December 30, 2019

The Importance of Being Even-Handed as a DM/GM

This week’s #GMAdvice post is about the importance of being even-handed in your judgments as GM/DM.

No matter how thorough the rule book for the tabletop RPG system you’re using, there are going to come times when a situation is more or less up for interpretation. Naturally, players care about what the ultimate result is in these situations. After all, they’ve invested considerable time, effort, and energy into their characters, the party, and the story – it’s only natural that they would be passionate about how these types of situations get decided.

Similar to a judge who must fairly preside over at least two conflicting viewpoints and interpretations, as the GM/DM, you must be even-handed in how you treat these situations when they arise. A lot of the conflict that can arise at the table stems from just these moments so it’s crucial the GM/DM establish a consistent method for levying a judgement. To that end, the following principals should be adopted by GMs/DMs when these situations arise: that way, you best avoid unnecessary conflict, best facilitate the pacing of the story, and don’t let small issues snowball into larger ones.

Grounded in Reason
Communication Forum
Be Firm

Grounded in Reason

A crucial, albeit probably obvious component of making judgement calls is to have your decision be thoughtfully and reasonably grounded in the tabletop RPG’s rules and the story world you’ve created. It’s best to at least subtly show the players that you’ve thought this situation through, weighed the different options/sides, and come to a decision that way.

And further, connecting the root of that decision-making to the core elements of the story you’re playing will go a long way. Making your decisions in these circumstances consistent with how you’ve treated either similar decisions or how the internal logic of the story has extrapolated over time goes a long way to ensuring your players are on the same page with you.

Communication Forum

And when you’ve made a judgement call, especially when you feel that there may be issues with its effects, it’s important that as the GM/DM you provide a forum for communication at the table. You want empower the players to have their opinions heard if one or more of them disagree – maybe they have a good point or are offering evidence toward something you did not otherwise consider.

But this forum does have it’s limits. When you get to the “yeah, but…” stage, you know it’s time to move on and make your decision final. The communication forum isn’t about an elaborate discussion, it’s about allowing conflicting viewpoints to be heard and reasonably considered.

Be Firm

When you’ve taken the time and been thoughtful in your decision-making, it’s important to stand your decision unless you feel you’ve made an egregious error. If you waffle and cave to the pressure of the players, it’s going to incentivize them to try and push you around in the future. And that’s where being firm comes into play: once you’ve made a decision and had the reasonable time to discuss and process as needed with the players, the decision is final.

The story – and people’s time! – can’t be held up forever, even if players feel the outcome is incredibly important. It’s part of your role as the GM/DM to ensure the “show goes on” so to speak – make sure your players understand that you treat that power seriously. Even refer back to how you came to the decision if necessary – if nothing else, clearly you’re treating the situation seriously by virtue of the thought that went into making the judgement call.

Players with GMs/DMs who hold the line and apply these principals, even if they disagree with the decision, respect the GM for doing their job, prioritizing the story, and being fair. You’ll find that most, if not all, conflicts tend to evaporate if crucial judgement calls are handled in this manner. You won’t regret it!