In the era that the Thirdwallers affectionately refer to as the Gygax Era, Dungeons and Dragons games were brutal. A look at any of the old modules will show that these games were kill or be killed. This idea has changed a bit – evolving into a better player experience for the most part. There are still hold-outs to its teachings that demand respect. Anyone that can enjoy a game geared so obviously against the player must have jewels the size of Roc eggs.
One lingering effect of this brutal era is a sense of “Us vs. Them” that seems to hang over every gaming session – the idea that the players are at odds against the game master. In my own gaming sessions I’ve had players deliberately hide their plans from me until the last second, for fear that I would re-arrange my game to better oppose them and make a daring plan fall flat! This mentality of hostility must be overcome for a successful game on both sides. The first step toward that elimination is for game masters to rule in the player’s favor when rules disputes could go either way.
There are countless articles about this topic all over the internet – with countless advice-givers telling potential game masters to rule in the player’s favor. But what does that mean? Are they suggesting that game masters throw the rules away to pander to every player that whines about a rules call?
That would not be a good call. Take this as example: In a recent Pathfinder game with another group, The Fez and Thirdwaller sat idle for nearly four hours while a PC playing an Oread argued that their Earth Insight should have told them there was a pit trap in the room. When the game master – who dutifully looked up the rules around that ability – confirmed that there was no chance in hell, the player voiced their belief that the game master was being unreasonable. If the game master were to simply give in – let the player have the “role play moment” of spotting the pit trap instead of dying it would open the door to a host of problems down the road until the rules are meaningless.
So when is it acceptable for the game master to bend the rules for the player, and when should they stick to their guns?
When the way is clear
There will be times when the rules are clearly against the player. In our Oread example, there was absolutely nothing in the “Earth Insight” ability about detecting traps – everything was about controlling elementals. Despite their best laid argument, the player had no leg to stand on. In these situations, the game master must not allow the players to directly defy the rules until they have established boundaries of when it is acceptable to “hand wave” them. In some cases, it may never be – as relenting on the rule against a goblin may cause strife when they try the same thing against a dragon.
When things get murky
Previous articles on this blog have discussed the innumerable ways that the rules can be unclear. When that happens, the players must trust that the game master is out to present their game to them – not intent to destroy them. The first step to building that trust is to be yielding when the rules are less clear. When the way gets murky, the game master should be more flexible. If it means sacrificing minor story elements, that may be a hit that the game master has to take to keep the game moving.
When death is on the line
Game masters must let characters die. But they must never kill them. The difference between letting a character die and killing them is attitude. A game master that sets out to kill their players – unless the rules of the game specifically call for it – is one that should be avoided in most cases. But so, too, should players avoid game masters that will stop a player death – rewrite a scene after it has played out – to prevent a character from dying.
When the rules are unclear, though, death should not be the result. If there is something vague or unclear about a rule that would end in a character death – game masters should rule in the player’s favor and let them live. There are other options for game masters that need to have a consequence anyway – and they should be used when things get murky.
As in all things, consistency is key here – stay on target. Once a ruling has been made – no matter how insignificant – it must apply to every similar situation. Otherwise, players will believe they are being targeted – or that favoritism is being shown. If the Oread had been permitted to detect irregularities in the stone before with that Earth Insight, then this would be a completely different argument.
Above all else – if the players come up with an idea you hadn’t thought of – reward them, don’t punish them. That’s what it’s all about.
Thoughts? Questions? Opinions? Take them to the comments!