Wednesday, March 24, 2021


Apologies (as usual) for the lack of posting. Had taxes to do last week, then had a kid come down with a cold which meant both kids were stuck at home until we could get COVID tested (good news: we're all fine). Then we had three soccer games over the weekend, one of which was in Tumwater (just south of Olympia), and so, yeah...I've been busy.

I've got a blog post in the hopper (er...on the draft board) that I'll hopefully get around to soon, but I wanted to "touch base" with folks quickly while I have a moment. Some readers might be wondering how the AD&D game is going. "Good" is the short answer. We are playing The Forest Oracle (modified) and so far things are going well. The party (two PCs and their henchman "Big Jim") have joined forces with three mercenaries named Kitiara, Caramon, and Raistlin who would be easily recognizable to long-time fans of the Dragonlance books. Their addition, for me, has been exceptionally amusing (though my players have no idea), because I simply play their personalities as they appear in the books...with a couple changes:
  • Kitiara is 27 years old, and 3rd level. Not an officer in the Dragon Army (of course). Wears studded leather armor, carries normal (non-magical) weapons. Same ability scores as the adventure modules.
  • Caramon is 19 years old, and 2nd level. All equipment as per DL5, save that he has only normal (non-magical) weapons.
  • Raistlin is 19 year old, and a 2nd level fighter. No, not a mage. He has the same ability scores as in DL5, except with a +1 to STR and +3 to CON (so 11 and 13, respectively...body/spirit never usurped by Fistandantilus). Was wearing scale and wielding two hand axes and a scavenged light crossbow. Currently dressed in chain armor (taken from a dead bandit).
Young Kit (from DL5);
still Lawful Evil.
Anyway, no deaths yet (or permanent blindness...removed the nymph from the adventure). The party just finished dealing with the "wererat inn" encounter; belladonna was eaten, fun has been had by all, etc.

But that's not really what I want to write about. What I want to write about is the importance of rules in the game. Not just the AD&D game, but ANY edition of D&D. 

Which I'm sure I've already addressed a thousand times in a thousand posts (in various ways) over the years. But I want to try it again, perhaps from a different angle, and I don't mind repeating myself, because it's something that's worth reiterating and emphasizing.

D&D is a game. Games have rules that constrain play (in a number of ways). The DM is the arbiter of those rules. For the game to matter, those rules at the table must be iron clad. The game is engaged through its rules. We play the game because we want to engage with the game.

Here I will voice my strong disagreement with the "modern" sensibility that the game rules are only guidelines. This idea is stated quite plainly in the 5E Dungeon, from the first page (well, from page 4, the first page of text):
"The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren't in charge. You're the DM and you are in charge." (page 4)

"Rules enable you and your players to have fun at the table. The rules serve you, not vice versa." (page 235)

"Remember that dice don't run your game - you do. Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving." (page 237)
That last nonsensical bit is both preceded and followed by paragraphs on fudging dice rolls; basically, running the game by fiat as a freeform narrative, rather than as a structured game with rules, and I can't disagree strongly enough with the sentiment. Rules are "tools to keep the action moving?" No. That is absurd. How is a rule on encumbrance (as an example) used to "keep the action moving?" Nonsense.

Much of 5E is "nonsense" in my opinion (one of the main reasons I choose not to play it), but this type of thinking pervades DMs across all editions. You read it (or watch it or hear it) in numerous blogs, videos, and podcasts: the idea that game rules should be discarded and/or disregarded if and when they begin to interfering with "having fun" a term that seems to equate to: disappointing a player's expectation of what should happen

Please note that the "player" being disappointed can include the DM. Here's an example: a DM desires (i.e. has an expectation of) a climactic set piece battle between the party and the Big Boss of an adventure, an epic showdown to provide a "satisfying conclusion." That attachment to a particular end can result in the DM doing all sorts of machinations, manipulations, and mental gymnastics to preclude the PCs from interfere with the expectation. Which is just as bad (or worse!) than players crying and whining how "unfair" an energy drain or save-or-die poison attack is. 

Rules constrain our actions in the game. In the D&D game, a player's choice of armor for her character has a number of in-game consequences, helping to determine encumbrance and movement in addition to protective value (which, in the case of metal armor versus certain spells, might be a negative value). That choice matters...or rather, it should matter...but if the DM fudges attack rolls or ignores those movement values then the "mattering" disappears. And so too does the validity of the player's choice. 

In the AD&D campaign I'm currently running, I use a modified version of the training rules found in the DMG. The rules have been explained to the players; the players understand the manner in which the rules operate and how it constrains them. In our current adventure, the cleric just achieved enough x.p. to advance to 3rd level, and even possesses the cash necessary to procure training. However, the party is in the middle of a "quest" and the nearest priest is days away from their current location. The player has a hard choice to make: he can continue adventuring (still gaining an extra hit die, increased attacks and saves, etc.) OR he can choose to seek out a temple that can initiate him into the "higher mysteries" (i.e. 2nd level spell use). The latter choice will also impact the party, as the PC is the only healer in the group...although the party did just acquire two potions of healing. Of course, if "Peter the Adept" decides to separate from the party, the player (Diego) could simply introduce a new 1st level character to the group (they are staying at a roadside inn, after all)...and who's to say he might not enjoy playing the new character more than the prior one?

All these choices matter because we have rules that we've laid down and that I (as the DM) am enforcing. I could waive them, make the game easier...but I don't think that's in the best interest of my players. I want my players to have meaningful choices, because that leads to deeper engagement with the game world. Just "getting on to" the next action encounter does not. Action IS is the fundamental reason why we play the game...but without the deeper meaningful choices (created by rules which constrain action), it is a hollow exercise. 

Rules do not serve the DM; rules serve the game. The DM does not serve the rules; the DM serves the players by acting as an arbiter and enforcer of the rules. As the rules constrain action, so too does the DM constrain the players, providing choices that carry weight and impact ("meaning") in the imaginary environment, making for a richer campaign, a greater engagement, a deeper experience. The rules provide limits...those limits make the game challenging.

I understand that type of play is not everyone's cup of tea. Some people prefer "no constraint" D&D and see my constraints as old-fashioned and/or downright myopic, believing it is in the best interest of the table to allow dwarves to achieve any level of fighter, or half-orcs to be paladins, or wizards to cast an infinite number of attack "cantrips," or tiefling warlocks to exist at all. Folks will see me as needlessly limiting the "fun" to be had, disappointing players' expectations and curbing their imagination.

To which I say: 

I'm playing Advanced D&D, a challenging game with challenging rules for players who want to be challenged. 

Some people like a challenge. When I play a game of Hearts, I try to 'shoot the moon' with every hand. Every. Hand. Because that's the most challenging way to play: trying to make everyone lose at the same time. And because playing otherwise is too easy after the scores of times I've played the game. Even just sitting around a table, yukking it up with friends and family, and drinking cocktails...too easy without the extra constraint.

I've expended far more hours and effort at Dungeons & Dragons than at any card game.


  1. "How is a rule on encumbrance (as an example) used to "keep the action moving?" Nonsense."

    Nonsense yourself. Those rules "keep the action moving" by not requiring the DM to constantly decide on the fly how much a given PC can carry, whether they can lift a given object, how far they can run or how badly they climb when overloaded, etc. Whether they do the best possible job of that is up for debate, but pretending they don't speed things up compared to ruling everything case-by-case is just absurd.

    Moreover, you're delusional if you think you're sticking to the rules yourself. You openly admit you've tinkered with AD&D advancement system, which is the same as ignoring the rules the way 5e tells DMs to. The difference being that instead of increasing a player's enjoyment, you've increased your own. It doesn't what justification you use for that change, you are following that 5e advice you quoted from pg 4 and 235 letter and verse. You're making the rules serve you by twisting them to your tastes, because you are the boss. Congrats. You've taken WotC's advice to heart, even if you're too blind to see it.

  2. There is a reason I emphasized the phrase "at the table" when I said rules must be iron-clad. I can assure you that once we sit down to play, the rules (whether By The Book or modified) are indeed "in charge," and they rule the DM as much as they rule the other players.

    I heartily disagree with your objection to me using the term "nonsense" for the nonsensical statement that rules are present to "keep the action moving." Encumbrance rules do not "keep the action moving;" it is quite a bit faster to simply ignore the system and allow PCs to carry whatever (or simply eyeball their inventory). Same goes for things like casting times, henchmen hiring, and unarmed combat. It is quite easy to "wing it" (or ignore it) and doing so definitely takes less time hemming-and-hawing than looking up the rule and performing the calculations. I've seen DMs do it all the time. "Just make a DEX check. Okay, you grab the guy." There's no need to consult past precedent or worry about consistency if the only ambition is maintaining the pace and flow of the session.

    Dick, you seem to be missing the point of what I'm saying, and the tone of your comment feels like that of a person whose sensibilities have been offended. If this is the case, then I'd prefer you to tell me which parts of my post you find personally offensive, rather than simply calling me out as a hypocrite.

    Unless it's the hypocrisy that sticks in your craw? If THAT's the case then, again, it would seem I haven't done a good enough job communicating my point.

  3. I was on board with everything you were saying until it came to hearts.

    Every time? Seriously?

    That's a good way to lose a whole lot of hearts.

    1. I win pretty often, actually.
      ; )

      (yes, every time. If you trade away cards to try NOT to get hearts, someone inevitably sticks you with an ace of hearts, king of spades, etc. Best just to go with it. It’s more fun anyway)

      Now Rummy 500 is a different matter. Still trying to suss out whether it’s better to play for points or for the rummy. And I’ve been at THAT game for decades without a clear cut answer.

  4. Double Hand Axe down with that.

    Guidance Councilor: with your stats you would make an excelent magic User

    R: cool whats it take

    GC: 8 years of school folowed by a test that could leave you physicaly amd emotionally damaged for life. Oh and then you might see people grow old and die as you talk to them.

    R: ohhh but then I am like super powerful?

    GC: well not a first you get one spell, but if you survive to 5th level you can cast fireball.

    R: wait survive is it dangerous?

    GC: well yeah you only get 1d4 HP and you cant wear armmor. Oh and if you break a rule the wizards union hunts you down and kills you.

    R: ummmm wow, so its important to level fast then.

    GC: yeah but you do need the most XP to level.

    R:ummm and smart people do this? Wow i guess that explains why Int and Wis are seperate stats.

  5. I just started playing with a new RPG group which has has a style of play "the player who knows the most rules wins" 8(.
    In my experience iron-bound rules are the players defence against a hostile Dave Arneson style GM. In more cooperative games you may choose have them but you don't need them.
    Personally these days I prefer to use rules light systems because remembering reams of rules is no longer an option.

    1. Mmm. I think rules should help insulate a DM from players that would bully, manipulate, or “rules lawyer” them.

      But that assumes the DM knows the rules at least as well as (if not better than) the players. There’s a reason I feel comfortable running B/X or AD&D...both are fairly “rules light.” I seriously doubt you’d ever catch me running a game of Champions! I see no reason for any GM to run a game beyond their capability (or willingness) to master.

      [shouldn’t a Game Master be a “master” of the rules of the game? To me, that’s what the term GM implies]

      I don’t know what you mean when you say “a hostile Dave Arneson style GM;” I don’t know enough about Arneson’s GMing style to even hazard a guess; did he simply make up rules on the fly? Without rhyme or reason? Or was it only a deviant version of the original fantasy war game? I can’t really make a judgment on your stated opinion without a little clarification.

      I will say that somewhere I’ve read (probably more than once) some version of the phrase “don’t let the rules get in the way of telling a good story.” That’s hogwash. Games are games, they have rules, even true “storytelling” games like the Once Upon A Time card game. THAT game doesn’t tell you to disregard the rules when building a story! Why should D&D allow you to do so?

  6. In my experience Bullying, manipulation and rules lawyering are not GM behaviours, they are player behaviours. So I don't see where you are coming from there.
    Having the GM be know the most about the rules is never a given. GM's have to start somewhere and a novice GM may well know less about the rules than the players. Especially where the rules run to multiple volumes.
    In there early days there were to common styles of GMing "The GM is the umpire" and "the GM is the opponent". DA was a strong proponent of the latter.
    But regardless of that distinction I think that your definitions are tainted by the fact that you are a sports fan. You seem to regard games as solely competitive arenas with winners an losers. In that type of system rules are important because they stop the losers from feeling discriminated against. But that ignores the gamut of cooperative games where the whole group wins or looses in equal measure and no person think they are discriminated against. It also denies RPS as a form of play where people cooperate to have fun and winning and losing do not even enter into the equation.

    1. @ SteveG: Okay, several things to address here.

      RE Bullying, Rules Lawyering, Etc.

      I totally agree that these are generally player behaviors. That's exactly where I'm coming from. A GM who knows the rules of the game can fall back on those rules to defend him/herself from manipulators by citing authority. Things only get sticky for GMs who don't know or who are "loosey-goosey" with my experience.

      RE Novice GMs

      They certainly have to start somewhere. A multi-book RPH being run for veteran gamers may be biting off more than one can chew! There are far easier systems to start's one of the reasons I always recommend the B/X set for starting DMs (and there are similar "rules light" systems for other genres). I have played in games run by novice and it can be extremely frustrating (and no, not very fun) to have a GM that doesn't know and/or doesn't follow the rules, especially one who doesn't want to take advice or listen to folks who know the game better (that's not "bullying" by the's mentoring). My usual response to this even is to not return for a session #2, which (unfortunately) probably ain't helpful for the novices...but then, the novice should probably run a few basic games for other new-ish players before tackling something beyond their capabilities.

      RE DMing Styles

      I *am* a sports fan, but "sport" and "game" are two different things. Yes, both forms of entertainment have rules and are played with others. That's about the extent of it. Following rules doesn't make a game into a sport, and all joking aside, I don't see D&D as having "losers" (a player whose character dies can make a new PC and rejoin the game). There is success and failure in endeavors, but no one wins or loses...there is always another challenge to tackle.

      With regard to D&D (not necessarily other RPGs) my approach is very much "adversarial," my job is to use the rules of the game to provide a suitable challenge to the players I have. I *am* the opponent, but what the PCs "oppose" is not just monster encounters: it includes the whole of the setting (everything from the environment and adventure locale, to the economy and rule complexities of the game). Challenges can take the form of travel, or encumbrance, of dealing with scarce resources, or the town tax man...not just traps and monsters. Overcoming these challenges is the point of the game; for me, it IS the fun of the D&D game. And, when run correctly, it forces the players to cooperate with each other...*I* am the bad guy that the players must work together to overcome! No one should feel discriminated against, because they all become valuable members of the TEAM, even if their main contribution is taking a bullet at the right time for the rest of the party. Part of good DMing is helping players to see their own (and others') value to the table and pointing out how each aided in their accomplishments (if the players seems to have difficulty seeing this themselves).

      D& least the "old" editions that I absolutely a cooperative game, one where success and failure is measured by how the group as a whole did. I've had games where two-thirds of the PCs (3 out of 9 at the table) were wiped out, and despite accomplishing their objective they took it as a "loss." I've had games where ALL the PCs survived, having failed at their objective, that nevertheless felt like they "won" because of the way they struggled (together) and made it back (together).

      In the end, none of that really matters though. Do the players want to play again? Mine generally do.