A rules system is not a grail. It's a system that should be subsumed by the play of the game, not something we pride ourselves in using or are aware of on any level while immersed in a fantasy realm.
So sayeth E. N. Shook over at “Lord of the Green Dragon”, in a rather long post warning against the onset of fundamentalism within the old school movement and the rise of the rules lawyers. Such matters have been on my mind lately as I work on my Labyrinth Lord game because it is, in part, a teaching experience for me. Every new campaign has a bit of that, but in this one it's more noticeably than most. So now I'm thinking about how I run a game in ways I haven't before. Is there a system? Is it reproducible? Or is there just a vague sort of “this feels right” going on, something that shifts and changes with events?
I've mentioned before the lack of fairness in those old rules. There's no safety railing in Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord. The outdoor wandering monster tables can decree a red dragon as easily as they can a pair of lost kobolds. On the face of it, this implies a certain callousness, and you can certainly play the game that way. I think that's a bit of what Ryan at “Save vs. Poison” was seeing. “I think he was just running the game with strict impartiality,” he says in the comments. Me, I'm not even close to impartial. I'll be the first to admit it. In many cases, I'll give my players the benefit of the doubt. “Say yes, or roll the dice.” Hell, you could even accuse me of coming close to embracing the Rule of Cool.
Here's an example. Say I roll up a red dragon as a wandering monster. The players have many choices. They can ply the dragon with flattery and offer it half their treasure. That's probably a fairly standard way of dealing with a wandering dragon, and so long as they don't annoy the beast, I'd probably not roll, though the dragon would also probably snort and sniff and squeeze until it got 75% of their coins and jewelry. Maybe the PCs attempt to escape by diving into a nearby river. That's a clever idea, and I'd probably say the dragon doesn't pursue, though now they've got to survive the river instead. But if they come up with something completely unique, extremely clever, or surprising, I'm likely to let them get away with it. In short, if they do something that amuses and entertains the DM, the DM is more likely to reward them with success, or at least more favorable odds.
Horribly arbitrary? Yes, though nobody has ever accused me of it. I like to think that my decisions have been reasonable, consistent, and preserve verisimilitude. My players have often said so. But I'll be the first to admit that a different DM with a different set of expectations and interests might have reacted completely differently. I've played with DMs who would have been delighted by a sudden, chipper invitation to the dragon to come back to town for ice cream. In those games, even if the PC didn't make a friend for life, they at least would have ended their encounter with the dragon with their bodies and treasure intact. In most of my campaigns, the dragon would have purged the world of such an anachronistic twit with flame and fang.
But that's not the greatest example anyway, because one thing that is consistent and potentially reproducible about how I DM is my constantly asking why. Why is this dragon bothering with the PCs? Is it hungry? Or in need of knowledge they might possess? Does the dragon see them as a potential threat? Or as the possible solution to a problem? Does it just enjoy making mortals soil their breeches in terror? Does it think they've stolen something from it? Does it want to send a message to someone else? How the players interact with the answers to that question is where the fun happens