When in doubt, rule in favor of the players…for now

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and when a question along those lines recently came up on the OD&D forum, I chimed in with my own philosophy on the subject. The question was about the use of a hold portal spell to hold shut a sarcophagus, trapping a zombie inside before it could emerge and attack the PCs. The game master asking the question had allowed it but was wondering what other players thought.

I replied that it was a great idea by the players and would have allowed it on the first go a a “reward for quick thinking players and such.” More and more, I’ve come to believe that it is the PLAYER who should be challenged, not the PC. For instance, I don’t generally allow a simple dice roll for PCs searching for a secret door. I tell them what they see and they tell me what they do to try and find a secret entrance. I also don’t use rolls to resolve things that the players themselves should be thinking through. No “Oh, you rolled a six? Well, you realize that the eastern tunnel smells like fresh air and likely leads to the surface.” If players don’t think to tell me that they’re trying to sense differences between the tunnel, their characters aren’t likely to notice the difference unless it’s completely obvious.

With clever players, game masters will often be faced with situations that there just isn’t a rule for. And that’s the beauty of old school gaming. Not sure how to proceed in an unusual situation? Well, you could quickly assign odds and roll some dice or you could make a judgment call on the fly. In these spots, I’d perfectly willing to give players the benefit of the doubt. Over the years I’ve personally gone from a “if in doubt, don’t allow it” to a “if in doubt, rule in favor of the players…for now” stance. Making off-the-cuff judgments favor players more often than not makes sense for a number of reasons.

First, it helps move the game along. If a game master really isn’t sure what the right resolution is, it must mean that it’s an unclear situation. This doesn’t mean that anything without a specific rule goes in favor of the players. Not at all. It simply means that if it’s murky and uncertain, give the players a break.

For instance: Volgrod the cleric is being chased by a mob of skeletons that he failed to turn and finds himself backed against a 30-foot wide chasm. He wants to jump, but nowhere in the rules does it say exactly how far a man in chainmail armor can jump. Can he do it?

Of course not. The world record long jump is less than 30 feet, and that was by an athlete trained and dressed for the occasion.

What if, however, the chasm is only 12 feet across? That’s still pushing things, as many normal men in regular shoes and clothing might have trouble jumping 12 feet. But if the player dumps some gear and specifies that he’s going to get a running start, I might be willing to at least give him a chance, say 4 in 6, of making it. If he dumps everything except his holy symbol, maybe I up the odds to 5 in 6 or just rule that he can do it.

However, this is where the …for now part comes in.

Upon later reflection, the game master might decide that the on-the-spot ruling was not the right one for the long term. Rulings have a way of becoming precedents, which is fine and good. But if a precedent has been set that the game master later decides needs to be revoked, it’s a good idea to state so clearly. And the sooner the better. In fact, if you’re unsure about your ruling when you’re making it, a comment about this succeeding on a provisional basis, a heads up that it might not always be the case, wouldn’t be out of line.

In baseball, ties go to the runner. In gaming, uncertainty should favor the players. If just simply ruling in their favor seems too nice for a mean old game master like you, assign favorable odds and roll a d6.

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