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!
“I place the gold in her hand, thank her and take my items back outside to the party.”
“Got all the stuff, is everyone read— where is Brycel?”
“We thought he was with you?”
“What did you do?!”
A halfling with an arm full of goods comes rushing out of the store behind you –
“Time to go!”
“I yell an apology into the shop and then run after everyone, do we see guards anywhere?”
“There do seem to be a few sets of halberds advancing up the street.”
“God dammit Brycel!”
Dungeon Master or player I think we’ve all been here before. Rogue is an extremely popular archetype for role-playing games for reasons that are readily apparent. Regardless of whether you like the idea of playing a fantasy version of Hitman, fancy yourself the next Daniel Ocean or have always dreamed of being this guy the Rogue class can give you that chance. They’re one of the most flexible classes in all of Dungeons & Dragons even including a path called Arcane Trickster if life just isn’t interesting enough without a little spell-casting on the side.
Clearly based on the example at the top I’m here to talk about one particular class of Rogue, the Thief. Our friendly neighborhood pickpocket, confidence man and, all around angle seeker in any given situation. Negotiating for the release of hostages? They might see if they can finagle a few extras for themselves in the process. Investigating a mysterious death in the Royal Palace? What silverware? Going shopping for supplies? No, I don’t believe I have seen any Potions of Giant Strength.
The thief is often a class chosen by those who want to role-play the “fun” side of sinister, the kind of evil that pricks but doesn’t kill, the kind that still allows you to sleep at night, the lovable miscreant. I imagine many rogue players envision themselves to be something akin to Aladdin if he was deep into a goth phase. It’s all fun and games while you escape the guards in a jaunty run across town that ends with a good laugh in some dingy alley with your party while they give you shit for being an incorrigible sticky-fingered thief.
Unfortunately in my experience the reality can be a bit more complicated. I stumbled upon this thread while browsing around before bed and it touched on something that I’ve thought about off and on over the years. We often talk about how important it is for the DM of a table to have a conversation with their players about the type of game they’re expecting. Everyone should more or less be on the same page about the direction of the campaign, the style of play and the general attitude and goals of the party. A chaotic evil character running around amidst a group of lawful good is just asking for trouble outside of a very experienced group who enjoys an odd roleplaying challenge. It’s not that situations like this can’t ever work but there are conversations that need to be had prior to going live to ensure the health and longevity of the group.
To tie in another conversation I had today with another DM and some players we briefly spoke about red flags that we look for when talking to prospective players. I mentioned one of mine which was players whose backgrounds start with or include references to their characters being former gods, disgraced gods, temporarily “de-powered” or overthrown in any fashion. I like grandeur and imagination in backstories as much as anyone but every player and DM develops a sense for people that they will not mesh with for a variety of reasons. Another one of the red-flags that I keep an eye out for in character backgrounds is the word “Kleptomaniac”.
This word in a backstory reads to me as an excuse for the player to steal as much as they want whenever they want with little regard for any justification beyond, “I have to because I’m a klepto.” I will offer the clarification that I have in the past had a player who while using that word to describe their character they also provided me with a specific list of items that would trigger their kleptomania and that it was limited to those. This is the kind of care and detail that in my opinion must be included with a character who suffers from any kind of manic disorder. In the example I posted above from the Reddit thread you might be able to see why this kind of thing aggravates me so much. The player who describes themselves as a kleptomaniac is not stealing because of their mania but because, as they pointed out, their need for some extra gold. This is the reasoning that your everyday pickpocket or confidence man uses to justify lifting a wallet or breaking in to steal an expensive pipe. This is simple greed or opportunistic theft, not theft driven by an irresistible compulsion to do it regardless of danger or circumstance.
Kleptomania and other quirks like it are character flaws and shouldn’t be treated as pseudo-feats that you can take as a player to excuse extreme and sometimes downright stupid behavior.
This leads me to the wider problem that is also evident in the post. Players who use traits like kleptomania have a tendency to warp the play at the table to disproportionately revolve around their actions. This isn’t always intentional but it can easily come about naturally from just embracing their characters core flaw. In a game that strongly promotes the idea of co-operative storytelling these types of characters can disrupt that fundamental pillar. The argument can certainly be made that in a game like D&D where freedom of choice and the accompanying consequences are “part of the fun”, which I certainly agree with. The caveat which must be stressed however is that at the end of the day it is still at its core, a game, where the ultimate goal is a good time for everyone involved. If we accept the presence of a kleptomaniac then lets expand our view for a moment to potential other manias or neuroses we could see crop up.
A pyromaniac wizard? How rapidly frustrating would a game become with a player who is obsessed with fire and has such easy access to it that they are constantly in danger of burning anywhere they go to the ground?
Severe obsessive compulsive disorder? How long would a party wait around while their Cleric counts each and every stone tile as they traverse a dungeon?
Ablutomania, where the druid in the party obsessively washes themselves, constantly using up any available water supply even their drinking water. As a result the party must resupply frequently and stop at any water supply along the way so they can wash.
If you find any of the above examples ridiculous or believe that they would be disruptive to a game remember that kleptomania falls into this list as well. We tolerate it because when used appropriately it can be an almost endearing quality in a party member or even a form of comic relief. As the thread I posted will show however it can very quickly morph into a problem when the DM feels the player is out of line or the player feels they are being punished for playing their character. This also doesn’t mean that the above examples can’t or shouldn’t ever be used but that these types of characteristics are hard to role-play in an appropriate manner.
I do want to take just a moment to address the fact that in spite of what I have written here I also do think that the DM was not wholly in the right with enforcing an alignment change on the lawful neutral character. The debate over alignments and how they should affect the game is still hotly debated in the community but I do have to side with the players on this. It seemed a bit punitive and an attempt to discourage other people at the table from engaging in the thief’s shenanigans. Unfortunately without knowing the entire history of the group its tough to make a definitive judgement because alignment changes often should happen when a pattern of behavior is established, not on a singular incident. Furthermore I would state that I do have a small issue with the fact that a lawful neutral cleric was the abetting character as to me that seems to be two layers of plausible reasoning for them to not take part. Either way, a discussion for another time.
So not to bore you for much longer let just conclude with a point that the player made at the bottom of the post –
…But once the DM knew that we were trying to steal the pipe, he then said that magically(without good reason, no spell was casted) a glass case and bodyguard appeared in the store, the glass case over the pipe and the bodyguard which is in the store (so because we wanted to steal something, the DM tries to make it harder for us than it should have been just so he can fuck us over)…
I want to clarify something here that as a DM I do not describe rooms and environments with 100% of the available detail. I try to judge what the myriad characters at my table may or may not notice when they are just going about their day. To describe everything in excruciating detail means that getting anywhere with any speed would be nearly impossible. Its another reason why DMs don’t, or shouldn’t, allow constant Perception checks by players because it slows the game until its nearly unplayable. Players must communicate their intentions and make intelligent decisions from moment to moment based on their suspicions or goals. If you think there might be a trap then by all means check for it but I will not allow you to stand there and roll checks until you get one that makes you confident it is safe to proceed. I can explain any number of reasonable mechanical reasons as to why this is but let me just simply the issue: It isn’t fun. Not for me as the DM and not for anyone else at the table.
Again, it’s hard to make concrete judgments as I don’t know the history of the table, it’s players or the DM but it’s fairly clear that the relationship between the klepto and the DM has shifted to be somewhat adversarial. There are good reasons why players shouldn’t withhold information from their DMs because it can lead to situations like this. If a thief at my table walks into a building I don’t describe things like security or potential theft targets unless they specifically ask. If the thief tells me that they want to enter a shop because they want to case it then I know what information that character is looking to glean from their visit. If all they tell me is that they’re going into the shop with no further context then I won’t bother to expand on a description I already gave. Once they’ve revealed their plans to steal an item, like the pipe, then it’s time to discuss relevant details for that particular goal.
Very rarely do DMs do anything specifically to screw over their players as most of the time what you do is a total surprise to us. We may inadvertently gloss over details you wanted to know but we also can’t always know what specific information you want unless you ask. There are few if any reasons players should feel a need to keep information from their DM and just about all of them are bad news for the table as a whole. If you as a player find yourself in that position or know of another player who does then its time to have a discussion before it leads to bigger problems. It’s hard to stress enough just how important communication is.
Like most topics when it comes to D&D nothing is universal and your mileage will vary with any given advice but it is important to be cognizant of the people you are playing with. I am by no means saying that you must create characters devoid of quirks or challenging flaws but reasonably those things can be something to work up to while you gain experience as a player.
Now, grab your dice and go have some fun! I’ll be back soon.
Because I couldn’t go five minutes without a dose of irony I couldn’t think of another word for “lateral” so I ended up just opening a thesaurus and grabbing the one I wanted. In an article ostensibly about the value of lateral thinking that is probably as good a start as any. If you want to know what was going through my head while writing this just click here.
Why lateral thinking? I was reading a thread on Reddit the other day where a player was experiencing some friction with their DM over their use of Shield Master and a relatively high AC in the early game. I know the challenge as I currently have a Shield Master War Cleric in my game and sometimes the high AC can be a bit of an annoyance when they’re not usually fighting things worse than orcs, goblins or other fodder. The discussion surrounding it contained the usual helpful refrain of “Quit” or “Your DM is bad” and variations thereof. The extreme suggestions aside they’re all pretty fair assessments of what is going on but it prompted me to think about the importance of creative solutions to combat especially from the side of the DM.
The instinct on how to rectify a problem like this almost always tends to be linear in so much as if you’re trying to break down a brick wall then simply hit it harder, right? Sure and much like the brick wall in the metaphor you’ll succeed in completely destroying it, much like the player who is presenting you with a challenge. They can be eaten by a dragon, have their brain melon-balled by a Mind Flayer or dissolved by a Gelatinous Cube but then what are you left with? A mess, both literally and figuratively.
In these situations its sometimes hard to remember that the players are working with a limited toolbox, especially in the early levels, so sometimes solutions that seem eerily similar to button mashing will present themselves. A DMs job is to, much like a river, find ways to flow around these simple tactics and find new ways to challenge them if for no other reason than to keep the game interesting for themselves. Its also helpful to remember that combat encounters are not the only encounters available in D&D and a character who excels in them may do so because they struggle elsewhere, for example in social encounters. Players and their characters will tend to not shine in every situation so stifling them in their moment can discourage them from playing or actively participating at all.
Another common move for some more inexperienced DMs maybe to try and excise the rule, skill or interaction that allows the situation to occur at all, like being able to use your bonus action to shove a creature prone before attacking so you can do it with advantage. In spite of RAW/RAI the DM may decide that their interpretation is that you can only shove after the attack which if done in the moment can lead to the ruling feeling petty or punitive. House-rules are nothing new to D&D but they shouldn’t just crop up whenever you run into something you aren’t willing to deal with properly. Contrary to what some may believe the DMs discretionary power is not without reasonable boundaries, at least it isn’t if you want the game to continue.
The only real solution lies in finding new and creative ways around these hurdles instead of just through, fortunately for us we have the whole of D&Ds collective history to draw from for inspiration.
Lets see if we can come up with a few good options –
The first way I can see to mix up the combat is to start introducing either new enemies or to adjust the ones you are currently throwing at them. Since they are level 3 and running Lost Mine of the Phandelver their enemies should look something like –
Red Brands (Bandits)
For simplicity sake we’re just going to throw out the wolves because short of straight stat buffs or upgrading them, a few at least, to dire wolves the fixes are fairly linear. The solution may be as simple as beefing up their stats to make them more of a challenge but you should always consider re-evaluating your tactics as a DM. We can sometimes get a bit bland in our usage of enemies by just having them move in and swing, bite or claw. It’s important to make sure the flaw isn’t in your tactics before deciding how to proceed. Assuming the wolves are just being outclassed lets look at the others in your stable.
Goblins are nimble and fairly versatile creatures in addition to being quite at home in something resembling a horde. Your party may carve through them face to face but there is no reason for that when they have ranged options. Even at a base Wis of 8 there is no rule that says they have to charge in so they can be conveniently ground into the dirt. Many creatures have traits that go completely unused during combat, for a variety of reasons, but a bit of forethought and prep can make them quite the adversary in spite of their obvious weaknesses.
Nimble Escape: The goblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a Bonus Action on each of its turns.
A +6 to their stealth and a shortbow at their disposal with a +4 to hit can be a dangerous or even lethal combination with the advantage they gain from hiding successfully. Even if the heavily armored and hard to hit front-line fighters don’t lose their view of their ranged attackers, others might. Enough hits on other party members might encourage those front-line tank types to make desperate or ill-advised moves making them vulnerable to flanking or traps in an effort end the threat.
Goblin Bosses while much more robust than the smaller rank and file they still come equipped with Nimble Escape, a much improved AC at 17 and, a shield they can use to further increase their survivability.
Redirect Attack: When a creature the goblin can see targets it with an attack, the goblin chooses another goblin within 5ft of it. The two goblins swap places, and the chosen goblin becomes the target of the attack.
This additional feature gives you even more reason to surround them with plenty of fodder that can be used to make the Goblin Boss elusive and tough to kill, giving your archers more time to wear down the tank.
You can also further mix-up your goblins by adding in a Worg for one of them to ride. The Worg’s bite attack comes with the added tangle of knocking the target prone if it doesn’t succeed on a DC13 strength check to stay upright. If one of your players is constantly knocking your creatures prone then don’t be afraid to return the favor. The Worgs are not all upside for the Goblins either as they are not entirely domesticated mounts and they will turn on their riders if they feel they are being mistreated. The players may not have to kill the best to remove it from the fight. In addition to the mount if you like to keep your world consistent and need to justify the Goblins using more intelligent tactics look up your basic Hobgoblin, no better way to whip that disorganized tribe into a pack of organized warriors.
Bugbears are somewhat simpler as these generally fall into the berserker/barbarian categories with what they lack in finesse they make up for in sheer brutality, with one notable twist.
Surprise Attack: If the bugbear surprises a creature and hits it with an attack during the first round of combat, the target takes an extra 7 (2d6) damage from the attack.
Clearly this necessitates a particular sort of encounter setup where the bugbears have the chance to surprise the party or at the very least close the distance as quickly as possible. Even better if they’re working in pairs for the potential to flank to earn advantage on that opening round.
Brute: A melee weapon deals one extra die of its damage when the bugbear hits with it (included in the attack).
In addition to making their normal hits even more deadly this also has the potential to really ratchet up the damage potential of the opening round making your encounter design essential. Since the bugbears are so straight forward in their use and tactics there isn’t a lot you can do outside of buffing their stats to make them heartier but it emphasizes how important the setup for an encounter can be. If you don’t give them the opportunity to ambush your party or at least get in close early then you may as well have swapped them out for any creature of equivalent stats as they will be about as effective. Playing into the advantages of their racial traits will make them stand out in your players minds, the next time they see evidence of bugbears they’ll know to watch for ambushes or choke points. Your players will effectively learn along with their characters about how your world and its denizens operate, a win for immersion if ever I heard one.
Alright, lastly lets take a look at the Red Brands or otherwise known as your fairly generic human bandits. I’m going to go a little differently here and forgo talking about the specific bandit stat blocks or how they are geared and instead talk about customization. A lot of the various races in D&D make it difficult to give them additional abilities without breaking a bit of the immersion or at least without a lot of explanation to not make the whole table start questioning things. Its not that they don’t trust in you as the DM to have some sort of explanation but generally when moving along a narrative you want to minimize the things that make your audience stop and go, “Wait, what?”. Humans are unique generally because you reskin them to be basically anything you want or need them to be. If your bandits aren’t giving your players much trouble then perhaps they managed to recruit a wizard or sorcerer into their service, perhaps a rogue or ranger of some kind. Little if any explanation will be needed to justify a human that wears any of these professions whereas its a little harder to convince people that the goblin really is a druid, like, for real. It can take a bit of finagling to get the difficulty just right but you can start on p342 of the Monster Manual under the Non-player Character stat-blocks to get a rough starting point. Its a lot easier to tweak existing stat blocks like those into something resembling the challenge you want them to be rather than building one from the ground up.
While they can certainly be seen as the most generic of generic bad guys in games like these which give you creatures such as Beholders and Gibbering Mouthers to play with their blandness also allows them ultimate flexibility. That flexibility provides you with an incredibly versatile enemy type which can be adjusted to serve literally any purpose you can imagine with almost no need for detailed explanations as to why. Whats more is anything your PCs can do so can a human NPC in theory, of course you want to be careful designing them to be too close to the players but within reason is fine.
I know it’s easy to read a post like the one at the beginning of this article and dismiss that DM as little more than a lost cause because he can’t adapt but even with two years experience under your belt there are still things to learn. If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time you’ve probably heard ten or twenty year veterans who will tell you they’ve never stopped learning. Its important for DMs to know themselves and their tendencies before taking the reigns of a campaign but you’ll also learn as you go which makes flexibility key.
Your ability to think laterally, creatively about how to answer the challenges presented by your players will dictate by and large the enjoyment of everyone so give it the consideration it deserves.