Ask The GM: What About Silly Rules?

By John Serpico on

 

Ben asks – What is the silliest or most absurd rule that you enforce as a GM?

Ben, let’s first define “silly.” There are plenty of bad or cumbersome rules (see my column about encumbrance), but I tend to categorize them as “crappy” instead of “silly.” Silly and absurd, for me, have positive connotations when it comes to gaming, whereas “crappy” or “cumbersome” or “sloppy” do not. I’ll use a dungeon puzzle example to illustrate. A silly dungeon puzzle would be a door that, whenever you knock on it, would extend a ghostly hand and slap you across the face. The only way to open the door would be to slap the lion’s head-shaped doorknob across the face. A “crappy” dungeon puzzle would be a door that deals shock damage to a character until that character happens to luck into the right number of times to knock on the door.

I’m talking about a puzzle and not a rule, but you can see the difference between “silly” and “crappy.” Silly is fun and whimsical. Crappy is lazy and arbitrary. Alright, now that those definitions are taken care of, let’s talk turkey. In my mind there are two kinds of silly rules. The first are rules that are silly because they make the players do goofy or comfort zone-stretching stuff. The second are rules that make the characters do goofy or levity-adding things. I like both types of silly, if applied correctly, and my favorite silly rule I enforce has a foot in each category.

The particular rule is from the game Feng Shui, designed by “guy who does everything” Robin Laws about twenty years ago. It’s a wonderfully fun system that very smoothly creates Hong Kong action movie-style tabletop gaming. The mechanics are simple and the GM and players contribute equally to a shared, exciting narrative full of martial arts masters, maverick cops, and skateboard-riding teenage hackers. Embedded in the user-friendly rulebook is a note that if a player spends an action in combat cocking a shotgun by physically miming cocking a shotgun and making a “cha-chunk” sound, that shotgun will get bonus damage the next time it is fired.

Amazing, right? I absolutely enforce, and encourage, the use of that rule because it brings the players that much closer to the action and it is in complete service of the game’s genre. It’s silly but at the same time not silly at all. Having a pair of bloodied and bruised detectives pinned down behind a granite-topped kitchen island in a Triad kingpin’s mansion stare at each other knowingly and rack fresh shells into their combat shotguns before jumping up to retire fire is a heck of a lot more fun and immersive than your players saying “I use my action to get up and shoot.”

So yes, that is the silliest rule I enforce as a GM. But I want to expand my answer just a bit more. It’s not a rule, per se, but I enforce players staying in character in dramatic situations for the same reason I enforce people cocking shotguns with mouth noises – it strengthens the connection between the players and the game. Table talk and cracking jokes and ordering pizza is fine, but if the characters are in the provincial capital about to tell the duke that they were unable to save his son from warlock, I insist everybody lock themselves into character and really experience that moment. When you are deciding whether to enforce a rule or how strictly to enforce a rule, use the “does it make the game better, sillier or more immersive” question as a measure. Whenever I real a rulebook for the first time, I make my decision through that lens.

Happy GMing!

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One comment

  1. I am known in our D&D circle as the guy who screws his own party over for bringing up rules that are bad for us, stuff that may not be fun but is important to creating challenging encounters. Stuff like morale checks in big battles, duration of spells, and whether or not being jostled in a sack on an ogre counts as rest.

    I am not as vilified as you think. The GM chooses what’s worth enforcing and it usually works out.

    My favorite one was where my friend (and the writer of this article) used his horse for cover from goblin archers. My question:

    “Shouldn’t the horse be taking damage from some of these arrows?”

    The stunned looks from the entire table was worth it. The horse was fine.

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