The Purpose of Rules
Rules are essential to D&D. They are the constraints that allow people to play together and tell you what dice to roll and what happens when you do. Having a uniform set of rules keeps the playing field even for all players. These players know what they can and can’t do because of how the rules are laid out. Without them, players would be guessing at what actions they should take. If you play a video game, you expect the controller to function the same way throughout the game. For example, if the “A” button makes you jump, you expect that you will jump every time you press that button. If this wasn’t the case, players would quickly get frustrated.
This principle of having rules informed actions is at the core of D&D, which we can refer to as the game’s mechanics. Besides the mechanics of the game, a large part of the game is storytelling and role playing. These two categories can be at odds with the game’s mechanics and may need a DM’s intervention to determine the outcome of certain actions. Some situations can be role played through entirely, such as persuasion of an NPC. These things can also be handled by a simple roll of a die. While these things both accomplish the same thing, they are two different styles of play and are often combined. A good DM can incorporate this combination by modifying a player’s roll based on how well they role played a scenario. This is a happy marriage between mechanics and storytelling and is important for the game.
Rules for the World
In D&D, rules can be more than mechanics. They can cover the cost of goods, how much damage a player takes on a fall, and to determine how hard an object is to break. These rules are in response to the world. They are less about what a player can do and more about what happens in any given scenario. They are just as important as the mechanics that govern player actions, but they are not nearly as cut and dry. There are not rules for every occasion or scenario your players may face. The books would be infinitely large. It’s the dungeon masters role to fill in the gaps where the rules fall short.
Dungeon Masters and Rules
Dungeon Masters are responsible for maintaining the game state. This means they need to know the rules or where to find them. Additionally, they have to make rulings on scenarios that are not covered in the books. The story telling aspect of a DM does not keep the game going on it’s own. If it was just storytelling, that would be a book. The merging of a story with the mechanics of the game is what makes D&D function.
Dungeon Masters have a lot of power over the rules and they can bend or break any of them. However, if you want to run a smooth game, you should keep your rules consistent. It’s very difficult for players to have a DM who changes rules mid-game, as it makes a game chaotic or removes the challenge altogether. Mechanics need to stay the same so that a player knows what they can do. When you start bending rules that were never bent before, players can get rightfully upset. Constancy in your rules is critical for everyone to play together.
So if consistency is that important, rules lawyering is a good thing, right? Not quite.
Rules Lawyers Suck the Fun out of Games
For the purposes of this discussion we will refer to a rules lawyer as a player or DM who only uses the rules as written from D&D explicitly. A rules lawyer as a DM is not playing within the full scope of the game. Often a Dungeon Master has to make ruling, but when they’re taken too literally they can be stifling. Just because a fire related spell doesn’t specifically say that it lights things on fire does not mean that it cannot light things on fire. Following the rules to the letter can be extremely un-fun.
This only gets worse with players. A DM has the leeway to make fair and consistent changes. But when a player argues a ruling, it can grind the game to halt. This doesn’t mean looking up a spell for combat purposes or checking on the specifics for attacks of opportunity. I’m taking about arguing creature alignment and disagreeing on what counts as being in stealth. If a player disagrees with the DM on their ruling and they debate it, the whole games stops. If this takes more than a few minutes, the rest of the players will be bored or angry.
I am not in anyway saying a DM should ignore a player’s concerns, but there is a time and a place. The DM can modify anything for flavor or for story purposes. Perhaps they rule heavier creatures take more fall damage, or maybe they make a good aligned Demon. That’s fine. The DM can do that. But the players need to accept these things as parts of the story. Don’t let a rules lawyer suck the fun out of the game.
Guidelines for Dealing with Rules
As a DM:
- Make sure players know rule modifications ahead of time.
- Be consistent with your rulings.
- Save argument or debate for after the game.
- Listen to your players concerns.
- Don’t over-modify mechanics, as this hurts the players’ experience.
- Don’t be afraid to make rulings that are not in the books.
- Be willing to bend things for flavor, but let your players know when you do.
As a Player:
- Don’t argue during the game.
- Let the DM decide how the game is played
- Express your concerns with rule changes promptly and ask for clarification.
- Expect consistentcy from your DM.
- Do not argue flavor based changes, like alignment or creature templates.
- Be willing to let the DM make decisions that are not covered in the books.