Rulings at the Table

I was going to review Ryan Chaddock’s Angels & Ashes, but one of my players pointed out that I might have been showing too much love to Monte Cook Games.  I deny that anyone can show too much love for Numenera, but decided to throw up a piece of GM advice I have been discussing with one of my players this week.  The core of the question is: Is it better to rule right or rule quick at the table?

I understand that most of us are playing RPGs using a ruleset that provides some framework for the world.  (Some might respond by raising the storytelling games flag, but that is a rant for a different soapbox).  Part of the unspoken agreement between players and GM that they will use the rules to facilitate their game.  To me, this means that players are responsible for the general rules knowledge that affect their characters, and that they will make the effort to continue to learn the rules over the course of the game.  The GMs responsibility it to present the rules as accurately as possible, and to cleave to that framework to craft a story that allows the players can interact the rules of the game.  There are also times where the GM should, for the sake of the table enjoyment, fudge or break these rules.  This is also a topic for a different time, as I could write a series of articles on story vs. mechanics. 

However, back on topic, most games have far too many rules for any one mind to absorb completely at one time.  There are many situational rules that just don’t come up often enough for players or the GM to remember with clarity.  In those situations, where the game clearly has rules for the situation but no one can remember, you have a number of options.  You can stop to look it up, you can have your players look it up, or your can rule and revisit after the game.

For me, what option I use at the table is based on a number of factors.  At the start of a campaign, I will stop to look up rules, as we are all learning the system.  The story and gameplay is secondary to a good foundational knowledge of the rules.  Anima, Mage and Burning Wheel were played like this for close to two months of play, as their complicated systems require a significant level of system mastery.

However, once we are in the groove of the game, it is all about speed and focus.  My groups tend to only play for two and a half to three hours.  So every minute I spend delving for rules is time that the group is not playing. If it is something that only affects one player at the table, and the rest of the group can continue playing in the meantime, that player can look up and when it comes back around to their turn, they can show me the rule. 

For most things however, I try to rule at the table and then go back afterwards to the book.  Most games have a certain internal consistency that you can infer rulings from.  Take the d20 system.  Bonuses of +2 to d20 rolls, and DC increases of 5 are rampant throughout the system.  So it is easy to apply a +/- 2 to a roll or increase/decrease the DC in increments of 5, and still be compliant with the rule set.  Anima had modifiers that were in groupings of 10% and 20%, and Burning Wheel give bonus dice or increased obstacles. 

However, after the fact, I find it is important for the GM to go and look at the actual rules for situation.  During my post game wrap up that I do after sessions, while filling out my consequence list, I look at the rulings I made at the table.  Or I have Nick or Calvin look, or find that Nick or Calvin have already looked the rule up and IM’d me.  (Seriously, you need a Calvin or a Nick in your game.)  At the start of the next session, I will review the actual rule with my players.  This puts the rule in their mental wheelhouse to help remember next time.  Also it gives us some non-game time to discuss the rule, and if we need to change it.

My personal goal when I run a game is rules mastery and a great story.  My style of running a session is focused on keeping the story moving, and the players engaged for the time we are at the table.  Sometimes these two things conflict.  But after 21 years of GMing, I have become comfortable with my choice in how I deal with rulings at the table.




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