As I play the game more and more, and I watch other DMs run their games, I’m starting to figure out what kind of Dungeon Master I am. I’ve been doing this for a couple years now – on and off – and I have thoughts and opinions on the thing, but I still feel like I’m finding my feet from time to time.

I learned how to DM by watching five people: my friends, Dawn and Spencer, and also online game DMs Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Ben Moore. They gave me the confidence and initial know-how I needed to decide that I could and wanted to do this.

Each of those that I observed have different styles of running the game. Some of them were for different versions of the game. The three DMs that ran games online, or streamed games for mass audiences, often received a high level of flack from viewers on their gaming style, and how they did or did not “follow the rules.”

That seems to be a big deal to a lot of people, I’ve noticed. As I mentioned in a previous post, some people really dislike Critical Role because, they feel, Matt does not follow the rules, or changes the rules. But, really, that’s the DM’s job…to make the world and the rules of that world fit the game style that they run.

Now that I’m running a regular game, things are popping up here and there. My players – clever as they are – attempt to do things that may or may not be possible within the rules of the game. So it falls on me to be the referee. Is that something they can do? What are the basics for the rules surrounding what they want to do?

Two things came up in our last session. And I was faced with a choice: let it happen, or consult the rules to see if that’s how the mechanics work. The latter could have either outcome, while the former only had the one outcome. The reason that I did not outright go with “let it happen” is because that sets a precedent, and I’m suddenly realizing that I’d rather see what the rules say is possible.

First, our wizard wanted to distract what might have been a dragon, or a ghost of a dragon, by using his Prestidigitation cantrip to create the sound of a helpless child crying and calling for help. I didn’t think the cantrip could do something like that, so I consulted the PHB and found the spell description.

This spell is a minor magical trick that novice spell-casters use for practice. You create one of the following magical effects within range:

You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical notes, or an odd odor.

You instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire.

You instantaneously clean or soil an object no larger than 1 cubic foot.

You chill, warm, or flavor up to 1 cubic foot of nonliving material for 1 hour.

You make a color, a small mark, or a symbol appear on an object or a surface for 1 hour.

You create a nonmagical trinket or an illusory image that can fit in your hand and that lasts until the end of your next turn.

It’s a great spell, and I applaud the player for being creative and clever with it. However, it does not seem capable of mimicking a human voice so intricately.

I do know, however, that the spell Minor Illusion can do just that.

You create a sound or an image of an object within range that lasts for the duration. The illusion also ends if you dismiss it as an action or cast the spell again.

If you create a sound, its volume can range from a whisper to a scream. It can be your voice, someone else’s voice, a lion’s roar, a beating of drums, or any other sound you choose. The sound continues unabated throughout the duration or you can make discrete sounds at different times before the spell ends.

So, since that difference in the descriptive text exists, I ruled that Prestidigitation could not do what the wizard wanted it to do. He was then able to use his other abilities to attempt a similar diversion, so it worked out.

The second thing that happened was when our Eldritch Knight fighter used his action to cast the Burning Hands spell, and then decided to use his Extra Attack feature to cast Burning Hands again.

After consulting with the Extra Attack text, I ruled that it is used when he makes an Attack as his action, and then he can take a second Attack after that. Casting a spell does not count as an “Attack” action. However, I said he could use his Action Surge to gain a second action, and therefore cast Burning Hands again. He opted not to, in this case.

So, just in this last session alone, I had to judge a couple of different instances. I don’t do it to keep my players from doing cool things, but rather I try to encourage them to use what they have at their disposal as they’re meant to function, and then be creative in developing solutions – not that they weren’t already being creative.

Due to some poor choices on my part, I had the bend the rules in favor of the players at one point during the game, allowing them to move faster than normal to catch up to the rest of the group so that one of my players could actually be in the game. I did come up with an in-game excuse as to why this was happening, but that’s an example of how I try to help them by going around the rules at times too.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I try to be fair. I don’t want to show favoritism – or constantly rule in favor of something and inadvertently show favoritism – and I also feel like letting the players run and be able to do absolutely anything would be not fun. So the middle ground is tricky to find sometimes. I want to create a “realistic” world, but not be a rules-monger and ruin the fun of the players at the same time.

I think I can accomplish this by mostly following the rules, but then bending them to allow a character to do something that’s really awesome, or really clever – like something that would make me want to grant a player Inspiration.

What situations have you encountered where you felt you had to consult the rules, and it didn’t seem entirely clear? How did you rule in that situation? Do you generally follow the rules provided by the PHB and the DMG? Or do you play more fast-and-loose?

Until next time – Well Met!