Judgement and Rules

I had a one-sided argument with someone on the nature of “judgement”. I claimed that some rules could make Judgement difficult; they contested that Judgement relied on there being rules in the first place–indeed it is “impossible to make Judgements without Rules”.

As in all cases of wrong on the internet no examples or context was given, and I doubt either of us will care or be humble enough to elaborate in a meaningful way. But since this is my soapbox…

Judgement has a special meaning for me, since it appears in both Silver and Hope.

From Silver’s Brief Instructions (1599):

The 4 governors are those that follow

1. The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you, and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

And from Hope’s Sword-Man’s Vade Mecum (1691)

Calmness, – Vigour, – and Judgement.

Now these three Words in general, being the only Foundation upon which all True Fencing is built, and each Word in particular being as it were a Column, or Pillar by which my Rules are to be supported, (for without them all would be but Uncertain and False) I shall begin my Fisrt Rule, which as well as all the rest, is to be supported by those three infallible, and never to be too exactly copied Pillars of the composite Order, because each of then in some measure partake of the Beauty and Excellency of the Other two, and to that end Earnestly and Serioulsy intreats and desires: That.

  • Rule I.

    Whatever you do, let it alwayes (if possible) be done Calmely, and without Passion, and Precipitation, but still with all Vigour, and Briskness imaginable, your Judgement not failing to Direct, Order, and Govern you as to both.

That very narrow definition of Judgement is intrinsicly tied to Governance in both cases. The accepted definition of Govern is taken as to conduct the affairs, policies and actions of a state, and it’s etymology is from the latin guburnare, meaning “to steer or rule”.

There’s that word, rule. So, are rules required of Judgement? In Hope’s case Governance follows Judgement, but in Silver’s case it’s not so clear–Judgement is a Governor, a guiding principle or rule.

Our modern definition of Judgement is tied to legal and other processes, but at its base it’s a process of evaluating evidence and coming to a conclusion.

We’re all familiar with rules. Are they the same as Judgements? Well, there are definitions of rules, but this one leaps out:

Governing power or its possession or use; authority.

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p>Rules are an expression of power in possession or use by a governing body.

So the only conclusion I can reach is that Governance is the Judicious application of Rules. This makes sense, I think: Rules are abstracted input/output operations. This is why we have human Judges to decide if the rules even apply.

So then the act of Judging is tied to Rules. It implies that for a Judgement to take place, there must be a Rule to be applied in the first place. Is this right? Surely you can Judge that no rule applies.

On the other hand the cognitive process of Judging must be based on an assumption of acts and consequences, anticipated cause and effect that leads to certain decisions based on evidence. But, just because firmly believe that driving over the speed limit can have legal and health consequences to me, it’s still an act of judgement. The rules or law or physics are not automatically applied as soon as I make the decision. My judgement just allows me to notice the likelihood of them being applied as consequences, and then deciding whether to apply the brakes based on that evidence.

All well and good, but does it matter? In the context of game system design, the “new school” may consider rules essential to judgements, driving the need for tighter system with narrow ranges of actions and consequences, under the banner of System Does Matter.

This is divergent thinking from RPG evolution as a whole, where the classic Rules Lawyer has been lampooned for applying rules without judgement, using selected evidence as a mandatory trigger for the Rules. To haul ourselves out of this hole we developed essays on critical thinking that encouraged Judgement over Rules, driving the market for minimalist system.

The new school approach of making it impossible not to judge a certain situation in any way that doesn’t lead to applying a Rule is effective, and will work until you come across a situation where there is no rule. Then you’re back to square one, using your own judgement. The response to this for, say, Apocalypse World is to make sure any situation can be interpreted with a particular judgement, leading to a given rule. In fact, you effectively leapfrog over Judgement and go straight from Situation to Rule.1

Are there truly cases where Rules get in the way of Judgement? The D&D Lawyer is one example where written rule competes with Judgement. Is there a modern example? Well, yes, but it’s not the rules of Apocalypse World so much as comprehension of the rules. This is why Baker says you must read all of his book, and apply his rules as written all the time for his game to work.

That’s fine, but just not appealing to many of us. Now we get into play preference, and my preference is to have a set of guiding principles, not rules per se.

The “new school” approach is orthogonal to the traditional, minimalist approach to the same problem.


  1. Of course the MC exercises Judgement in many other ways, such as managing NPCs for the PCs to interact with. But there are no rules that say under this circumstance you must have an NPC with a defined interaction. That’s covered by principles and guidelines for creating Fronts, and left to the MC’s judgement for when to apply countdowns and so forth.
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  • I think I might go further and suggest that removing Judgement from the equation was an active design principle for much of the indie crowd.

    This gets so extreme in some cases that the game designer insists you should not even use your own judgement about how much of the rulebook to read or whether or not to use houserules (doesn’t Apocalypse World have a rule that the GM isn’t allowed to plan what will happen in the next session, meaning that the game *literally includes rules on what you are allowed to think about while you are not playing it*?). More generally, Forge games tend to use a very broad interpretation of “rule”, it tends to extend to things like design notes, flavour text and – in extreme cases – ideas that the game designer has in his head. It all gets rather circular, in some games it feels like “you will consider this game to be well designed” is practically a rule of the game.

    Were I feeling glib, I might suggest that the best way to exercise judgement in that kind of game is to simply decide not to play it.

    In general, though, I think Rules and Judgement are orthogonal concepts. You can have rules which restrict judgement (which you tend to get in System-Does-Matter type indie games, rules which tell you you aren’t allowed to make judgement calls about things), rules which require judgement, (like setting the Difficulty of a task in a classic “simulationist by default” RPG), or even rules which facilitate judgement (which is arguably what most “simulationist” rules are for, they’re a way of suggesting to the players and the GM an appropriat way to model a particular type of event in-system).

    To put it another way, all games require judgement, but in a lot of indie games, you are supposed to rely on the judgement of the game designer. I’m personally not convinced that’s a step up from relying on the judgement of the GM.

    • ‘in some games it feels like “you will consider this game to be well designed” is practically a rule of the game’

      Well yes, it feels like that although I prefer to take it on faith that the designer has tried to make everything work together, and play in that spirit. I just get really bored reading and applying the rules unless they’re easy. That’s not the designer’s fault.

  • I don’t think we disagree here – I tend to do the same, and I’ve certainly got a lot less inclined to just write things off as broken or not working without at least trying them out.

    Ultimately, as you say, this comes down to play preferences. Like you, I prefer my rules to act as guidelines if only because I don’t have the time or inclination to read rulebooks cover to cover.