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Dungeon Master Insights: Leave The Rules Lawyer At The Door

Running a game of D&D can be a challenge with all of it’s many rules. Sometimes, less is more!



It’s not hard to figure out why I love playing D&D.  It satisfies both a social and a creative urge.  I get to hang out with my friends while we craft a story.  And while there are rules to the game, D&D prides itself on coming up with creative solutions to problems.  It’s also a game where there is no wrong answer.  If players want to hack and slash through every encounter, that’s ok.  If players want to be more strategic and try to talk their way through encounters, that’s ok too.  The most important thing is to have fun.  It’s a game after all.

If all goes well, everyone at the table will have a great story to tell; one full of daring deeds and fantastical moments.  My latest D&D game had one of those moments and that got me thinking about the “rule of cool.”  The “rule of cool” can be hard to define.  Because it really depends on the person running the game.  It basically means, what is the DM going to allow?  

It Ain’t Always Easy Being A DM

Being a DM can be a challenge.  It’s one thing to bring life to multiple characters, arrange encounters, plan the adventure, provide the maps, make props, but they are also the referee for the game.  It’s important for the DM to at least be familiar with the rules of the game.  When a player wants to cast a fireball, the DM needs to know that it’s 8d6 fire damage in a 20 ft radius.  The players of course will have to know this as well but constantly consulting the books as to what abilities do what can slow the game down and ruin the experience.  Where the rule of cool comes in is what happens after that fireball is cast.  

For example, the rules as written for the fireball spell is: casting time 1 action, range 150 ft, it has to be a spell verbally spoken, the caster must be able to make certain gestures, it requires a tiny ball of bat guano and sulfur as components, and it goes off instantly.  The description for fireball is: a bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame.  Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a dexterity saving throw.  A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.  The fire spreads around corners.  It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t worn or carried.  There’s a lot to know about casting spells.

If a DM really wanted to be strict about it, playing a wizard can be tedious.  They will be spending the entire game managing their inventory.  Much more than the fighter or the monk.  They’d have to keep track of all their components, they’d have to have spells prepared, any rest time would be spent copying spells into the book, all their money would go towards expensive ingredients and buying scrolls.  Exactly how much fun would it be to see your friend the wizard spend an hour in real-time trying to negotiate with a local pet shop owner for bat guano just so the wizard can cast fireball?

When To Bend The Rules

That’s when the rules of the game tend to bend a bit.  In our game, material components aren’t that strictly enforced.  We let it slide.  Because we want to play Dungeons and Dragons and not The Sims: Fantasy.  And that’s ok.  There is no wrong way to play D&D.  Some might disagree, but in the end, it’s a game.  I have far more fond memories of my friends and I taking on an army of kobolds than I do about worrying if my character is going to die of sepsis because I stabbed myself in the leg by accident sheathing my dagger.  

For me, the rule of cool takes the elements of the rules and provides more interesting story elements.  Getting back to the fireball example, the low roar the fireball makes once it’s cast.  Maybe that alerts guards.  Maybe it wakes up a sleeping dragon.  Maybe it has a bit of a reverberation and it uncovers some bit of treasure the DM really wants the players to have.  Some things are heavily implied.  The spell makes noise.  Enemies in the next room will likely hear that noise and act accordingly.  Nowhere in the rules does it say anything about reverberation.  But what is sound?  

Let Players Be Creative….And That Goes For You As Well

DMs are allowed to get creative just like players are.  I’ll give one more example from one of my games.  We were exploring a giant temple.  While there, we came across a remorhaz.  A remorhaz is a giant centipede-like creature.  And one of the first things it did was swallow our druid.  The rules as written say if we hit the creature hard enough, he’d puke out our friend.  Ok.  Sounds simple enough.  Except every time we hit this thing with a melee attack, it hits us back with recoil fire damage.  That’s when our druid player had an idea.  If I had to hazard a guess, it would’ve been from watching Avengers: Endgame one too many times.  Or at least the fan edited meme about Ant-Man going up Thanos’ butt and becoming gigantic.  And that’s what happened.  After the remorhaz swallowed him, he wildshaped into a giant stag and the remorhaz exploded like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.  I dare someone to find the rules in the book that would allow that to happen.  And the DM had every right to say no to that moment.  The encounter was over.  We were covered in remorhaz goo.  But sometimes a great moment has to be more important than words on a page.

I’m not trying to tell people how to play D&D.  Play however you want in the way you feel is best.  Find people that share your gamer philosophy and enjoy it!  I don’t know how that encounter would go if the DM hadn’t allowed the druid to do that.  Maybe it was a bad thing for that encounter to go that way.  For me, the play’s the thing.  Having a good time with friends and telling stories I will remember for the rest of my life.  That’s D&D to me and that’s why I enjoy it.

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