I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, about DND and DMing, and it’s got me thinking about how I run my game, my personal philosophy while running, and different things I’d like to implement or change about the way I do things.
When I was younger and we started playing DND in high school, we didn’t have any preconceptions about how the game was supposed to be. None of us had ever played it. So we tried things out, made mistakes, figured what we liked and and what we didn’t like, then hopefully learned from these things. Me, I was known as the rules lawyer at the table. The rules were my weapon to get what I needed to get done, and I believed in a strict adherence to them were needed to run a fair and balanced game.
My good friend, Andrew, ran most of our games at the time (or all of the time, forever really), and he was concerned with telling and running a great story. And if the rules got in the way or didn’t cover something, he’d improvise or make something up. He played things fast and loose, flying by the seat of his pants, in the interest of making things… interesting.
And so we come to my point. I, the ranger Miles Dedsik at the time, would be fighting some orcs, swinging my sword, and… roll a one.
And Andrew says to me, “You miss and drop your sword.”
What? I’m a freaking bad ass ranger, how do I drop my sword? And he just tells me, you rolled a one, you really slipped up, and you drop your sword. So naturally, I respond by saying that that’s not in the rules. I flip through the player’s handbook, point to the relevant passage, and it’s not there. Critical miss. I don’t hit, but no where does it say that I drop my sword.
This just didn’t make any sense to me at the time. I didn’t trust Andrew, as the DM, to be fair. I thought he was out to screw me, and the rules were my shield to defend myself from the tyranny of the dungeon master.
But as a dragon flew out of reach, trying to escape us (I’m still Miles Dedsik at the time), I asked Andrew, can I throw my sword at it? He thinks about for a split second, and says yeah, roll it. I ask if he wants me to look up the rules for improvised thrown weapons, and he just waves his hand. Just roll it.
I don’t remember what I rolled exactly. Something high, maybe a natural 20. But I do remember, I killed that dragon. My sword went flipping end over end through the air, and lodged itself in the dragon’s chest and it came crashing to the ground. I’m starting to think I did roll a 20.
How does this apply to my game? My whole view on this has flipped. The rules serve the game, not the other way around. If I think it makes more sense or would make things more interesting, I’ll make it happen.
If you roll good, good things may happen. If you roll bad, bad things may happen. Roll a 19? Maybe you knock their sword out of their hand, maybe you force them back a square and get an attack of opportunity on them, maybe they get knocked down by the force of your blow. Hell, maybe their sword shatters. Rolled a 2? Maybe you lose your footing and fall over. Maybe you drop your sword. And not just in combat either. It might be be messy, but combat is messy.
And to my surprise, natural 1’s outside of combat, by 5E rules, isn’t an automatic failure. But I’m going to lay this out for everyone.
Unless I deem something impossible to begin with, a natural 20 will succeed. If your character would know accomplishing something is impossible, I won’t even let you roll. And a natural 1 will always be a failure, probably spectacularly so.
I mention all this because I was talking to Josh about how a critical hit may bypass his defensive spell bladeward. There’s no rule for this, but it’s something I feel may happen. By the same token, the zombies we were fighting rolled 1, 2, and 1 for their saves. There’s no rules for crit failing a save, and zombies have an ability to make a Con save to stay alive at one hit point. Instead of rolling that, I said all three exploded into fleshy chunks. Everything goes both ways. It might be be messy, but combat is messy.
I’m not out to screw the party. But I’m not going to protect you either (if any of you have noticed, I started rolling in front of everyone, this is the new par for the course). What I am going to do is run things as fairly as I can, and provide you with the information you need to make well-informed decisions. If your character would and should know something and it’s relevant, I will tell you. If it seems like I’m overlooking something your character should know, you can always ask. So if you make bad decisions, it may be your funeral. But you earned it.
And if you overcome all the odds, save the princess, defeat the evil overlord, and find some sweet ass treasure, you can be sure you earned that too.