Snap Judgments and Imperfect Worlds

Let’s talk about what happens when the rules fail you or you fail the rules. It doesn’t matter the system, this happens. Even with a solid, robust system,  there are two major points where a game can mechanically break down in play. These points shall be addressed, and then you’ll see ways to make the most of thing.

1. When it comes into contact with a player’s creativity or

2. Lack of familiarity by the GM

Let’s work backwards, shall we? In a perfect world, every player and GM would have knowledge of every system they play, and in most groups there is usually someone who grasps the full breadth and depth of any given system, but, that is rarely the case. At the end of the day, the GM/Keeper/Storyteller/Director/Etcetera is the guy who is responsible for knowing the rules at least as well as, if not better than, the players at the group. Granted, each player should have a firm understanding of his character, the GM is the guy who should know how all the fiddly pieces work together, and the players should, essentially, just “do things” and roll dice as necessary. In established groups, there is this little thing called trust, and the GM isn’t required to call out every modifier, but give a summation. A -2 could be the result of fog, poor lighting, and obstacles combined with the target being somewhat illuminated in the doorway. Running off the litany of numbers can show off expertise, but doesn’t do much for the story.

The bigger danger of hitting a snag in a system is when the player attempts to do something which falls out of the purview of the rules as written. If someone wants to pick somebody up and throw them into a bunch of goons or if they want to attack someone with a flaming spork, there are times when the system isn’t going to cover that. Even the best rules attempting to cover all eventualities will have a black hole somewhere or other, or be so comprehensive to preclude all but the most experienced GMs from knowing all the rules.

What does the GM do when these issues raise their ugly head?

Short Answer: Make a reasonable call quickly, and get on with it.

Long Answer: Depending upon where you are in the familiarity stream should determine how you handle the situation.

If the game is new for you and your group, you can take a little extra time to go through the rules in play. This breaks a little bit of the illusion, but it is a forgivable sin. Even if you collectively run certain rules wrong, you are doing so as a group, so there is an intrinsic logic there. You can parse out rules questions to those individuals who haunt forums or stalk design threads to clear up any vagaries as they arise. If it’s the first time you run a game within a particular system, and you have players more familiar with the rules than you are, lean on them. You are there to present and arbitrate a scenario, a story, but the emphasis is on present. It’s better to have a GM sketchy on rules and strong on story than the inverse. At least in the former case, you’re having a fun time as you’re learning. Strive for consistency: if you decide flying tackles are treated as a Wild Attack, don’t suddenly change how they act later in the game unless you have found a clear ruling to the contrary. If it’s discovered the proper way is found in p.88 of the core book, and everyone overlooked it, that’s all well and good. If you find it in Supplement Book X, you’ll have to decide which way you want to play.

Important Footnote: 9 times out of 10, you should go with the short answer guideline–make a reasonable call and move on. Nothing can damage a story than one hero decides to wrest a gun from the bad guy’s hand. You could make it a grappling roll (most appropriate), an opposed Agility roll, or a Smarts trick or whatever. Later on, the players are only going to remember if the effort succeeded or failed or how it affected the story, unless you decide to spend thirty minutes poring over rules books, checking online, and what-have-you which turns a future anecdote about the story into a procedural remembrance rather than recounting a story.

Postmortem: No matter whether you take the quick and dirty route or invest more thoughtful consideration in game, you need to present a space for your players to get meta post game. Educate your players to hold off on rules discussions until the session has ended, and be certain to afford them the  time and opportunity to present their case right after the game. Not next time, but right then. You need to hear what they have to say while its fresh on your mind. You can learn a lot from postmortems for multiple reasons, but you need to see if how you presented your ruling was fair or if your gang has viable counterpoints. Be open to brutality. You don’t learn much from a hug. At least from a punch in the gut, you know to tense your muscles a bit. This feedback is invaluable to your growth as a GM, so don’t take it personally. By the same token, encourage your players to be respectful, obey the human concepts of civility. They can be brutal, but only insofar as the delineated feedback (i.e. rules, story, etc. goes). They should not take it as an opportunity to convert you to the Temple of Dolphinism.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up: If you follow the postmortem suggestions properly, you shouldn’t even be considering this (as your gang has already done this for you). You should soak in the newfound knowledge, revel in the lesson learned, and be mentally prepared to handle the next bit of weirdness which arises with deftness and acumen.

Now, armed a bit with knowledge gleaned from countless games, I encourage you to go earn some (more) scars of your own;  I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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