Almost every tenured DM has faced the challenge where a player character wanted to do something that was not covered by the rules. It could be that they want to use illusionary magic to cause an effect not covered by the rules. Alternatively, they could be attempting to do something that is just not entirely described in the rules per se like creating a new magical item using a combination of spells and feats. What should a DM do when they encounter such a situation?
As I have said countless times in this blog for me the game is about telling stories and having fun. Sometimes the rules help move the fun along and other times the rules can cause the fun to become stagnate as the DM and possibly others sit around a table looking up esoteric rules for these situations. What then can the DM do to prevent the eventual bog-down of cross-referencing rules to the point of game shutdown? Well two things can help this really resources and politics.
Here there are many options including online resources, electronic resources, spot rulings and telling the player no. You can start by using online resources such as the d20 Pathfinder SRD and electronic pdfs of the Pathfinder books to make your rules searches more efficient. Sometimes a situation exists where there is no rule that is apparent and you must make an on-the-spot ruling (usually in the favor of the creative player). You could also use a similar rule to apply to this particular circumstance. For instance if you have a character wishing to lower another character from a dangling rope although the rules do not specifically detail this in climb you could either use a climb or a strength check depending on the circumstances. Lastly, and this is my least favorite, you just tell the player that it cannot be done.
There are countless online resources that I use in my games every session including Tavern NameGenerators, NPC Generators, Baby Name Lists, Town Name Generators, Random NameGenerators, Wikis of the Campaign World and the irreplaceable D20PathfinderSRD. The really cool thing about online resources is that you can use these during the game if you have a laptop or a tablet pc very easily. I use a laptop during our games to quickly cross-reference the rules and to look up important information on-the-fly.
If you purchase a store copy of the book, oftentimes the game companies run sales that allow you to pick up the pdf for pennies compared to the actual book cost. I find this invaluable as the number of times I have used an electronic copy of a book to quickly lookup a rule has far surpassed the amount of money that I paid for the product in terms of time spent looking up the answer.
Apart from electronic copies of the rules and campaign settings you might also want to check out programs specifically designed to help facilitate the game such as DM Genie or Hero Lab. For those DMs who run games virtually there are also tabletop roleplaying programs complete with virtual tabletops.
These can be tricky so I usually keep them to a minimum if at all possible because players prefer that the DM is using a set of standards that they can relate to. My situation is most likely different from their situation and although my grandfather’s family might own a dairy and I might have grown up with farm animals and know some very relevant details about a horse and exactly what it can do I prefer to allow the rules to speak to the majority of the situations that arise. Regardless of my preference however this article is specifically about what to do when there is no ruling and as such I would say that a DMs best bet for on-the-spot rulings is to be fair, be concise and be realistic as possible.
As an example, the players just had the cavern floor under them disintegrated by a beholder with a special feat that allowed him to do that. One, you do NOT have to tell the players that this is the reason and if they ask you can just smile. Two, I would have the players fall and take damage for falling. Three, hopefully you had already calculated the distance they fall. Perhaps you decide to allow for a Reflex save for all players to leap out of the way at the cost of their next move action? It’s really up to you as the DM but I would personally allow for the elective save of some kind by the players. If a creative player tries to use say his quarterstaff as a stick to help him leap out of the way of the falling floor maybe give him a +2 bonus. Nasty trick? Yep. In general I like to use the +2,-2, +4, -4, +6,-6, +8,-8 modifiers to rolls depending on the difficulty of the situation. Regardless of your spot ruling, stick to it for the situation at hand and try to develop a consistent approach.
A player wants to do the classic swashbuckler maneuver of sliding down the sails using his knife. In Pathfinder at least I know there are no specific rules that cover this in the main book. A similar rule might be climb or it might be a combination of checks. In this case I might have the player make a climb check followed by an acrobatics check. If both were successful, he was able to perform the maneuver.
Another example would be controlling a summoned creature while inside of an obscuring mist or attempting to locate targets while inside an obscuring mist. In this situation, what I decided to do was to tell the player that he had to summon he creature directly outside of the mists close to his character and that I would then take the summoned creature and attack the nearest enemy of the character until no enemies were within sight. For the spell I told him that he would have to guess the location of the enemies and that, there was a chance that he would miss and not only miss but might end up hitting his friends if they were within close proximity to his targets. This is because obscuring mist blinds anyone inside of the mist and would therefore have detrimental effects on anyone attempting to control within the sphere of the spell. I am not saying that these rulings are cannon but they worked for me and they seemed to be fair to the players. Warning: This should be used sparingly as players will learn quickly that they can overcome the rules by being ‘creative’ and it might create a problem for the other players.
No is a word that DMs use too often that players despise. When I run a game I try to allow players to be creative but within certain limits. Normally everyone knows these limits but sometimes when we have a new player for instance, the limits are pushed. In these situations it is OK for the DM to simply say no. If countered with ‘well this is how the book does it’ you have a choice to make. You could either stick to your original no or you could look up the rule for yourself. If you stick to your original no you could tell the player that you will discuss it with them after the game or look up the rule after the game. If you look up the rule for yourself, you might be in for a bit of a ride.
I hate to say it but in many situations players seem to like to take rules from one area of a specific situation and attempt to apply the same rule to a completely different area or situation. In some cases they also quote material that is not cannon or is from alternate sources. This is where you as a DM have to be careful of engaging in rules disputes with potential rules lawyers. It has been my experience this is a very dangerous zone that can lead to players becoming increasingly frustrated. Again, the bottom line is that it is your call as the DM to make these calls. If it doesn’t make sense to you then tell the player no. If later you learn that this is a rule in the book either make a house ruling that says they cannot use this rule or apologize to the player and allow them to do it in the future.
A DM has to be many things: the enemies of the players, the voices of the kindly and vengeful NPCs, the eyes, ears and senses of the players, the creator of the world and the arbitrator of rules. This takes a great deal of political acumen to bring everyone together to tell an impromptu story with rules that are never going to cover every possibly situation or avenue. The best and most important tool that a DM can have in his toolkit is patience, understanding and political understanding. Imagination is very important as is the ability to be a ham at times but the biggest threat to games is the inability of a DM to allow the players to play heroes of the campaign world rather than just allowing them to play second fiddle to the major NPCs of the world who do everything and are all powerful. As a DM you have great power and great responsibility. Remember DMs – be humble but use your power if necessary.