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I'm a fairly new DM running my first campaign. What do I do when players try something, but there are no rules for it, and my real-world knowledge doesn't help me figure out what would happen?

For example, in our last session one of my players wanted to start a fire in front of a cave to drive the inhibitants out. There are no printed guidelines for this, and I don't know how or whether that would actually work — I've never done anything remotely like lighting a fire to smoke something out of a cave before. I didn't know what would or should happen (How long does the fire have to burn for the plan to work? How deep into the cave would the smoke go?), but more importantly I didn't know how to deal with this and move the game forward, which is the DM's job. Luckily the other players talked him into a different plan, but I don't know what I would have done.

When a situation comes up in the game where there are no direct rules and one doesn't have the expertise to know what should happen, what is a DM to do?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for that link Purple Monekey, that seems like the question I had \$\endgroup\$ – Rouby Dec 29 '14 at 13:11
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Dungeons and Dragons is all about PCs doing crazy things and the DM reacting to them. Granted, groups are as diverse and varied as fish in the sea, but ingenuity is a universal trait across games. You see this in character optimization, wacky solutions to problems (like the kitten Sleep-spell defense), and in any DM who is writing up his next encounter.

As a general response to your problem, the D&D rules are a framework from which to build your world and encounters. Take out the orcs, the dragons, etc. and you're left with a system constructed and refined over the years to simulate scenarios in a (mildly) balanced way. Ever come up with an insane hypothetical question and wonder how to act it out? I like to think that this is how Gygax and Co. first came up with the idea for D&D.

To return to your question, remember that the rules are there as a guide to these situations. They may not cover all things, but they encourage improvisation. For example, advantage/disadvantage is a useful tool in approximating some situations. Let's take a look at your situation in particular:

  1. Fire builds smoke, but smoke likes to disperse, so it would probably take a long time to accumulate in a cave unless the cave was very small or the fire was very large and inside the cave itself. (General knowledge).
  2. Seeing point one, it is likely that the enemies would flee out from the cave before the smoke did any real harm to them. (Again, general knowledge)
  3. When that happens, they will be confused — depending on the inhabitants' intelligence — and eventually probably distracted, granting the PCs a surprise round if they're hidden. (Rough D&D mechanics)

This is a workable scenario. It sounds reasonable and rewards the PCs for their creativity. However, there are plenty of other ways this could work out:

  1. The PCs could get caught building the fire (it's probably fairly noisy work, or a patrol might just happen by)
  2. The cave might be the den of wild bears (instead of the expected inhabitants), and they get enraged at the encroachment in their home
  3. The cave could be an ambush set by the enemies, and attempting to light a fire has your PCs walking into it

All of these are just ideas. The world is the DM's sandbox — don't be afraid to explore it. It's a game, and at the end of the day you and your players will figure out exactly how much they enjoy your work.

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    \$\begingroup\$ First sentence +1 \$\endgroup\$ – DoStuffZ Dec 29 '14 at 14:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ x2 on the first sentence. Try being a wizard with a low wisdom, and telling your DM you're going to use a touch spell on a gas spore. \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP Dec 29 '14 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that you will occasionally get players who argue with you about how you decide to rule these arbitrary things. That's ok. Listen to what they say and if it makes sense you can make changes. You're all agreeing on making things up, after all. However, you're not always going to agree, either. When you decide not to listen to them (e.g., for story reasons it can't go that way), just say, "I'm sorry, but this is what happens." If they still have a problem with it, tell them you can discuss it more at the end of the session but your ruling is final. \$\endgroup\$ – Bacon Bits Jan 2 '15 at 1:58
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RPGs are all about creating a collaborative narrative, no? For me, I'd probably ask my players.

"Gee, guys. This is an interesting solution to the problem, but I'm not sure how to adjudicate it. What do you think?"

Of course, I wouldn't let myself get railroaded by the more Munchkin-y among them. I'd ask questions to get them to justify their idea.

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