[RPG] Do/did any major RPGs have “hidden rules” or “spells that do things other than what they say”


It is extremely common for answers on this site to quote either "There are no hidden rules", "Spells do only what they say they do", or often both (example), almost always regarding 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. There are also a few questions asking where these principles come from (example and example) – the answers typically refer to Tweets by Jeremy Crawford (a designer of 5e).

But the quotes seem somewhat trivial to me. What could rules mean except what they say? And if rules are secret from both the GM and the players, they don't functionally exist for a tabletop game. So I wondered whether there were, or are, other famous RPGs that somehow broke these principles in a way I hadn't considered.

Things That I Don't Consider to be Answers

  • I know that Paranoia specifically tells its players not to read the rules. But I don't think this counts, mainly because the secrecy is mostly a joke (discussion here).

  • There are games like Mao where the rules are deliberately secret from some players, but again, not from all of them; also, figuring out the rules is the whole point of the game. Although I can easily imagine an RPG with a similar aim, I don't think it would really count as an answer.

  • All multiplayer RPGs have social rules, which are usually left implicit. "The aim of the game is for everyone to have fun", "Don't harrass or bully the other players or GM", etc. While important, these rules are never the target of "hidden rules" comments, and so aren't answers here.

  • Errata don't count, because the intention is that all players and GMs read them (and that future editions include them in the main rules).

  • Publishing new books with extra spells, classes, items, etc. does not really count, because those are additions to the rules rather than changes.

Do/did any major RPGs have "hidden rules" or "spells that do things other than what they say", in contrast to the common statements about D&D 5e?

If unsure what counts as a hidden rule, consider:

  1. Do I need to know this to effectively play my part of the game? A player doesn't normally need to know the exact statistics of monsters, but does need to know how the details of how their spells work.
  2. Is the information hidden from me (or at least is very difficult to find), in a way that seems unreasonable? If the information is in the GMs' Guide with a notice saying, "This is for GMs only", and the GM is supposed to not tell me if I ask, then it probably counts as hidden (unless, like Paranoia, players are supposed to read it, but lie and claim they haven't). But if the hidden information is clearly something that a player is supposed to work out by logic or experimentation ("What happens if I cast Fireball on this rock with a picture of a fire on it?", "How do we discover the murderer?"), that doesn't count because it is reasonable to hide it.

Best Answer

“No hidden rules” is just what it sounds like, and what several other answers say: the rules are what’s printed on the page, and you have access to them.

That wasn’t always the case.

You mention Mao as “not an answer”. Oddly, that’s a good model for how many games used to work: the GM knows the rules, and the players don’t. or at least they only know some of them.

Up through about 2000, there was a weird taboo around players reading books that were intended for the GM. For example, from the preface to the AD&D DMG:

What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another.

This sentiment shows up pretty often. So, everything in that book is intended to be secret from players. How that played out at any given table varied wildly, just like you’d expect, but the default version of D&D was a lot like Mao. One person had a rules reference, everyone else learned by doing.

Some things, that’s clear cut. For “how does alcohol work?” the answer is obvious: ask your DM. Because it’s in the DMG. But, more relevant to your question, sometimes it was more insidious. For easy example, take charm person.

I’m not going to copy the AD&D PHB text here, because there’s a lot of it. It’s basically what you’d expect: charm person for magic users refers back to the Druid’s charm person or animal, plus a list of things that are considered “persons”. Charm person or animal works about like modern charms: Subject regards you favorably, new saves if you threaten it, breaks if you attack it. It also had a periodic save with frequency based on intelligence.

Then, the AD&D DMG has this to say:

Charm Person: Attacks causing damage upon the subiect person will cause a saving throw bonus of +1 per hit point of damage sustained in the round that the charm is cast.

If you’re playing “correctly”, you never see this rule. You might notice that charm never works in combat, but the mechanical basis is secret.

The DMG has a half-dozen similar entries for each spell level, for each class. So, if you’re coming from that background, “there are no secret rules” is extremely meaningful. It’s also revolutionary (or would be if that hadn’t been the new normal since the mid-noughts).

Most games before D&D’s third edition that I have read had similar attitudes. I’m not claiming that any change was WotC’s doing, but that was the timeframe and 3e reshaped the landscape in a big way.

So, bottom line: yes. There were secret rules.


Now, all that said, there was never any D&D police force that would haul you off to RPG jail if you read the DMG as a player. You can definitely find accounts online (horror stories usually) of DMs becoming very upset if they learned a mere player had dared read DM material, but I suspect most groups didn’t really care.

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