My Way Or The Highway

The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.

This quote is most commonly attributed to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and whether or not he did actually utter those specific words the truth of them definitely was reflected in how he spoke about the game. Gary was rather vocal about his desire for people to not be weighed down by the rules but instead inspired by them to take the game in new and exciting directions. The community at large has certainly embraced that tradition and used D&D as a stepping stone to create their own fantastical worlds, classes, races, items, quests and much, much more.

In a system that relies so heavily on the imagination of a group of people in order to function the rules would seem, at best, a secondary concern. Although if we all think back to our childhood for a moment and remember that one kid, you know the one, who when playing pretend was always the best at everything and vulnerable to nothing? That’s why D&D has rules. The rules act as a scaffolding over which you can drape an infinite number of epic adventures for your players to traipse around in. Above all of that this basic framework allows players and DMs to modify the game and expand on its core content without the need for a lot of concern of unbalancing it. It can always happen certainly but there are plenty of tips and guides provided to help you bring your vision to life.

So why all this talk of the rules and structure of D&D? Well like my other posts I was spending some of my free time browsing through advice threads and came upon one where a player asked if they were being unreasonable disagreeing with some houserules a DM set out. I’ll put the list of modified rules below and then we’ll discuss some of them and why they might exist and what it could say about playing at that table.

  • Fumbles possible with every attack. Cannot Lucky out of fumbles.
  • No Initiative Rolls, everyone gets a flat 10 + DEX (Or WIS, Houserule) Mod. I brought up a Human Variant Assassin with Alert getting a free SA every encounter, and was told to stop trying to break the system.
  • Multi-Attackers only have to hit once. After that, all attacks afterward are guaranteed hits.
  • Roll for stats. If you don’t like what you get do a 27 point buy.
  • Most likely will run into a CR4 Monster with 4 level 1s.
  • DM has a list of Banned Spells for Wizards. It’s not a short list.
Now over the years I’ve certainly seen some far more restrictive table rule lists than this one and I certainly try to never tell a DM that their particular rules don’t work or shouldn’t be used. It’s their table and they should run it how they see fit. I’ve pointed out in threads of the past that the result of this is really that you limit your player pool to people who agree with your style. There isn’t anything wrong with that unless you complain that no one wants to play under your specific set of rules modifications which is the prerogative of players.

So, if I’m loathe to tell DMs that their ideas are flat out wrong and that everyone has the freedom to choose where, when and how they play then what is the point of writing this post? Excellent question. If I’m perfectly honest with you it’s because I was working on something else that I couldn’t get out of my brain coherently so this was my backup. That being said I still think this is something worth talking about and I would have written it up sooner or later.

As DMs we deal with a lot of headaches some of which are a result of rules conflicts, unclear rules or different interpretations of rules which will often be seen in RAW (Rules as Written) vs RAI (Rules as Intended) arguments. Speaking of which I have a good one for that coming up soon-ish. Some veteran DMs know of these pitfalls and will lay down rules in their campaign pitch documents or during a Session 0 so players know going in how specific things work in their setting. Sometimes DMs will get caught off guard and will need to make an on the spot ruling during a game which will dictate how things work for the rest of the campaign for consistency. In that situation you can always make a temporary ruling and then come back later with a better researched opinion if you care to but ultimately your word is law.

So, onto the list –

First off we have fumbles, now full disclosure I actually like causing characters to fumble their weapons or items as it almost always gets a pretty hearty laugh from the table and everyone has a good time. This is very table dependent and I usually avoid doing it in very tense moments where any little thing can swing the outcome of a major engagement. Another problem with this fumble rule that I see is that if you fumble on a roll of natural 1 that means you’re doing it roughly 5% of the time that you’re in combat. A DM I’ve gotten to know over the past month had a great way of putting it when he said, “Think about how insane it would be if you got into car accidents 5% of the total time you spend driving.” Proficiently wielding and using a weapon in the a D&D world is a matter of life and death, adventurers even moreso as their life centers around seeking out danger in any place it can potentially be found, along with the profit from facing it. Very few adventurers would ever survive if they lost their weapon 5% of the time they spend in combat, this is exacerbated even further when you consider characters who attack multiple times a turn. Outside of the mechanics of it, while it can be occasionally funny, it feels bad as a player to have one or more turns eaten up by a single bad roll. As DMs we really do strive to keep those “feel bad” moments to a bare minimum because as Gary reminds us, fun is the ultimate goal here.

I’ll circle back around to the initiative thing during the wrap up as I think it illustrates something about the overall list.

Much like the decision on initiative I think this one sort of speaks to the attitude leading to the changes however this one has some additional balancing issues that I can see. For one PCs are not the only people in the game who get multiple attacks and creatures with multiattack or legendary actions could become serious party threats in short order with just one or two decent rolls. I’m not sure the time saved on rolling warrants the extra danger, especially if you aren’t explicitly running a high danger campaign. The danger certainly goes both ways but over the life of a campaign the characters will be attacked far more often than they will spend attacking, skyrocketing the chance of this turning out badly.

The next two I don’t have particular problems with as I find giving players alternatives for fixing completely jacked up stat rolls is just a simple feel good thing you can do. Characters with an amusingly low dump stat can certainly be fun to play but if you’re going in hoping to play a high fantasy hero then it can be a serious bummer if you catch a run of terrible rolls.

A CR4 monster depending on the choice for four level 1 characters is difficult but doable. A good early challenge to really give the PCs a triumphant moment I think speaks to the core of combat in D&D, if all combat is little more than rolling over goblins and orcs it can get stale fast. CR4 ratings also include one of my absolute favorite early enemies, the Flameskull. If used properly that little floating lantern of fiery death will haunt their dreams until they finally manage to kill it for good.

Last on the list was the one that really caught my attention as removal of abilities and spells is something that shouldn’t be done lightly, especially if it isn’t being replaced by anything. Its definitely understandable to limit the use of game breaking combinations but as of right now I don’t think there are any that stand out in 5th edition D&D. Also the user in question notes that it’s “Not a short list” either which I would find concerning as a player looking into playing a Wizard at that table. Without a concrete list of what spells were removed its hard to know exactly what this particular DM saw or experienced in past games to lead him to make this decision. Even without that list however I think it warrants a little exploration.

As I mentioned above part of being a DM means running your table in a fashion that makes sense to you and allows you and your players to have fun. Houseruling aspects of the game that you feel adversely affect the overall experience or don’t allow you to run the game you want are well within a DMs right to change. However removing things like abilities or spells risks unbalancing or outright crippling classes that rely on them as part of their core identity. If the issue stems from how a spell is written or how it interacts in the game then communication with the affected player is a much better starting point where a potential compromise could be reached prior to deciding on outright removal.

From my own personal experiences I have been considering ways to re-imagine spells like Detect Magic and Identify because I feel like they remove certain avenues of exploration from the game with far too much ease so I understand the impulse.

Ultimately what this list strikes me as is an attempt to streamline sometimes time consuming aspects of the game for convenience and not necessarily balance or mechanical clarity. There are certainly benefits to be had by taking steps to ensure that the game runs smoothly and efficiently but enforcing mechanical changes as a way to get that seems punitive and somewhat lazy. On a recent GM discussion I got to partake in a guest, Taran, suggested during combat using an “On deck” notice to let players know when their turn is coming up so they’re reading to go when its time. Simple reminders and things like sleeved info cards that are easily accessible for complicated spellcasting classes can solve many efficiency issues. Players getting to know their classes and things they will have to do every round like multi-attacks, concentration checks or anything else come with time and DMs need to be cognizant of that need going in. The purpose going in with modifications like this may be well intentioned but must be approached with the proper amount of care and consideration on how it may affect the table as a whole and not just on your experience as a DM.

All of this is not an argument against experimenting with different ways to run your games in an attempt to improve the experience for everyone but that like any interdependent ecosystem changes must made mindfully and unselfishly.

What changes have you made or do you wish to make to your game to improve it? Are you working on any houserules that you hope to use as a standard template for the future? I’d love to hear them!

Until next time, happy rolling!

– Non-Washable

Stay a While and Listen…

I’m working on a post right now about some of the various issues facing the gaming industry, naturally the first one is going to be talking about lootboxes. The conclusion I come to I don’t think will surprise anyone nor do I think most gamers would really disagree with it but it’s always nice to get your thoughts down somewhere to make room for stuff like a gif I saw yesterday of a phallus shaped paper rocket. I know most people are probably sick of hearing about it but unfortunately it’s going to keep coming up until we find a reasonable solution where the customers get their way.

At any rate what I wanted to talk about today was a phone call that I got today from my brother in law who a couple weeks back asked me if I played D&D. I laughed before I even thought about it, not because the question was dumb or even unreasonable but because it continually fascinates me when it gets asked because it’s so so different from when I was a kid. That was a question you really only asked good friends or people you literally witnessed playing the game because you knew for sure what the answer was. If you asked the wrong people it usually led to endless ridicule especially if you weren’t leaving that school for a year or more so you could have some different classmates. We didn’t advertise our love for computers, video games and, things like roleplaying back then. It and we were not what you would call classically popular. Of course as we grew up it became easier because we cared less what people thought and we had some friends and friends of friends who we knew it was safe to discuss our nerdy pursuits with. We played Magic: The Gathering after school in the lunch room and even if we were bothered we just shrugged it off and went back to having fun. Occasionally people who weren’t part of our group would sit and watch, sometimes they’d play if we asked them to join but that was as close as we ever really got to “acceptance”.

I’ve played D&D on and off since middle school along with a few other weird systems we picked up along the way. I did fall out of it for a while around the time 3.5 was in full swing and spent some time playing the Star Wars RPG. I only got back into D&D around the time 4th edition came out because I was working at a bookstore so when I started putting those out for sale I couldn’t help but flip through the pages admiring the art which then lead to reading. That of course turned into me reading them on break and then buying them shortly after; this was the first time that I had any inclination that the world had changed a little. After i’d bought them I sat back in our break room reading through the Dungeon Masters Guide when a fellow co-worker walked by and then peeked back in to stare at what I was doing. He was roughly ten years older than I was and by all accounts a good guy but never in a million years would I have pegged him for someone who spent his free time scouring dungeons and killing goblins. He asked if I played and I confessed I hadn’t for quite a while but this new edition had kind of sparked my interest again. He sat down and we started talking about the new game and then quickly transitioned into swapping stories about old and now forgotten campaign escapades then he hit me with the real surprise of my day. He still played. He and his friends still had a weekly or semi-weekly game that they had been playing in for over five years. I couldn’t believe it since we had worked together for almost two years at that point and somehow it had never come up but after that interaction we soon found out we shared a lot of similar geeky pursuits including a passion for video games. The first 3DS I ever played was one he picked up on release with a copy of Pilotwings and Street Fighter, if I remember right. Nearly every day from then on we talked D&D and it seemed to just cascade throughout the store as we found out several more of our co-workers including an ex-Marine also played. A few of them hadn’t played in a decade or more but had always wanted to get back into it if they could find a regular group. Suffice it to say before long we had people together that we could play with although no one had ever been a Dungeon Master before besides me. I had wanted to play a character but as a lot of DMs out there know sometimes if you want to play you have to be the one to run the game. It’s extremely rewarding to run a campaign with a good group so it’s not a complaint just more of a reality we as a community struggle with. I wrote up a fairly basic adventure to get us started and we got together as often as we could re-learning as we went and it was exactly like being home again, the rules may have been different but the feeling was the same. As is bound to happen with D&D as adults eventually our schedule conflicts got to the point that playing regularly became nearly impossible and eventually we stopped. From that seed though grew several other temporary groups including an ill-advised attempt to run a game of 7-9 people most of whom were new, I should have known better but it was just so amazing at the time to have that much interest in a hobby I’d only recently rediscovered. That massive game lasted through half a year and eventually it was so hard to get everyone together at once we gave it up, while it was disappointing to stop it was fantastic that we’d even gotten that far in the first place.

More groups came and went and eventually I started to hear that people who were only tangentially related with those games had started playing or running their own outside of it which in itself was great to hear. I was back in and consuming every bit of D&D news I could find when eventually rumors of a new edition started making the rounds and soon we found out that D&D Next was on it’s way to being tested and released. In the interim though I had begun to find out that while I had been away D&D had started coming back with a real vengeance including a new thing I hadn’t seen before, D&D Podcasts. In 2008 WoTC partnered with Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade to make a series of podcasts that started in 4e and the show still continues even today. It even spun off a franchise show called The “C” Team. While it was difficult for me to put together a steady 4e group these podcasts and others did the job of scratching my itch to play. During this time my girlfriend and I put together a weekly board game group with a few close friends and that has been a fairly regular thing for going on at least five years however I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m low-balling that by a bit. At some point during all this I finally managed to convince my girlfriend that she might like being a Dungeon Master so she set out to write up a one shot for our weekly group. It actually ended up lasting several sessions because we like to take our time but it was incredibly fun and she did a masterful job designing our characters. We were given our character sheets and a folded letter we were to read before starting to play which described a few relevant details about our relationship to the other party members including a secret or two. I was given the pleasure of revealing at the end of the one-shot that one of our fellow party members who had taken a shine to my character was actually my daughter. Suffice it to say we all had great laugh over that when it was finally brought into the open.

I won’t bore you with the entire interlude of what we did before finally putting together a regular group that could meet bi-weekly but I can promise you that D&D was never not on my mind in some fashion or another. One of my best friends who is a regular in my current campaign also wanted to try his hand running a game of his own with us as his guinea pigs and we were happy to oblige, me especially when he told me he wanted to run a game of Dark Heresy. I was immediately into it while the rest of the unwitting victims at our weekly board-game night had no idea what they had just agreed to but it was Sci-fi and that was enough to pique their interest. Once we explained what it was it was decided that we were going to have to get them all up to speed on this universe and it’s lore. A couple weeks later we both compiled a stack of notes and with the liberal application of some alcohol we taught a class on the universe of Warhammer 40,000 to prep them for a future where there was only war. They were good sports and asked a bunch of insightful and relevant questions during the couple hours we were there and at the end everyone was excited to give it a shot. That campaign lasted for a fantastic half a year until it got interrupted by life and responsibility. We’ve meant to get back to it ever since and yesterday I think we finally managed to talk our GM into picking it back up or he convinced us, either way in the end it was mutual.

In the midst of all of this several of our friends have taken to running one shots of their own for family and friends or participated in our occasional games. Once 5e came out I began looking around again for a regular group to run with and for the past year or more we’ve had a weekly/bi-weekly game of D&D which I have enjoyed immensely. Not the least bit as a result of the fact that one of my players is my father who I think has read more fantasy fiction than anyone I’ve ever met in my entire life. When I finally had the thought to ask him I felt like such an idiot for not having considered it before that moment which brings me back to where I started with all of this. He didn’t need any convincing and said yes immediately to giving it a try. Thus far through all of the myriad tries to get regular games going he’s been one of the few where absolutely no cajoling was required. Currently he plays a Dwarven Alchemist Entrepreneur who is in the process of setting up his own shop in a town that the group played an important part in saving early on in their campaign. He also found a Rust Colored Bag of Tricks which he’s used to great effect so far in spite of the fact that the two goats he has a chance of pulling are either of the fainting or screaming variety. He also inquired as to whether or not they remember what happens to them each time they are pulled from the bag, I hadn’t considered it myself but you can safely assume it’s come up since then.

Anyways, not to get too far off on a tangent lets wrap this up. In all my years of being involved in D&D simultaneously the most and least surprising thing was my fathers willingness to play this silly game with my friends and I.  At this point I don’t think theres a single one of my siblings that hasn’t played or doesn’t currently play and I’ve gotten questions about the game from friends of theirs who want to learn but need some direction on where to start. That call from my brother in law got me thinking again about the sort of surreal feeling that I get when I look around at the tabletop roleplaying community and realize what a truly special phenomenon it really is. The game itself is nearly without barriers that appeals to seemingly anyone with some spare time and a willingness to escape into a co-operative fantasy for a few hours. What’s more is that we as a community have somehow kept that eagerness to share it with anyone who even shows the slightest hint of interest and I hope that’s something we never lose.

In the end if you’re thinking about playing or asking people if they’d be interested in playing then i’d encourage you to take that leap because you never know just who might be waiting for an invitation or who may not even know they want one. Barring that check out the event schedule for your local game store and see if they host an Adventurers League, those are a fantastic way to dip your toes in and see what the fuss is all about. And if the only thing thats keeping you from playing is not having a DM then I’d also encourage you to give it a shot. I wont lie and say that it’s easy or that you’re guaranteed to love it but if you do end up enjoying it I can promise that you and your players will create some of your best memories around that table.

If you stuck around to the end, good job! That’ll be 100xp and whatever is in the chest over there. Roll a percentile die and I’ll get back to you with what you find. Until then I hope you had a fantastic weekend and I’ll be back soon.

  • Non-Washable