Rules calls are a touchy thing – a slippery slope that the skilled game master must navigate with their players, testing their footing all the while. Especially until a trust can be formed, game masters must be careful to be even-handed and address all of a player’s concerns or risk losing the player – or worse yet, losing control of the situation and losing all your players.
But what can game masters do to keep control of the situation – and still make it fun for everyone at the table?
As a player, rules disputes carry with them a certain level of morale-crushing bias. No matter how the game master rules, there is always going to be a player that disagrees with the ruling – whether it is the player who raised the dispute in the first place or someone else at the table. The best way to avoid that disagreement turning into further argument down the road – or the dreaded calls of favoritism – is to be consistent as a game master.
In the fourth installment of the Golden Rule series, Thirdwalling will delve into ensuring consistency from gaming session to gaming session through the creation and implementation of a House Rules system.
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.
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!
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“.