September 16, 2023

Rulings vs Rules. FKR meets OSR. A reflection on My referee style

Photo by Amanda Haller

There is always talk about rulings vs rules in the OSR world of gaming. I want to get my thoughts out about it. No really, here have my thoughts.

I always try to play a game as written first. Inevitably I come across something that I either cannot remember the rules for or something I feel just doesn’t add to the game.

My table trusts that I will make a ruling that is fair to us and the characters. They know I referee with fun in mind. I hate wasting time looking up rules, often we keep the ruling, though there have been times where upon reflection (as a group or just myself) we/I will determine that the written rule is more appropriate for our table. However, I do not dwell on the ruling made at the time, even if it might have had a major difference on the outcome, it is done and we move on.

Delving into rules vs. rulings… Art by Perplexing Ruins

I mostly play OSR adjacent games (I rarely make much fuss about the different styles of OSR at home with my group (please see this article I wrote for a more in depth discussion about the different styles of OSR if your interested.) So many times the rulings I make are founded in what I have gathered from other similar games anyway. There is often enough bleed over that my players really don’t even care [read as: notice] a change from one game to the next. I am the game’s master not the rules in the book.

OSR principals stem from a famous Dragon game [this is not to be confused with A Dragon Game (PWYW PDF, PWYW 2nd Ed. A Dungeon Game) which is lovely and you should check out] created by a few people in some cold state in the US where they are really fond of cheese, supposedly. You probably know the one I’m talking about… Lets head back in time a bit…. You could always watch this documentary for a full history of the famous dragon game, I think it’s pretty good.

Quick History Lesson

…in the beginning, Major David Wesley wanted to play a little game where individual players controlled a single character, which was a big departure from the hobby of wargaming which most of the individuals of this group played. Each player would describe what their character was doing throughout the story to be told. Dave Arneson took this a step further and decided to take the premise to a whole new level. This idea was then brought to a convention where Gary Gygax was also similarly working on his ruleset known as Chainmail (pdf and PoD through DrivethruRPG, just know that if you purchase this here you may be supporting WotC, buyer beware.)

Gary and Arneson took this idea of Role Playing from an inkling of a thought to the grand stage in a few short years. Gygax took over and pushed Arneson out of the picture at some point when creating the advanced rules that became the modern of stuff we know today. The point of bringing all of this up is to say that in the beginning there were no rules that everyone followed and knew when playing. Wesley, Arneson and eventually Gygax created the rules as they played.

Eventually as the advanced edition of the game came out Gygax saw an opportunity to create a more rules light version of the game that could draw in a younger generation of role-players. This game was the Basic edition which was later expanded into the Expert edition (and many other iterations beyond, BECMI is a reworking of the Basic/Expert (B/X) rules written later down the road). All this to say is that at some point B/X was born.

They still work as is, but OSE did make them easier to use.

Who Cares…

Well that little lesson was not really for much of anything except to say that the basis for a large portion of the OSR is based in this little B/X game. A similar movement known as the FKR goes back to the days of Wesley and Arneson creating rules as they play. I find my play style somewhere in the middle of these two movements. I often make rulings in the moment and then run with it.

My players seem to do well with this. In the FKR tradition (check out this quick search on to see a slew of resources in this style of FKR games this by no way an exhaustive list by any means) I let the players interact and play the world we are playing in (usually a module, because who has the time to prep new sessions?). Most of the time I read the module as we play, maybe a quick once over before the game. this means I do not prep my sessions and I definitely do not prep for the system I am running if it is different from the published module’s system. If a module is written for OSE or other B/X (PDF through DriveThruRPG, Free SRD) I have a pretty good understanding of the basic principals because there is common things across a lot of the OSR, even moving to and from Troika (SRD / Print) based games are pretty easy if you understand a few simple strategies, namely what the systems HP/Stamina is based on and then a basic understanding of the systems difficulty. I mostly play three stat games and it is never an issue to switch between these things at the table for me. This is probably a humble brag.

But why did I write this?

First off I needed to get back in the saddle, it has been too long since my quill has touched the vellum that these posts are written on.

But really why did I write this? I don’t really even think that this one was written for you, my dear friends, I am writing this one for me. I wonder sometimes why I jump through systems and play so many different things. So many games games are essentially the same for me by the time they hit my table. When I decide to run a game am I really running the game system? Bastards. is a bastardization of the many games I love. But when I run it I even change the procedures presented in the book to better suit my style and tastes for the table and world I am running.

Again I ask why did I write this? I guess its a reflection for myself. Its a confirmation [confession?] for myself that I play games my way and it doesn’t matter what the big Dragon game people think or the critters. I run my games for my people. We have lots of fun and enjoy what we do, getting to tell the stories we enjoy. There is not a single way to play the game. I prefer rules light or maybe even minimalist, (and for a deep dive of these principals check out these two posts from Alan Bahr of Gallant Knight Games; Brain Stew Mechanics Communicating and Brain Stew: More Mechanics/Procedure, Pointless Definition, and Lots.) because anything else I can make up at the table. Give me a couple d6 or a few d20s. I can figure out how to roll with the punches and give my players a good time.

Derek Bizier, the Introspective Halfling Master

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