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Dungeons & Dragons "Spirit of the Game"

Updated: Jan 28

A look at Gary Gygax's "Spirit of the Game" afterword in Dungeons & Dungeons Dungeon Masters Guide.


By R. Nelson Bailey



Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons, spirit of the game


Gary Gygax’s afterword to the Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 230) begins with the well-known quote: “IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT.” This sentence, which encapsulates the essence of Dungeon Mastering, is often interpreted as the co-creator of the game giving tacit permission to play how one wishes. To disregard those rules that hamper gameplay or offend one’s sensibilities. That the rules are subservient to having fun playing the game. However, careful reading of the entire passage revels that is not its intended meaning. Gygax’s afterward serves as a warning for the DM to avoid letting their players undermine their authority and campaign. The Players Handbook (p. 8) expresses a similar sentiment: “THE REFEREE IS THE FINAL ARBITER OF ALL AFFAIRS OF HIS OR HER CAMPAIGN.” This paragraph informs the DM that, as creator and guide of the game, all decisions lie with them, not the players. The DM should not be talked into rulings that go against the “spirit of the game”, i.e., those boundaries previously established in the DM’s campaign and within the published rules. Stay firm in your decisions once you have made them, and don’t let “rules lawyers” (see below) sway your better judgment. The DM should conform to the rules of the game system, but when they are unsure of the intent of a specific rule and must decide for themselves, they must be consistent with that judgment.

 

“IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD TO THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULE BOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME. AS YOU HEW THE LINE WITH RESPECT TO CONFORMITY TO MAJOR SYSTEMS AND UNIFORMITY OF PLAY IN GENERAL, ALSO BE CERTAIN THE GAME IS MASTERED BY YOU AND NOT BY YOUR PLAYERS. WITHIN THE BROAD PARAMETERS GIVEN IN THE ADVANCED DUNGEONS & 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 & DRAGONS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. MAY YOU FIND AS MUCH PLEASURE IN SO DOING AS THE REST OF US DO!”

What is a rules lawyer? A “rules lawyer” is a player that points out misapplied rules during game play, even noting the book and page where the text is found. There are two types of rules lawyers: the “helpful” and the “selfish”. The former points out the rules of the game that the DM or other players omit, forget, or misinterpret. This is often a good thing since few can remember all the rules. They desire to make the game a good experience for all, thus want to abide by the rules and be consistent with their interpretation. Example: A player who informs the DM what the maximum number of charges a wand can have, and where in the rulebook this is noted.

 

The latter type is the same as the former, except that their motivation is purely of self-interest. This is the type of “rules lawyer” Gygax warns DMs about. This player protests loudly and vehemently when the DM invokes a rule that would be detrimental to their character. Conversely, they conveniently stay silent when the DM forgets a rule that is to their benefit. When there is an issue, they open up the rulebook, stab a finger at the paragraph that supports their argument, and go on at length to explain how the DM has violated the rule. They use the letter of the rules to bully a favorable judgment out of the DM. Example: The party finds a wand with 20 charges. The selfish rules lawyer pops open the DMG to page 132 and informs the DM that wands are found with 81 to 100 charges. Therefore, the DM is not following the rules and must give them more charges.

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