Ruling Yourself Into a Corner and How You Can Escape It

Let’s be honest, even if you read a rulebook cover-to-cover, you’re probably not going to memorize every single mechanic or rule. Especially if it’s your first time playing a RPG system. For some small one-page games this is possible, but for most 200+ pg sourcebooks this is an unreasonable expectation.

But let’s say that you do memorize all of the rules. Chances are, your players are going to put the game in a situation that wasn’t accounted for in the rulebook. Players are creative, they’ll find a way, and that’s a good thing!

My point is that sometimes as the GM you’ll have to make a ruling on a situation. You’ll have to use your knowledge of the game to figure out an outcome that makes sense, and sometimes you’re going to be wrong.

Other times there already is a rule or mechanic for this scenario and you just totally forgot about it or didn’t know about it because it is such a niche case you didn’t bother reading. It happens.

So today let’s talk about a common problem in RPGs, flubbed rulings, their consequences, and how to fix them!

Forest art for magic the gathering
Rules are the foundation of your game system. Unfortunately, sometimes the developers forget a few blocks. Credit: WotC.

How Are Incorrect Rulings Dangerous?

As with anything, it’s going to depend on the context. No one will bat an eye if you misunderstand how a niche mechanic works. However, the game can go downhill fast if your group misunderstands how a class feature works and buffs that player to newfound heights of power.

The real issue with incorrect rulings is that it can force the GM to choose between being consistent with their previous (incorrect) ruling and the game system’s integrity. Generally, it’s both easier and faster to pick consistency. And this is how things can spiral out of control.

Maybe your ruling isn’t all that detrimental to the game at first. However, as you progress through most game systems your players’ characters will gain new powers and equipment. Also, your players will generally get better at the game as well.

When this happens, new variables are added to the mix. These variables can create new holes in your ruling and negatively impact your game.

Now, obviously, how much of an impact this has on your game is going to depend on the ruling you make. Something like thinking a successful hit needs to be higher than (instead of greater than or equal to) the target’s Armor Class in D&D 5e will have a lesser impact on the game than not understanding how item attunement works and giving your players 4+ magical items each.

Both negatively impact the game, but one has the potential harm your game much more than the other.

Solutions to Fixing an Incorrect Ruling

Thankfully nothing in life is permanent. That includes incorrect rulings in RPGs. So don’t fret if you make a mistake with the rules because you can always correct that mistake later!

In the moment though, try your best to keep the game moving. If it’s something you can easily look up then do that quickly, but otherwise, use your best judgment on how the situation should go down.

No one wants to wait 10 minutes for you to refresh yourself on how grappling works, but most people will be fine if you google what certain status effects do to double-check yourself in the middle of combat.

Use Magical Items

Magical items come to mind first and foremost as a way to handwave certain issues your group may have.

We’ve talked before about how I like to use magic items to avoid game mechanics I find tedious in D&D 5e. Could also do the same thing to get rid of or justify a poor ruling on your part. While this is a bit of a band-aid fix, it’s a fix nonetheless.

This solution is only going to be usable on a case-by-case basis, but sometimes you can utilize the game system’s mechanics to correct your poor ruling. Magical items are just wacky enough to be able to be used in this manner.

There is a glaring issue with this solution though. Not every game system has magical items!

Thankfully we have other and more effective ways to solve these types of problems. But a magical item that can act as a band-aid for your (probably minor) mechanical boo-boo can be just enough to put your mind at ease.

Dungeon Master's Guide magical rings art
There are tons of magical items in the DMG, but you can always homebrew your own to resolve your group’s unique problems. Credit WotC.

Talk About It!

I’ve thankfully been blessed with having great gaming groups as of late. This is mostly because we’re all friends outside of our games and honestly the game is secondary to us spending time together.

That’s not to say that we don’t all take it seriously, but there are some of us that take it more seriously than others. I’m, unsurprisingly, one of those people that take the games more seriously than many of the others.

I’m also someone who likes to play by the rules. So I get a bit frustrated when I make a rules decision and then find out later that I missed the mark entirely.

Typically when this happens I like to talk to my group before the next session before we do our recap and explain that I messed up. Generally, we’ll just play by whatever the correct rules are, but there have been a couple of instances where we all agree that we like our new ruling better.

Communication is key. If you have a problem with your game, talk to your group about it. I cannot stress this enough.

The best way to solve a problem in your group, be it an incorrect ruling or clashing party dynamics, is to COMMUNICATE!

Cut Your Losses For This Game

Not every missed call or flubbed ruling is detrimental to the game. There are also varying degrees of how harmful an incorrect ruling can be for the game.

What I’m trying to say is that while it may bug you that you made the wrong ruling or decision and have the information to correct that ruling going forward, this may be a scenario where it’s going to do more harm than good to correct your table.

If you find that the ruling is annoying you, you can correct your ruling for the next campaign. Honestly, it’s more about being consistent for your campaign. Changing rules multiple times for the same scenario is confusing.

Conclusions

Everyone makes a spur of the moment rulings when they GM an RPG. It’s one of the responsibilities of the GM to make a rules decision, even if there aren’t any concrete rules to back up their decision. Sometimes your rulings are going to be incorrect and that’s fine. There are ways to correct this if it’s worth correcting.

Whether you should or shouldn’t correct your ruling sort of depends on how much you value balance in your games. Though that’s not to say that your incorrect ruling couldn’t wind up being a better option or more balanced than the official rules of your game system. It’s unlikely but possible!

When I make a mistake or a poor ruling I will generally roll with it at the moment and then look it up afterward. If it turns out I’m incorrect I’ll keep that in mind and correct myself the next time it comes up or discuss it with my players before the next session. Communication is key.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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