Law #2

I feel like Law #1 is actually pretty obvious, because it’s something like the first rule of half of the RPing systems I’ve seen. But Law #2 of my DMing style is something that I find an opportunity to use almost every week, especially during character creation, and it’s gotten to the point that people have started quoting it to each other without my prompting. Thus:

Law #2 – The player is at all times allowed to screw themselves over.

There’s a balance to D&D, loose and mutable as it may be. There’s a clear expectation that a level 10 character is stronger than a level 1 character, and that a level 20 character is stronger still. There’s also an expectation that spells get stronger, monster get tougher, and equipment gets better as level increases. Similarly, one feat should not be more powerful than three feats put together, characters at the same level in different classes should be somewhat comparable to each other, and so forth. The idea that there is some concept of balance is what makes advancement meaningful.

That said, violating this balance is the goal of many characters and most players. D&D is designed so that a party with a reasonable role split (traditionally, cleric / fighter / wizard / rogue) and reasonably-built characters (clerics don’t put 11s into Wisdom) has a reasonably good chance of surviving any reasonable threats. Because of this, there are a lot of opportunities to specialize in something far more than the game expects, and thus succeed wildly when the game expects a challenge. In addition, there are an awful lot of ways to combine mechanics or situations to break the game’s loose, delicate balance, and an awful lot of characters that rely on it.

So if a player comes up to me and asks explicitly for a less-powerful version of something that already exists for the purposes of flavor, I feel compelled to allow it. First, the player cares more about the flavor of the character than the power level of defeating challenges, meaning they’re fine with having a harder time if they can have more fun along the way, which is something for which I have a lot of respect. Second, a less powerful character is easier to design for, because I have to escalate less to keep things challenging. And third, it opens the gates for more interesting ideas down the line, as other players look at the change and think “I wonder if I can do something similar.”

Sometimes, it’s real obvious when somebody wants something that’s less powerful than something else. For example, if a player in 3rd Edition wants a mage armor that gives a +3 bonus instead of a +4 bonus because their character thinks 3 is a holy number, that clearly falls under this rule. Other times, it’s slightly harder, like an attack in 4th Edition that hits a monster with a save-ends effect on a hit, while on a miss the attack only lasts until the end of the character’s next turn. If a player wants to intentionally miss, preventing the opponent from getting a save against the ability before the player’s next turn, it is really worse? (For reference, I tend to rule yes.)

The best example of this is a hierarchy of damage types. In 3rd Edition, the four elements (fire, cold, acid, electricity) were considered equal, with sonic stronger. In 4th Edition, this isn’t as clear-cut. There are ten damage types and no official rules on which is stronger than which, so if a player says “I want to play a storm mage, but I want to reskin it like a sun mage, who does radiant and fire damage instead of lighting and thunder,” does it fall under Law #2? To answer this, we polled local DMs and players for their opinions on the power levels of the different damage types. We compiled the result to gain a fairly usable ranking, that told us that radiant is the most powerful damage type (very little is resistant to it, many things are vulnerable to it, and radiant powers often contain healing or buffing effects).

Thus, if you have a character that uses radiant attacks, but you instead want to use fire, the character is only becoming less powerful for this change, and it’s something I would allow. This is a wholesale change, though; if you want to convert radiant powers to fire, you have to convert all radiant powers to fire, because the intent is not to allow a character to pick and choose damage types until they have everything in the game. Also, feats change accordingly. A formerly-radiant power changed to fire would not benefit from a feat or item that increased fire damage, but would benefit from an effect that increased radiant damage. Basically, the player has to read every power, item, feat, and feature, mentally replace “fire with “delicious” (or something equally ignorable) and “radiant” with “fire”, and build the character with these changes in mind, all for the purpose of having a less powerful character that has the flavor they want.

The main issue I see with this system is that it requires a rather deep understanding of how the mechanics in the game work, to determine both whether something is more powerful than something else and whether the change will drastically effect the game or the character in one way or another. Because of that, it’s not the kind of thing that can be applied to anything at will. And in fact, this law has a corollary that I want to discuss later, where certain disadvantages aren’t actually disadvantages when applied in certain ways. But in general, since it’s the DM’s job to maximize the fun at the table, by extension it’s the DM’s job to help a player build a character that they’re going to enjoy playing, and I’ve found that players will gladly take a small hit in power to gain a huge boost in making a character that matches their vision.

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4 Responses to Law #2

  1. Dave Fried says:

    It’s pretty well-understood in RPG design (nowadays, at least) that most “disadvantages” – especially when they can be taken in exchange for additional perks – aren’t. A lot of older systems did this, and they were invariably broken because of it.

    Speaking to your other points, I think you’re right on, though I think referring to it as players “screw[ing] themselves over” implies an adversarial relationship between GM and players which doesn’t have to exist, even in D&D. I’ve got some similar thoughts (and some unrelated ones) in a post I made on my blog. Not to link-whore, but I’d be interested to see what you thought.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      It’s a good post, though I think it’s better as a response to an earlier post of mine than as a response to this one, to since it seems to be a post about “These are the things I have fun doing, and if you don’t have fun with them then we shouldn’t in in similar campaigns”. I’m not sure that I agree that Crunch Hardbeard, dwarven guy with axe, doesn’t deserve to have as much fun as other people because they have fun in a different way.

      I also hate spoilers, so I vastly prefer to not know critical plot information. But that could be a whole other post.

      • Dave Fried says:

        It wasn’t a reply to either (check the date) but I thought it was relevant as it covered some of the same material.

        In retrospect, I was probably too hard on pure “club” players (especially in the last paragraph of the min-maxing section) – what I should have said is that if you’re only interested in fulfilling your own power fantasy and not interested in other people having fun, then poo on you. On the other hand, if you really into being awesome, but you’re also a good, conscientious player, I should try to help you be awesome so you can have more fun (and maybe try to show you some other ways to enjoy the game, so you can have even more fun).

        And lest you get the wrong idea, “Crunch Hardbeard, Dwarven Guy with Axe” sounds like an awesome character. As long as he’s played as “Crunch Hardbeard, Dwarven Guy with Axe” and not “Greataxe and Assorted Feats, Held Together by a Thin Film of Dwarf.”

        And even then, that’s a personal player preference, not a commandment. My whole “be a problem in search of a solution” advice is just something I think will help people enjoy the game more, not a categorization of who I want to play with. As long as Greataxe, Etc. is balanced and doesn’t get in the way of anyone else’s fun, he can be a perfectly good part of a campaign. But his player should also understand that if the party is facing a problem that can’t be solved by liberal application of axes, he’s probably S.O.L.

      • Dave Fried says:

        (Also, thanks – and I really like your posts, too. If there wasn’t a lot of insightful stuff here I wouldn’t want to comment on it.)

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