Tabletop RPG design is a young practice, and designers in every genre and format are learning more about how people play games as they go. There is a universal truth, though, that every gaming group is different, and when it comes to facilitated games (i.e. those with a GM), the people who run the game will make a huge difference in the overall experience. On the internet, though, a massive logical leap is often made, leading to a fallacious and all too familiar rallying cry: “Every Game is Good with a Good GM!” A technically true sentence, this phrase has no purpose in discussions of game design other than to shut down criticism.
Even the most level-headed gamers can fall victim to this logical trap. I encountered an instance of this argument with a friend of mine who both has years of gaming experience and is a game designer himself. We were sharing our experiences with Exalted, the oft-maligned White Wolf game of nearly godlike beings and the crazy world of Creation where they live. After telling my friend about the mess we made of the mechanics, he responded “it’s good with a good GM, our GM gets the mechanics out of the way.” And this illustrates the two main problems with the statement. First, you aren’t a bad GM if you struggle with complex mechanics, especially if said mechanics are poorly written. Second, if what’s needed to run a good game in a system is to ignore or downplay the rules…why use that system in the first place?
One thing that has made critique of role-playing games as a medium so difficult is that the way each person runs a game will be different. When one GM struggles with applying encumbrance rules and another decides, based on their previous experience, to ignore them, the two will necessarily disagree on the inherent goodness or badness of said rules. And to be fair, ability to ignore rules is itself a feature; GURPS couldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that rules in the book don’t have to be in your game. If we’re going to try to critique a game in a balanced way, though, ultimately that critique will have to be based on rules-as-written. And one can praise the fact that rules can be ignored or scaled while also decrying the fact that the rules also *have to be* ignored or scaled because they’re hard to use.
Let’s go back to the encumbrance example. Encumbrance in Dungeons and Dragons is mostly ignored. It’s ignored because the rules aren’t interesting, and the in-character lift to buy a horse and cart instead of worrying about the weight of your treasure haul is low enough that everyone does it. If you look at Torchbearer, in comparison, you have an encumbrance system which is very much designed to be part of the game, is interesting to use, and presents meaningful in-game choices. It is not a giant leap to say that Torchbearer has a better encumbrance system than Dungeons and Dragons; Torchbearer has a better encumbrance system than most games I’ve played, in fact. But to the original point, saying that a good GM knows how to get around D&D’s encumbrance system is not a useful counter-argument to the statement that D&D doesn’t have a very good one.
The tenacity of this logical fallacy is somewhat D&D’s fault, really. For a number of reasons (Jon Peterson gets into it better than I can) Dungeons and Dragons has been a near-monopolistic presence in the role-playing world since it was created. When the first role-playing game ever becomes the most popular, there are some problems which carry over. Both due to its wargame forebears and having a designer who started with hacks and modifications of wargames as opposed to professional publishing meant that the very first release of Dungeons and Dragons was, rules-as-written, somewhere between barely playable and unplayable. This wasn’t actually a problem to most people, in fact it likely contributed to the game’s dominance as communities came together to fill in the blanks and build out their play experiences. As D&D evolved it became much better designed but stayed light, continuing to encourage players to fill in the blanks either with house rules or their own case-by-case judgment. It’s important to understand, though, that leaving something open to interpretation is a game design decision which presents an absence of rules as opposed to the presence of a rule or rules.
As the hobby has developed and progressed, more rulesets have attempted to be comprehensive in terms of the rules they use. There have been two responses to that; the OSR movement wanted to return to how things were with earlier games like Basic D&D while the Indie RPG movement posited that a game should only have rules which are important for the experience that the game wants to present. These movements, generally, fall on two completely different sides of the continuum of GM and game rules as the core determinants of play experience. This is of course a simplification, but the split into two very different design philosophies among new games today is quite real.
Ultimately, the importance one should place on rules depends a lot on what is being achieved through a given game. There are very few games out there which are so bad that they shouldn’t be played . Exalted is a mess, but that doesn’t prevent people from enjoying it. Even the game in the header image is playable, in a manner of speaking. When it comes to my personal gaming, I’m willing to play pretty much anything if someone else is running. If I’m running games, though, and more importantly if I’m reviewing games, I find it more important to take a broader and more critical view. When I review Kickstarters, campaigns which show ignorance of the diversity inherent in the gaming ecosystem are some of the first to get kicked out without a closer read. This isn’t because they’re bad, in fact, I’d venture to say that figuring out if a game is good or bad from its Kickstarter campaign is impossible (one reason why quickstarts are so valuable). It’s because a game which ventures to imitate D&D with a few changes, or with nothing more than more classes and races, is not worth the cost to publish it, or at least not worth it for well-intentioned gamers to take a risk on.
And this goes back to why “Any Game is Good with a Good GM” is both technically true and yet corrosive to the hobby. The mainstream of role-playing has changed very little and very slowly in the last 45 years. When you compare Basic D&D to D&D 5e, it’s obvious that they’re the same game. When you look at the games which have actually threatened D&D in any real market share capacity (Pathfinder doesn’t count, there’s no design argument which makes it anything other than a version of D&D), you’re still looking at games which use the same traditional structure and the same paradigm (the rules emulate the world around characters, which are defined by literal concepts like strength and intellect) as D&D. At the same time, there is an amazing ecosystem being developed, covering genres and modes of play which many gamers have never even heard of. This contingent, mostly designers who either need a day job or are barely getting by, is the one pushing the hobby in general towards more breadth, accessibility, and innovation. There are profoundly original games coming out all the time but the top sellers all have roots in mechanics which are decades old, with only a few exceptions. The market is being pushed forward, but slowly, and the only ways to help are either to cast a critical eye towards that market or to just start designing games yourself.
The point of assessing and criticizing games is not to denigrate people who have fun with them. Flaws that some simply can’t overlook are barely noticeable to others, and forgettable features to some are mindblowingly awesome to others. Rather, it’s important as designers and consumers of games to acknowledge that role-playing games are an evolving medium, and to identify what we like, what we don’t like, and what we think we can do better. Refusing to engage with rules discussion and elevating the GM to the position of sole arbiter of fun is flawed, but unfortunately it’s easy and becoming easier. As an example, there isn’t much about how D&D is structured which makes it good performance art but good Actual Play GMs are adept at sweeping that reality behind the curtain. Aligned with the same logical shortcut as “Any Game is Good with a Good GM”, I frequently hear “D&D doesn’t actually look like Critical Role”. Why isn’t it a valid question to ask why it doesn’t? Why aren’t there rulesets which encourage theatrical play if that’s what people are interested in? We can absolutely do things differently, and just shrugging and saying that it’s up to the GM (whether that’s your GM or Matt Mercer) is kicking the can down the road in the worst way.
It may not require this many words to say that people should question the way things are. In this day and age, though, it bears repeating. Running games in spite of the rules may have never been ideal, but two decades into the twenty-first century there’s really no reason it still needs to be tolerated. I’m not saying you shouldn’t run games with rules quirks, I ran Cyberpunk 2020 consistently for nearly a decade and I daresay I enjoyed it. But if you’re going to really think about how to make your games better, you should probably have a more productive response to a criticism of your favorite game than “well, any game is good with a good GM.” If you can’t think of something profound to say, you can always start with “in spite of that, I like it anyway.”