Why, When, and How Game Masters Should Bend the Rules

In this adventure between reader and author, we’ll cover some tips and tricks so that you can learn to better bend the rules so you and your party can have great adventures together. Along the way, I’ll randomly pepper in some tabletop tales of Game Mastering for your edutainment. Ready to bend?

Notice that I said Bend (not break) the rules. Ultimately, whatever elasticity you decide to inject into your table should not so upend your game world that it feels like cheating (either for your or for your players). After all, if we just wanted to cheat, we’d pick up a video game with some codes and be done… /gold=999,999 and there you are.

Also, keep in mind that if you’re in organized play like Adventurer’s League, you need to clearly define and set expectations both at the beginning and the end if you’re altering something. During my first game returning to TTRPGs since several editions ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, my amazing GM at the time was so generous he gave us four of everything (there were four players). So we received 4 potions of healing, 4 scrolls, etc… which then made me expect that and be disappointed at other “stingy” GMs until I read the rules on AL loot.

Setting the expectation is important, and I always let my players know that my rule on “oh we played 4 hours and 3 minute, I round up so that’s 5 hours” is overly generous and not common among most GMs. It’s like going to a hotel where they give you an upgrade to a better room that has added amenities, but without telling you; the next time you stay in that same room category you booked but don’t get the upgrade you feel cheated and disappointed. We GMs should always set player expectations, but especially if you’re going to get bendy with their world.

Why and when should you bend the rules?
Here are three major reasons and triggers:

  1. When it suits the story – this is the most important. Now, I’m not saying GMs know better than adventure writers, but boy am I glad that D&D and AL allow for GM discretion and wide latitude at that. Certainly for homebrew of private (not Organized Play) campaigns, you already have some pretty large latitude as well. But sometimes, adventures make more sense when tweaked to your style. Does a puzzle seem too easy or too hard? Adjust it by requiring some skill checks to hinder or (more likely) help the player. If the adventure as written just seems too punishing, scale it down or substitute lower / less monsters. Guess what, if you start out with only 2 wolves, but they are about to die, insert a third one that was “hidden” and pounces to attack and divert the party’s attention (and get pack tactics). Conversely, if a fight is dragging on too long, just kill off some creatures and weave it into the story: “you notice as you deal your death bow that this troll had many festering wounds on it; you easily passively perceive and deduce it must have been in a fight recently and badly cut up, or maybe it was sick? Best to clean your weapon and hands after the fight.” Lastly, sometimes you just have to bend a rule, an obvious rule everyone knows, to make things flow or finish timely. Simplify scenes by using the Theater of the Mind, perhaps with a few images or sound to help grease the imagination, but no maps. On one of my gruelling Tier 4 AL games, there was a very large (and ugly) map of a “dungeon”. The party could have easily spent the entire 4 hours exploring the various rooms and possible encounters. When I couldn’t find a good map for it, and was dreading running this part, I opted for TotM for this portion of the adventure, and lo and behold it worked even better. The oddities in some of the random ‘empty’ rooms were fascinating to the players (why does one room have a red floating apple and another have a bleached pale white one?’). Remember that the full story is important, so if you edit out or remove something from the adventure, use narrative storytelling to make sure the players get that part of the story too, even if they don’t play it out turn by turn. This also goes to trusting the authors. Just because something doesn’t make sense to you know, don’t delete it, as it may be a hook for a later continuation adventure or part of a series. Simplify or narrate rather than delete completely.

    Compared to other organized play I also participate in, D&D AL gives GMs agency just as much as those death-dealing terrorizing, warpage-romping GMs claim players get. “oh I have to follow the module, player agency means they chose to get killed” well Booo, No! You as GM have as much agency, if not vastly more, than a player and it is your responsibility to use that agency to ensure the best cooperative narrative and story is built at your table, by every table.

  2. To prevent immature, unintended, or unjustified player death – NOTE the key words here. Death is inevitable, even in D&D, but having your PC die in the first hour of an adventure or first round or two of combat just plain sucks. Also, don’t let an unlikely series of dice rolls or other blatantly aberrant issue ruin game play. As GM, I once had a series of dice rolls that combined to result in one of four PCs being charmed by a BBEG, a second downed, and two umber hulks still standing, in the first fight of a tier 2 combat before the PCs even discovered the amazing underground city… Normally, if you’re keeping check of monster stats and rolls you can ‘fudge’ this (one of the best tools of the GM is fudging rolls as needed), however this was on a fully automated system where the conditions were auto applied and results are announced by the VTT… but before anyone panicked I asked the charmed PC who was up (and, coincidentally the party’s biggest hard-hitter) for another saving throw, and gave him inspiration for being a sport and playing his charmed PC honestly and downing the other party member. When he passed, I held my punches long enough (“With the Neogi’s attention focused on trying to maintain it’s mental grip on your mind, the umber hulks seem to have broken free and start to flee… do you want to take an Op Attack? No? they burrow underground and flee”. A turnaround like this helped the party complete the adventure and gave me three other opportunities to challenge them and many more to bewilder them with the creepy underground city.

  3. When your table needs a laugh, or just for fun – This is the bonus reason… injecting some humor when things are grim or bending the rules to just have more FUN! When D&D Adventurer’s League released Season 10’s first few adventures, all that anyone could talk about was the goat milking. Yep, milking a goat in a fantasy world played in our heads was creating so much fun for everyone. Recognizing that, many GMs decided to simplify the chase rules [you had to chase after a runaway goat that refused to be milked], in order to not bog down the excitement from the prior scene. We used charts (or just columns) rather than maps for visual aids, or none at all, and the players were beside themselves. In the same season, one of my players decided to take a crawling animated hand they killed for further study… later, they were so mad at the BBEG in the final fight that they took out that hand and slapped them with it! I rewarded the player’s comic relief in an otherwise serious scenario by declaring the hand a Netherese Mace of Slapping +1, and again we all had a hoot of a time. Sure, a +1 weapon in Tier 1 for level 1 APL play is overpowered, but I didn’t break the world while we were all busting our sides… though even if it broke the world a little, I wouldn’t have cared. Of course, the hand’s “magic was all depleted… Maybe it was that crystalline stuff on her coat that negated the hand’s magic… you slapped the hell out of FrostClaw with it after all!”. And we laughed at that logic too!

So how do we break, ehr I mean, bend those rules? Here’s the top 10 GM Trade secrets from one of the bendiest of Them All (me!):

  1. Ask for a skill check… make one up. If the party is really stuck, make it a secret check. If you feel it warrants it, give advantage (or disadvantage if you want to build suspense).
  2. Fudge rolls – Yep. Whether it’s a critical story arc / path, or just a series of bad rolls, you can always fudge it. Some nuances include asking for a different skill check perhaps one with a higher modifier. Be careful not to overdo the fudge it if it’s a secret roll. Players, like mom, just KNOW things sometimes. Abuse at your own risk. But this is definitely one of the top tools.
  3. The ultimate Fudge: “Give me a flat d20 check” no reason no rhyme, then declare what the PC knows, does, discovers or succeeds at. To make it more mysterious, roll a few dice randomly (d100’ are great for this) behind your screen or if using a VTT , openly…
  4. Wordsmithing to help the Player’s Characters, in spite of the players! – Even without rolls, phrase some wording to discourage player derailment: “right, you as the player may think that but your PC, with their skilled arcana knows better. They think…”.
  5. Reward roleplay and let the players know that. This is common in persuasion or deception, possibly even in stealth, but consider it for other skills or scenarios your players are facing. I mean it is a ROLE playing game, not a ROLL playing game!
  6. Mix it up – In higher tiers, when player shenanigans start to pummel your BBEG, remember that not all magic is magic. “that’s not a spell, it’s a supernatural, perhaps lair or innate, ability…”
  7. Simplify things – If some things seem too complicated to you as the GM, imagine how much more complicated they will seem to your players… say you read a new / premier adventure, or one you’re running a mod for the first time. Everything is amazing except that one little puzzle/encounter/chase/story element. Well, if you have to bend chase rules to make it easy on your players, then just do it. In the end, if you and your players are not having fun, something is wrong and if a simple fine tuning is required, feel free to tune away.
  8. Call it- when a fight is obviously going to be won by the PCs, call it… whether yourself, or if you want to allow the PCs their moment of glory to declare how they behead, disembowel or otherwise dispatch the BBEG or even lowly minions. Just don’t let encounters take too long. Even Tier 4 strategic battles that are well thought out get way boring after an hour of IRL play If you can’t or won’t call it, consider an IRL break at the top of the round (so you don’t have to remember who’s up). Have a plan to turn the tide of battle (use those D20s or D100 to make it seem like that was the plan anyway) and know what should happen when your players surprise you.
  9. But don’t end the battle too soon – Add an Enemy (or make the ones you have linger). On the other hand of boring combat that drags on forever: it is so frustrating when an encounter ends before it begins, or if say a PC caster used the first round to cast mirror image, buff an ally or otherwise didn’t get to smack on the enemy. Always allow all players the chance to take one or two rounds of meaningful combat actions, even if this means adding HP to prolong NPCs life. If the players are wiping the floor with your monsters, don’t be afraid to add more randomly as their “held action goes off from hiding” or “It seems your fighting has roused the reinforcements! “ . Another tactic is to spread the kills. Don’t let that one rogue, monk or barbarian PC keep killing all the creatures after all the others soften them up. Add one HP or two to when an NPC would have died to allow the next player in the turn order to get in on some of the action and take down the NPC.
  10. Because I say so – your last resort, but you do have it. Don’t abuse it, especially not in one-offs. But, feel free to douse the players with occasional reminders that we GMs are beyond mortal and immortal beings of their world, for we control creatures and gods alike, and the multiverse bends to our whim! Mwuhahaha… well, in the game, at least.

Happy Gaming!

Article written by DM Mythall (Marc Kassouf)

All art copyright of Wizards of the Coast and used under the fan creation policy.

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