This post is automated – Thirdwaller is taking some time away for a family emergency!
Disputes at the table can be intimidating to a game masters – rookies and veterans alike. Many is the failed campaign that can attest that disputes can be treacherous ground – capable of tearing an entire gaming group apart. In fact, a particular rules dispute in Thirdwaller’s very first attempt at running a Star Wars campaign in 9th grade has forever tainted the opinion of one player such that he will not game with Thirdwaller as a game master anymore.
But what is a game master to do when the rules don’t cover a topic – or a player more versed in the rules (looking at you, The Fez) has a different interpretation of the rules? How the game master handles the interaction is almost as important as the ruling made. Handling a dispute correctly will show the players that the game master wants and respect their feedback, that they’re open to the player’s opinions and that the game master is not “out to get” the players. In other words, how you react to your players’ questions, problems or disputes will tell them you aren’t a d!ck game master.
In the first part of our multi-part series on The Golden Rule we’ll discuss a dispute handling philosophy we call “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick“.
Before getting started, it is important to take a moment to have a word about avoidance. This series covers rules disputes where the rule is vague or non-extant and where there are several interpretations. Rules disputes surrounding the core rules can often be avoided by ensuring that the game master has a clear understanding of the rules before starting the game. Nothing is more frustrating – or kills the credibility of the game master more quickly – than not having a basic understanding of the core rules at the table. So to avoid trouble down the road, the game master should know the system well enough to be running it before the game starts!
Speak Softly –
Often rules disputes start with heated words. “That’s bullsh!t!” and “What the f*ck!” are personal favorites at the Bad Batch table. But it is crucially important to this philosophy that the game master not rise to that implied challenge. Hopefully it goes without saying in this civilized age that engaging in a shouting match with friends over a fantasy game is not the way to a healthy game atmosphere – and a future article will discuss handling more aggressive disputes – but that does not mean that non-verbal reactions cannot be just as destructive!
When a rules issue comes up, a game master must address it calmly. Rolling your eyes, burying your face behind a tall game screen or crossing your arms and taking a defensive tone or attitude will send subtle – possibly subconscious – cues to your players. Instead, first apologize for the misunderstanding and ask them to clarify their opinion of the rules. Do not get animated and be sincere – even if that player has a reputation for these types of interpretations. It is important to be sincere and realistic and speak softly about the issue as this will help to lay the foundation for a rational and constructive discussion rather than a heated or one-sided argument.
Try to follow these guidelines when you’re making your ruling:
Before you make your ruling, look up the rule:
Once they’ve stated their case, ask the player to show you the relevant pages in the core book (or sourcebook) and compare it with your ruling or interpretation. Consider all sides – often re-reading the rules with the player’s opinion in mind will help you see it their way and give you a new perspective on the ruling. Game balance is a significantly important aspect of any rule – so do not forget that if the rule is blatantly in favor of a particular character (or non-player character) or clearly against them you are probably reading it wrong.
Compromise, within reason:
Especially in cases where a rule doesn’t exist or is too vague, you should be willing to compromise with your players. Let them know that the rules didn’t cover the topic so you were flying blind and show them your reasoning. But be ready to meet them halfway if the issue calls for it. That being said, don’t bend on core rules just because the players don’t like it!
One thing that I will sometimes do is quickly explain the dispute to the whole party and let them vote on the ruling.
Reward players either way:
If they bring up a good point, players should be rewarded. First, thank them for bringing it up rather than stewing on it and letting it sour their gaming experience. If they are willing to compromise and roll with the punches, give them a few extra experience/character points or a bit of extra treasure on the next monster to show your appreciation.
Do not let that get abused, however. If you see think that players are disputing the rules just to get the treasure, switch to a “Thank you” driven reward system instead!
Carry a big stick –
Do not let the rules dispute take over the gaming session. At the end of the day, you need to ensure that all of your players are having a good time – and arguing about the rules is not a good time. You may make the player with the dispute happy but the other players at the table have better things to do than watch you work out the rules. If working through the steps above is going to take more than a few minutes, defer the discussion until later – ask the player to stay after the session or setup a time to call or email them to follow-up. Once you’ve deferred the discussion, move on with the game quickly to avoid lingering bad feelings. Once you have made your decision on the ruling – calmly and sincerely – it is time to get back to game.
If you do defer, be sure that you follow-up. Failure to follow-up gives the impression that you’re shrugging off their opinion – and that’s not a good way to keep players for your game!
If a player is not satisfied with your decision, or continues to press the issue after you’ve given your ruling, ask to speak to them away from the group. It does no good to the morale of your players to engage in a lengthy debate in front of them. Once you’re away from the group, explain your position again and apologize that it doesn’t fit with their interpretation. Encourage them, politely, to roll with it and promise (sincerely!) to make it worth their while if they roll with the punches on this right now – then offer to meet with them after the gaming session to go over the rules in more detail, to come to a mutually beneficial understanding.
Once you do reach a decision, record the ruling somewhere and be sure you are consistent with it later. In a future entry in this series, we’ll talk about House Rules and how to distribute them, but this type of on-the-fly ruling should be included in those House Rules and available for all players to clarify.