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The Rules
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


“The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”
–Gary Gygax

“Rule 0: The unwritten rule in tabletop role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons) which grants the game master the right to suspend or override the published game rules whenever s/he deems necessary.”
–urbandictionary.com

So far in this series, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about character classes and other issues from the player’s point of view. That presents only half of the story of D&D. This week, it’s time to take a turn behind the screen and think about the DM’s perspective.

In some ways, the entire concept of RPG mechanics makes little sense when you consider that the DM is on hand to adjudicate things. Rules can’t turn a bad DM into a good one or ensure a “fair” (whatever that might mean) game. In my view, rules that try to force the DM to play fair are a waste of time. After all, the DM can just put Tiamat in the next room of the dungeon and slaughter the characters whenever he or she wishes. Why try to legislate some of the DM’s power while leaving huge, gaping holes elsewhere? Is the book going to suddenly animate and pummel the DM for being a meanie?

On top of that, isn’t the entire point of the DM to serve as a referee and rules arbiter? If you feel the need to mechanically restrict the DM, you might as well make a board game and assume that the DM is one player fighting all the others in a competitive game.

The truth is that D&D is not fundamentally a competitive game of DM versus the players. If it were, it would be hard to imagine a situation where the DM doesn’t win unless they restrict themselves in some way. In that case, then, it seems reasonable to ask a simple question. If the DM can just make decisions about how things work, why even have rules in the first place?

The Role of the Rules

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly when one player decides to take a left at Park Place and drive away in search of a city where there aren’t three other would-be real estate moguls inflating prices. The next player is sent to jail, but where she recruits the racecar to crash through the prison gate to help her escape; she then goes on the run with her stash of money and becomes an international super-criminal. As D&D players, you can see the comparison: RPGs let you do all sorts of crazy stuff. In other games, the rules are guidelines that tell you what you can and cannot do. You can’t break out of jail in Monopoly unless you have the right card to play. In D&D, the DM tells you what you can and cannot do. The rules instead tell you how to do things.

This is a subtle point, but an important one. In many ways, D&D’s rules are more like the rules for a sport than a game. Consider soccer. (Editor’s note: As many of us do; congratulations to Japan on their World Cup victory.) There are rules for how you can attack the goal, limiting player movement by ruling some players who advance too far forward to be offside. To score a goal, you need to kick the ball into the net. The rules tell you how to score, but they don’t explain what you must do to score. You might head the ball in off a corner kick, or curl in a shot from a distance. The rules give you guidelines on how you can interact with the ball (no hands, unless you’re a keeper or are throwing an out-of-bounds ball back into play) and how you can position yourself on the field—but what you do within those bounds is up to you.

D&D is similar in that the rules tell you how to attack, but they don’t tell you what you must attack with. You can throw a punch, swing an axe, or hurl a chair. If you try something weird, the DM uses those rules to determine how to resolve the action.

With that in mind—and keeping the idea of complexity dials I’ve talked about earlier in this series—I think we have a picture of how the rules of the game apply to the DM.

In D&D, the rules serve two purposes. Some rules give formal definitions on how to do things. These are things that are important enough that the players and the DM need to have a clear, mutual understanding of how they work. For instance, imagine a world where the DM asks for a Strength check. The DM has to assume that you have a Strength ability and know what it means. The statement also assumes that you know how to make a check and what to do with the result of that check. These are the kinds of rules that breed understanding and clarity during the game. If you think back to soccer, the rules tell you how you can touch the ball. If a midfielder picked the ball up and threw it into the net, everyone watching knows that’s a penalty. (Editor’s note: At least, most of the time.)

The second type of rule is a meta-rule, which allows a DM to adjudicate situations that fall outside of the proscribed mechanics. A check is a great example of this. If a character wants to hold a sagging roof up over her head while an injured dwarf crawls to safety, the DM can pick a DC and call for a Constitution check to see if the character can maintain that position for long enough. The DM understands how checks work, how DCs function, and what ability is appropriate in that situation. The rules never explicitly tell the DM how to handle the situation, but it’s easy to infer a good method from the definitions of those things.

Sports don’t have rules like this. Since they’re competitive, the game would grind to a halt if something happened outside of the rules. The referee could make a decision, but in an official match there would likely be protests filed, complaints, and maybe even lawsuits. In pro sports there have been several examples of games that have been replayed in part or in whole at a later date to correct some strange rule irregularity.

The Rules’ Focus

With that in mind, I think you could approach the game from a slightly new perspective, one that other RPGs have used to varying degrees. Just as a player might be able to opt into complexity by choosing a core fighter or opting into different layers of options, a DM could either create a specific type of campaign or opt into complexity by adding more elements to the body of proscribed, descriptive rules.

The core rules could consist of the basic functionality of combat, roleplay, and exploration. Ability checks with a d20 measured against a DC serve as the basic rule. For combat, the rules cold feature a fairly simple, miniatures-less system. The roleplay rules are really just guidelines for improvising, ideas for creating NPCs and organizations, and advice on using Charisma checks. The exploration rules explain how to incorporate wandering monsters, searching, and survival.

Just as a player adds in extra complexity, the DM might decide to incorporate additional rule systems to focus the campaign or to hit a preferred level of options and complexity. A political game would then include rules for managing fiefdoms, negotiations, and alliances; those rules might even allow NPCs to trick or exert control over the PCs. In most campaigns, the players would rebel against losing control of their characters, but in a game where a fight is a political struggle or a test of wills that might take the place of combat.

For a campaign that instead focuses on tactical battles, advanced rules and options would allow for detailed miniatures play and added layers of tactical complexity such as facing, an action system where characters spend a budget of points to take actions, and so on. That complexity for a sword fight might bore the political-minded group, but it excites the gamers who want detailed, intense battles.

In some cases, these rules could also add to a character sheet or open up a new set of options for the characters. The key is that by opting into a set of rules, the DM indicates that such an area is a key to the campaign.

Of course, a DM could always just rely on the core rules and improvise or imagine the outcomes. In this manner, the DM tailors the campaign not only to what he or she wants but also to how the group will approach those goals.

Like a sport, D&D has a basic set of rules that serve as a common starting point. Unlike a sport, each campaign might need more or fewer of such rules depending on the tastes of the DM and players. Under this model for D&D, the rules give us a common starting point on which we can then layer the specific differences we want to embrace as a group or within the bounds of a campaign.

Poll Time

Will continue next week (for certain this time!)...

Until then, the second round of the Creature Competition has now opened for voting. This week's match-ups include:

  • Were-Chimera vs. Enfield
  • Grivvin vs. Displacer Cube
  • Intellect Tyrant vs. Stirgethid
  • The Displacer Dragon vs. The Medusa Hydra
Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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