is a timely follow-up to the last post.

  5. @Travis - thanks for that, Jac.'s reference copy was unavailable.

  6. Nice post Stu. Not to reopen another system vs systemless debate, but I not that you say it's not in the GM's interests to be a "dick" - which is true from my perspective - but I have encountered GM's who enjoy the game differently than I do. Some enjoy their setting and NPC's so much that any audience involvement with them is gratifying, while others simply want to spend spotlight time on their NPC's and have the players be astounded at their dramatic skills.

    So I guess I'd argue that some GM's derive enjoyment from a game that can be quite detached from the players enjoyment of the game. Exactly who is being a 'dick' in this situation is, perhaps, less clear.

    Obviously this can be the case in either system or systemless games. I'd simply say that IMHO system games can provide another level of langauge, assessment and interaction that can be less personal, confrontational, or uncomfortable then the more direct avenues available in systemless games.

  7. Good piece. I agree with Dale about some GMs motivations seeming to be different from the enjoyment of players...

    And not to start the system vs systemless debate again, but I've far more encountered that kind of behaviour in systemed games than systemless games. :p

    Also, I think you'd really like Wil Wheaton. Next time I find him doing something cool, I'll link to him.

  8. I know who kingtheseus is!

    Also, not to open the system-vs-systemless debate again, but FOR FUCK'S SAKE DON'T... uh, I mean, I'm not that interested, to be honest. :)

    @Dale - one of the reasons I'm not that interested in the debate is that most of the criticisms of the systemless form are entirely true and valid, and skilled systemless GMing (and playing) is really about avoiding, downplaying and heading off those things before they can kill the fun. Knowing they are there is useful, but to me they're not an argument against the form per se.

    I've had the experience you describe (from both sides, I think!), and I think a GM that puts their own fun over that of their players is absolutely missing a trick. My favourite sessions are the ones where I barely need to be there, because the players are so engaged with the characters, the setting and each other. And, system or not, I think that's more likely to happen if everyone goes in expecting a good game - the reason for my "good faith" application of Rule Zero.

  9. Not a million miles removed from the Cam's thing of "If you drop another PC, buy the player a drink afterwards", really.)

    I've been on both sides of this - I've had people play overly-unpleasant characters and make the game less fun for me, and I've played vicious types of my own and had other people tell me I've made the game less fun for them. A lot of the time, it's about a mismatch between player/GM expectations rather than any actual malice. You talk about screwing over other PCs so long as it's within the game's rules or structure - what about those games with unofficial social rules (particularly ones where not everyone's aware of those rules), or games where the in-setting social rules are different from how people actually play them?

  10. Heya, Joe,

    I think unofficial social rules arise whenever people socialise, and Rule Zero would include things like the benefit of the doubt for newbies, and that noone can be expected to know things they weren't told. I also thing Rule Zero would involve acknowledging a transgression, inadvertant or otherwise.

    Re: setting v. play rules and so on - often things that look good on paper don't work so well in play, so there'd be nothing wrong IMO with different rules emerging naturally to account for that. I think there should be some attempt to note and analyse that happening, not least for the benefit of the newcomer who knows the written rules but not the unwritten ones.

    I'd also say that things can go wrong with a game (or a social situation) without any dickery involved at all - and expectation mismatch is a pretty reliable cause of that.

  11. @Dale: Jaisus, you obviously never lurked nearby during disagreements at our lunchtime games at high school. Uncomfortable and confrontational were two of the nicest adjectives I'd use. *I* feel like I moved away from systems to put that stuff behind me.

    @Stu: Hmm. Wheaton is who he is. But 'Dancing Barefoot' is a thing of beauty.

    Isn't "Rule Zero" already in accepted usage for 'All the rules are just guidelines, GM can change them'. (A really crappy idea, btw, but that's another post). In fact Google's first two results back me up. (The next two say "Don't give the GM ideas", for what that's worth).

    Good post, good points. It's funny discussing some of this is really kindergarten level stuff, really. Not aiming for each other's detriment is a bare minimum for doing a social activity together, and it's only after that's achieved that we can work on the dizzying heights of Dale and Joe's "let's be trying to do the same thing."

  12. @myrthe - as with all things, there are levels of sophistication. Certainly, the social skills involved are pretty basic, but the idea that one is responsible for employing them is, ooh, adolescent at least.

    (FWIW, I was well into adulthood before my fear of being thought a dick morphed into a sense that my effort should be directed towards not being one.)

    Re: nomenclature - most versions fo R0 I've come across are variations on personal responsibility. Ultimately, it's the Golden Rule we're talking about, anyway.

  13. I'm jumping on the "let's all be doing the same thing" bandwagon too!

    Mr. Baker talks about how one of the roles of the MC in Apocalypse World is to "respond with fuckery and intermittment reward". In the sense of "fuck around with" not "fuck over". He describes it as "putting your bloody fingerprints on everything you touch".

    Similarly in Burning Wheel the GM's role is explicitly to challenge and confront the characters Beliefs through the playing of the game.

    Neither of these things are "being a dick", they are playing the game. Everyone who is playing agrees they are doing this thing, so let's do it.

    And: Hurrah for the One True Rule 0! ;)

  14. Re: provenance notes

    I think that Don't Be A Dick was something I got from Luke Crane (maybe?). I seem to recall Theory From The Closet podcasts or something - but it is going back a bit.

    Creativity is hiding your sources! >_>

  15. Similar concepts are further defined in the definition of "Sufficiently Mature Players". here:-


  16. @markb, the link didn't come through.

  17. @Trith - absolutely, the GM's job is to provide conflict and drama for the player characters. I think it'd be a particularly unpleasant and judgemental sort who thought "playing the game as written" was dickish.


    Well, these days. :)

  18. Off topic but- You have another blog?

  19. Nevermind - just saw post by others, so it's a multi-person thingy.

  20. Curu - this is Jac.'s blog. I'm loyal sidekick.

  21. The Starscream to her Megatron, if you will.

  22. LOL. I saw it more as Ryan-and-Esposito to her Castle-and-Beckett.


Popular Posts