Common Law vs. Statutory Law
(I thought I posted this ages ago, but no searches return it. Weird.)
One of the best things I’ve seen that helps spell out a lot of the rules style debates on RPGs was pointed out to me by someone whose name I forget on RPG.net, namely, the difference between Common Law and Statutory Law.
In Common Law, disputes are settled primarily by judges and magistrates, who look to prior cases and try to apply the same decision to the same facts. There is no body of formal law, just an accumulation of cases, and the practice is to look through prior cases and use them to reach a conclusion. In different regions or different nations, different sets of precedents evolve, and there’s no great need to reconcile them, as it’s believed they reflect the beliefs of the people who live under the law.
Statutory Law relies on well-documented laws that specify what rules apply to what actions and what penalties to apply. In the event that a specific law can’t be found, or the law is ambiguous, the judge is supposed to interpret the laws that are written to reach a conclusion that is consistent with prior law. This also forms a body of precedent, but the precedent is a record of how laws have been interpreted (and is often an impetus for the laws to be formally clarified), and is not the basis of the law itself. Consistency among different regions is very important; conflicting interpretations will be brought to higher and higher courts until a final decision is reached.
Those who want “rulings based” games like Common Law. They want a few broad guidelines, and they run their games based on their past rulings of situations. Two different DMs may rule very differently on the same action, but they are then reasonably consistent going forward in their games. They want game companies to provide guiding principles and a few examples, from which they’ll build their body of precedent. They often want to pick and choose which facts may be relevant to a given case, and ignore what seems unnecessary.
Those who want “rules based” games like Statutory Law. They want a well-defined set of rules that spell out as many situations as possible. They recognize no set of rules can be complete, but they see the role of the DM as finding the closest possible rule and extending it just enough to cover the situation, and this then creates a new rule. They want game companies (the “legislature”) to correct poor rules or provide final and absolute answers to contradictory rules. They want a clear listing of all factors to be considered when applying a rule.
Neither of these is likely to be absolute, and neither is “better” or “worse”, but they satisfy different needs and appeal to different people.