Thursday, 19 April 2012

Abuse the Rules

The best way to play Dungeons and Dragons is to abuse the rules. Min/max. Be a rules lawyer. There, I've said it. We're all thinking it, but no one wants to tell the truth. I mean, sure, you could spend your time "role playing", or you could kick someone's butt. The only thing good roleplaying did was let you perform an eloquent soliloquy when that frost giant turned you into a bard-sicle. Ok, well that was sort of fun. True fact- there was a 2E bard kit that gave you the special "ability" to perform a minute long monologue when you reached 0 hit points:
This mad beast escaped from a wizard's zoo.
Oh, Purple Worm, what did I do to you?
You thought'd be droll,
you swallowed me whole.
Now I'm reincarnated as your poo.

Back in the old days, when adventurers were true men and women and the life aspiration of an orc was protecting the sacred boundaries of their 10' x 10' room, we were all min-maxers. And that's how we liked it. And you should, too.

Not during Character Creation

Let's clarify that I'm talking about min/maxing in the good old days when the only choices in character creation was choosing your race and class. You didn't build synergies or combos. You didn't get to choose your ability scores. When you built a character, you walked uphill through a snowstorm both ways just to find the equipment section and choose between a sword and a greatsword.

See, there's a time and a place for abusing the rules. And that time is when you don't have any other choice. Today's power hungry yuppies learn to maximize when they're making their characters. Why do you need to get all greedy then? You haven't even seen the monsters yet!

Let's put it another way. When you watch a movie, would you rather see the hero have an epic battle where he comes up with a cunning plan to fool the villain and turn his own power against him? Or do you want to see the hero snap his fingers and the bad guy dies without a chance?

Once the characters were made and the dungeon delving began, well, that was where the game breaking began. The players routinely got themselves in insanely lethal situations. If a session didn't provide at least one situation where the party was not only seriously outgunned, but were considering how any of them would even get out of the room alive, it just wasn't worth playing that night!

At times like these, adventurers worth their salt started cheating. Maybe more like stretching the rules. Using things like flavor text or real world physics to resolve the issue. Fireballs that would suck all the air out of a room to create a vacuum. Tracking someone down with darkvision by following the heat outline of their footsteps on the floor. (darkvision used to be predator-style heat vision back in the day) Opening a dimension door inside the dragon's stomach and shooting fireballs inside. Levitating the dirt underneath the marauding demon to create a pit trap and then burying the fiend alive. And the list goes on and on. Ask the old grognards of editions past and they'll tell you a thousand tales where their quick thinking, desperate inventions and pure moxie saved the day.

Fool Me Once

There was an unwritten rule about stretching the rules. Once you used a particular trick to break the system, you wouldn't do it again. Usually the DM would either avoid the situation or change the rules so it couldn't be abused in the same way. That didn't mean the DM was punishing the players. Far from it. The DM always let the players abuse the rules in the first place and use their creativity to overcome certain death.

But the idea was to keep the players thinking and stretching for that next goal. Going back to the movie analogy, every movie needs to have a new twist, a new angle to keep it interesting. Otherwise, the audience gets bored. No one wants to see four movies in a row where John Maclean ties a gun to his back with toilet paper so he can fool the bad guy into thinking he's disarmed. But add some duct tape in the mix, well now you've got a movie!

Keeping the challenge going was part of the fun. We roleplayers like to convince ourselves that playing RPGs is something "smart people" do. The intellectual challenge is a big draw for many of us. And it's not about crunching numbers to get the highest damage per round output. It's about lateral thinking- coming up with creative solutions for insurmountable problems.

I Hates the Interweb

Once the internet came out, all these creative solutions suddenly became open domain. Everyone in the world now knew how to beat up Tiamat using three gerbils, an unmovable rod and a stick of chewing gum. Or the best way to use a bag of rats. Neat little tricks or abuses of the rules were no longer players being creative, but instead became about reading the message boards. Whole adventures, even campaigns, were ruined as players stocked up a library of potential instant win buttons.

And thus came the day when the DMs complained long and loud and the designers heard their calls and clamped down hard on the rules and spelled everything out so nothing could be abused. If there was any "creative" way to use the environment to win a battle, we all knew the DM put it in there beforehand and had thought about all of this before we even had a chance to see it. The joy of coming up with our own zany plans had been lost.

Back to Breaking the Rules

I want to break the rules again. It's something that should not only be allowed, but encouraged. And the fewer rules there are, the easier this becomes. DMs should throw out the balanced encounters and put in monsters that scare the players so badly they actually read the flavor text to see if they can use that somehow to escape their predicament. There should be environments that are dynamic and explosive, but not in an obvious "I bull rush the dragon into the lava pit" way. More like a "I cast ice wall over the lava pit so a huge cloud of steam engulfs the area that we can hide in" kind of way.

What if we used Action Points to take control of the environment or our powers or the rules in ways that weren't intended? The FATE system does just this and it's a fun idea. Spend an action point so that your fireball consumes all the air in a room and banishes the air elemental. Abuse the system on purpose. Give your game the flexibility to allow that extra thinking, put the players in dire straits and watch the creativity flow.

And you don't need to take my word for it. Try reading some Order of the Stick, like Roy vs. Thog, Belkar vs. Yokyok, or Vaarsuvius vs. Zz'tdri. If these are the kinds of battles you want in your games, then all you need to do is throw the rules out and let your players abuse the system for all it's worth.


  1. Amen to this post. I miss those days of roping a statue catching the bad guy off guard with the swing and knocking him prone.

    Instead, I rope the statue, swing around and lose my dagger proficiency bonus, my dexterity bonus to attack etc..

    bring back the scared thinking days all you DM's out there.

    Awesome article!!

  2. Thanks, Alton. Glad to know I'm not alone in my thinking out there.

    After you knock the bad guy prone, make sure to tie the rope to a wagon, throw a torch in the back and watch the horses pull the statue down on top of the bad guy. I hear falling granite is worth at least 2d6 + 8 damage.