Adjudicating and House Rules

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 19, 2009

DM – The bugbear sneaks up behind Ethan the Rogue and strangles him with a garrote. You’re immobilized until you make a successful escape check.
Nenia – I attack the Bugbear with a Magic Missile and use my Orb of Unlucky Exchanges to switch the immobilized condition from Ethan to the Bugbear.
DM – Wait a minute, you mean the garrote magically goes from around Ethan’s neck to around the Bugbear’s own neck? That doesn’t seem right.
Nenia – That’s right and if the Bugbear wants to free himself he needs to make an escape check.
DM – Against himself?! That definitely doesn’t sound right.

What happens when a situation comes up and you as the DM don’t know what to do? Generally it’s one of two things: 1) you know there’s a rule that will solve the dilemma but you can’t find it, or 2) the situation is so unprecedented that you never thought of how to handle it. As the DM, what do you do?

There are many options but here’s the process my group’s adopted. This is also the same philosophy that many of the GMs at GenCon used when I was there last summer.

When a circumstance arises where the rule is in question the DM will make an on-the-spot call and the game will continue. Unless it’s something really far fetched the DM will usually try to say yes and allow it, rewarding creative thinking on the part of the players. If there is any disagreement (and who are we kidding, there’s almost always some disagreement) the player affected can look through the books and try to find something, anything, to “correct” the DM and change the ruling. Meanwhile play continues. If the player hasn’t been able to come up with something concrete by the time their next turn comes up in the initiative order then the DM’s ruling stands and for the time being investigation stops.

However, like any rule there are exceptions. If the call will result in the death of any characters the game stops and everyone scours books for the correct ruling. But, if nothing can be found within a few minutes then as before the game continues and the DM’s ruling stands.

We’ve found that keeping the game moving is more important than looking up every tiny little detail about an obscure or unexpected rule. You don’t want to stop in the middle of an epic battle that’s been raging for an hour while people search for a rule in the PHB. Trust the DM to make what he believes is a fair interpretation of the rules in this situation and play on.

The most important step in this whole process is what happens after the game. In the days (or hours) following the end of the session where the dispute happened, all participants in our regular group discus the situation and the ruling. We all search for the correct rule in any of the official books. If none can be found (or we give up looking), then we make a house rule just in case the situation ever comes up again. But the house rule needs to get unanimous agreement. This ruling will apply to the PCs and the monsters alike so it’s important that it’s fair and balanced. The only way that we’ll overturn the house rule in future games is if we find a clarification printed in an official source. Until then we go with our version. And in some cases the house rule is not exactly the same as the in-game call made by the DM. But as long as it’s a unanimous decision we keep it.

You need to trust that your DM is fair and has a pretty good grasp on the rules. Since 4e is still relatively new, we find that we take rule breaks more often than we did with 3e. We want to make sure that we’re getting it right and that the ruling is fair. We took deliberate steps to make sure that we’re doing things the 4e way and not relying on our 3e experience as players and DMs to steer our ruling. In a few cases we found that a particular rule or modifier was very different in 4e than 3e. So it’s worth taking a few minutes to check your PHB and be sure that everyone learns the new rule.

At the end of the day the objective of D&D is to have fun. Keeping the game moving forward is the best way to accomplish this. Sure you can break for a minute to look up the rules if you’re in doubt, but don’t let investigation slow down or stop the game. This is how my group decided to handle disputes over the rules. It may not work for everyone, but it’s reduced the amount of arguing over interpretation of the rules. If you handle these situations differently let us know your approach, we’re always looking for ways to keep the game moving forward and make play better.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suddry February 19, 2009 at 6:41 pm

The reversing garrotte will go down as one of the more memorable incidents in my DMing career. For the record it happened with minutes left in our session so I (we) laughed and ran with it. Magic is magic correct? To top it off the bugbear had just been forced into a burning wall so he took fire damage on top of trying to choke himself! Good times.

We’ve had a number of instances where we were looking up rule clarifications in the days after the session. One place I like to look if I can’t find anything in my books or the erratta (*cough* I mean updates) is the WotC forums. It is surprising how many other rules exist that I wasn’t aware of! Who knew that flying creatures need to move at least 2 squares during their turn or they crash to the ground!?!

2 jonathan March 9, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Great post and you were right, this makes a good companion piece to the Catching on Fire post at The Core Mechanic. Glad I found your blog! duly added to my feed reader.

3 Ameron March 10, 2009 at 10:20 am

@Jonathan
Thanks for checking out Dungeon’s Master. We look forward to hearing your comments on future posts.

4 Dungeon April 7, 2009 at 9:45 am

As a house rule, i make my players in 3e roll initiative with a D10, not a D20.

5 Ameron April 7, 2009 at 2:12 pm

@Dungeon
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having the PCs use a d10 for initiative, as long as you’re not using a d20 to roll the monster’s initiative.

6 Dungeon April 8, 2009 at 9:49 am

@Ameron
I don’t, that wouldn’t be very fair to the players. I did it so i wouldn’t have to think alot about numbers.

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