In a new series of features, we explore some of the DMing world’s biggest bugbears when it comes to running a tabletop RPG and how to overcome these challenges.
DMing your first game of Dungeons & Dragons, or any tabletop RPG for that matter, can be daunting and I’m speaking from personal and recent experience here. Having led a group of merry adventurers on a perilous journey through the woods of Ashvale, courtesy of the fantastic Uncaged #1, when planning the mission I had so many questions that I couldn’t find answers to in the sourcebooks. How long should the mission be? Where do you start when planning out a town and NPCs? What happens if the group goes down a path you just haven’t planned for?
When playing Dungeons & Dragons, you usually only have to know how to play a single character and class (unless you’re multiclassing), which sometimes is enough. So how do you cope when you have to know how all of the classes work?
With all this going on, what you don’t need is someone second-guessing everything you say – enter the Rule Lawyer, a player who is so hellbent in following the rules to the letter, they leave little to no room for interpretation.
Dungeons & Dragons is all about interpretation. While the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master Gude and other sourcebooks, provide valuable rulings on mechanics, how the game evolves is completely up to the DM. So how do you deal with a Rule Lawyer who is in danger of not only ruining your game, but also for other players too?
We’ve chatted to two rather exceptional DMs (in my opinion) about their own experiences of combatting the dreaded Rule Lawyer.
When a player’s knowledge of the sourcebooks impacts the game, it can seem hard to confront them on the matter. Especially for a new DM that may not know the rules well.
In short, the best way to handle this is to breathe, don’t panic and take your time to seek an official ruling. The 2-3 minutes it may take you to check a rule might seem like forever in-game, but I can tell you, by the end of a game your players will barely have noticed.
If you’re wanting a quick way to settle it, google it. There are many sites out there that can catch you out with unofficial rulings though, so stick to sponsored/official content creators such as DnDBeyond or even better, consult the long list of commonly asked/answered rulings by Lead Rules Designer for D&D Jeremy Crawford. Most answers are either on his Twitter @JeremyECrawford or in the Sage Advice Compendium at dnd.wizards.com. The key part of these 2 sources is that they are constantly updated with each errata and/or playtest if those are things you want to include in your games.
If it feels like this is a constant issue, have another read of the core books. Even the briefest of readthroughs can give you tons of context to back up your decisions. And remember, the DM should always have final say, let the story, the rule-of-cool and ultimately the fun at the table come first and foremost.
On a more specific note, If you have issues with not knowing your parties abilities, don’t feel like you need to revise what they can and can’t do. Let them surprise you. It doesn’t hurt to ask “And what does that do again?”, as a DM your world is ongoing, encounters don’t always need to be tailored. If it becomes relevant, the players will tell you. The best thing for you to do is read the base class, get a flavour of what their characters are about, the rest will become clear to you, the party, and the rest of your world as their use of their archetype features happens in-game.
I have a confession to make.
I am one of those know-it-all players who likes to have the rules of the game committed to memory… but before you reach for your Rod of Smiting, let me defend myself!
Not everyone who plays D&D actually cares how the rules work – they want to roll dice, speak in a silly voice and watch their character and their teammates do a bunch of awesome/ridiculous stuff. So make use of those of us who are the type of nerd that finds game mechanics engaging in and of themselves! As DM, you have enough to keep track of: your NPCs, your plot threads, and improvising a session’s worth of content for a party who have inevitably set off at full pelt in precisely the opposite direction to them. While you do that, I’ll cheerfully explain the rogue’s Cunning Action ability, or the ever-confounding rules governing what you can do on the same turn as a bonus action spell.
Of course, there is a potential dark side to the mechanics-invested player: the dreaded Rules Lawyer! But I’ll let you in on a secret – no matter how well you know the game, that type of player will always think they know better regardless, or will argue fiercely for an edge case that gives them an advantage if there’s any hint of ambiguity in the rule’s wording. Faced with that sort of situation, your best bet is to firmly but calmly state your ruling that will stand for the rest of the session, and make a note to double-check afterwards in order to clear up the issue for the next game. If they’re not happy with that, it might be time to break out that Rod of Smiting after all.
Enjoyed this article? Well we’ll be back next month with a new edition of DM Bugbears. If you’re a DM and have your own gripes, why not let us know on Twitter @brumpolarbears.
In the meantime, for more D&D news from us, click here.