I find the “Rulings not Rules” dictum troublesome and problematic. A game’s rules are the game itself, and the players step into Ye Olde Magic Circle and agree to abide by the rules to create fair play. The rules and that agreement then collaborate to create surprise and delight for the players during the operation of the game.
Moving the authority of the game from the rules fully onto the shoulders of one player—authority that supersedes even the social contract of the game itself (as in, we’re not here to play the game but to subject ourselves to the “ruling” of one player)—opens a game up to bias and, more often, limits the range of possible results. One players’ imagination is never as rich as the multiple imaginations of the group.
Going further, I often see this credo of Rulings Not Rules tied to the idea of systemless or system-light play. But that assertion is a fallacy. The system is always present in a roleplaying game—and it always has the same weight. The choice being made in design is where the weight resides. In this case, the system moves into the shoulders of a single player issuing rulings. Playing the game becomes about playing to or manipulating that authoritatively positioned player.
And, while I love a good belief(!), there’s a One True Wayism to the Rulings not Rules ideology that rankles me. Burning Wheel’s philosophies and procedures only ever apply to it—to a single game. Even its cousin and sibling games require their own explicit philosophies and procedures. If you’ve listened to me babble for long enough, you will hear me actively resist the pull to apply BW’s systems beyond its borders. Folks are always asking me for generic GM advice—which I can’t give. And folks are endlessly trying to kitbash a BW system into another game—at which point they’ve made their own game and my philosophies and rubrics no longer apply.
So the implication that there is even a class of games that get by with a pithy philosophy like Rulings not Rules rings false to me. It feels like an ideology for a group that is trying to assert an identity. And that is expressly Not My Thing. I try to take each game on its merits. As Silverwizard said, “games are about the things they have rules for.” I believe that to be self-evident and I approach games with that mindset—not with an overarching philosophy or ideology.
I will also add that I have created an OSR game in Miseries & Misfortunes—its system is based on the Moldvay Edition of D&D. Yet there is a post on this very forum disputing that it is in fact an OSR game! The author of the post cites the many system quirks that don’t line up with the current vogues in OSR design. I am still amused by this (exclusionary) stance. The OSR is more vast than you could know, grasshoppers. Even in its short existence its stances have shifted and morphed quite a bit. And I suspect they will continue to.
For a fantastic source on the first few waves of debates around what a roleplaying game is or should be, read Jon Peterson’s Elusive Shift. You will quickly see that we have been around this Rules not Rulings mountain many times in the past—and that, in the first decade of the hobby’s existence, people thought deeply and intelligently about the designs and their implications.