When a prominent aspect or focus of the game master’s story conflicts (directly or indirectly) with the core rules of the game trouble is on the horizon. But what is a game master to do when they find their masterpiece at odds with the rules?
There are two schools of thought – and they are as polarized and hotly debated as everything else in our great hobby:
Some will say the rules trump the story and for the beginner game master, that is certainly a safe path to follow. By shielding themselves behind the rules, an inexperienced game master can prevent a lengthy debate or hard feelings associated with perceived “favoritism” and get an early start on circumventing the “Us vs. GM” mentality in their players. But it raises concerns of unnecessary “rules lawyering” stealing from the spirit of the story – and opens the door for heated debates over rules minutia.
There are others that say that the story trumps the system – a strategy that certainly appeals to the game master that’s spent months working on their campaign. But this path is full of pitfalls – if the players don’t know what to expect from the system they will feel cheated and ill-prepared for your encounters.
The truth is, the real key to a happy campaign is not the system or the story – it’s the game!
A good core rules system – and a solid understanding of that system by all involved – is the foundation of a healthy game. Whether you are tearing the hearts from Dragon-blooded chests in Exalted or pinning junkies to the mat in your home-brewed amateur wrestling / war on drugs crossover RPG (How’s that coming, Caesarmoo?), having a good set of rules to fall back on will prevent heartache and drama at the game table. Earlier in this series we talked about what to do when conflicts on rules arise at the table – but what if the conflict comes at the drawing desk? Or what if a rules dispute at the table threatens a core aspect of the story you are trying to present?
Aside from a few inevitable exceptions, nobody likes to have their ideas interfered with. The first step that a would-be game master needs to do when they sit down at the table – be it the drawing board or the gaming table – is to detach from the game emotionally. It should not be about the game master – it should be about what serves the game best. And the game (no, not that one) includes the story, the game master and the players.
By removing their own emotion from the equation, effective game masters are better able to make impartial rulings and empathize with the players.
Roll with the punches
Every game master’s first instinct is to change the rules in their own favor. But do not be so hasty to preserve your story at the expense of a rule – most well-written rules systems have those rules for a reason. And many players (read: The Fez) will not appreciate their game master dismissing the core rules to further their own devices.
Be ready and eager to take the hit as a game master. Your rules calls should be fair and game-oriented. While it may not be what the story had in mind, game masters may find that playing the encounter out according to the rules will enrich the story – or just flat be more fun! Whatever happens, the game master must not negate core rules of disqualify aspects of the game that are important to a player’s concept simply to further the story. By ruling fairly when a dispute arises and siding with the player when things aren’t clear, a game master shows that they are fair – and helps to break down the implied “Us vs Them” that happens so often at the game table.
Anticipate where possible
Players who are forced to sit and wait while a rules dispute is sorted out are not happy players. Preventing this down-time means the game master must ensure that the campaign is well thought out before the players sit down at the table. At the Thirdwaller table, I like to sketch out the basics of everything I plan for my game master characters to do before the session starts – and keep note cards of their specific spells, abilities and powers handy that include the page number for any relevant rules. This way I can anticipate what may cause trouble (Does The Fez’s Scry spell tell Jerrede where the secret door to the Hag’s room is?).
This preparation and anticipation helps to get rules questions out of the way before the table – and if a player does have a question about how something works (like when I gave Leg Up’s character, Bran, a bad case of the Evil Eye while they were fighting a Hag) the game master can quickly and easily reference the spell. Players can help out here, as well. By keeping their spells organized, and references to the page number or resource handy for reference, rules can quickly be referenced and compared if a dispute arises. Which brings us to maybe the most important step:
Keep the game moving
Idle players are the devil’s playground. The longer they sit the more hostile they’ll get. Gaming sessions can fall apart completely while the game master debates a rule with a player. Keep the game moving! That does not mean keep to story moving, mind you – sometimes game masters will need to sacrifice a story element to keep the players progressing forward and enjoying themselves. Once you’ve realized that there is a rules dispute, if it looks like it is going to take longer to deal with than the current party situation allows (mid boss-fight, for example) on-the-fly rule in the player’s favor and move the game along. You can always revisit it later and create a House Rule to address the issue long term!
Questions? Comments? Differences in opinion? Take it to the comments!