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As with any position of power, responsibility is bestowed onto a GM when running a game. Because good GMing has a lot of impact on overall enjoyment, the GM carries a certain amount of weight behind his rulings and decisions, both mechanical and narrative.

However, sometimes the GM is not the most experienced, smartest or even observant person at the table. In those cases players are requested to up their suspension of disbelief for the good of the game. As some RPG experts describe it, any new group and any new GM should be given a certain credit of trust and use it to introduce entertaining challenges and interesting stories into the game without being questioned.

However, sometimes the group does not give enough trust or time for that effort to pay off, or they might have a hard time divorcing themselves from their (higher than met) expectations. In those cases the GM might be up against subversive behaviours. Most common is rule lawyering, especially if there are players better versed in the game systems than the GM, which is dealt with in a different question. Sometimes, however, narrative decisions are being challenged and from time to time the players are logically, objectively right.

To give an example, if the GM establishes a certain magical disease leaves no one alive and then forgets that a character has been previously infected, it is possible that the players point out that the character is either special in some way (immune, shielded etc. and it has been established the character is not) or should be dead. This is a classic "Oh c***" moment and with a nice group it is jut pointed out and the group moves on. However, sometimes a player will get hung up on that detail, demanding explanation, convincing another players that there is a better way of driving the story or even make an argument about how uninformed the GM is for committing such a mistake. In fact in my previous experiences, it didn't take much for some players to start narration-lawyering, especially in modern or historical settings. To put that into perspective, one player argued with me about how the middle-eastern characters in my 15th century carry the wrong kind of knife, as well as pointing out certain anachronisms regarding military tactics and science.

The GM himself might be frustrated and reluctant to experiment when it happens. Of course, one can brush it off as "yeah, you're right" and do a quick retcon, but it doesn't seem like a good long term strategy. One could as well use his assumed authority and go "It's how it is, because I say so" or even try to re-write parts of the narrative to fit his blooper, which might change the narrative goal of the story and throw the game off the rails.

These behaviours, to some degree, will always be present in new groups in their storming phase, where players test the boundaries of the social contract and the game, likely without ill intentions. However, I'd like to know how does the GM react to such challenges without hampering his future narrative potential?

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"the GM establishes a certain magical disease leaves no one alive" -- how exactly? The "fact" has to have been translated into character knowledge in some way. Maybe the characters' source (NPC, book, general knowledge) was lying, or honestly wrong. – Raphael Jan 5 at 17:23
I didn't want to spend a lot of time elaborating on that, but the disease has been around for a while and got properly researched - ancient texts, religious advice, magical examinations all pointed to 100% lethality. The disease was thought to be eradicated in the past and it was discovered that it has been magically engineered to purge humans (just humans) from existence. If the group was to discover a single survivor, it would be a really big deal. I forgot the village has been infected and left the entire population untouched, even though they have seen infected people there previously. – eimyr Jan 5 at 21:38
up vote 36 down vote accepted

It all depends on tone.

If the player challenging the GM is doing so in a constructive tone, which means that the player is trying to make the game world make sense -- the disease example is a good one for that -- then listen and make a ruling1

If the player challenges the GM in a style that is obviously PvP, or "I'm right you're wrong," or if there is a bit of pushing/chest thumping going on, the best response I have found in the past goes like this:

  1. Pause and say nothing for a moment.
  2. Restate the problem or conflict.
  3. Ask the other players how they see the problem.
  4. Make a ruling1 taking all input into account. (Or, take a break, see below)
  5. If the challenger persists or disagrees, take a deep breath and ask the player who the GM is. If the player is there to get into a pissing contest, or to play "gotcha" with the GM rather than playing the game, it will become obvious at this point.
    *At this point, it is time to take a break as immersion is utterly gone if it was ever there.

Break actions:

Get up, get snacks, grab a brew or a soda, take a bathroom break, etc. and either

  1. Declare the session over for the night as you need to sort out this conflict before continuing play
  2. Declare the session over as you don't need the abuse (this depends on the attitude of who is challenging you). Sometimes, an issue like this does need some time to sort out, and continuing play won't be very productive.
  3. Resume play since, during the break, you have puzzled out the problem away from the table and have come up with something that resolves the conflict/gaffe.

Note: The question is pretty broad, so the answer can't be much more specific than that.

1 A retcon is a form of GM ruling, and if retcon is what is needed once you've assessed the issue, make one.

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The players cannot ruin the GM's narrative because this is a RPG not a novel. Storytelling in an RPG to the extent that it is not, in the eloquent words of Homer Simpson, "just a bunch of stuff that happens" takes place as a dialogue, not a narrative.

The role of the GM is to provide the stage, the props and the extras, the role of the players is to provide the starring roles. It's their story, the GM's involvement in the telling is reactionary and directorial input is limited to saying "cut" when the scene gets boring for the players.

Best option: Roll with it

For both your examples this is a perfect opportunity to say:

"Yes, that's right. Would you like to know why?"


"How are you going to find out?"

And suddenly you are off on an adventure arc that the player's chose: "Why is Jim not dead?" or "Why does this sect use that knife instead of this one?" I appreciate that at this moment you have no more idea of the answer than your players but you don't need to know where the journey ends in order to start down the path. After this session and before the next you can work out what the answers are and the (many) paths the players can take to get to them.

You have player's making their own adventure hooks and sticking them in their mouths: why are you complaining?

Poor option 1: Agree with the player

"Thanks, I didn't know that about the knife. On closer inspection your player realises that they are using the correct one."

"When you point out to the mayor that Jim has had the disease and survived he tells you that Mr Brown and the widow Jones also survived but the 368 other citizens who contracted it died. Jim must be a lucky bastard."

Poor option 2: Challenge the player

"When was the last time you were on a fifteenth century battlefield? Sources from that time are incomplete and I will fill in the gaps as I wish."

"Did you do blood tests? Similar symptoms do not necessarily mean the same disease."

Poor option #3: Who the f*** cares?

"Who the f*** cares?"

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While the first paragraphs of your answer are nice, I don't think your specific suggestions are particularly good (as compared to e.g. those in Novak's answer). Sure, "take it as fact and let the players investigate why" can sometimes be a good way to deal with an apparent inconsistency, but to make it work, you do need to eventually come up with a resolution that actually satisfies the players -- and if you've made them invest significant time in finding this out, it had better be a good and interesting one. – Ilmari Karonen Jan 4 at 12:58
... For example, do you really think you could come up with an explanation for why these 15th century characters are wielding knives that haven't been invented yet that a) is likely to actually satisfy the player's concerns about historical accuracy, b) isn't totally lame and cheesy or a complete anticlimax, and c) doesn't completely derail the plot and the setting by introducing time-traveling space aliens? – Ilmari Karonen Jan 4 at 13:04

When the GM insists on the narrative following his pre-planned route, the term we use for that is "railroading". :-/

We don't have all the details about your magical-disease example, but in general, moments like this one are precious. Let the players investigate this NPC who survived the disease. Make up something interesting for them to discover. If at all possible, let them use this as an alternate solution to the problem. (It doesn't have to be an easy alternate solution -- maybe the NPC's cure involves the fresh blood of a green dragon, and if they want to repeat the cure they have to go find one and kill it.) It's great when your players are engaged enough with your world to search for these creative solutions, and you should reward them.

Your other examples sound less awesome, mostly because it sounds like your players are focusing on things that aren't relevant to the game. If your player starts telling you what sorts of daggers the NPCs should be using, shrug, agree politely, and gently remind the players of the problem they're supposed to be solving. If someone keeps diverting the game with irrelevant tangents, consider not inviting them back.

The other thing I have to say is: it sounds like you might be giving the players too much confidence in their information.

  • Don't set your campaign in "the fifteenth century". Set it in "an alternate world which is similar to our fifteenth century".
  • Don't tell your players that a disease is "incurable". Tell them: "The doctor winces and says: 'Oh dear, that one's very bad. I've seen four or five people who developed lesions like this, and they all died soon after. Nothing I tried has helped. I'll do my best, but I recommend you make sure your will is in order.'"
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Under the umbrella of "Narration-lawyering," you give two examples which I would categorize as "plot-lawyering" (the disease) and "background-lawyering" (the knives.)

Of these, I find the second one easier to resolve, as there are many well-intentioned ways this can come up. Many gamers (not all, but definitely including myself) have hobby-level or higher expertise in some gaming-relevant fields, and sometimes just like to talk about it or-- often gratingly, but not maliciously-- "help" people by correcting them. Other times, these players unintentionally put their GMs through an interrogation, trying to get some obscure detail out of him or her to help them make some in-character decision. (I've been on both sides of that one. Many times.)

When I sense this cycle starting to develop, I'll often very explicitly take the issue one layer of meta higher: "What sort of detail are you looking for, here? Why is this relevant?" If it seems harmless and I don't think I'm being taken for a ride: "Sure, whatever. It's not really important." It's important not to be snide or dismissive, but just state a fact-- obscure knife-handle details are really not the point of the setting. It rarely takes more than two or three of these to get the player to relax and sometimes even become genuinely helpful.

If it persists, or if I think there's a real attempt to change things (i.e., harping on strategy or tactics, trying to effectively nullify or neuter a scenario) then I will be a little heavier handed-- take the player aside, possibly after a session, and explain why the behavior is not helpful.

The first one, the plot-lawyering with the disease example can be very serious and very context-sensitive. Players need to remember that GMs are only human, and make mistakes. But GMs need to remember a converse: That players have only and exactly the information given out by the GM to make their decisions, and that the act of decision-making causes greater engagement and investment than simply reading a novel or watching a movie.

If I screw up something minor as a GM or if I catch something quickly, I will feel free to either say, "Hey, I meant to do X, but did Y by accident-- but it's not important, let's play it as it lies and move on," or "Hey, I meant to do X, but did Y by accident-- we need to go back and pretend I did Y." (Of the two I far prefer the former to the latter, but sometimes you do what you gotta do.)

Sometimes, though, it's important and I don't catch it early, and the result is that I have two contradictory statements and something is getting retconned somewhere. In this example, the statements are:

  1. Disease X is 100% fatal
  2. Character Y recovered from disease X

The basic options for the retcons are:

  1. Disease X is not always fatal
  2. Character Y didn't actually have Disease X
  3. Character Y has been dead for a while now

There may be more, but the important thing to notice is that some of those options (3) are immediately visible to the characters, and some of them (1, 2) are initially visible only to the GM. Moreover, the players have probably invested themselves in or out of some of those options-- if they've been interacting with Character Y and doing things because of those interactions, retconning to 3 is not going to sit well. If they have convinced themselves that something like 1 or 2 is the case and is important they may have based their actions on that idea. In that case, even saying, "this isn't important, let's move on," can be a bitter pill-- there may be a sense frustration, wasted effort, etc. Some players might be genuinely unable to just switch off the sense of importance, or stop thinking about the now non-existent reasons for actions that they've taken. It's often just easier to retcon in a way that is only visible to the GM (which we don't often think of as retconning anyway.)

[UPDATE: The point is not to figure out every possible corrective action to take and list them all; the point was to list a few and show that they all boil down to the GM changing the original concept behind the scenes so the players don't see it, or changing something up front so they do. Someone's continuity is getting retroactively changed-- the GM's, the players', or both.]

Now, I've explored that as a worst-case kind of scenario, where all the player good-will in the world won't help much. As a GM you only get so much credit, but if this continuously happens with comparatively minor issues... I would not be averse to giving a flat directive to get over it, get right with it, and move on. Or if it really happens a lot, I might start wondering if my setting or plot are too complex.

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You are confusing two pretty different things in this question, IMO.


People who are setting experts or history experts might tell you "15th century knives don't work that way" or "actually Tattooine is way far away from Jakku". You should set the expectation that your game is set in a fantasy version of and it's going to deviate from whatever canon/history because it's your version, but you can certainly consider using their knowledge to enrich your game (does changing the knife type hurt you any?). If someone continues to be obnoxious about it, just repeat "not here it's not." But you need to realize that when you set a game in modern day, Star Wars universe, etc., you are leveraging what players know about that setting to your benefit. If they get confused about what they can expect that can become a problem, as they are basing their actions on their understanding of the setting. The exact type of knife shouldn't affect their play, but there are larger changes that very well might.

Plot Holes

If a group of PCs is confronted with a disease that's supposed to act X way but then acts Y way and there's no reason for it, of course they're trying to figure out why. That's not "it works differently in my game world," it's "it is inconsistent and confusing." This is an error on your part, and since you are trying to get your players to mentally engage with the game world, you are breaking your game when you do it. "So what happens when I get this disease?" they are asking themselves. This isn't "problem players," it's your problem and you need to fix it, either with a retcon or clever out ("well that's what doctor X told you...) or something. If you are just expecting players to not "worry their pretty little heads" about those details and just go where you're telling them now, that's pretty bad railroad GMing. If my players return to a city and I tell them all the city guardsmen have polearms, and they say "wait, last time you said they all only had nightsticks," that's great- they are engaging with the fiction - either I need to say "oh yeah whoops you're right, they have nightsticks" or I need to say "you're right, seems like they've upgraded. Maybe they've been seeing more combat than they used to?" as a plot hook. "Stop subverting me by bringing up details I already told you" is not a valid answer to this problem.


These issues don't really have anything to do with each other except that they are two sources of GM/player conflict (rule lawyering is a yet different one). It sounds to me like you're conflating these two and dismissing plot holes as a "player problem", while that's only really justified with extreme setting pedantry. This sounds to me like there's a general tone of player/GM conflict that is causing all these different issues to become more toxic than they need to be. You are seeing them as 'subversive' and a threat to your authority. They may be, but they also may be partly your problem and your players see you as being 'overbearing and confusing' in turn. Work on the parts of this that are your issue and in general try to stop seeing things in oppositional terms. It may be that your players are just trying to understand the world their characters are in, and you are making them unclear and confused about what they can rely on. (Many good rules lawyering questions on this site come to this point as well, the rules lovers out there are looking to them as the physics of the game world and while a house rule is fine, the rule changing from minute to minute breaks their ability to engage meaningfully.)

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There is no one formula or answer. Every GM develops their own skills and methods for handling all of the situations that can come up. And every player is different too, in their challenges and gifts, tastes, and everything else. My advice therefore is to adapt your style to the players in your group. In particular:

Before starting play, it's good to make sure players are on the same page about various things by explicitly discussing at least some of the play contract, and one of those things is explaining where you're coming from as a GM, and what you expect from your players. One possible thing a new GM might say: "I'm a new GM and some of you have more experience - I'd appreciate help and input when needed, especially between sessions, but I am the GM, you're my guests, and I expect to be given the final word."

And, if you know that there are unwanted-historical-detail-smartypantses in the game, you can make explicit that the world they are in is not actual 15th Century Earth Arabia, but a fictional land somewhat based on it, probably with some errors. Their job as players is to play their characters in the situation as described, not to go out of character and critique the historicity of anything.

First, I would suggest that the GM decide whether he welcomes the player input he's getting during play, or not. If the GM wants players to modify their method of giving feedback, let them know right away.

Here's an example of a hypothetical escalation: If I am interested that someone would historically have different knives, and if it's not messing with anyone's enjoyment, I may say "thanks, ok, all their knives are type B now" and continue playing. However if talking about historical details is interfering with anyone's fun, I may say "We can discuss that later" and move on. If a player is persistently interfering with unwanted arguments of any kind, I'm liable to take them aside and explain to them that I'm running the game, and they can make such comments between sessions but not during. If there's any resistance, I may explain that they can choose to play the game I'm running in the universe I'm running using the rules I'm running, or they can leave.

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This is a pretty multifaceted problem, but I can relate and offer some advice:

  • Flow Over Pedanticism: Does it fundamentally break the universe or drastically shift the tides of battle? No? Move on. You can always discuss details after the game, and make corrections later. Make it clear to your players that you're there to play the game; unless it disrupts game play in some huge way, you will discuss it with them later. Apologize, and keep it moving.

  • Abstain From Detail: I know, as a new DM, you're overflowing with ideas that you want to communicate. Too much of a good thing can be bad, though. If you invest a ton of time into narration and story telling, you'll lose a few of your players. Also, by giving tons of detail, you risk telling them something you'll forget. Paint the general details, cover the important stuff, and let their imaginations fill in the gaps.

  • Know When to God Mode: For things that fundamentally wreck your story: I'm God. Otherwise, just try to roll with it. Did the different daggers throw your story off the rails? Probably not, so just roll with what they say. Did the survivor need to die? Tricky. Come up with some sort of temporary resistance in between sessions that allowed him to live this long, but have him die a short time later. Try to tie this in to a story hook that will get them back on track.

  • Ignorance is Bliss: I make mistakes all the time. Read stat blocks wrong, forget names and races... Reality is what you tell them it is, so for minor things try to cover them up. You forgot you had an ambush in the next room? Don't backpedal, just adjust and try to have the ambush later in the dungeon.

In reality (for pre-mades at least) you're railroading these people down your pre-planned story. Your job as a DM is to make it feel like they aren't being railroaded. If they get pedantic, just nod, agree, take control, and move on.

Your players are like children. Give them a cool toy or something they like, and you'll distract them for hours. Try to get them invested in something they don't like, and they'll turn into little demons.

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protected by Oblivious Sage Mar 2 at 20:32

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