This is related to another post but the situation is a little different. I had a rocky session recently with my players. If you want to know more about that: this question gives some background. I choose to break this up into two separate questions because the question I originally had wasn't specific enough (in my mind) for this board.

So during the combat that eventually happened because the Bard pissed off the party, the fishman priest cast Spirit Guardians. When I explained the mechanics of how the spell worked, this seemed to make everyone upset. I basically decided that the first time it was cast counted as the Monk entering the area for the first time. Then if the monk started his turn in that area, he would be hit with the effect again.

The Bard launched into calling BS. The Monk followed suit. Then it seemed like every player wanted to have their opinion heard on why something didn't seem to make sense. This devolved into analysis of the wording of the spell, which this post already does a better job of discussing.

But this lead to about 30-40 minutes of people not able to let it go that I judged something a certain way and that I had final say because I was the DM and that the mechanics as explained in the link above are how I interpret the spell's text. This eventually caused a lot of strife toward me and I considered giving up on the group during this time. It was a really tough session.

To the question:

How best to handle a situation where you have to flex your power as DM without everyone arguing or feeling resentful?


9 Answers 9


Establish A Rule Disagreement Resolution Tool for your Table

In my reply to this question, I recommended establishing, before the game session, or before the game while session zero is underway, what the "rules disagreement resolution tool" will be at your table.

The objective of this tool -- or something similar that you need to tailor to your specific table -- is that any "huh, it works like what?" question needs timely resolution and a ruling, so that play may continue.

From your description, you have not established that tool. Before your next session, make clear before play begins that GMs need to have fun too, and that their reaction to your ruling damaged the game and damaged your fun.
* Note: it is desirable to get player buy-in to the resolution tool. Once presented, I strongly recommend that you not run another session until the resolution tool is both decided and accepted by everyone at the table. You should actively solicit the players' suggestions and inputs when finalizing the tool.

With the above in mind, here is an example tool to resolve rules disagreements and keep play moving. This isn't the only way to do it, but I've seen it work very well:

  1. Player disagrees with how something works. Says it works another way.

  2. DM to player: Make your case. (Define time limit. 1 minute, 2 minutes, whatever you are comfortable with)

  3. Player: case made briefly

  4. DM listen ...

  5. DM makes ruling.

  6. Play now continues.

Getting the group to buy in to this (or your similar tool) is the key to avoiding the situation you ran into. It is also a matter of table courtesy (bring this point up as well before play begins the next time): we are here to have fun, not get into emotional arguments nor personal attacks.

Your interpersonal relationship with the persons making the challenge may end up with taking on the character of a test of wills. Unless the whole table agrees with the tool, you'll have this happen again. Get the players' involved in crafting the final form of the resolution tool for your table so that you reduce that element of the problem.

If you can't get that buy in, your instinct to give up on that group of players may be the sad future for this group. But you may be able to heal the wound from that session and proceed with more game and more fun.

A last suggestion: if a given player just won't give up on an argument, get up from the table and declare that it's break time. Immersion is gone for good at that point. Once you've all had a chance to calm down, to reduce the intensity of feeling that arose in that disagreement, it becomes easier to resolve.

Other suggested ways to resolve rules disagreements:

  • For a disagreement that comes up during play:
    Flip a coin (or roll a die) to pick one of the possible rulings, then move on. After the game, look it up and settle on a most correct answer. (@Thunderforge has seen this work in his games).
  • @anaximander recommends this rule before the game starts.

    "If we disagree, you have three minutes to either find the rule in the PHB, or convince me it should work how you want. After that I'll make a ruling and tell you why I think it should be that way. There will be no further discussion, and the rule will work that way for the remainder of the session. After the session I will have a more thorough read of the rules, and if you're still unhappy we can discuss further. At the start of next session, I will announce a better-thought-out rule, which we will use from then on, unless we find flaws in it."


A DM shouldn't have to "flex [his] power." There is (or at least, should be) an implicit trust relationship between the DM and the players. In this case it sounds like your players don't trust you (trust me, I've been there) and are therefore not happy with your ruling because they feel it is unfair in some way, i.e. they feel like you are trying to screw them over or stymie their progress in a way that is counterintuitive to the social contract that is implicit in a table-top RPG group.

The DM's job is to, first and foremost, make the game fun. The best thing to do in this case is to prevent it from coming up at all. Adhere to the rule of cool. If you do something that is uncool, players will not be happy. And if you prevent players from doing something that is cool because perhaps it bends the rules a bit, they will also not be happy. One unhappy player can spoil the entire session for everyone so keeping your players happy should be of utmost importance. In your specific example, it seems like the players just had the wrong expectations about how AoE spells work because it sure sounds to me like you ruled correctly.

It is also important to keep in mind, as mentioned by @WannabeCoder in the comment below, that applying the rule of cool to something that bends or breaks the rules can also set a precedent, which, if not upheld later, can turn into players saying things like "you let so-and-so do it!" and similar. Be sure that when you apply the rule of cool, that you are okay with the precedent you are setting and that you won't renege on the ruling later. In this specific case rule of cool may not be as applicable, but as a general rule and to answer your question in a more general sense, it should be kept in mind.

That being said, the DM should be having fun too. Just because the players should be having fun does not mean that the DM should sacrifice his own enjoyment of the game for the players, and it doesn't mean that players should always get their way -- that way madness lies. The key is to discuss with your players the group's method of conflict resolution before playing. Next session, before you start, have a meta-conversation with them about game expectations -- both yours and theirs. Make sure you all agree that when a disagreement comes up, it will be handled in a way that is fair to the group. Make sure that whatever method you decide on does not involve stopping the game to check the rules! That is going to kill your momentum. Best advice there is to tell your player you are ruling it that way right now but you will definitely check on the rule as soon as there is a break in play or, if that's not an option, before the next session.

Note that everything I've written in that last paragraph is about group dynamics -- group conflict resolution, group discussion, group agreement on expectations. You really need to remove the ugly stigma of players vs. DM and turn it into a group game. I think that one thing alone has killed more gaming groups than the tarrasque.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would add that the 'rule of cool' can be deceptive. Sometimes, as in the case of breaking core mechanics (vs. lightly bending the rules), even though it may be cooler in the moment, the precedent you set (that mechanics are optional) can cause later encounters to become very uncool - so you must rule against the cool option if only to avoid trouble later in the form of player expectations or inconsistent storytelling. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WannabeCoder Updated to include information on setting precedence when applying the rule of cool. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 16:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ That first paragraph alone is gold with regards to how tabletop RPGs are supposed to work. The social contract is the only thing that makes the game even possible/fun, otherwise you might as well go play by yourself. \$\endgroup\$
    – thanby
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:15

Almost every player argues with a GM at some point. I've GM'd a lot and had it happen, and I've done while playing, too. (And occasionally looked back and realized what a pain I must have been.)

My basic thought is that most games thrive on consistency and shared understanding, moreso than they thrive on having rules that each and every player agrees with, endorses, and fully supports. Players need to have the ability to plan in meaningful ways, and this operates on at least two levels: For a game with combats, players need to have a good grasp on what the immediate mechanics are; and for the long term they need to have a grasp on what their resources are and how they work. These are tactical and strategic levels, to my way of thinking.

If the rules are arbitrary and capricious, changing constantly, the players are basically screwed-- their ability to plan meaningfully is gone. If there are individual mechanics that individual players do not like (Spirit Guardian rules, say) then they can probably act to minimize their exposure to those rules (don't take the spell, don't play that class, etc.)

Where this gets tricky is in the notion of precedent-setting usages. Looking back, my rules objections are almost always during the first case something comes up. I know that if I press my case successfully, the rules will be as I desire them to be for the foreseeable future. If I don't, then they won't. Sometimes, this is not a big deal-- a short term tactical setback, and I play differently in the future. Sometimes this is a big deal-- I may already have burned a long term strategic resource (acquired a class ability, spent money for a magic item, etc) that could leave me really unhappy over a long time period.

So what I do as a GM is:

  1. Figure out if this is a precedent-setting case or if this has come up before and no one has objected. If it's not precedent-setting, politely but firmly explain that this is how it is because this is how it was. If there is some new reason to believe things are seriously broken, it can be addressed outside the session, but for now, let's get on with it.
  2. Try to determine if this is a short term thing or a long term thing for the player or players objecting. If it's a short term thing, politely but firmly explain to the players that this is just how it's going to be. If there's really reason to think things are seriously broken, we can address it outside the session, but for now, let's get on with it.
  3. On the other hand, if it is both precedent-setting and a matter of long term interest with some sunk cost for the player, well, maybe we do need to address it right now... but my usual preference is to just get on with it for right now, and talk to the player later. Maybe the right solution is allowing a minor retcon of ability, or a mutually agreeable middle ground, etc.
  4. In general, to support step 3 above, it is usually my policy that long term character buys (of abilities especially, but sometimes of major purchases or similar things) are considered a bit "tentative" until they are used for the first time. I weight this toward the beginning of the game so that the players and I can get used to each other, and then tend to tighten it up a little-- I am not aiming for retcon city nor do I want the policy to be abused, but nor do I want the players to feel like they're in an un-fun straight-jacket due to poor choices at second level. And in general, if you already have a mechanism to smooth over the bigger concerns, that will promote trust among your players and hopefully encourage them to give you a little slack with you need it.

So in summary: A certain willingness to say, "Guys, just deal with it," tempered with keeping an eye out for the long term fun and maintenance of your players and their characters is my suggestion.


TL;DR: This group of players does not like you running the game with such a firm grip. Regardless of who is right, you'll need to give them back some control by letting them reach a consensus in these cases, or risk losing the group's interest.

People have listed some decent conflict resolution tactics here but I think a key point needs to be emphasized a bit more. It doesn't matter who is technically right in the situation, the problem is that the whole group was against you. At that point the game is not living up to the players' expectations and you should either bend to their will and let the argument go, or at least (if this is the case) say "I'm sorry but that broke my plot" so they understand where you're coming from and then try to reformulate on the fly with the new mechanic in mind.

If it were just one player being a pain then a GM ruling might fix it (though that player may leave), but if the whole group is erupting with complaints you've got a much more serious problem on your hands. It sounds like you're not running the game the way they want it to be run, so if you want to continue with the group you'll probably need to be more flexible in these situations whether you agree with it or not.

Spend a couple minutes letting both sides make their cases, and if they're still convinced you're wrong, ruling against them all is only going to destroy their trust in you. If you want to keep this group you might need to apologize and establish a dispute resolution method that gives them some amount of power, otherwise they are probably going to quit or at least not have fun anymore. I think your ruling is technically right, but a lot of players these days don't appreciate such a stern approach to handling disputes. The "GM is God" rule is very old-school, which is fine, but only if that's what your group expects (after all it takes an enormous amount of trust and respect) and it sounds like they don't buy it.


When discussing this with my players, I've found it really useful to stress, "We only have a couple of hours to play the game this evening, we don't want to waste a quarter of that discussing rules."

The disagreement resolution process in my game is as follows (taken from the website where I send all my prospective players).

If you disagree with something I have ruled then say so. You have 60 seconds to argue your case. I'll then make a ruling and we'll continue. After the session has finished we will have a more in-depth look at the books and the forums. If I was wrong then we'll play it correctly in the future, but that evening's ruling still stands. We're only going to have two-to-three hours - we can't afford to spend 20 minutes discussing rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your procedure's "we'll play it correctly in the future" doesn't account for the fact that the bad ruling may have had significant lasting consequences (lost mcguffin / player death / etc). Even if you're right, the player may have invested significant resources into the expectation that their interpretation was going to work... "oops, you wasted a feat, five skill points, and 10,000 gold" \$\endgroup\$
    – Random832
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:51

In general, 5e is not super specific on a lot of topics, giving the DM ultimate authority on things that can or cannot happen. This is by design (it harkens back to AD&D). That said, here's what I would do, regarding spells:

  1. Players who have spell casting characters give you a list of each spell they have prepared before the session starts.
  2. Go over each of them with the players, explaining how you interpret the RAW for the effects of each spell.
  3. If the players disagree, that is the time to outline issues (not during game play).
  4. At the end of the day, the DM has final authority of how something works and what happens on a failure. For instance, you could have a house rule that for cantrips that fail, fluffy bunnies appear (not a great example, but an illustration, even though it's absurd).

FWIW, your interpretation of the RAW in this case seems to be spot on. For area spells like this or Cloud of Daggers, for example, targets are effected when the spell is cast and at the start of each turn that they start in the area. So, if the Monk was in the effected area when the spell was cast, he does a saving throw. If he doesn't get out of the area during his turn, he requires another saving throw at the beginning of his next turn (or before anything else happens). I generally have players and monsters do the saving throw thing at the beginning of the turn to keep flow going and emphasize that damage is at the beginning of the turn.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "FWIW, your interpretation of the RAW in this case seems to be spot on." - This is incorrect. Spirit guardians only calls for a save when a creature enters the area; having the spell cast on an area the target is already in isn't the same as entering it. (Other spells call for a save only at the start of a creature's turn, or at the end of one, so it varies spell by spell.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 5:55

Come to a decision as a group if it is that big of a problem. I don't agree with a number of the other posts about various conflict resolution methods because it doesn't cover a number of real cases. For example, if I was a player and was told that a certain spell was going to be house ruled a certain way that I did not agree with, after the DM told me this, do I then get to pick a new spell? Should we ret-con out that spell if it was used previously? What about later (better) interpretations that explain it fully and the DM was wrong (according to a better source, new rulebook, etc)?

My recommendation is that if its a minor thing that no-one cares about, just house rule it as you see fit. If they don't make a big deal - no problem!

If they opt to make a fuss about it, what I generally do is ask everyone for their opinion on how they see the spell working, then have a majority vote of the entire group on which method/interpretation should be used (DM vote breaks ties). This way at least in general the majority of your players will be happy with the outcome. Typically however I find this is more an issue with the players then anything else, and bring them aside later and discussing their problems if a better method of handling it (albeit, not always an available option).

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "this is more an issue with the players". Someone who argues that vehemently with the GM over rule wording is going to be tough to deal with because they'll take it personally if their view is contradicted. If you rule against them, be prepared for them to rebel/quit. \$\endgroup\$
    – thanby
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 21:47

GMs word is final, solve the dispute by saying for this session that the rule you are using now goes and then,once the session is over check over the handbooks and rules and correct the error for the next session, if the rule is very up to interpretation, then it is up to GMs discretion not the player on how it is implemented, regardless of how the player feels, if this persists leave it to a vote, if this goes no where then, sadly you will have to pull rank and say that "what i say goes" this is the worst option and should never have to be used but sometimes a stern hand can settle a party.

This happened with a party I was a player in. The wizard was arguing with the Gm over how a spell worked as the spell was very vague on how it could be cast it was resolved with the aforementioned "i will check over this later, but for now this is how it works" ruling

  • \$\begingroup\$ While the GM has the final say on what is and what ain't, I would recommend the "show me in the rules where I'm contradicted" approach. All too often, in RPGs, we have the "Rules Nazi" who literally memorizes the rules and quotes them chapter and verse. I've had to remind players that it's suppose to be fun. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CharlieHorse many players find calvinball unpleasant enough that even rules arguments are better. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 21:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just as a referee in any game, the DM should be consistant. For instance, I had a player who, as a Warlock, wanted to attach a focus wand to his crossbow. I said no. When he asked why, I gave him a reasonable and logic explanation. Like anything, consistency is key. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 21:33

If you have to resort to pulling rank by saying "What I say goes because I'm the DM so shut up and don't argue with me about it", then you've already lost.

The fact that more than one player chose to argue with you about it also lends some credibility to the possibility that you were the one who messed up.

That said, when the spell was cast, he was in the AoE and was supposed to save. The only thing I noticed was that you said it counted as him entering the area, rather than him being caught already there.

You might have worded things a little more clearly.

Finally, you are correct to point out that you are the DM and what you say goes. The rulebook specifically grants the DM the authority to interpret any rule as he sees fit and even disregard or make up any rule he pleases.

Since it was more than one player objecting I would say that the fault may well lie with how you explained something.

If it was just one player though I would not have entertained the discussion at all. One stern warning from me to assert my authority and remind them their place. If that wasn't enough I would dismiss them for the rest of the scene and take over their character as an NPC. Following which I would warn them that any further questioning of my authority would cause me to question their future participation in the campaign.


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