Playing by the rules in D&D is something that players expect but many dungeon masters question. Should you play by the rules as written (RAW) or make up your own?
Playing by the rules in D&D is a hotly contested topic. Each group is different and some want to stick to the rules. The key is to always have fun for everyone.
When you consider how much you should play by the rules as written (RAW) there are a few important things to consider.
Why are there rules?
The reason why we have rules in D&D is to give some structure. This lets players know what they can and cannot do. It also tells the dungeons master what can and cannot be universally accepted in the system. That is why most people are playing by the rules in D&D to the letter.
Sometimes, you want to change the rules.
The rules can be changed by fudging dice rolls and if you want to learn more about that read here but I am not going to talk about fudging. That is a completely different topic. Instead, you want to change or add rules to the game.
This can be great since the rules are at best a guide. Many dungeon masters can enhance their world and the game around them making a world customized and special. These are good changes to the rules.
Other times if the rules are changed it feels like the players are cheated. Why can you as a dungeon master just add a new spell? Why can you make up monsters that are probably way too powerful?
If you bypass the RAW and do something that the players cannot do they feel like they have no agency.
“It is great that I as a player have to create a way to make this spell awesome but you will just create a new spell that does what I did after hours of research and creative thought. What is the point?”
Their thought process might be a bit simpler but this is the crux of the issue. If you don’t follow the rules but players have to what is the point? Why should they even bother?
This is what happens when you add new rules poorly.
Players need to feel like they have agency and can make a difference. That is why you need to be careful about changing the rules.
The rules provide a structure that should not be taken for granted, but how much should you constrain yourself to the RAW?
Is a new rule good?
Obviously, there are times to add new rules. Playing by the rules in D&D provides a sense of structure that shouldn’t be taken for granted but we want more sometimes. That is why we change the rules or add new ones.
This is why you have to ask 1 question before you even consider adding a new rule.
“Will my players enjoy this new rule and will it cause problems?”
If your players will not enjoy the new rule then you have implemented it poorly or the rule is only fun for you. Yes, everyone should have fun but that is a given.
Just because something is more fun temporarily doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.
This is why you need to think about the long term consequences. If a player likes that they gained an infinite wish spell with no drawbacks that is cool! But what does that do to the game? It causes problems.
On the other hand, you can have a cool new rule that doesn’t harm your world but makes it less fun for everyone like when AD&D made you add modifiers to attack based on the armor/weapons used. Did this make sense? Yes. Was it a good idea? We don’t have it today for a reason.
Now that you understand how to assess if a new rule is good or not, let’s go about how to add a new rule.
Adding new rules (for players)
There are two types of ways to add rules. First for players and second for dungeon masters.
When players want to add new rules it might be something like ‘a natural 1 on a death saving throw counts as 2 fails while a natural 20 counts as 2 saves.’
I personally hate this rule as a dungeon master but many players like the risk/reward aspect. I know that with their billion healing words a player should be able to never die and this makes it more likely to kill them. This is, however, their choice and gives them a negative.
If your players ever want to implement a rule that is negative to them and they all agree on it, allow it if it won’t cause a problem.
Most of these rules are gambling rules. It has a high risk/high reward scenario and players love this so why not let them do so?
The other most common rules that players want to add is something to augment their character. They want to make a fireball deal cold damage or something weird. Luckily, most instances are solved by playing by the rules in D&D normally. You can say most of the time that it is a great idea and x class with x combination might help them achieve their desired effect.
If a player wants to make a new spell you can work with them. Try to not just say no if possible. When a player asks for something like a meteor swarm at level 1 you should say no. You can talk to your player and tell them about a minor meteor spread that may end up dealing 2d8 points of damage to those within 20 ft of the caster.
Some of you may have caught what that was referencing to. Thunderwave is a 1st level spell and does just that. Instead of saying a hard ‘no’ you worked with the player to create a new spell that is just like another one in the book with some personal flavor.
Whenever a player wants to create a new rule always look to the books. Make it as close to the rules as possible with only personal flavor/cosmetic effects.
This way you are still playing by the rules even if new rules are added.
Adding new rules (for dungeon masters)
These rules are much harder to create. When you are not playing by the rules in D&D then players get distraught as I stated before. You need to be very careful when introducing new rules to your group and make sure that they will go over well.
There are a few ways to do this.
The first way is to cover it in session 0. If you follow the steps in our 10 step guide to session 0 you will be golden. A great example of this is the death saving throw rule we talked about earlier. Just tell them of the new rule before playing, make sure they all understand it and do not abuse it in-game.
The second way is to make a cool new plot rule. Most dungeon masters think these rules are the best and make them because they are cool. A rule like this could be that an enemy fighter can hit everyone around them and as a bonus action does an acrobatic flip.
These rules are cool and most dungeon masters create these type of rules because they make the story or fights more awesome! This is precisely why they end up failing a decent amount of the time and only make player mad.
Dungeon masters think that ‘more awesome’ is better. It is not. It can actually be terrible. Playing by the rules in D&D is done for a reason and most dungeon masters who make these rules have forgotten something. The players.
Not even the players’ fun, just the players in general. They get too wrapped up in their own world of cool ideas and forget about everyone else playing.
That is why the third way of adding new rules is my favorite.
My personal favorite
The previous two ways are the most common ways that beginner dungeon masters add new rules of their own into the game. Many dungeon masters only allow big rule changes by the players or fail and make the players angry.
That is why after years of failure I have developed a great formula for introducing new rules that has worked for me and will work for you.
Use the players as a catalyst to change the rules.
This is hard to do properly and cannot be done out of the blue or even over a month. You have to carefully plan how to do so and must account for your players.
You might not even know this new rule will come into your game until the players give cause for it. A great example of this is in my current game.
The players have stopped some tears in reality, but have only done so somewhat successfully. They didn’t fully solve the problem and they are carrying another plane in the form of the cube.
The cube if you want to know more can be purchased here. It is a great additional bit to a campaign but it can also be used as a catalyst to create a plot like I am doing.
Essentially, I used the tears to create a distortion in reality. That distortion went to one person and almost drove him mad. It is making this future villain change his personality as he is taken over and he gained an ability. Time Stop at will with some extra rules/drawbacks.
This is a ridiculously overpowered ability but once the players find out what it is and why it exists their reactions won’t be ‘that is stupid and not fun!’ Instead, it will be ‘wait, we did this? It’s bullcrap but we kind of made it happen. Dang it!’
I know that will be the reaction because of at least 5 previous experiences where some rediculous changes to the rules were made because of player actions.
As long as the players know that they caused it the new rule becomes a new challenge. It can even become a huge plot point like mine is.
In short, make your players be the root cause of any major rules changes that you create as a dungeon master. Once they know that they are the reason for this the outrage will not be pointed at you. Instead, the new rule is a challenge and a personal mess that needs to be cleaned up.
There is however a flip side to this.
Players changing the world
“I want to be a god!”
There is no way that playing by the rules in D&D a player can accomplish this goal.
In order to achieve this objective, you need to make new rules. In order to make these new rules, it follows the same method as my personal favorite way to add new rules as a dungeon master.
First, the players have to want an objective.
Second, their actions should try to shape that objective and make it possible.
Third, the players should be able to accomplish this objective with a new rule that has been created by their actions.
Here is a fun example.
The players want to become a god. that is the first objective.
Next, the players want to become a god but don’t know how. You say that there is no clear cut path to becoming a god so they have to figure it out on their own.
The players plan and scheme in order to become a god and decide that one person should be a religious figure that ends up saving multiple kingdoms. They give all the credit to this one player and end up saving kingdoms while spreading their cult.
The players eventually gain millions of followers and on a sacred day, they all pray to this player. Finally, That player now becomes a demi-god and has ascended through faith and devotion.
Most of the detail will be wound up in step number 2, but you can make an entire campaign out of step number 2.
Let the players do anything if they put their mind to it, work hard, and come up with a method that might actually work.
There are also real-world rules that might need to be added for inquisitive players.
How is this a thing?
Sometimes the rules as written don’t explain everything. This is by design and when playing by the rules in D&D most players don’t question things that don’t make sense. Some however do.
For these players, you tell them that they don’t know. This piques their curiosity and they need to know! Knowing these things is not a simple task though. It isn’t in the RAW so it isn’t common knowledge and you yourself might not have a clue about the answer. The most common question I have found is about undead and magic items.
Players can create some undead and control them for a limited time. That explains a lot! It, however, does not explain why there are so many undead that are not controlled and why there are undead that cannot normally be created. Revenants and vampires. How do they exist?
You can have the players go on a whole campaign to figure this out. A god of death might be reanimating corpses, many idiots try to reanimate the dead and fail leading to a much stronger reanimation than normal without control, anything really.
You can explain vampire and revenant creation with a wish spell that started vampires or a cursed individual. Revenants can be strong people in life who had too much willpower to just pass on. These revelations can also implicate players.
Can they turn into revenants if they are strong enough? Why not? Can they learn this stupid spell to make a ton of undead? These are all questions that will come up since players will want to know how revelations will affect them or how they can use this knowledge.
The other common question is magic items. If magic items are so hard to make why are there so many magic items? Also, if you can’t make the magic items that you are using right now and you are level 20, how do you make them come into existence?
Again, you can make an entire campaign out of this or just give an in-world explanation. A religious group to the god of magic might task an order to create magic and spread it throughout the world. Magic items are great and everyone wants them so there is a lot of payment for magical items.
As for artifacts or great items that your players are using, you can make a whole campaign out of creating one on their own. Give them some tools or ideas to get started and have them carry out the rest.
Answering questions about the world that are not in the rules are an excellent way to add rules into your game that will make everyone happy.
There are also some rules that you can add which make the world reflect reality a little better.
Player creativity affecting the rules
When playing a fighter, playing by the rules in D&D can be somewhat boring. I swing, hit, deal damage, yay. I do this for 20 levels and swing a bit more with different weapons. Yay.
Instead, you might want to add a bit of flair to the game.
The rules say that you can interact with one object while moving. This is generally used for pulling out a weapon or something simple like that but what if it was used for more?
What if a fight decided to kick over a table filled with alcohol at his opponent and hope that the liquid spilling provides a distraction for advantage?
Each dungeon master will rule this differently but it should do something. Creativity should be rewarded and realistically this might distract a person or cause a blind spot to give some advantage.
Playing by the rules at this point says that yes the player should interact with an object but not give advantage since that would be as good as the help action. A help action is a main action and that gives a lot of power to a free action which can be replicated.
A lot to think about there, but you should reward player creativity. Instead of giving advantage give a +2 or a +3 to hit. This also applies to flanking. When someone is flanking there should be some advantage, but giving two d20s and taking the best is rediculous for a replicable strategy.
You have to give the players some benefit when they are creative or they will stop trying. Some groups like only playing to the rules but most games do enjoy trying to enhance the game and world when they play.
Just please make sure to give the appropriate reward for their creativity and not too much. a 10% increase is still pretty good.
The final section on adding rules. Home rules.
Home rules are for people who don’t like just playing by the rules in D&D. At session 0 they should state these rules to everyone before the game begins and never let the players find out during the game.
A home rule can be like the critical fails or saves on death saving throws we discussed earlier. It can also be something like using potions is a bonus action.
For the second example, using potions as a bonus action, it makes using certain items as bonus actions. Seems harmless but what about a thief rogue? They get a special ability to use items as a bonus action instead of an action.
Does this mean that a thief rogue gets no bonus? If you change them using items to free actions can they throw caltrops, drink 4 potions, and use a rope all as free actions in one round? If you restrict a player to 1 free action then players cannot move, unsheath weapons, and talk in the same round.
My point is that when you add any home rules it can get complicated very quickly. It makes sense for a potion to be a bonus action and a main action when pouring it down another’s throat but you have to consider the implications.
If a player suggests a home rule generally it is bad. Ask their intentions, think about it, and hold the right to take away that home rule if need be. I have had too many players try to pull one over on me like this and you should be safe to not end up like I did.
Home rules are tricky and should be very carefully considered before they are allowed into your game.
Is playing by the rules in D&D a good or a bad thing?
Playing by the rules adds a necessary structure to the game. It also can be limiting if you want to do more. That is why you should only add rules with careful consideration.
Some groups only want to play by the rules since they give structure while other groups want to customize the rules. Both ways are okay and you can play however you want just make sure to have fun.
When any new rule is added always ask “Will my players enjoy this new rule and will it cause problems?”
If you can answer that question and have read/understand the section that an added rule applies to (like players adding rules) then you should be fine.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!