Player's Handbook

What is the Most Important RPG Rule?

Role-playing games are filled with rules, sometimes spanning dozens of different books and supplements. However, most games lead off with some note in the preface that highlights the most important rule. This is Rule 0, and it’s usually there so everybody remembers to have fun. What Rule 0 is, though, varies from game to game and person to person.

The Origins of Rule 0

Most people attribute the origin of Rule 0 in RPGs to trace back to the first RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Over time, folks have generally interpreted it as some variation of, “The DM is always right.” I can’t find any rule that says that in the original books, although the general vibe is definitely there.

D&D has traditionally been a messy system, with lots of vaguely-worded rules and plenty of room for interpretation. The original game was cobbled together from at least two other different gaming systems. It included odd little asides like, “the Charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover,” despite the fact that witches never got brought up again. In that regard, there had to be somebody at the helm modifying and interpreting the rules, so the idea of the DM always being right was probably a way to minimize arguments at the table.

At the same time, the creators of D&D sometimes took issue with the idea that others might interpret their game differently. For example, in an editorial in The Dragon #16, co-creator Gary Gygax railed against the common house rule of doing double damage on a natural 20, saying, “The ‘critical hit’ or ‘double damage’ on a ‘to hit’ die roll of 20 is particularly offensive to the precepts of D&D.”

Despite most people’s accounts, the idea of a Rule 0 in original D&D isn’t really clearly stated in the rules. The closest I could find was Gygax’s afterword in the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, where he states, “Within the broad parameters give in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Volumes, YOU are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a WHOLE first, your CAMPAIGN next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do.”

But then again, this is the same guy who, both before and after the publication of that book, railed against people house ruling his system. There’s one thing for sure about early D&D: it changed frequently. Even the creators’ own thoughts changed on the game rapidly and without warning.

Notable Uses of Rule 0

D&D finally explicitly spelled out its most important rule in 1981 with its red basic box. And, despite many people’s incorrect remembrances, it had nothing to do with the DM always being right. Instead, the rule read as such: “There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this: BE FAIR.”

Of course, D&D isn’t the only RPG that has a “most important rule” at the front of the book. Most of them have something akin to, “Have fun,” or, “Be fair.” But there are a couple of notable exceptions…

Paranoia: The Paranoia RPG is an experience. I don’t even know how to explain it properly. And, according to the rulebook, that’s a good thing. See, the first instructions a Game Master in Paranoia receives is as follows:

“Oh fortunate one, most trusted of The Computer’s servants, you are Clearance ULTRAVIOLET and therefore may read this entire book. Read the Player section first so you know what your players know, then read the rest. You don’t have to memorize anything; PARANOIA is a game of freewheeling improvisation, and you can revise, upgrade, ditch or bluff about any rule as you go along. Player’s can’t argue with you—they’re not allowed to show they know the rules.”

Pathfinder: Pathfinder is derived from 3rd edition D&D, which itself has a whole library of compatible alternate material thanks to an open license. So it’s perhaps significant that the designers of Pathfinder changed up the most important rule is the following way:

“The rules in this book are here to help you breathe life into your characters and the world they explore. While they are designed to make your game easy and exciting, you might find that some of them do not suit the style of play that your gaming group enjoys. Remember that these rules are yours. You can change them to fit your needs. Most Game Masters have a number of ‘house rules’ that they use in their games. The Game Master and players should always discuss any rules changes to make sure that everyone understands how the game will be played. Although the Game Master is the final arbiter of the rules, the Pathfinder RPG is a shared experience, and all of the players should contribute their thoughts when the rules are in doubt.”

This is a bit of a step away from the commonly misquoted Rule 0 of “the GM is always right,” since it specifically calls for a discussion between players and the GM.

My Rule 0 Introduction

I came into RPGs through the D&D black box that came out in 1991. For the most part, it follows the same Rule 0 formula as its 1981 predecessor, specifically saying that fairness is the most important thing for a DM to remember. However, it also has another valuable rule hidden later on in its tutorial.

The 1991 basic set introduces the game through a solo adventure that alternates between one page of rules and one page of adventure. It ends with a section titled, “What is the Last Rule?” And that last rule, I think, is just as valuable as the most important rule:

When you don’t know what to do, make something up!

This gets illustrated in the Choose Your Own Adventure style solo dungeon when your PC’s companion literally pulls the rug out from beneath the orcs:

Adelle's Unexpected Action

The idea that any ruling can work as long as everybody has fun and the game keeps moving has always stuck with me. It’s more or less defined my GMing style, which sometimes falls more into the realm of sketch comedy than refereeing a game.

My Rule 0 Addition

If I were writing my own RPG or book of gaming advice, I would have my own most important rule to add:

Enthusiasm trumps accuracy.

When it comes to running games, I am a flawed GM. I often forget the rules or spontaneously decide I don’t want to use a rule. I go off on a lot of tangents. I do little preparation and often create needlessly complex plots. Despite all that, my players usually have a good time. A large part of that is because I throw myself in the game, embracing all its wackiness and flaws.

This could mean doing stupid voices, capering about like a deranged goblin, or just showing passion as you carve out the story. You don’t have to make a fool out of yourself, although it doesn’t hurt.

I’ve run some great games, and I’ve run some horrible ones. The horrible ones almost universally happen when I’m low on energy, distracted, or spending too much time muddling through the rules. The great ones come when I dive right in and drag the players along with me.

I disagree with people who quite Rule 0 as, “the GM is always right.” I’m often a GM – trust me, I’m not always (or even usually) right. But I do know that if you tackle the game with as much energy as you can muster, folks will have too much fun to care about all the mistakes you make along the way.


Featured Image: Hubert Figuiere

About Charlie Brooks

Charlie Brooks is an author, blogger, and game designer. His latest novel, Conquest of Greystone Valley, is on sale now.

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