How to embrace your rules lawyer

xkcd: Ultimate Game

This article was originally posted on Dump Stat Adventures. Dump Stat is from the odd minds of two dudes, Chris and Stephen, who swear that they must have dumped Intelligence during character creation at birth. Chris has been playing and DMing D&D off and on for the past 30 years, and Stephen has a solid two years under his belt. They strive to create compelling adventures that are easy and fun for the DM to run. Link: dumpstatadventures.com

‘Acererak rises into the air with an evil cackle and points down at the platform on which you stand. A fog of poisonous, yellow-green vapour rolls outwards in a plume – ’

‘Um, this is cloudkill, right? Doesn’t fly require concentration as well?’  

‘Acererak disappears for a moment in a silvery mist, reappearing almost instantly in a space ten yards away. A bright streak flashes from his finger towards you, then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame!’

‘Er, no. If you use a spell with a casting time of one bonus action, you can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of one action.’

If you’ve ever DMed a game of D&D, you’ve probably encountered a situation like one of these. Players who argue about the rules are pejoratively known as ‘rules lawyers’, and, judging by posts on Reddit, they’re pretty common. But are rules lawyers as bad we think, and if they are, how should we tame them?

Why rules matter

There are many different ways of playing D&D. For some players, it’s akin to a wargame, with miniatures and a battle grid. This is where the game started, after all. For other groups, there’s maybe more of a focus on shared storytelling and improv, but even then they need to roll dice sometimes and track hit points and so on.

The lead rules designer, Jeremy Crawford, has this to say at the start of the Sage Advice Compendium:

Rules are a big part of what makes D&D a game, rather than simply improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible.  

Rules are useful because they are an agreed framework that enables everyone at the table to have fun. Good rules mean that you don’t have to constantly referee what’s going on in the game: you can instead focus on the action and adventure of an exciting fantasy story. Rules are also a check to stop the game from becoming unfair or unbalanced. Anyone can check the rules at any time, and if rulebooks are consulted to resolve a disagreement, it makes the dispute less personal. If everyone in the group is confident with the rules, there should be fewer disagreements, and if there are fewer disagreements, there should be more time available to sit back and enjoy the game.

So why are rules lawyers a bad thing?

Working with your rules lawyer

There are many good reasons for trying to minimize rules disputes.

  • Talking about rules breaks immersion for everyone else.
  • Rules disputes slow down the game.
  • The rules don’t cover every situation, and 5th Edition assumes considerable DM fiat.
  • Too much focus on the rules can hamper creativity and imagination (‘the rule of cool’).
  • Rules lawyers publicly undermine the DM’s credibility and knock their confidence.

Having said all this, it’s worth remembering that most rules lawyers are Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Good, not Lawful Evil. Many rules lawyers are only trying to help. If they care about the rules, it’s probably because they care about fairness. If you’re a new DM, perhaps they’re trying to teach you the ropes. And if you think for a moment about the rules lawyers in your own group: what is it they do for a living? If they work in a field where systems, precision, and procedure are important, it’s hardly surprising if that washes over into their D&D games sometimes.

There’s a difference between a rules lawyer and a rules expert. Embrace your rules lawyer and make them your rules consultant. If you need someone to look something up, ask the rules lawyer. At the end of every session, speak to them in private and find out if there was anything you got wrong. You can even involve them at the planning stage. Dave, how do you think an airship battle would work? What are the best rules for managing a stronghold? What are your thoughts on game balance in a low-magic campaign? There’s no such thing as a disengaged rules lawyer, so channel that engagement positively.

DMs: if you are still having problems with a rules lawyer in your group, it might be worth reflecting on your DMing before you take it up with them. Are you playing competitively, for example, DM versus the players? If so, don’t be surprised if they play back and try to win every advantage over you! Do you have a different play style to the rest of the group? Are you more interested in storytelling than wargaming? That’s fine, but it’s something to talk about. Whisper it: are you as confident in the rules as you need to be? It’s fine to get the rules wrong sometimes, and even über-DMs like Matthew Mercer make rules mistakes from time to time. The DM doesn’t have to have the best rules knowledge at the table. But they probably shouldn’t have the worst rules knowledge at the table. If you’re getting confused about basic things like attack rolls and hit points, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world for the players to correct you once in a while. There’s no shame in admitting you got something wrong.

However: if a rules lawyer is repeatedly getting into arguments with the DM – because they are playing antagonistically, because they are trying to manipulate the game in their favour, or because there’s something personal going on between you and them – then it’s time to have a talk. Amusingly, someone on Reddit has already put together a useful flow chart for how to deal with these situations (see below).

‘Difficult conversations’ might not be fun, but sometimes they’re necessary, and if that means someone has to go . . . well, that happens sometimes. Ultimately, no D&D is better than bad D&D.  

The rules that matter the most

There are two basic rules in roleplaying which go back to the earliest days of the hobby.

This is from the first page of Basic D&D (1980). Other games have imitated it, and it’s now known affectionately as Rule Zero:

The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.

The second is the so called ‘Golden Rule’, familiar to pub quizzers everywhere. In pub quizzes, you don’t argue with the quizmaster. In D&D, you don’t argue with the DM.

I would add one more. Wherever possible, save the rules discussions for after the session.   

The three overlap. Embrace your rules lawyer, but channel their engagement positively.

Multiclassing like a boss

Her armour gleaming, the knight sheathes her longsword and stretches out her hand. Her golden eyes flash, and a mighty blast of fire surges through her veins.

Alone in the woods, the elf sends arrow after arrow into the shambling horde of ghouls. Calling down a curse upon them, she raises her holy symbol, and hot white light radiates out through the trees.  

Moving silently through the night, the assassin steps into a pool of shadow and disappears. She re-emerges from behind her target and swiftly slits his throat.   

After playing D&D for a while, you might want to go beyond the original twelve character classes. That’s where multiclassing comes in. To quote the Player’s Handbook (p 163), multiclassing allows you to gain levels in multiple classes: ‘Doing so lets you mix the abilities of those classes to realize a character concept that might not be reflected in one of the standard class options.’ Done right, multiclassing can be a brilliant way to make your character stand out from the archetype. Done badly, and it can leave you with a character that is noticeably underpowered, and ultimately, less fun to play.

A history

Before 3rd edition, multiclassing was only available to non-human characters, and you levelled up (slowly) in both classes at the same time. Only humans could change their class after 1st level, and even then they needed extremely high stats to do it.

(In fact, in 1st edition AD&D, a bard was not a core class but a very convoluted multiclass option. To start with, a human or half-elf had to have some very high ability scores: 15s or higher in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma, an Intelligence of at least 12, and a Constitution of at least 10. They then had to take a specified number of levels in fighter and then thief before ultimately taking levels as a druid.)

In 3rd edition, multiclassing opened up considerably, and with the introduction of ‘prestige classes’ – specialist classes that came with certain prerequisites – it was almost expected. However, some races levelled up more slowly if they multiclassed outside their ‘favoured class’. Dwarves, for example, would take an experience point penalty if they multiclassed as anything other than a fighter.

In 4th edition, true multiclassing (known as hybrid classes) was only introduced in the Player’s Handbook III. Before then, there were class-specific feats that allowed characters to swap out one power for another. A character could then take additional powers from their ‘multiclass’ at 11th level, instead of a ‘paragon’ ability.

In 5th edition, multiclassing has become much easier. The only prerequisite is a minimum score of 13 in a key ability (two for rangers and paladins). However, it is worth emphasizing that multiclassing is now an optional rule, and it’s up to the DM to decide whether or not it is available in their campaign.

Why multiclass?

There are three main reasons for multiclassing in 5e: power, versatility, and flavour. Multiclassingmight be the only way to play the character concept you have in mind. However, there are definitely drawbacks to some multiclass combinations, and many players prefer to stick to one character class until the end of the game – and that’s fine!

Key principles of good multiclassing

Number one: talk to your DM. Make sure they are happy with you multiclassing in the first instance. Secondly, try to make sure that the character fits a concept and makes sense within the game world. Cherry-picking class combinations to be as powerful as possible is frowned upon in many groups and derisively referred to as min-maxing, powergaming, or munchkinnery.  

In game terms, though, there are a few pitfalls to avoid if you want to multiclass effectively.

1. Check your ability scores. Some classes are ‘SAD’: single-ability dependent. Rogues, for example, can survive with nothing but a good Dexterity score. A paladin, however, needs to have good scores in Charisma, Constitution, and Strength (or Dexterity), and is therefore ‘MAD’ (multiple-ability dependent). Multiclassing can make you more MAD, so unless your ability scores are good across the board, try to choose classes that rely on the same ability scores.

2. Don’t build to 20th level. Most campaigns never get that far, so if you’re waiting to higher levels for your character to ‘get good’, you’re going to be disappointed. Likewise, don’t worry necessarily about missing out on the ‘capstone’ each class gets at level 20. Some are cool (barbarian, druid, and fighter stand out) but some really aren’t (bard, ranger).

3. Think about which class you start with. Only fighters and paladins start with heavy armour proficiency, and the only way to get this later is to take a feat or multiclass as a cleric, and even then you have to pick the right domain. Your starting class is also the class that determines your saving throw proficiencies, so check which saves are most important to you.  

4. Consider waiting to Level 6. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but most classes get a fairly significant power boost at 5th level, like an extra attack or the ability to cast 3rd-level spells. Try to hold off multiclassing before then.

5. Don’t miss out ASIs. ASI stands for Ability Score Improvement, and they can be a nice power boost, even at higher levels. Most classes get them at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Fighters and rogues get a few extra. Try not to pass them up.

Fun combinations

Some multiclass options are really, really good. There are over 130 different combinations, however, and some are very difficult to pull off. Druid and monk are particularly challenging, and often better off as a single class. The combinations below are standout, solid choices that can be very fun to play.

Fighter dips

‘Dipping’ is when you take only one or two levels in a second class, and fighter is one of the best classes for doing this. 1st level gives you a fighting style and 2nd level gives you Action Surge. If you go further, 3rd level can give you manoeuvres or improved critical, 4th level an ASI, and 5th level an extra attack. Barbarians and bards, rangers and rogues, even wizards and monks: there are several character classes that gain a lot from a few levels of fighter.  

Rangers and rogues

Rangers are widely regarded as one of the weakest classes in 5e, and a well-chosen multiclass combination can pay dividends. Cleric, rogue, and fighter (see above) can all work here, and even monk is a viable ranger multiclass. Speaking of rogues, this is another class, like fighter, that offers some sweet bonuses after just a few levels, like sneak attack, cunning action, and expertise.

The mystic theurge

5e has made it easier than ever to be a multiclass spellcaster, so it is now possible to cast both arcane and divine spells with decent effectiveness. Personally, I would take one or two levels in cleric and then concentrate on wizard, but there are other ways to do it. (Of course, if you don’t want to multiclass, the arcana domain in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide can be an equally good way of capturing the same flavour.)

The sorcadin

This might be the most powerful multiclass build in 5e. They key point of synergy is the shared spell slots. Sorcerer slots can be used for divine smite, and because sorcerers are full casters, they gain access to higher level spell slots faster than a paladin. There are other goodies, too, like Quickened Spell (spells as a bonus action!), Aura of Protection (a bonus on saving throws for you and your friends!), and shield (stacks with full plate!). Truth be told, all Charisma-based spellcasters can work well when multiclassed, but the paladin-sorcerer is probably the best.

Going solo

For all that, the twelve base classes in the Player’s Handbook are solid, enjoyable choices. Subclasses offer a great opportunity to customize your character further, and with additional options in supplements like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the possibilities are endless. Only multiclass if it’s right for you.

Battlefield Environments

In a hot, dusty forge, an escaped pirate trades sword blows with the blacksmith’s apprentice. Alarmed by the fighting, a braying donkey starts the grindstone turning, and the two men have to duck in and out of the great rotating cogwheel festooned with swords and chains.

It’s late, and the bartender is alone for the night, when four thugs come to the tavern looking for an artefact. In the ensuing fight, a hot poker is knocked from the hearth and hits a curtain, which quickly catch fire. Before long the flames are working their way across the ceiling. A tables is flipped on its side for cover and glasses come smashing to the floor. The young bartender crawls behind the bar, grabs a burning log, and brings it down on someone’s head with a thwack.

An elf shoots arrow after arrow as more and more orcs threaten to overwhelm the battlements. It’s a narrow walkway, slick with rainwater, and soldiers go flying to their doom. Seeing his dwarf friend in trouble down below, he kicks a shield forward and uses it surf down the steps, peppering the crowd with arrows as he does so.

It’s easy to forget about the battlefield environment when playing a game of D&D. When we come up with adventures, we tend to focus on cool monster encounters and colourful NPCs: the setting is often a bit of an afterthought But as the examples above suggest – from Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers respectively – no combat takes place in a vacuum, and even one or two terrain features can make a fight memorable and unique.

Battlefield environments are not just about combat. For roleplayers and storytellers, environments are a way of making combat more descriptive and immersive. For explorers, a battlefield environment enriches the game world, providing new scenes and situations to interact with. The environment of a battlefield can affect every type of character, from sword-and-board fighters to sneaky rogues to spell-slinging mages. This article is about ways to make environments interesting in your game.

Rethinking the battlefield

The environment of a battle is more than just window dressing. It needs to affect both the narrative and gameplay.

In game terms, terrain is probably going to do one of the following things:

  • Restrict movement (a wall, a locked door)
  • Provide new modes of movement (teleports, stairs)
  • Provide cover (a tree, a pillar)
  • Act as difficult terrain (snow, rubble)
  • Deal damage (pit traps, whirling blades)
  • Obscure vision (fog, darkness)
  • Impose a condition (sleep gas, the symbol spell)
  • Offer interaction (an object to throw, a lever to switch)

If it doesn’t meaningfully change gameplay, it is essentially window dressing. That’s still cool, of course, but if it doesn’t affect the game in some way, players are probably going to forget about it (as are you).

Steal, steal, steal. DMs are under pressure to be original, but don’t punish yourself for adapting ideas from elsewhere. That’s creative, too. Films and video games can be great for inspiration, and there are some really good lists online to get you thinking, too (eg, this post from Hipsters and Dragons). The Dungeon Master’s Guide in 3.5 had whole sections on dungeons, wilderness, weather, and environment, and you can read it online at the SRD. The random tables in the 5th edition DMG (Appendix A) are also really good for sparking your imagination.

Visual aids. If you use miniatures, why not invest in some terrain pieces like those from Mantic Games or WizKids. Just having them at the table might be enough to make you use them creatively. (If you are interested in tabletop terrain that works with miniatures, I will be reviewing the new WizKids WarLock tiles when my pre-order arrives over the next few weeks.)

Some other pointers:

Remember the fantastic. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.’ Instead of a stone wall, have a wall of fire. Instead of a rope bridge, use a force field. Don’t worry about explaining why the magic is there every time. It’s magic, not physics.

Think about the five senses. This is a basic creative writing tip but it works for combat encounters, too. What can the characters hear? Is there an odour in the room? What’s the air like? What’s the temperature? These things matter, and sometimes they even have an in-game effect. A noisy forge makes it easier to sneak up on your opponents. A humid jungle can be a nightmare for characters in heavy armour.

Think in three dimensions. Dungeon maps tend to be more horizontal than vertical, probably because it’s easier to draw on a single sheet of paper, but some of my most memorable battles have been in three dimensions: a mine shaft, a tower, a series of platforms floating in the sky at different heights. Try it!

Even simpler

For an even simpler approach, Fate Core has a neat way of defining Obstacles.

  • Hazards: things that hurt;
  • Blocks: things that get in the way;
  • Distractions: things that force you to figure out your priorities.

This is not a bad starting point for thinking about terrain in your adventure. Focus on your current adventure and see if you can come up with some hazards, blocks, or distractions that could use in encounters. For example, if your characters are making their way through some rocky crags, you could have steep slopes, scree, undergrowth, chasms, and cliffs, all of which are ‘blocks’ but work in different ways. You could also make an encounter memorable with bad weather like snow, wind, or rain. Use the idea of Aspects (Fate’s ‘big thing’) and give your battlefield one or two noteworthy features that the players can engage with.

Final thoughts

Less is more. One or two terrain features is all you need. More than that and you are going to end up with a very complicated encounter, for you and the players. You probably have enough to remember as it is.

Beware the grind. If a character is less effective at hitting the enemy because of the battlefield environment, two things are likely to happen. One, the combat will drag out. Two, the player will get frustrated and feel a loss of agency. If you are adding terrain elements, try to include ways that players can avoid or mitigate their effects.

Not just for boss fights. If you know you tend to forget about battlefield terrain, think about the first encounter of the session (what Mike Shea calls the ‘strong start’). You can do more preparation for this encounter than any other, so it’s a good opportunity to try something new.

Check the difficulty. In most situations, the battlefield favours the defenders, (ie, the enemy). Otherwise, what are the enemy doing there? Advantageous terrain can turn a ‘medium’ encounter into a ‘hard’ one and a ‘hard’ encounter into a ‘deadly’ one. Be careful, especially at lower levels when characters have fewer options (and hit points).

Know the rules. Depending on the environment, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with the rules for concealment, difficult terrain, squeezing into a smaller space, cover (including how it works on a grid), and even underwater combat.

An empty room is OK sometimes. Adventurers need somewhere to rest. Perhaps they want to feel powerful cutting down hordes of enemies. Perhaps the encounter is complicated enough as it is and a fairly bare arena is sufficient. Make life easy for yourself and choose when you want the environment to have the most impact.

My D&D Story

I have my friend Clippy* to thank for my love of D&D.

Back in the late 90s, when both of us were still in primary school, he had an AD&D starter set called First Quest. His dad had picked it up from a local charity shop. It came with maps, dice, minis, character cards, streamlined rules, a DM screen, and even an audio CD (which you can listen to in all its glory here). I have some really fond memories of summer afternoons spent in Clippy’s conservatory, rolling dice, putting on funny voices, laughing at the cheesy backing tracks, cheering as we defeated the big bad guy. (Many years later, I found out that Clippy’s mum had originally told his dad not to buy First Quest because it was too expensive. How different our lives might have been if Clippy and I had never played it!)  

In autumn of 2001, I bought the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game. I remember it took weeks to arrive from America, and then one day I came home from school to find a bright orange box waiting for me. We played through it for weeks and weeks and advanced our characters to the dizzying heights of 3rd level. But that was the end of it. So: what next?

What was it about this game that got me so fired up? I had always loved writing, storytelling, board games, and fantasy: D&D was a perfect blend of all four. And sure, it was fun to play with plastic figures and put on silly voices (cough, it still is). But D&D is also more than this. Not only is it interactive and collaborative, it is also immersive, improvised, and – thanks to the dice rolls and the players sitting around you – completely unpredictable. When you put these things together, something magical happens, and there is no other creative form like it.   

That Christmas, my parents got me the core rulebooks: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. I spent the next few weeks poring over them. I rolled up my first characters, made sketches of them, drew maps, and tried to work out how to create stat blocks for my own monsters. It has to be emphasized: I didn’t read the books; I studied them. I would start reading straight after breakfast and wouldn’t put them down until last thing at night.      

It was time to build an adventuring party. Early in 2002, my brother and I invited some friends round (Clippy included, of course) and we started ‘the D&D group’. We would meet up on Sundays once every three weeks and play for six hours, with an hour for lunch in the middle. Looking back, I’m amazed we were able to concentrate for that long, although it probably helped that there would always be copious amounts of sweets and fizzy drinks. Clippy and I were the main DMs, at first, but my other friends soon had their turn at running campaigns, too. At first it was all homebrew, but over time we started to dip our toes into published campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, and later even Rokugan, d20 Modern, and Star Wars.

All this time it was pretty secretive. D&D was nowhere near as popular as it is today, and growing up in rural Lincolnshire, we didn’t even have access to decent game stores, sadly. In the UK, most nerds were focused on Warhammer and Games Workshop, and probably still are. I’m not sure there were any other D&D players at our school.

We carried on playing until we were 18. When we hit Sixth Form (the last two years of high school), we started playing weekly on Thursday nights. But towards the end, we probably weren’t taking the game as seriously as we once had. Other interests were taking over. We finished school, went to uni, started jobs, and over the next nine years, we stopped playing RPGs. In 2011, with no money coming in, I even started selling my old rulebooks. (Note: never do this.)

I never stopped following D&D, though. I carried on at uni and afterwards. We even tried a few one-shots – 4th edition, Pathfinder – but they weren’t quite right. But then 5th edition came out in December 2014. We first tried it nearly a year later, as a one-shot, and by spring we were playing through Curse of Strahd on Fantasy Grounds. Now, four years later, it’s safe to say I’m hooked again. It’s amazing to think of the new friendships I’ve forged thanks to this game, and even more amazing to think that nearly two decades on, in different cities, with different jobs, and some of us bringing up future players, the same five nerds from back home are still rolling dice.

So: why blog? To some extent, why not. After nearly 20 years of playing tabletop RPGs, I might not have hit my 10,000 hours of practice just yet, but I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way. I hope by sharing my articles I will give you some new ways to enhance your game. It’s a fantastic hobby. It brings me enormous joy and fulfilment. And as far as I’m concerned, there has never been a better time to play.

So … (sc)roll initiative!

* You might think I have changed this name to protect the privacy of an individual. You would be wrong.