Breaking the Rules – Tricks to Make Your RPG More Fun by Making Alternate Rules Calls on the Fly

Right now, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says “You’re not just wrong. The rules also say you’re a dick!” This is one of my favorite gaming t-shirts ever…as evidenced by the fact that I own it. On the back, however, it says “Rules-Lawyer,” something I hope I never am, especially as a Dungeon Master.

Way back in his introduction to the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play.” He understood that the ultimate point of the game is to have fun, and he knew that the rules were simply a structured guideline to give everyone a basic foundation on which to stand.

It’s clear that the D&D Next team understands this as well, because they’ve described a version of the game in which the system is boiled down to its vital essence, and modules can be plugged into it to make it the game you want to play. I truly hope that this can be the One Game to Rule Them All that they’re suggesting. I truly do.

In the meantime, however, my game of choice is D&D 4E. Every Thursday, as the dictates of Real Life allow, I get together with 6 friends and try to tell a damned exciting story, full of exciting adventure, memorable scenes and characters, and chew-your-fingernails-to-the-cuticle combats.

One thing I’ve found in my 32 (shortly to be 33) years behind the DM’s Screen is that one of the most important things a DM can know is when to disregard the rules in order to make things more fun. I’m going to offer some of the tricks I use to make my campaigns the kind that folks talk about in war stories afterwards. Specifically, I’m going to tell you certain ways in which I break the rules.

Kill the Critter Early

The ranger brings her Frostbrand kukri down against the Carnage Demon. She’s using an Encounter power…she rolls a natural 20! Critical hit! She calculates her damage and announces it to me proudly. Twenty-five points of damage. I look down at my monster’s stats…it has twenty-seven hit points left. I look at the monster’s stats. Does it have any cool powers left the players haven’t seen yet? Nope. It’s a pretty straight-forward critter.

I look up and smile. “You slay it! Describe the kill!”

What?! Did I just let that monster die with 2 hit points left?

Yup. Without a single qualm.

I mean, what’s the critter gonna do? Probably absorb one more attack from the players and then die anyway. This way, that Critical Hit means even more, that player feels triumphant, and the players are left to go pursue other monsters on the battlefield. I mean, nothing feels worse than rolling a hit, doing a ton of damage, and being told “Oh…well, it only had one hit point left.”

I try to telegraph this a little. “The monster’s wounded…it looks like a stiff breeze might knock it over.” But still, letting a creature die when it’s down to a couple of hit points speeds things along and means the players can get on to whatever’s next.

What Power Is That?

The party knows they’re about to go into a really tough battle they’re ill-equipped to handle, but they’re trapped on an island as the sahuagin come up out of the sea. They’ve spent most of their Daily powers. Two of them are very low on Healing Surges. The Warlock in the party looks at me and says he’s going to ask for help from the various entities that grant him his powers.

I smile. I’ve had an idea in mind for a bit now. I adopt a slinky, sinister voice. “I can offer you something.” I tell him it’s a voice he’s never heard before. “I can offer you an ally in the battle to come. We have no love for those who worship demons! All I’ll ask will be a simple favor…nothing that will violate your moral code, I’m sure. We can discuss it later.”

The player is torn, but he finally agrees after trying to wriggle out of the infamous “Favor to Be Named Later.” When the battle is joined, there’s a waft of brimstone, and a Spined Devil appears. “How may I serve thee, my lord?” it whispers to him.

Now, obviously, this isn’t something the rules cover. My player isn’t playing an Infernal-Pact Warlock. He is, however, apparently being sought after by a number of various entities. He plays a Vestige-Pact Warlock, but he’s dealt with other entities that have given him aid, either in the form of magic-items (chosen from the parcels at various levels), various favors (in the form of Feats and Powers the player himself has chosen), and advice.

With so many entities vying for his attention, and after the player took The Dark One’s Luck, I started pondering on who The Dark One might be. Although the description of the power mentions stars, I liked the idea that it might be some infernal power influencing my Warlock subtly. “See? I’m not so bad. Have a reroll!” And I thought it might be time to have The Dark One offer something more substantial in exchange for the favor to be named later.

I had spoken with my player in the past about the idea of something nasty offering him a boon, and he said he’d look forward to the inter-party RP that would likely result from accepting it. And it was clear the other players loved it, even if their characters are likely horrified. Will he be able to convince them that the end justified the means? The Spined Devil was very helpful in the fight, to be sure. I’ll be curious to see what happens next…especially if they find out what he agreed to in order to get the help of the Devil…

I’ve made other little similar calls in various situations. Is the Cleric of the Nature Goddess hiding in undergrowth? Let’s give him a +2 to his Stealth check as the plants try to aid him. The Halfling doesn’t want a horse…he wants a riding goat. Why not? The Warden wants to get some aid from the Primal Spirits in leaping over a chasm. Let’s have him make a Nature Check to get a +2 on his Athletics check. Maybe the wind spirits are buoying him up.

Last Man Standing

All of the sahuagin are slain except one. It’s bloodied. It just succeeded on its Saving Throw against being Dominated by the party’s psion, but on the last turn, he had it throw its weapon away. Now its turn is over, and all the PCs are going to get a chance to smack it. They’ve seen all its cool powers, and it used all its encounter powers already.

“No worries,” I tell the players. “You’re able to overcome the last foe without much more trouble.”

Yes, I could run the rest of the fight. But I know there are no more encounters after this. I’d rather simply reward my players and get on with the game. If they take a few more hit points in the fight, it’s not going to really matter. At this point, I’d prefer to go on to the next exciting bit, rather than making them throw dice just to finish things.

Now, if I had a plot-based reason to make the creature fight on, or if there were more encounters down the road, or if wants to try and escape, I’d happily finish the fight. But if there’s no real excitement to be milked out the rest of the fight, why bother? Save your gaming time for something more fun down the road.

In Summary

These are three little tricks that I’ve employed just in my game this evening. I’ve done similar “Rule-breaking” in the past, and I’ve no doubt I’ll do it again in the future. In my mind, the one true rule is “Have fun!” Everything else is secondary to that.

Your Turn

Do you have any specific little tricks you’ve used to make the game fun, even though they’re not exactly by the rules? Do you think I’ve gone too far with any of my own “rulebreaking”? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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