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In many a Tabletop RPG, game balance is sometimes hard to achieve, since there is an unlimited number of choices available to the players. In such a situation, it's inevitable that there's going to be a Game-Breaker, strange applications of the mechanics by the Rules Lawyer, and things which are done in such a way that it's clearly Not the Intended Use. For these reasons, to protect the sanity and well-being of the average Game Master, most tabletop roleplaying games include some version of the following rule:

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The Game Master is always right.

Rule Zero (as this is frequently called, hence the [Trope Name]) is a reminder to the players that the GM of any tabletop game has to exercise some common sense, and is permitted to supersede the rules when the rules would ruin enjoyment and fair play. You could cite all the rules and mechanics you want that said you just one-shotted the Big Bad by using the best weapon in the game to invoke the Chunky Salsa Rule; too bad. If the GM says it didn't happen, then it didn't happen. Period.

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 - also known as "Rule -1: The GM is not always right, but what the GM says goes. If they say enough stupid stuff, the players will go as well".

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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 they 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.

Railroading 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.


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Examples:

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    Comic Strips 
  • Knights of the Dinner Table:
    • B.A. From 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.

    Sports 
  • American Football has a few rules against "palpably unfair acts", which function as the referees having fiat to make a judgement call on anything that they deem unfair but isn't specifically against any one rule. They're not used very often, and when they are, it's usually an obvious case when the advantage gained by the offending team was so extreme that a lesser penalty would not be sufficient to mitigate it (such as somebody running onto the field from the sidelines and tackling the guy with the ball).
    • In high school and college, this can go as far as the referees declaring the offending team has instantly lost the game. The NFL doesn't allow that, but the refs can award the penalized team with whatever they think is appropriate, up to and including a touchdown. However, Rule 17 does allow the NFL Commissioner to say that a team lost, regardless of the score. The Commissioner may also order the entire game to be replayed, or to be replayed starting from the moment of an unfair act. However, this power has never been used; it's considered unlikely that there will ever be any act of cheating so extreme that an NFL Commissioner would be willing to overturn the results on the field.
      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.
    • The NFL also has the penalty of "extraordinarily unfair act". It's basically the same as a "palpably unfair act", but more extreme and thus allowing for penalties beyond the game in which it occurred. In this case, the team can be fined and/or have draft picks revoked, and the player(s) involved can be suspended for however many games the NFL Commissioner deems appropriate.
    • A specific example that's given of what constitutes a "palpably unfair act" is the defense repeatedly committing penalties near their own goal line to prevent scoring. "Half the distance to the goal" is a trivial penalty when the distance to the goal is only about a yard. But if a team is deemed by the referees to be doing this intentionally on multiple plays in a row, they can give the offensive team an automatic touchdown. In the NFL, this can only happen for fouls committed after the officials warn the defense that they're suspected of intentionally fouling.
  • 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 8.01(c), which states "Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules".
    • This is prevalent in Mixed Martial Arts, still a very young sport that's trying to tweak rules as the years go by and fighters look to abuse loopholes in the Unified Rules, or clarify exactly what is legal/illegal. This is often left to the referee to make split second decisions during a fight based on their understanding of the rules:
      • Grabbing the fence is illegal, but pressing your hand against the fence is not. Where exactly the point is between grabbing it and your hand's natural curl is left up to the ref. Additionally, the rule was thought for years to only apply to hands/fingers, not feet/toes, and it was a common sight to see someone grabbing the fence with their feet. Recently, many referees have started cracking down on this practice too.
      • It's illegal to hit the back of the head, but what point is exactly the back of the head can vary depending on head types and the referee's discretion. The general rule is anything past the "headphone" area, but with people punching fast and people moving their head to avoid damage, the ref needs to make a judgment call on whether or not a blow went too far or whether it was an unavoidable accident, etc.
      • The three point rule for kicks/knees to the head has become a loophole abused by a controlled fighter to avoid being pummeled, putting down just the tip of a finger to the ground, making the blows illegal. Many refs are now letting kicks and knees go if the opponent is only skirting by on the rule by a technicality. Additionally, the ref has to make the decision in case of a hand going down while the kick/knee is in motion whether or not the blow was intentionally illegal.
      • The "12 to 6" downward elbow strike is illegal (due to ignorance when the rules were made, thinking this was some kind of killing power based on karate demonstration trickery), but any other variation is legal (i.e., "1 to 7" which is barely a degree off), and a ref will have to determine angle legality, along with moving heads and arms and whatnot, to determine if the movie was legal or not.
  • Rugby Union's laws has a long list of what is defined by "dangerous play and misconduct", one of which is that players must not commit "acts contrary to good sportsmanship".

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Trope Namer for Rule Zero is Dungeons & Dragons. While D&D may not have been the first tabletop roleplaying game, it certainly codified many of the mechanics and tropes associated with them. Generally speaking, the DM has final say on anything that happens in the campaign; they determine what the players roll, how often they roll, and resolve any disputes between the players and the rules. While it's a meme in D&D circles that one player always insists on following the rules as written only when it benefits him, the DM is the ultimate authority for their world. There's even notes on the Dungeon Master's Guide for Fifth Edition about how to apply Rule Zero, as well as general advice on how to be a good DM.
    Before you add a new rule to your campaign, ask yourself two questions: "Will the rule improve the game?" (and) "Will my players like it?" If you're confident that the answer to both questions is "yes", then you have nothing to lose by giving it a try. Urge your players to provide feedback. If the rule or game element isn't functioning as intended or isn't adding much to your game, you can refine it or ditch it. No matter what a rule's source, a rule serves you, not the other way around.
  • 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.
  • OnlyWar directly specifies early in the general rules section that the Game Master should exercise common sense and discretion to make things work ideally and many rules refer to "Game Masters' Discretion" for things where any specific rule set would be impractical.
  • Paranoia is notable in that it's one of the few tabletop games in which arbitrary use of Rule Zero is encouraged. The GM 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 GM out on it would be acknowledging they have read the rules, which are above their security clearance. note 
    GM Rule #1. You are IN CHARGE. You are ALWAYS RIGHT.

    We give you these rules as guidance. Use them when you do not know what you’d like to have happen in the game. When you do know, ignore them. We have tried to make the rules as helpful and powerful as we can, but if you don’t like a rule, the rule is wrong. Good rules help a lot but bad rules were made to be broken, tortured, lobotomized and summarily executed. Dice are handy for giving players the illusion they control their destiny. This is valuable but roll your dice out of the players’ sight, behind a screen. If a die roll gives you a result you don’t like, the die is wrong. Change the result to the number you want. You can dock the die credits or beat it up, though in our experience this has little effect.
    • Emphasis not added. That's how it is in the book.
  • Magic: The Gathering:
    • This is one reason why MTG 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 list of errata/clarifications.
    • In tournaments, the head judge has the power to make any ruling he wants, and his word will be final, even if he turns out to be wrong (i.e. even if the decision was actually against the official rules of the game, whatever the head judge of a tournament says goes, and that's that). The only recourse a player has if they don't like what the head judge ruled is to make a complaint afterwards. And while these types of incorrect rulings do happen, such a thing is quite rare.
  • Subverted with Munchkin, which has a Rule Zero that rule in the rulebook that reads "Any other disputes should be settled by loud arguments," followed by a Double Subversion, adding "with the owner of the game having the last word."
  • Played with in Arcanik. While Rule Zero still applies, players are capable of using the "Ingenuity System" in response to it. The system allows players to combine skills, attribute scores, and so on to create a ridiculously high skill roll that is almost guaranteed to succeed at whatever the problem is. The catch is that all of those numbers must be combined into a stupid plan that has no chance of working otherwise.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • The game Monster Horrorshow was a brief blip on the radar in the 1980s for tabletop gaming. But its manual gave what is thought to be the best advice ever on how to be a good GM: "give your players a good time".

    Web Original 
  • In Destroy the Godmodder, the GM always has the last word on if an attack, charge, entity, sidequest, or plotline can go through. Always.
  • 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.
  • 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).

    Other 
  • 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.
  • The English common law system more or less functions this way, at least with regard to civil matters; in general, people are expected to conduct themselves reasonably, and legal artifices or loopholes tend to be disregarded when making judgments.
  • Adult authority figures routinely dealing with children and teenagers will invoke this conjunction with Screw the Rules, I Make Them!, namely for three reasons. First, no authority figure can foresee every possible situation and will have to adjudicate accordingly. Second, this is a way to deal with a real life Rules Lawyer, especially those that argue every detail and word of a rule. Third, this is used to punish those who "creatively" interpret rules, instructions or bans with Loophole Abuse or Exact Words.


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