The old OSR adage "rulings over rules" might feel vague or frustrating to new GMs. It's both a philosophy of game mastery and a specific directive for GMs to follow, with respect to resolving the mechanics in the game:
When you encounter a situation that the rules don't seem to cover, don't get distracted searching for it. Instead, make a common-sense ruling within the spirit of the game and move on. It doesn't have to be perfect. Later, if you find there is in fact no rule and it could come up again, make a note of the ruling and apply it consistently.Principia Apocrypha, David Perry
In the core rules of OSR+, we codify "rulings" to mean the ability you have as a GM to exercise fiat and make up rules when the rules-as-written don't give you a mechanic to use for any given situation. So in practical terms, "rulings over rules" is about covering the gaps in the rules. But it goes further than that in OSR+, because the rules in this game are designed to have lots of "gaps," unlike other systems which try to prescribe how to handle edge cases in additional (and sometimes optional) tables or appendices.
The better adage in our case is "Tools, not rules." When presented with any situation you have to adjudicate for in the fiction, think about yourself as not looking for a rule that fits, but looking for a tool that'll do the best job at adjudicating.
Choosing a Resolution Mechanic
For example, the game doesn't prescribe how you ought to resolve sneaking through the castle courtyard.
Yes, there's a stealth check mechanic, but does that mean we have to have the PC roll a stealth check and then discretely move her through the courtyard, waiting for her to take risky action or be spotted?
We can do that, especially if the playthrough might result in her being captured. But we can also encapsulate the whole courtyard sneak inside a success check, if the point of the playthrough isn't getting caught but what happens after they get inside, and so we use the success check to find out what sort of complications arise as a result of their success. Or finally, maybe it's not at all about getting in or out, but what happens after the party pulls off the caper, and so a scene check might make the most sense, as it will involve everyone in the party.
When we choose between these three core mechanics to resolve the situation (attribute check vs. success check vs. scene checks) we're exercising GM fiat in the spirit of rulings over rules.
About GM Fiat
GM fiat is that broad latitude you're entrusted with to make executive decisions like this. The players assent to your decisionmaking because they trust you as an impartial adjudicator of the game. That doesn't mean that they can't challenge your rulings—after all, you will forget a rule or misapply one, it's inevitable—but that at the end of the day, even if they disagree with your ruling, they will accept it during the session to keep things going. (Then you can hash things out with your table after the game.)
There is No Rule of Cool
But even though GM fiat is built into the very process that underlies the use of your tools in OSR+, you should exercise it sparingly outside of making rulings. In OSR+, there is no "rule of cool," where you get to suspend the rules just because you want to. One of your responsibilities is to be fair, and to be fair is to be predictable. If you exercise fiat because you think something is cool, you're expressing a preference for one outcome over another, and that's akin to railroading because you're removing meaningful choice to make it happen.
But that's not the only problem with the rule of cool:
- When you ignore the rules, players can't rely on them to be applied consistently, since you're willing to revoke them if it pleases you. Instead of looking to what's possible in the fiction, they'll look to you and your ego to see what's possible.
- Even if you don't mean to, you're picking favorites. Players who love giving dramatic speeches or who are particularly vocal or expressive might accidentally benefit from your "rule of cool" rulings more often than those who actually play by the rules, and that's not cool.
- Players who might have had a very specialized mechanical solution to the problem you've "rule of cool'd" away will get peeved that their contribution has been trumped.
Now, it might happen that everyone at the table enthusiastically supports your suspending the rules to make something really cool happen. You have to decide for yourself in those situations if that consent is truly unanimous. Our advice is simply: be careful.
Unlike in the old school style, we do want to be fans of our players. We want to see them succeed, because this enables them to fulfill their PCs' narrative destinies. But the best way to be a fan of your players is to do everything in your power to maximize their PCs' freedom in the game. That means giving them more meaningful choices, not reinforcing outcomes you arbitrarily prefer by taking away their choices. Because players already have a lot of control over the fiction (through fate points, story tags, ethos tags, global story tags, and so on), you have to let the dice fall where they may. The players will intervene when it matters to them.