Tuesday, May 23, 2017

GM 101: Does Story trump Rules?

Another Facebook thread tweaked my interest a few weeks back where the poster simply asks, “Do Rules trump Story? Or does Story trump Rules?”

For those of us who have been DMing a long time, the answer may seem obvious (and most of the responses were in accord), but there is some nuance to that question that requires a bit of analysis for our younger, newer Dungeon Game Masters.

There is a famous quote by one of the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons:
“The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don't need any rules.” - Gary Gygax

You see, the rules and mechanics are there to provide us a framework for telling the story… but they are not the story and should not necessarily dictate narrative. The rules are not what make the game fun. What makes the game fun is the collaborative storytelling and epic moments produced by the players and DM working together. But, what’s really important, and not stated in the original question is fun. Why do we play these games? To have have fun… Otherwise, what’s the point?

Caveat: There is a difference between the game as a whole being “fun” versus any given moment of the game being “fun”. A favorite character dying can be a bummer, but the experience that lead up to the character death may have been the best time ever… And sharing memories with your friends about that time Dave’s PC epically died in a heroic (or decidedly unheroic, but humorous) way can be great fun, even if, at the time, it was a bit of a downer.

Given the above stated assumptions, the “mathematics” of D&D is basically:  Fun > Story > Rules

Almost always, but again, there is nuance (and caveats).

Don’t Break the Rules

First, let’s talk about why you shouldn’t break the rules before we talk about when you should.

The rules provide a scaffold of consistency. Players expect the game world to to work they way the rules say it should work. When a player creates a character, there are certain expectations on how their skills, spells, feats and what not will work within the game. Because players have only a sliver of control on the game world itself (in D&D, that is), it is important cherish the sanctity of their control by not changing aspects of the rules that affect their characters. [For other games like FATE and Dungeon World, the players have more narrative control over the larger world, but that is beyond the scope of this article.]

Also, when you make an exception to one place in the rules, you may be opening a door to allow for that exception to apply to other similar circumstances. Your players may press you to use the same exception in those situations and you will have to delineate why it applies in one scenario and not another. Let’s face it -- players are always looking for that tactical edge. If you always stick to the Rules As Written, you can easily say “Sorry. That’s not what the book says.” (I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t say that below… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

The rules not only provide consistency for the players, it also provides the ability to you as the DM to put your foot down when the players are pressing for some unreasonable or game-breaking rule compromise they want. However, that does not mean you should never bend or break the rules...

Learn the Rules before you Break Them

For those of us who can still remember high school creative writing, there was an oft-quoted maxim used by teachers in the U.S. “You must first learn the proper rules of English grammar before you learn to break them.”

Where exactly are those mounted combat rules?!
The point was that great writers break grammar rules all the time, but they do it in a purposeful way for dramatic storytelling impact rather than accidentally due to ignorance of the grammar. Breaking the rules due to ignorance makes one’s writing sloppy, rather than impactful. This same idea applies to D&D or any other role-playing game.

A deep understanding of the rules is needed so that when you do choose to break the rules for the purpose of story or fun, you do so in a thoughtful and meaningful way. You do not want the game to devolve into “Let’s Pretend” without real structure or consistency. Also, as noted, players will often look for an edge or loophole and may press you to change a rule to fit their desire.

As an example, I often see GMs ask about “called shots” in D&D… Like you might want to blind a foe, or disable their sword arm, or shoot them with an arrow to the knee. The problem with this kind of request is that it circumvents the abstractness of hit points. D&D doesn’t support called shots to a body location because it bogs down play speed and breaks the combat abstraction represented by Armor Class and Hit Points. However, the Sharpshooter feat does allow ranged attackers extra damage if they take a negative on their attack roll. Or the Battle Master can use a Disarm maneuver to remove a weapon from a foe.

Without that intimate familiarity about how the rules work, you might be tempted to allow a player an exploit that breaks the core mechanics, rather than use existing mechanics that can simulate the same circumstance… and I guarantee the players will use that called shot constantly if you make it as powerful (or more) than the Sharpshooter feat already allows.

If you are uncertain of the long term effect of a house rule will be on the game, that may be a time to rely on the Rules As Written. However, you could offer the player an olive branch in the form of “I’ll allow it this time, but if this ends up being an over-powered or abused house rule, I reserve the right to revoke or change it at a later date.” Which leads me to...

When You Should Break the Rules

Up the rigging, you monkeys!

Players play D&D and other RPGs to do Awesome Things. They want to swing from a a pirate ship's rigging like Errol Flynn while fencing multiple opponents. They want to parkour off the wall to leap over a foe. They want to shoot orcs in the face while using a shield as a snowboard. Your job as GM is to help them do these Awesome Things. This is often called the “Rule of Cool”... The gist is that if an idea is cool, you should allow it to occur regardless of the rules as written (with the caveat that it shouldn’t be a player abusing the rules, or an utterly unrealistic action within the confines of the setting/genre).

This brings us back to the Fun > Story > Rules equation. When a situation that comes up that is outside the Rules As Written, ask yourself a couple of questions.

1 - Will it advance the story in an interesting direction or in a way that will give the player a feeling of investment in the story? Then you should probably say yes, and break the rules.

2 - Will it enhance the fun or create an awesome moment for the player(s) to shine at the table? Then you should almost certainly say yes and break the rules.

Example 1: In a Pathfinder game I ran for my nephews, the PCs were chasing down a gargoyle through city streets. One of the characters went to the rooftops and as it tried to fly away to escape, the player asked. "Can I jump off the roof onto its back?"

Now, we were playing on the grid and I quickly glanced at the relative positions of the minis... and he was going to be a couple movement squares short to actually jump off the roof. My response, "Yes, absolutely. Make an Acrobatics check."

Rule as written, a DM could easily say "No, you can't move that far"... but that would be pretty lame. In the "Theater of the Mind" play style, there would be no question that the DM would respond "Yes." It's a cool idea, could make for an interesting story twist, and is going to be hella fun. So why not just allow it on the grid even if you bend the movement rules a bit? When you think about it, even movement on a grid is a highly imperfect abstraction for combat positioning. Let the player have that moment of awesome. Trust me that you won't regret it.

As a side note, my nephew rolled a 1... So it ended up actually being a hilarious moment as I described him haphazardly floundering off the rooftop, slamming into the opposite alley wall Wile-E-Coyote style, and dropping into a pile of refuse. The nephews still joke about that scene a couple years later when we get together for D&D on occasion. If I hadn't said yes, it would have been a pretty boring "You stand at the edge of the rooftop, watching the gargoyle fly off" moment. Imagine how much fun it could have been if he had succeeded!

Example 2: In another comment on my blog, a player asked the DM, “Can I use my Dragonborn breath weapon (cone) to shoot at the floor to damage creature surrounding me?” [as opposed to one side or another based on the standard cone template].  The DM said “Yes, but you will also be placing yourself within the area of effect.”  That’s a great ruling for a creative idea, even if it’s not RAW.

Example 3: In another from my home games, the Rogue player asked to use his Disengage bonus action and parkour-leap over the foes (using the terrain that was available) to move to a spot that would normally be blocked by movement-through-enemies rules. I responded, “Absolutely, but you will need to make an Acrobatics check.”  After the game, the player actually thanked me for "letting" him do something awesome. I considered it a pretty minor request, but was gratified that it created a really memorable moment for him in game.

I believe you have something of mine...
Does that mean the a character gets fly through a bamboo forest and balance on a thin branch during combat ala Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Perhaps only if you are playing a Wuxia-style game. You can say "No" if the requested action doe not fit within the confines of the objective reality within the game. Not every game is going to be over-the-top gonzo, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a way to allow a player’s request if there is a compromise that maintains the level of realism within the game.

Remember Fun > Story Too

This has been written about tons and tons already all over the internet, so I’ll try to just summarize for the new GMs out there.

The “story” is also less important than the players’ actions and their effects on the game world. There will be many times in your games where the players will do something that will completely short-circuit the plot… or they might possibly even sail right past the current plot onto something else that captures their attention. They may kill the villain before events you had planned for him have take place. They might accidentally stumble upon the solution to a mystery causing you to lose a couple sessions worth of content. Or they might want to ally themselves with the pirate leader instead of fighting for the King.

Let it happen.

If we go back to the gargoyle example I used earlier, perhaps the story (as written in an adventure module, or planned by the GM) calls for the gargoyle to escape. If the player succeeds in leaping on the gargoyle's back and bringing it to the ground, that's awesome! Perhaps it will complicate the story line and the GM may have to improvise how the adventure changes as a result... That's OK! That's more than OK... It's awesome! The players are supposed to create fun, heroic moments and if that "screws up" the story, so be it.

Their fun is more important than your story. It’s not your story, anyway. It is owned by everyone at the table. So if they do something that completely thwarts the plot you may have planned out, don’t punish them for being clever or even lucky. Don’t force them back onto the rails. Rethink how their actions will change the active plot. Let their actions have an impact on the world, and the fun will take care of itself.

Story trumps Rules.

Fun trumps both.

Say yes and enhance the awesome.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

D&D: The Slippery Slope of Saying Yes

As expected, the reactions to my last post were quite intense and often fierce... but there was were a few themes among the Rules-As-Written purists that I found intriguing and wished to explore deeper.

Game Balance

There were quite a few people who cited game balance as a major objection, which I found peculiar given the small magnitude of the change being discussed. They cited that this change wasn't "extensively play tested" or "balanced against other racial abilities" or some other silliness about min-maxing. This kind of anxious hand-wringing seemed overwrought for utterly minor change to a racial stat. I mean how much min-maxing can occur with just one point? (and BTW, they are giving up a point of DEX for it).

Slippery Slope

Even more so than game balance, many people cited "slippery slope" examples. If I give this one small benefit this week to one player, what happens when the next player asks for something bigger? And it snow balls from there until there are hurt feelings and everything falls apart.

Again, this kind of hand-wringing also felt misguided to me. We're all adults here, and even when we have younger players at the table, it will be obvious to everyone when a ridiculous or game-breaking request is made by one of the players.You can say no to ridiculous or abusive requests. No one is going to go away butt-hurt... and if they do, you probably don't want to be playing with that person anyway.

I never wrote, "Say YES to everything" no matter what the players ask.  Anyone who claims that was what the post was about is either does not have any reading comprehension (since that is not what was said), or is purposely missing the point so they can prove themselves "right" on social media and get a point on whatever giant, invisible scoreboard there is for people who win arguments using a straw man. Congratulations to them. Here's a cookie. Now, go away.

For those of you still here, I realize there is a common theme in the objections.


... Fear that somehow the game will be broken in some unforeseen way by granting the request. Fear that verisimilitude or immersion will somehow be disrupted by mechanical changes. Fear that the players will be abusive, a$$holes and bring the game down through their moronic requests or on purpose out of some kind of spiteful attitude... Or that fire and brimstone will fall from on high, and dogs and cats will start living together.

Unless you already have a dysfunctional table of players, don't worry... these fears are unfounded. Worse yet, those fears may mean you are missing out on awesome opportunities to take the game in an utterly different direction than expected.

(PS -- if you already have dysfunctional, a$$hat players, your game will not survive no matter whether you are a "Yes" or "No" DM).

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

One counter example that was given involved the idea that a player would ask to be a Bear Druid... not a Druid with bear-form, but an actual Bear who is a Druid.

My first impression was "Huh, what?" as I thought the example was a little bit hyperbolic in order to make a point, but then the more I thought about it, I was like, "How f@cking awesome is that idea?!"

Now, don't get me wrong. You would need to have a serious conversation with this player with questions like:

1) How did the PC become a bear?
2) How do you plan to cast spells?
3) Are we talking opposable thumbs here or just a regular quadrupedal bear?
4) How do you plan to communicate with other party members?
5) If I don't allow the player to talk in character at the table (having to mime all in-game thoughts and ideas) that will likely get extremely tiring for you and the other players. How will you get around this issue?

Through thoughtful discussion with the player, you can find some compromise that might make the idea workable. Perhaps one of the other PCs has an intertwined background that allows her to Speak with Animals a few times per day... or the bear's Wild Shape is actually human, so he can temporarily (2x per short rest) take the human shape that can cast spells and communicate normally, but then has to be in bear form the bulk of the day.

The more I considered it, it actually sounded like really amazing idea... possibly even EPIC!

It might fail completely in play and I might caution the player that we can try it out, but if it doesn't work at the table, or causes a disruption to the game, we'll "remove the curse" and make that PC a human again... or something similar (back up NPC perhaps?)... The point is I'd will be willing to give it a try.

Probably written by a "Say Yes" DM...
Before some of you inevitably yell out "SNOWFLAKE!"... Just stop right there. STFU, to use an expression. Who the f@ck cares if the player wants some kind of odd-ball PC. Sometimes people just don't want to play another damn Dwarf Barbarian or Tiefling Sorcerer. People get bored and sometimes want to shake things up. If it makes the game more fun for everyone at the table, just let him or her Chewbacca the shit out of their PC. Extract the broomstick from thy nether regions. Use the snowflakes and ski your butt down the slippery slope.

If you are a rules purist, that's perfectly fine. It's your game... But if you shut these kinds of requests down without giving it your full consideration because you are a purist, or fearful of giving in to a player's odd requests, your game might miss out on some amazing, crazy-fun role playing.

And that would be a huge shame... not just for the players, but for you as well.

You don't have to say yes to everything, but...

Keep an open mind.


Consider the possibilities.

The bear might be an extreme example. but there are also other ways you can say Yes...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

D&D: Just Say Yes, For F*ck Sake.

And we will call it "this land..."
...Or The Case of the Curiously Intelligent Elf.

On a recent Facebook post, the OP asked a simple question:
“My player wants to play an Elf Wizard and would like +2 INT, +1 DEX for his Elf Racial Bonus instead of +1 INT, +2 DEX. Would you allow that?”

Yes. YES! For F@CK SAKE YES! …and yet in the poll, over 800 people, a staggering 60%+ of respondents answered “I would never allow it.”

What is wrong with you people? I hate when people tell others they are having Bad Wrong Fun, but I’m sorry, in this case, you are doing it wrong (yes, that's a satirical comment in case you missed it).

Here’s the thing. In 5th Edition, a Forest Gnome can get a +2 INT / +1 DEX (and also has Darkvision, etc), so we know that this minor change doesn’t break the game mechanics at all. All non-human races get some combination of +2/+1, and Elves already get a boost to INT and DEX… so it isn’t a stretch at all to just swap their bonuses.

The racial bonuses are completely arbitrary anyway (and even differ significantly from one edition of D&D to the other). Why does an Elf get +2 DEX? Because Mearls and Thompson decided that’s what they thought an Elf was at this one moment of time. Why does the Gnome get the bigger INT bonus? Who the f@ck knows. It’s just a game of “Let’s Pretend”. The Player’s Handbook is not some religious scripture handed down by the gods.


The most important job of a DM is help the players have fun. The players only have power over their characters. The rules on everything else in the world -- setting, genre, NPCs, cities, populace, everything -- is basically in the control of the DM.

By saying "No" to this entirely minor and arbitrary change, you are telling the player “the trivial rules of my game world are more important than your character concept or enjoyment of the game.”

If he enjoys a tiny amount of PC optimization as part of character generation, why not let him have fun with that part of the game? Who cares if he gets to INT 20 at 8th level instead of 12th (assuming he picks no Feats)... It will make no difference to the game at the table. [EDIT: Actually, all PCs can get to INT 20 by level 8 with point buy. The only difference is the player that starts at 17 will also get a Feat. This makes the change have an even smaller impact.]

AD&D Half-orc photo bomb
And racial bonuses are entirely arbitrary and trivial. This isn’t a game breaking request. Elves have always had arcane abilities. As an example, in the original Basic D&D sets, the Elf class was a fighter/magic-user hybrid. So why not just let him play an Elf from some special Elf school of trained Elf wizards... or something. Who the hell cares what the rationale is. Maybe he just doesn't want to play a damn Gnome.

As another example, I had one player decide he wasn't crazy about his Feat selections when he reached 4th level (Human). I said "No problem. Just re-pick whichever ones you want". It made no difference to the game. It made a huge difference in his level of fun.

Take the broomstick out of your posterior and let him swap the ability bonuses.  Just get out of the way and facilitate the fun. That is your most important job. 

PS -- This obviously doesn't apply to AL legal characters since there are very strict chargen rules for Adventurers League. Also, if you comment a rebuttal using some example like giving darkvision to a Human, or some other bulls#!t straw man, I will f@#%ing cut your heart out with a spoon. (Rest in peace, Alan Rickman)

I just wanted to note an awesomely on-point comment by Robert Ehrman on Facebook:
"This whole article is just imploring DMs to be the bigger person at the table because a 1 point differential isn't going to be truly relevant to either party and player satisfaction matters. Clearly that point went over like a lead balloon."

Yes. YES! A thousand times YES!

I'll go one step further. As I noted in comments:

This article is not about a stat swap. It's about a philosophy. It's about not being married to rules. It's about facilitating ideas from the players. It's about keeping an open mind to player input because it's not the DM's game. The game belongs to everyone at the table. Saying "yes" to a player is not about giving them some insignificant +1... It's about saying "your ideas are just as important to this game as mine are." You want a sub-race of Elves that are tied more to the Arcane through a connection to the Feywild? Awesome! Let's incorporate that idea. We share this game world together.

Update: I posted an follow-up based on some responses.

My Last Origins

This will be my last Origins.

Just about every year, Origins opens its registration system to a rush of several thousand attendees. Just about every year, it’s a disaster of web site unresponsiveness, and just about every year they say, “Next year we will improve.” Every year, they don’t. Last year, they couldn’t even get badges quickly to people attending on the first day because of “computer problems” and ran out of convention programs.

This year was no different… and actually even worse than usual.

You see, this year in order to make sure I was ready for event registration day, I attempted to login to my account prior to event registration. For whatever reason, my password was not working. I was not terribly surprised, as I have a whole bunch of different passwords in order to minimize any attack on my identity. After trying several different times, I just decided to just use the “Forgot Password” option.

It didn’t work.

It was a few days before registration, so I emailed the Origins contacts so that I might get it reset before the event registration started. At first, there was no response, so I emailed again, and I called. They assured me it would be fixed before registration starts, and they would notify me as soon as it was.

Days pass. I email again the morning of registration. I asked if they could change it manually. “It will be fixed prior to registration opening,” I was told again. “We can’t change the password. We will let you know as soon as it is fixed.”

It wasn’t. They didn’t.

My wife and I were screwed. I had registered us both for the weekend pass, but could not access either account because of the password issues and thousands were about to flood the queue.

There was, however, a small breakthrough for us. We had two other family members that were going to attend, but doing events that were not the same as ours… So we asked if we could register our events under their itinerary  in order to hold the spots. Thankfully, they were totally cool with that.
So, on Wednesday, event registration opens and the site fails dramatically. No one can login without getting timeouts. No one can search events without all kinds of Java site errors or 503 Service Unavailable errors. The website was crashing so often, NHTSA said they were going to open an investigation.

Over the course of 3+ hours, my wife and I managed to get enough page loads between us to get into about 10 events… Or about 3 successful event registrations per hour.

Origins then announces on Twitter and Facebook that they will close registration until Friday at 1 PM to get the issues fixed… but then they secretly re-opened registration on Thursday without telling anyone they had told to wait until Friday. So, basically, if you listened to them, you were screwed out of events you might have wanted because other people kept trying anyway and found that registration has been re-opened earlier than announced (and the password issue was still not fixed).

The password issue was eventually fixed over the weekend, four days after event registration was initially opened (and after almost everything was completely booked). I was extremely lucky that I had family that could grab the slots my wife and I wanted to play. I’m certain many others did not have that opportunity.

They never emailed to let me know the password recovery had been fixed, despite telling me repeatedly they would. No notification. No apology.

S#!t technology… Even s#!ttier communication. For a 15,000+ attendee event, this is the worst event management I’ve ever seen. They apparently don’t even test the most basic functions of the website -- login, password recovery, and event registration -- which is basically everything you need to have a convention website.

I have been a major proponent of Origins on this blog and among my gaming friends, but there are other smaller cons that are growing each year with better customer experience -- Gamehole Con, BGG Con, Dice Tower Con, PAX East, and now PAX Unplugged. Origins may be the #2 spot in terms of size at the moment, but if it keeps offering crap customer experience, it will find itself less relevant as time goes on. It certainly will be for me as my family and I  will be seeking other alternatives and recommending others do the same. If they can't fix their management issues, they do not deserve our money.
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