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

  1. bat says:

    I would agree as long as what the players wish to do is within reason and the game doesn’t grind to a halt with bickering if things don’t go the way of the players. I always see gaming as shared storytelling and either the referee or the players can break this groove by floundering over certain situations that crop up.

    If have had players in the past try some fast shuffling to, for example, seeing if I allow “A” to happen when they are thinking of doing “B”, “C”, and “D” all along.

    • Kilgore says:

      Yeah, I’ll agree with that.

      I should add that I’ve not had many “problem players” always looking to stretch things. Rule of Cool maneuvers that I’ve allowed have usually come with a “be aware that this will probably never ever work again” proviso.

      FWIW, I’ve found a way to deal with things that really stretch it is to require a d6 roll, success on 1-5, and don’t tell the players the odds. If the maneuver is really just too much, simply lower the odds a bit. Or a lot. A couple failures on 1-in-6 moves that have worked in the past will make them think twice, but aren’t as “mean” as simply ruling it can’t be done.

      As for trying “A” with “B”, “C”, and “D” already in mind, I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, that’s probably how it would play in characters’ own minds. The GM just needs to keep a handle on things. Maybe “A” succeeds 5-in-6, but “B” is only 3-in-6. And “D” is 1-in-6.

      One thing that I think is a hallmark of “old-school” play (without trying to start that whole debate yet again) is challenging players, not characters. And if you’re going to challenge players, you need to be prepared for players to push the envelope.

  2. bat says:

    I have had a LOT of great players over the years and then there are the pseudo-intellectual types who always seem to try to work the system in their favor. I wouldn’t really call them rules lawyers because they look for smaller opprotunities and are usually situational manipulators of the rules, but it is really irritating sometimes. I can see these guys sitting up all night, rocking and tittering to themselves as they work out some elaborate plan to pull the wool over my eyes so that they can do some ridiculous thing. I believe that the thrill for them is really in the act of throwing me off and not in the results of whatever screwball thing that they came up with.

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