Another Elephant - Rules, Rulings and TTRPG’s
Today I’m going to talk about an issue that transcends particular editions, it applies to any game that is at least in principle “open-ended” (like TTRPGs) and has a codified rule set.
One of the “elephants in the room” of TTRPG design for games like D&D is that the DM is quite often called upon to apply the rules to an unforeseen situation. The players ask to do something, or do something that requires the DM to adjudicate as the rules don’t give a clear answer, or any attempt at an answer at all. I estimate that I have done this at least once in every session I have ever run for the last 35 years.
It’s one of the reasons I have gravitated towards rule sets that explicitly tell you that rulings are at least as important as rules, if not more so, and that your job is to make these rulings in a fair and consistent way to produce an enjoyable game for everyone. So although 1e AD&D (my preferred edition) has a lot of rules, and is even “crunchy” by some standards, it does stress that you are to interpret the rules for your group, and you are to be responsible for making rulings at the table.
Gygax put it in all caps at the end of the book:
“IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD TO THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULE BOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME”
What no edition does particularly well is to convey the sheer scope and frequency of this practice, or to give guidelines for it. I think the latter is understandable as the basic approach to making rulings is straightforward, consider if any existing rules cover the situation, if not, look for related or similar rules and model after that. If there is no precedent or similar case, then try to be fair (don’t strongly favor or punish the players), and fun.
And there can be campaign specific concerns, for example, say you like low magic games or you don’t want wizards to be too powerful, you might then make adjudication decisions against wizards more often to reign in the power of the class. Or if you play a competitive game, where the players are either trying to beat each other or the DM runs an adversarial game, you might make adjudication decisions to make the game deadlier or harder. And of course, interpretations will vary, so it’s challenging to come up with a detailed set of rules for how to adjust or adjudicate the rules themselves.
The frequency of these sorts of decisions is often underestimated. Because many players don’t referee, they have no idea of how many of these sorts of adjudications go on both explicitly and without player awareness in the game.
As such the ignorance of this issue works as a barrier to entry for new DM’s. My current after school program has 4 budding DM’s who are trying to run their own home games. All of them have come to me at one point and said that they hadn’t anticipated how often they would encounter something not explicitly covered in the rules. Their first inclination was to scour the books to figure out what the “right answer” was, or just rule out the desired course of action as the rules didn’t cover it.
We had a chat about that. By all means know the rules well, but never let that stop your game. Of course, having to make a decision puts a burden on the DM, and if they are new to the job and the players aren’t that kind, it can be challenging to adjudicate. Are you being fair? Did you miss an existing rule? What if you are too generous and the players hack this rule? That sort of thing.
How often do you, as a DM, have to make rulings about things not explicitly covered in the rules? To give a sense of this from someone who has been running games for a long time, and knows the chosen rule set pretty well, here are a few examples. All came up in play, and all were adjudicated in game:
1. Can you cast invisibility on something as large as a golem? Does the spell have a size restriction?
2. How long does a shocking grasp spell “sit” before it has to be discharged?
3. Does a thief’s climb walls percentage apply to climbing trees, or statues?
4. Can someone with a fire shield spell on them slowly walk through a wall of ice?
5. Can a magic missile hit an object rather than a person?
6. If a shambling mound tries to lift a portcullis, what is its strength for BBLG purposes?
7. Does your familiar make saving throws separately or with the magic user?
8. Can rangers track through urban areas? If so, which percentages do you use, the outdoor or dungeon numbers?
9. Does a druid’s identify animal and plant type ability apply to alien plants and animals, if not, does it apply to plants and animals outside of that druid’s normal environment (e.g. would a sylvan druid be able to recognize desert plants?)
10. If a target has silence and invisibility cast on them, do you roll to see if both spells are dispelled when dispel magic is cast on them, or just one?
11. How do you determine which party member is attacked by a monster, do you use the “pointy hat” rule, e.g. monsters recognize spell casters so go after them, does this extend to clerics?
12. Does a polymorph self spell give you the natural attacks of the creature, e.g. polymorphing into a black pudding does not give you the pudding’s dissolving metal ability, but if you polymorph into a tiger can you attack with claws and teeth?
13. When a character is hit by a fireball, do their objects require a saving throw automatically or is this contingent on the PC failing their save? If it only happens on failure, do you give containment items (e.g. backpacks) the save first and only if they fail do the items within have to save?
14. What happens when you substitute a spell component?
15. Does a fireball set the target aflame, if so, do they take continual fire damage each round thereafter until it is out? Does a fireball set the environment on fire (e.g. if someone casts fireball in the forest does the forest set on fire), and if so what extra damage do those in the target area take in subsequent rounds? How long does it take for the fire to go out?
16. A shocking strike from a wand of lightning negates metallic armor bonuses, does a shocking grasp spell work like this as well?
17. How do you determine if a target is thinking about a relevant piece of information when an ESP spell is cast upon them?
18. If my magic-user casts a forget spell on a target casting a spell and I win initiative, does that wipe the spell from their memory?
19. Can a second spell caster cast a spell from the first spell caster’s Tenser’s Floating Disc?
20. If a magic-user charms an already charmed target, does that negate the first charm if the target fails its save, or can this even be done?
Now, the point here is not to argue that some of these have BtB answers. You could argue that at least two of them do, but Gygax sprinkled his wisdom throughout the books, and you often have to hunt to find out the answers to these things.
Also, there is no point in suggesting that answers to these things are obtained “by omission”, e.g. since Gygax didn’t specify a size limit for invisibility then there is none. That is certainly possible and viable, but if you read the DMG it is chock full of examples of new rules that Gygax introduced thanks to things discovered in play. Gygax, like every other game designer before and after him, could not predict how all the various rules of the game would interact. So for example, read the descriptions of thief abilities in the DMG, or the discussion of invisibility, they are clear indications that the players pushed the rules in unanticipated directions and Gygax is attempting to enumerate the most common examples.
In many cases the rules are just ambiguous, so for shocking grasp, the duration is listed as “one touch”, it doesn’t say how long you can wait to touch the target after casting the spell. Invisibility lasts forever if you don’t attack someone, so there is precedent in the game for long lasting magic. You could restrict it to a day based on the idea of daily casting and memorization of spells, but that’s arbitrary.
In short, the specific examples aren’t the point, the point is that you, as a DM, will be presented with these questions by your players and by the game environment you all create as you play. During an underwater adventure one of my PCs asked if a Leomund’s Tiny Hut spell could be cast, and if so, would it work normally? There is no guidance for this in the books other than the fact the spell isn’t listed in the list of prohibited spells for underwater casting. Does omission mean it’s OK?
I think we can assume at least this: there will be a non-trivial number of instances where the DM will be asked to adjudicate how the game handles an action or event where there are no extant rules in the game for this, and the application of existing rules to the case will require judgement.
Let’s for the moment assume I am correct about the need for adjudication in instances like these. Why is this important? Well, it’s important for a few reasons:
1. Some DM’s are good at this sort of thing, others are not. If you aren’t, you now know something you have to work on!
2. If you don’t, for example, record your decisions on these rulings, you may rule inconsistently.
3. If you are rushed you will sometimes make decisions you have to walk back, or live with long term.
4. One of the most common DM responsibilities in the game has no formal guidelines for it.
5. The sum of these decisions will have an impact on the flavor and tone of your game.
Actually, I have always seen these sort of adjudication decisions as being specific examples of the general skill of improvisation. As DMs you are constantly called upon to have the game world react to the players, and that involves improvisational skills, pivoting on demand, adjusting to circumstances, etc. Figuring out how to apply the rules to a case not covered explicitly by those rules is another form of improvisation.
So here are a few suggestions on how to handle this in play.
Adjudication in D&D
A. Rulings, not just rules. The OSR mantra of rulings not just rules is important here, the idea is that rules matter, but since the rules can’t encompass everything rulings matter just as much, if not more, and no rule should be allowed to direct your game in a way you and the players don’t ultimately like. Gygax didn’t like critical hits, so 1e doesn’t have them, my group likes critical hits, so we use them.
B. Don’t be afraid to “get it wrong”. Actually, you can’t “get it wrong” about extending a rule to an unprecedented case, as the game’s rules don’t cover that case, so there is no “right” or “wrong”. You can choose a complex or inelegant solution, or one that creates rules headaches in other areas, or a solution that you or your players later decided you don’t like, but you can’t get it wrong in any objective sense.
C. Don’t feel beholden to a ruling that you have made. A decision made to keep the game rolling might seem wrong later, so feel free to change it. I would, however, recommend you let the players know you have changed your mind. If you make a ruling, and then change it without telling them, there are concerns about fairness.
D. Record your rulings where possible. Some inconsistency is perfectly fine, but frequent inconsistency is not. It can ruin immersion and bother players who like to have a reliable, learnable set of rules to play by.
E. Make most of your judgements about rules application without consultation, save consultation for cases when you are not sure of the right answer, or cases that have a significant or disproportionate effect on particular PCs. The frequency of these decisions prohibits consultation all of the time. Of course, if you have a group that enjoys these sorts of discussions, and you can get to a decision quickly, then have at it, but in all likelihood it will grind your game to a halt if you open every decision about extending the rules to the whole group.
F. Make sure your rulings apply to NPCs/Monsters as well, there is nothing that leaves a sour taste more than a rule that seems to punish the players only.
G. Build a culture of trust about decision making - e.g. be as consistent as you can, be fair about it (e.g. don’t always side with the monsters or the players). One of the most interesting and least discussed aspects of DMing is trust, if you do this sort of thing well people will flock to your game, as nothing is as awesome as a consistent and fair DM.
H. Have a policy about what to do about “unfair” rulings. There are two reasons for this, one, you will sometimes make mistakes, and if you have a policy about what you do when you make mistakes your corrections will seem less arbitrary. Two, if you make an in-game ruling and then change your mind later, you will have to address how the action/event went down in the game. Does the event stand as a one-time exception to the rule or do you retroactively “fix” the mistake? My group dislikes retconning anything, so when we decide that a previous ruling was a mistake the mistake stands for that one instance, but going forward we change things. I have to come up with a creative in-game explanation of why things worked differently in the one off case, so it’s kind of fun.
I. Limit the time spent adjudicating at the table to a minimum. If it’s going to take more than about a half minute I will call a table break (smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, bathroom break, munchies break, whatever) and take 5 min to review the issue. But that’s the absolute most. Again, unless your group likes to sit around talking about the rules, and some do, I know, this is a fun-killer. If I can’t decide in 5 min I arbitrarily make up something and we move forward.
J. Listen to your players if they say a ruling is “unfair”. Your perspective as the DM is not the same as the perspective of the players. I once had a rule that if you didn’t show up for the game someone else could run your PC. One of my players indicated that she wasn’t comfortable with that, so I changed the rule, now each player designates another player to play their PC if they are not there, and if they can’t choose someone, I remove their character from the session or play them “in the background” as a DMPC, with the player deciding between the options.
K. Trust yourself. No one knows your game world as well as you do, and if you do make a mistake then you can fix it later. No one is dying on the operating table, and your campaign can survive some “bad calls”. But chances are you know your players and your system well enough to make a reasonable call.
L. Get to know your rule set. This sounds like old-fashioned tsk tsking, but really the best way to be able to know how to apply the rules to a case that exceeds them is to know the rules well enough to be able to find a similar case to use as a comparison. So for example, I was once asked by a player if a lightning bolt cast on armor would magnetize it. There is nothing in the DMG or PHB about it, however, Unearthed Arcana has a spell called chromatic orb, one of the spell effects is:
“The turquoise orb inflicts electrical damage, and if the target is wearing ferrous metal it will be magnetized for 3-12 rounds unless a saving throw versus spell is successful. Magnetized metal will stick fast to other magnetized metal items, and non-magnetized ferrous metal items will cling until pulled free”
So when he asked I said, “sure”, and used this as a guideline.
M. Be open to changing rules that aren’t ambiguous. D&D isn’t hermetically sealed, it is meant to be modified by its users into something unique. There may be rules that you or your players just don’t like. You can change them! The more comfortable you are tinkering with the game the better you will get to know how it works, and the easier it will be to find the relevant similar cases in the rules to make your on the spot adjudications.
N. Practice. The more games you run the better you will get and the more confident you will become in your decisions. I find handling corner cases to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of refereeing, as it involves creativity. Don’t stop the session or just forbid players from trying courses of action that the rules don’t cover, dive in and give it a shot.
O. Sculpt. I also find that as you do this over time your campaign takes on a flavor based on the decisions you have made. Once it does, you can use that flavor as a guide for future adjudications.
An example as this one is important.
A thief character once asked if they could cheat at cards by stashing a card in their sleeve, or distracting their opponent and switching out a card. The rules don’t have anything specific for that. I could have made the target make a save of some sort, but I wanted to tie it to the thief. So I decided that he could use his pick pocket’s percentage to see if he could switch the cards unnoticed.
It then led me to applying the thief abilities to conditions that arose in the game. So I used open locks to determine if the party thief could get himself untied when he was restrained, and under that logic I used it to determine if the party thief could tie a knot well enough to hold something. In another instance I allowed the party thief to use his find remove traps ability to repair small metal items, with the assumption that the ability to build or disassemble a lock would imply some skill with tools and metal.
The point is that the first adjudication decision gave me a template to use with others.
P. Make sure you inform the players very clearly that the rules changes they make will apply to NPC’s/Monsters where appropriate. Players tend to forget these sorts of things in their decisions as to what they do and don’t want in the game. For example, my players were once lamenting the fact that they couldn’t cast spells from horseback, I asked them if they wanted to see that change.
Q. Build on the momentum. Once your players know that you are willing to extend the rules to new cases, or that you are willing to interpret the rules rather than saying, “no” because there are no explicit rules for something, they will start to try and do things more often. I have played with conservative DM’s who believe that, “if it ain’t in the books you can’t do it”, and I get why they do this. The sheer scope of the rules is intimidating, and it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about applying and extending the rules fairly. However, once you get used to adjudicating like this the players will start to feel more comfortable trying new things. That’s win-win.
Being adaptable like this is one of the features of TTRPGs that make them unique, most table-top games don’t have an adjudicator, and computer games aren’t that adaptable. TTRPGS are in principle open ended as they have a referee that can extend them as needed. Lean into this as a DM and you will find that your player lean in to the game along with you.
Great gaming awaits!