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