Saturday, August 28, 2010

"We Always Ignored That Rule"

It will come as a surprise to no one that I have some pet peeves when it comes to discussing the history of RPG rules, particularly the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. One of the biggest ones usually manifests itself like this: I'll start talking about a certain rule, say weapon vs. armor class adjustment, and I'll express some bafflement as to how the rule was supposed to work or why it was presented in the fashion it was. In reply, my interlocutor will say simply, "We always ignored that rule," as if that answers my questions.

Now, I expect that, in any given RPG, there are large numbers of rules that get ignored, for a wide variety of reasons, from ignorance to laziness to outright disagreement about the utility of the rule in question. I don't have any problem with this fact, speaking as someone who's ignored more than his fair share of RPG rules over the years. My beef is more with the notion that, because a given rule is easily ignorable and likely was ignored by a lot of gamers that it's not worth discussing or trying to figure out why it was included in the game and what the designer hoped to achieve by doing so.

A related peeve of mine pertains to the so-called "Rule Zero." I have no clue where this term first originated, but I suspect it's a fairly recent coinage. According to popular usage, it refers to the supreme authority of the referee to change anything he wishes in his campaign, including the game rules. Now, I don't have any particular problem with Rule Zero as such; I question why it's necessary to codify it at all, let alone in such a goofy way (I am unhappily reminded of Asimov's "Zeroth" Law of Robotics). What bugs me about it is the way that it too is often used to short circuit discussions of odd rules in RPGs. Say I want to talk about the rather low demihuman level limits in OD&D and what its implications for the implied setting of the game and my interlocutor replies, "Well, the LBBs were only intended as a framework to be changed as the referee desires, so I don't think you can draw any conclusions from the way the rules were written." I think it's possible to admit the first clause of that reply without conceding to the second; otherwise, one wonders why any rules were needed at all.

I enjoy delving into the whys and wherefores of game rules. I hold the possibly ridiculous notion that rules aren't included in a game "just because." They're all there for a reason, even -- perhaps especially -- bad rules. Understanding why they're there is not only interesting in its own right, but it also provides firmer ground on which to modify or reject existing rules. That's why I can get worked up when I hear, "We always ignored that rule" or "The referee can change it, so why worry about it?" Call it a weakness of mine, but there it is.

42 comments:

  1. James said:

    My beef is more with the notion that, because a given rule is easily ignorable and likely was ignored by a lot of gamers that it's not worth discussing or trying to figure out why it was included in the game and what the designer hoped to achieve by doing so.


    I agree completely, James. Over the years of running AD&D, as I've re-examined rules that I ignored or modified as a kid, as a teenage, and as a younger adult, I've found---in many instances---that upon reflection and analysis of the impact of the rule within the scope of the full set of rules, that it often does have a place, and often as-is without modification.

    I think that AD&D's richness demands that good DMs re-evaluate the system periodically, as their maturity and skill increases, as well as their familiarity with the rules and why and how they're present in the first place.

    Allan.

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  2. Great post. Looking at the rules I thought I knew, with older eyes, is revelatory. Simply hand-waving things as unimportant or ignorable is an opportunity for understanding that is missed.

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  3. I hold the possibly ridiculous notion that rules aren't included in a game "just because." They're all there for a reason, even -- perhaps especially -- bad rules.

    Mmmm... I'm not convinced that all rules are there for a reason, or, more precisely, that there is a well thought-out reason behind each and every rule. I've sometimes had the impression that these discussions, interesting as they are (and they really are), are discovering (read: "inventing") order behind rules that, in at least some cases, were just quickie decisions based on the authors' campaigns or "what seemed right" at the moment of writing.

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  4. I've sometimes had the impression that these discussions, interesting as they are (and they really are), are discovering (read: "inventing") order behind rules that, in at least some cases, were just quickie decisions based on the authors' campaigns or "what seemed right" at the moment of writing.

    But even that is a reason, isn't it? I'm not arguing that every rule is, as presented, a good one. I'm only saying that I think gamers are often too quick to dismiss a rule they don't like/understand as unimportant without taking the time to see if that's really the case.

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  5. I'm only saying that I think gamers are often too quick to dismiss a rule they don't like/understand as unimportant without taking the time to see if that's really the case.

    That I agree completely with. I use a cooking analogy: I like to work with a new recipe until I feel I understand it, before I start varying it. I then feel I have a firmer foundation on which to start changing things. Same with game rules.

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  6. I hold the possibly ridiculous notion that rules aren't included in a game "just because." They're all there for a reason, even -- perhaps especially -- bad rules.


    Yes, I totally agree. Bad rules, as in "not fitting the rest of the game" are just badly implemented or written, but the reason they're added lies somewhere unseen to our eyes. It's like ignoring a paragraph of a book because we don't agree with it. I don't mean we have to use all the rules all the time, but we should at least think about both using and not using them.

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  7. In general, RPGs (at least the ones I've worked on) are subjected to tremendous amounts of playtesting. It tends to be rather generic playtesting, however, not the focused testing that, say, a computer game receives. That is, the game gets a lot of play, but individual rules are seldom isolated for special, intense examination and intentional abuse to betray their peculiar weaknesses. The upshot is that something which seems like a good idea in casual play or in a rather narrowly-defined set of circumstances can be revealed as shockingly broken when someone really stretches the envelope with it.

    I suspect that was the case with the weapon-vs-armor table. It was a nice nod backward to the "Man-to-Man Melee Table" from Chainmail. In proper, narrowly-defined circumstances--such as when creatures that wear armor and use weapons fight other, similar creatures--it added interesting tactical choices and color to the scene. Outside of that context, it was worse than useless; it brought play nearly to a halt while everyone struggled to fit the situation's square pegs into the table's round holes.

    Back in the day, SPI used to put Designer's Notes into wargames so the designers could explain why they rated British artillery higher than French artillery or cut off the Dnepr 200 miles short of Smolensk. This was always the first part of the rules I read. You might not agree with the designer's reasoning, but at least you knew what they were thinking. RPG designers ought to do the same thing. Some do, actually, and I always appreciate it. I just wish the practice were more widespread.

    Steve

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  8. The term "Rule Zero" comes from the 3rd edition (A)D&D Player's Handbook (the original 2000 version, prior to the 2005 revision). The prologue briefly explained how the D&D game worked and what role-playing was all about, while the first chapter detailed the process of character creation. At the beginning of that chapter was a numbered, step-by-step list for creating characters. The first entry in that list, numbered with a "zero", was "Check with your DM for any special house rules." The remaining steps were numbered as one might expect (e.g. 1, roll ability scores; 2, pick race; 3, pick class; 4, pick feats; 5, assign skill points; 6, roll for gold and equip character; etc.).

    Over the course of all the many, many arguments about the intention, interpretation, utility, etc., of the 3rd edition rules on WotC's own forums, the notion of "Rule Zero" appeared (quite early on in the life of that edition, 2001-2 I should think), but the phrase was used erroneously to mean "Since the DM can always change the rules, there cannot be anything wrong with a set of RPG rules." This has come to be known as the "Oberoni Fallacy," after a poster on the WotC forums who first articulated the error.

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  9. Rejecting "Rule Zero"? Geez, you're starting to sound like Ron Edwards there or somethin, James...

    (OK, "starting to" is unfair; rejecting "GM fiat as an excuse to ignore the actual play consequences of different rules" is nothing new on Grognardia!)

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  10. I'm with the Angry Villagers on this one.

    +thx :)

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  11. (OK, "starting to" is unfair; rejecting "GM fiat as an excuse to ignore the actual play consequences of different rules" is nothing new on Grognardia!)

    I'm confused. What do you mean by this?

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  12. I know what you're saying, but I take "we always ignored that rule" to mean that my interlocutor does not feel adequately experienced to offer a strong opinion on the subject.

    Having returned to D&D after many years, I've come to realize how the rules I previously ignored changed the flavor of the game. For example, as a kids we hand-waved encumbrance, food, light source tracking, etc. It just didn't seem important or fun. Now I realize I missed a significant aspect of the game by ignoring those rules. I've come around to the opinion that it's not really D&D without the resource management.

    But if you'd asked me to talk about the importance of light sources on gameplay a few years ago, I wouldn't have had much to say on the subject.

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  13. I'm sorry if I was cryptic -- I just meant that this is a consistent position you've taken for a while.

    Breaking down the history of that comment:

    * I want to point out that you're in the same camp with the Forge folk on this issue -- rules actually matter.

    * realizing there is sometimes tension between Forge folk and OSR gamers, I was going to frame it jocularly in terms of "watch out, you're starting to sound like ______"

    * at the last minute realizing that was kind of silly because you're not "starting to" sound like anything, this is what you've already said, so inserting a disclaimer to that effect

    * at this point, like a sentence rewritten too many times, what was going to be a simple comment becomes awkward and cryptic.

    Yeah. Don't worry about it, there was almost nothing to the comment in the first place.

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  14. Ed,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I'm not too worried about the Forge connection; there are several guys out there who are already convinced I'm either Ron Edwards in disguise or one of his "minions" operating deep undercover.

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  15. Oh crap! I didn't mean to blow your cover there. Mum's the word.

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  16. I concluded that the AD&D version of the "weapon vs. AC" table was interwoven with the variable weapon damage - some weapons have apparently sub-optimal damage dice, but when used with the "vs. AC" table are a better choice for doing damage to a heavily armored character. If you don't use those tables, there's no mechanical reason to use those weapons. I don't have the tables to hand, but I recall it being an issue with piercing weapons such as war hammers, military picks, and stabby polearms. Probably crossbows, too.

    That's the big reason I try to understand the possible purposes behind rules before I change them ... if I don't understand why a rule's there in the first place, there are often unintended consequences to my fiddling with them.

    There's also the matter of simple curiosity.

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  17. Agreed. A rule is worth understanding before discarding it.

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  18. One of the curious traits of this hobby is that some things play better than they read, and vice versa. I agree that most rules arose from the crucible of actual gameplay, and as such should not be dismissed just because they seem odd on paper... though for the life of me I still can't thread a bead on Gygax's unarmed combat rules in the DMG!

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  19. I agree with your post, James...but isn't that a symptom of the bloated rule books being produced by the RPG hobby today?

    AD&D may be clunky and archaic, but any system that can only be described in 250+ pages is generally going to have skipped steps at the gaming table. The players? Yeah dismissing rules out-of-hand is a pet peeve of mine also. But game designers throwing hundreds of pages of minutia (along with "supplements" and "players guides")? That's asking for short-cuts just to reduce search & handling time and increase playability.

    I was a total "rule stickler" as a kid. But I still left rules out when playing in order to run a quicker, smoother game. And often it was the "clunkier" rules (tried once or twice and discarded) that got cut. As an adult? I just stay the hell away. Give me a game that can be presented in a clean 64 page book...or less. Then I can follow the rules AND be true to the designer's vision.

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  20. >>I question why it's necessary to codify it at all, let alone in such a goofy way (I am unhappily reminded of Asimov's "Zeroth" Law of Robotics).

    I put it in there as a reaction to a lot of online talk related to 3e and 4e that had players complaining that their DMs were "cheating" or were awful people because they were disallowing a certain feat or didn't allow use of a certain book and blah blah blah. It was a notice that "this game isn't as rigid as all that."

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  21. Ignoring a rule in an integrated system like 3e, the source of Rule Zero, is a whole different kettle of fish from ignoring a rule in an accretive system like 1e.

    I think it is very important to understand that 1e AD&D was very rarely if ever played as written, most groups ignoring huge swathes of unpopular sub-systems while few groups deviate substantially from the RAW in eg 4e, where doing so would lose you such benefits as the utility of the Character Builder.

    I think this relates to the main point of "Why this System" - Gygax includes Weapon vs Armour mods, or Psionics, or 1e Initiative, because they seemed like good ideas at the time, but I think in the awareness that anyone who disliked them would simply ignore them. This is a very different paradigm from the creation of the unified d20 system for 3e, where ignoring any part has IME cascading effects, like a removing one card from a house of cards.

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  22. if someone wants to skip something that seems overly taxing to their flow of the game and have no "Rational" reason - so be it. youre playing an irrational game of pretend with chaotic dice anyhow. people dont necessarily need to justify why they dont use a guideline just to mental masturbate it. it also depends on what "rule" we're talking about.

    just as rules are skipped, theres no rule saying someone has to rationalize (control/order) everything in life either.

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  23. ...I question why it's necessary to codify it at all...

    Because it's something unnatural to most games. You can't make a rule that says in this chess club we allow bishops to dodge by shifting one square in any direction (as well as move diagonally), because then you are no longer playing chess.

    It's also good advice. Check with the gamemaster first to discover any house rules, is vastly different from giving GM fiat. You can play a game of, if you will excuse the pun, dodgy chess if both players know about this ability to do so. [Although I've had some fun chess games in coffee shops that halfway through, by unspoken mutual consent, invoked the salt and pepper shakers, not to mention the orientation of the teapot and stacking ability of dishes. <ahem>]

    This is particularly true when you are designing and running tournaments, since you want to not only get the game rules as close to what is written, but also synchronise the play styles of the gamemasters so that they are all similar. Then again, I can't remember an incident in any of the tournaments I've been involved in where anyone actually complained that it wasn't being run by the rules.* The players seemed to be innately accepting that they would be playing in different universes than they are used to. Which is one of the wonderful things about early D&D. I would suggest people are a lot less tolerant of such behaviour in 4th ed. ESpecially in a competitive tournament.

    Of course, only a few gamemasters are silly enough to work out variants before play exists, let alone be cognisant of how their games may differ from what is written. Most players learn by being immersed in actual play, rather than by actually reading the rules, and every group develops their own unique styles (although they may not generally realise it).

    [* The only such complaint was when a game was actually played exactly by the rules was made by the gamemaster when the players insisted on a strict interpretation of a spell description. To their detriment.]

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  24. What's interesting to me about this post is its applicability beyond RPG discussions. It might just be human nature to respond to problems, and especially abstract, intellectual problems, by asserting that there really isn't a problem.

    Do I just do it myself? ("just human nature" is kind of like rule zero right?)

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  25. Most gamers (in my experience) want someone to hand them more rules than they need, so they can toss out what they don't like, and they don't give a whit about any campaign they're not in.

    As someone who DOES love to talk about rules, this is sad, but I've found it to be true.

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  26. I never had a problem with the Zero Rule per se.

    When I was GMing, I frequently would toss out rules I didn't like to favor a streamlined, smoother game. Nothing is worse than getting bogged down in minutiae and grinding the momentum of the game to a screeching halt.

    I am of the opinion that story and roleplay all too often takes a backseat to rules and dice. This is an unfortunate consequence when a referee isn't willing to be flexible with the rules.

    Role play > Roll play.

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  27. I question LLB rules often because there were so many conflicting things in there. At one point they say a half elf can be a cleric. In the same paragraph they say they cannot. These guys are college grads?

    A lack of true cohesion makes me suspect of everything.

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  28. At one point they say a half elf can be a cleric. In the same paragraph they say they cannot. These guys are college grads?

    I know exactly the paragraph you're talking about. I don't have my book with me, but if I remember correctly it's not just in the same paragraph, it's in the very next sentence. Something like "helf(sic)-elves cannot be clerics, for in this manner their human side prevails. But, a half-elf with a Wisdom of 13 or more can become a cleric..."

    As a kid, I always struggled over that particular passage, trying to divine some kind of meaning out of it. "Their human side prevails? What does that mean? And why does it say that they CAN'T be clerics, and then say that they can?" It took me a while to finally just admit to myself that it was a mistake, but it sure did cause a lot of confusion way back then.

    On the bigger point about the discussion of rules, James is on the money, but fortunately I've found a group now where we love discussing rules, where they came from and why, and which ones we want to adopt and why. I find it really fun to talk about them, myself.

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  29. Having returned to D&D after many years, I've come to realize how the rules I previously ignored changed the flavor of the game. For example, as a kids we hand-waved encumbrance, food, light source tracking, etc. It just didn't seem important or fun. Now I realize I missed a significant aspect of the game by ignoring those rules. I've come around to the opinion that it's not really D&D without the resource management.
    Same here. Taking the full resource management aspect of the game into account makes spending your starting funds at first level much more fun. It strikes me that this is kinda the same fun as the fiddly character optimization game played at the start of play in the newer editions of D&D. But...with actual stuff, instead of all the Capitalized Abstractions.

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  30. The thing to remember here is that AD&D didn't arrive all at once and impose a new order on gamers. It came out piecemeal and bits were added into existing campaigns as and when players and referees saw fit, as were bits from other games, houserules and unofficial source material from the magazines and elsewhere. It's just the way that those times were ; people rarely considered AD&D as being a cohesive set of rules because that wasn't the way they first met it.

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  31. "We always ignored that rule" seems a perfectly sensible way to answer someone who asks you a question about a rule that you always ignored. What else are you supposed to say to them?

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  32. Indeed.

    The truth is, many of the rules in (A)D&D are illogical, badly designed or just plain stupid. Worse still are all the rules that were little more than Gygax's attempt to dress up his own preferences as essential to any and all campaigns. It's a credit to all the good things in the game that players go to the effort to shunt the bad rules aside.

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  33. I ignore a lot of rules. I mean A LOT. Most which I ignore because I don't understand them, or would use up a lot of time.

    For instance, with the old Star Wars d6 game, we ignored the character creation rules for years because we couldn't make head or tails of them. Just used the templates. It wasn't until the revised 2nd edition book came out that it finally clicked. Then things got interesting.

    On the other hand though, encumbrance. I hate dealing with it. I hate micro-managing to that level. It slows the game to a crawl, and so I generally include a Bag of Holding or a Portable Hole in the first treasure. Boom, I don't have to worry about it.

    However, I will be glad to talk about any rules questions that come up. I'll listen first and then comment second.

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  34. I've always used encumbrance but only rough estimates of weight and bulk. Which reminds me: Here's another example of a one bad rule (10 coins = 1 pound of weight) being the basis of another bad rule (carry a few hundred coins and suddenly you're weighed down like a man wearing the heaviest of armors).

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  35. I fundamentally agree with the original post.

    My take on the "We ignored that rule" response: This is obviously acceptable if it's used in the sense of, "I don't know; I'm uninformed on that subject". This is unacceptable if it's used in the sense of "Only an idiot with poor taste would bother considering that rule". IMO, the latter sense gets used with surprisingly high frequency.

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  36. This is a timely post! I recently flipped through my old Player Handbook for the first time in many years. I was reminded why I both loved and hated that book. What a wonderful framework to build a fantasy world on, and what a horrible exposition of the rules! I would venture to say that "encumbrance rules" is a misnomer since the rules are more mentioned than enumerated--in fact, isn't it stated in one of the two Survival Guides that a list of weights for equipment would be impractical/impossible? Yet it was possible to list the weight, length, and speed of each and every weapon (and the bazillion pole arms that we didn't know how to pronounce). It wasn't until Unearthed Arcana came out that I realized that I was over estimating the weight of much of my characters' equipment. No wondered we took encumbrance rules very seriously as we were purchasing equipment for our characters (how much do torches weight again?). . . and promptly forgot them when we got to the table.

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  37. @santinj: For what it's worth, the "encumbrance of standard items" is at the end of the AD&D DMG (p. 225).

    Yes, it's a bad setup as compared to OD&D with all the encumbrance on one short page (although one could argue it's intended for DM-adjudication). The Survival Guides had a very different post-Gygax sensibility.

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  38. @Delta: THANK you. I had this vague memory of a table like that and using it when generating characters. Of course, that was 24 years ago (!). I love it that rules that would assist players with character generation were stuck in the appendices of the DMG!

    Yeah, the Survival Guides successfully separated me from my money back then, but I don't recall actually using them in play. Though I could be remembering that incorrectly as well (see aforementioned 24 years).

    Anywho, thanks again.

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  39. JB said...
    I agree with your post, James...but isn't that a symptom of the bloated rule books being produced by the RPG hobby today?

    AD&D may be clunky and archaic, but any system that can only be described in 250+ pages is generally going to have skipped steps at the gaming table.


    This is actually more a problem of unclear and badly-organized rules, rather than long ones. When I was playing 1E with friends, we skipped a good amount of stuff because we couldn't understand it or couldn't find it in play. When I played with a really experienced DM at a Con, though, they usually used more of the rules because they knew them well. Whereas when I played 3E regularly we stuck pretty closely to the rules, because if we couldn't remember something it was usually easy to find, and easy to read and use even if we hadn't studied it. Clear explanations and consistent terminology are a big deal.

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  40. I'm sort of guilty. I made a grand statement about how my group ignored the racial level limits (this is AD&D I am referring to. But I probably should not have assumed everyone would just intuit my Gen-X PoMo sensibilities regarding equal opportunity. We thought it was sort of absurd that a half orc or a dwarf would never be as good at fighting as a human. It seemed arbitrary (which as it turns out, it was).

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  41. And then there are the rules that EVERYBODY used that are actually nowhere in the books. For instance, I was amazed to find when flipping through the DMG recently that a natural 20 officially has no special meaning (in the example of play section -- you know, the one with the calcified bone scroll tube in the pool -- one of the characters rolls a natural 20 and it's nothing but a regular hit.)

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  42. @Matthew: "And then there are the rules that EVERYBODY used that are actually nowhere in the books."

    No, not everybody used that. In fact, the status of natural-20 is discussed at length in at least two places in the DMG. The reason for non-inclusion of criticals is given on the first page of the combat section [1], and the advantageous positioning of natural-20s on the combat matrices is discussed immediately after their presentation. [2]

    [1] "Such rules as double damage and critical hits must cut both ways - in which case the life expectancy of player characters will be shortened considerably - or the monsters are being grossly misrepresented and unfairly treated by the system." (DMG p. 61)

    [2] "A quick glance at the progression of numbers on the COMBAT TABLES will reveal that 20 is repeated. This reflects the fact that a 20 indicates a 'perfect' hit." (DMG p. 82)

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