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.