In an open-ended tabletop RPG, game balance is sometimes hard to achieve, and, with an unlimited number of choices available to the players, a Game Breaker
is inevitable (especially if you have a Rules Lawyer
at your table). For this reason, most tabletop roleplaying games mention some version of Rule Zero: The Game Master is always right.
Rule Zero is simply a reminder to the players that the GM has to exercise some common sense and is permitted to supersede the rules when the rules would ruin enjoyment and fair play. While a GM has fiat to exercise Rule Zero at their table at will, they are reminded that excessive arbitrary use of this rule will eventually lead to an empty game table.
Can be worded very positively, as in "Rule Zero: if an interpretation of a rule is more fun, do that
" or very negatively, as in "Rule Zero: don't give the GM ideas
." How the rule is expressed is usually a good clue to the GM as to how far he can push it.
Sometimes the rule is expressed as:
Rule 1: The GM is always right.
Rule 2: If the GM is wrong, refer to rule 1.
"GM" is interchangeable with other authority figures.
is an example of excessive (ab)use of Rule Zero. Compare Because I Said So
and Screw the Rules, I Make Them!
, especially for other media.
- Mutants & Masterminds is notable for having a game mechanic for Rule Zero called "Gamemaster fiat". The Gamemaster is permitted to arbitrarily create setbacks to keep his story on track (such as having a hero slip and fall if he's about to catch the bad guy long before the adventure says he should) but requires that the Gamemaster award the hero a hero point (which players can spend later on to perform impressive feats normally beyond their abilities).
- Players can go a step further with "complications" which are specific recurring dramatic setbacks that a GM can use on a player that fit the player's character concept. A common example is the secret identity.
- Paranoia is notable in that it's one of the few tabletop games in which arbitrary use of Rule Zero is encouraged. The DM is allowed to fudge rolls, to let other plays fudge their rolls or fudge each other's rolls, and generally discard the rules as long as Rule of Fun is observed. The justifying reason for this caveat? Any player who tried to call the DM out on it would be acknowledging they have read the rules, which are above their security clearance. note
- B.A. From Knights of the Dinner Table averts this. He plays every rule for better or for worse. He eventually seized control of his game through the use of a GMPC and his control over non mechanical story elements (even in the PC's backstories.)
- To a degree, this is true of almost every GM in the Knights universe. A HackMaster GM is accredited by a national association before being allowed to run an "official" campaign. Years' worth of legal precedent have gone towards removing the concept of Rule Zero from accredited, tournament legal campaigns. After all, since tournaments usually involve opposing groups and characters competing against one another, it makes sense to ensure that they're all playing on the same page. This has evolved into the "Rules of Fair Play" doctrine, where all rules introduced into the campaign apply to both characters and NPCs without bias or discrimination, effectively removing a GM's judgment from the equation. This environment makes B.A., and other GMs, extremely creative umpires who arbitrate how invoked rules play out within their games.
- Weird Pete is the opposite extreme enforcing Rule Zero through demerits that can result in level loss and can only be undone by working them off in his gameshop unpaid.
- Averted in World of Synnibarr, which actually imposes limits on what the GM can and cannot do:
"Fate [the GM] has absolute control during the game regarding rolls and interpretation of the rules. Fate may not, however, deviate from the rules as they are written, for if he or she does and the players find out, then the adventure can be declared null, and the characters must be restored to their original condition, as they were before the game began."
"Players may attempt what is known as 'calling Fate.' This means that if a ruling is disputed by a player and he challenges Fate and is found to be absolutely correct, the player may receive double gaming points [XP] for the entire adventure."
- Dane from Statless And Tactless agrees to give up rule zero in relation to a player to get him to bring a friend. It doesn't go well.
- American Football has a few rules against "palpably unfair acts", which function as this (The NFL has Rule 12-3-3 for players and substitutes, and Rule 13-1-7 for non-players—see below for an example). They're not used very often, and when they are, it's usually an obvious case (such as a substitute running into the field from the sideline during a play and tackling the ball carrier), when the advantage gained by the offending team was so extreme that a lesser penalty would not be sufficient to mitigate it. In high school and college codes, it's even possible for the referees to declare the offending team to have forfeited.
NFL Rule 12-3-3: A player or substitute shall not interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair.
Penalty: for a palpably unfair act: Offender may be disqualified. The Referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and irrespective of any other specified code penalty. The Referee may award a score.
- Rule Zero is used often in games played by Mr Welch of Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG to protect the game from his more creative excesses. Usually, there is no rule stating he can't do what he wants to do. In general The Loonie is a Player Archetype that will often require the exercise of this rule to keep the game on track (though knowing when not to crush a Loonie's creativity with Rule Zero can be just as important).
- This is one reason why Magic: The Gathering has Loads and Loads of Rules: all official tournament referees are allowed to invoke Rule Zero if there is no precedent for how certain cards interact. Their decision then gets stuck in the big ol' list of errata/clarifications.
- In many sports, to prevent Rules Lawyers from abusing obscure loopholes, there's always a rule about how the officials/umpires/referees are the ultimate authority on the rules. One example is Major League Baseball, which has rule 9.01 (c), which states "Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules".
- Most countries have laws against very vague crimes like "disturbing the public peace". They function the same as the other examples: when you're obviously doing something wrong without breaking any other laws, you're breaking these.
- Panty Explosion Perfect averts this. The GM's role is very strictly defined and delimited. The GM can even have their own PC, with the only rule mod necessary to keep them from manipulating things in favor of their character being that someone else has to GM scenes where the GM's PC is the focus.