Last night, my partner Tamara was telling me about the events surrounding a game she's been involved with - that I'm not playing. She began in another campaign when I was working on my book and she's gone on with it, so that Wednesday's I get some private time to work on things while she adventures into the world of other DMs. It's good experience for her, as mine was the only campaign she'd previously played.
She was asking me about a DM's ruling, one that had annoyed her. Seems she had mis-fired her bow. The DM - without any tables, previously created rules or established framework of any kind - simply ruled that the arrow struck another character standing to the left of Tamara. Why? Well, the DM called it 'role-playing' - which failed in Tamara's opinion to justify the incident. There was some discussion at the table - apparently - and then it got dismissed by DM's fiat and their game continued.
It really bugged Tamara. I have a rule that friendly fire can occur with missile weapons. Roll a 2 on a d20, and IF there's a character standing in a 30 degree arc directly in front of you, then yes, you hit him or her in the back. But this was another character standing 90 degrees to the left, completely outside of where Tamara was aiming - and she wanted to know "What the hell? Why did he do that?"
I don't pretend to know the DM's motive. I would imagine he was trying to make the game more interesting, to use the randomness of the die to create tension by having something odd happen. That's my best guess. For my purposes, the incident serves as an example of why things that happen have to make sense.
It's very simple. Because the incident didn't make sense, Tamara's reaction is to a) immediately compare it to another world where there IS a rule that does make sense; and b) to distrust the DM's motives for running his game. Distrust in turn breeds disinterest, which only causes her to feel less immersive in the DM's campaign. Knowing she has an alternative campaign provides a greater reason to feel less committed to any campaign where random, non-rational decisions are made by the DM, encouraging her to simply stop going to games.
Will she bother to explain this thinking process to the DM? No. She will not. She's already tried to argue the point about the arrow when it occurred and she was shut down. Why would she bother to express to the DM the larger point of why the DM's world isn't working for her?
For most, it seems like such a minor issue. Okay, he made something happen, it was five seconds of game time, what's the big deal? The game isn't supposed to be about what's real, it's supposed to be fun. Right?
It surprises me that a culture that can scream at a television set because an umpire makes a marginal call about a ball moving 90 miles an hour over a plate in a completely different game can be so dismissive of a highly questionable call during a slow moving game in which the player is directly involved. It is all a question of degree. The DM that handles the game so casually that even an umpire in a company softball game would pale to think of it rarely understands or even considers the consequences of such rulings. It is as though the DM perceives that he or she has an inexhaustible well of ad hoc calls that they're entitled to make, upon which the player will make no judgement or have no negative reaction.
This mindset can derive only from cognitive dissonance - which I admit I find myself face-to-face with again and again where describing the behaviour of other people. Do they not realize the crops they're sowing?
The begged question becomes, "How many questionable rulings can a DM make before consequences occur?" But does it really matter? Would it help knowing that you had twelve or fifteen, knowing that if you weren't steadfast in never making a bad ruling that you'd eventually use them all up out of sheer laziness?
In fact, every bad ruling made is a potential character kill - if we define 'kill' in this case of the player deciding that enough is enough, I'm not coming back to that campaign. The only reasonable alternative is to get rid of the DM's fiat, embrace interchanges about rationality when they occur - to ensure that every member of the party understands why something has occurred - and to take the whole matter of ruling very seriously. As a DM, you do yourself a tremendous disservice if you make rulings which you cannot explain by a means less general than 'role-playing' or 'because.' You're driving players away from your table.
And because they will probably never tell you that's the reason they've left, you'll never know why. You'll never make the connection. You've treated them dismissively, and now that dismissiveness has come full circle.
Is this really what you want?
Although I talk extensively in my Guide about Dungeon Mastering, this post has been an original point that was not included in my book. I said that I was inexhaustible.