It turns out that the previous “Final” game master tip was actually not the case at all, as The Mary Sue have actually published another one. This time Wil focuses on advising the DM to “Work with the rules, not against them”. I actually have to say of the various contributions from this series, this is by far one of the weakest. It’s more or less a reiteration of the previous “Say Yes!” advice he already gave a few weeks ago. Especially because the subject matter has a lot of value discussion wise – so expect a DM Training on “Adjudicating Rules” sometime in future – but I feel there wasn’t much actual discussion or meaningful advice on how to make rulings.
For now I’ll add that you (as the GM) need to think about how you apply the rules carefully. It’s not important that you follow the rules to the letter of the law (sometimes called “RAW” in RPG discussions, which means “Rules As Written”), unless of course that’s your style, but rather that you’re consistent. In my opinion, nothing causes more problems at the table than inconsistently making rules judgments. Don’t rule one way for one player and do so another way for the next player to try the same thing. A good example if in my 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign – a very long time ago – I made a ruling on how teleportation “Dropping” of enemies or players worked.
To give you some context and background, in 4E DnD it was not clear if you could teleport an enemy into the air and then “drop” them as part of the spell/power. The advantage for doing this was twofold: Firstly the fall would potentially leave the enemy prone and secondly, but arguably most importantly, deal extra damage. This is probably above the scope of how these powers were intended, especially as 4E was based on a pretty good balancing arc for most abilities. My solution eventually was to give enemies that were teleported in this manner a saving throw – on a success they couldn’t be teleported into the air. This reduced the power of the ability considerably, allowed my players to do it (if they wanted to try) and was a fair result.
What’s important here is to be consistent: Once I made this ruling it applied across the board. Everyone knew that if a monster tried to do the same thing, players would get the same chance to resist the effect the same way. Consistency in the ruling meant that everyone was happy and consistent rulings are also the most fair by far. Of course not everything will sometimes fit into such a neat, readily applicable ruling and in these cases you need to use case by case judgement. Overpowered abilities, strange rules interactions and similar are all times where you might need to make on the spot rulings. In my case, I always go with “What makes the game the most interesting?” and try to rule based on that.
For example, if someone has a spell that might end an encounter instantly based on some strange rules interaction (Pathfinder, DnD are good culprits for this), consider ruling in the players favor and say “Yes that works, but…”. For example you may not have anticipated a spell turning the stone ceiling to mud, caving it in on the approaching enemies and completely ending the encounter without any real fight. One you might have worked hard on to capstone your encounter. Here try not to instinctively say “No that doesn’t work” and deny the player the use of their ability, especially because it goes against the general “Say yes” principle that roleplaying games work very well under. Instead allow this rules interaction to work and while your players celebrate their success, quickly find the first reasonable level burrowing monster you can in the monster manual.
Here is now where that “But” comes in and you complicate the situation in a new way. As your villain is being buried under tons of mud, rubble and so forth he screams out “By the Nine Hells, that stone was warded against ….” and even as he’s gurgling his last while mud covers him the massive Brown dragon (they can burrow), Umber Hulk, Ankhegs or whatever else burst through. Now instead of your encounter being “over”, you’ve just changed the landscape and done something new. Your players have a different situation to react to, while not taking away their initial triumph at all and everyone (including you as the DM) feels like a satisfying encounter was had. Does it matter you literally pulled that thing out of nowhere at the last minute? Nope, only that it made for unique twists and turns, but most importantly didn’t take away the players agency.
I intend to write about this in a lot more depth in future, but for now take away two points: 1) Be consistent with your rulings, with the aim of trying to be fair from both a PC and NPC viewpoint. 2) Don’t try to rule your players out of cool moments or uses of abilities, instead try to work within the rules (if possible) to put a twist on what the player’s actions did.