the always and never rule

If I were writing the D&D rulebook I’d make a Rule Negative One, right before Rule Zero (“The DM always has the authority to change the rules”).

The always and never rule:

In this book, the words “always” and “never” have a special meaning. Whenever you see these words, mentally add “with at least one interesting exception, to be determined by the players and DM.”

This rule always applies.

Then I’d make sure to use the words “always” and “never” a lot. I’d throw in tons of restrictions. Demons, drow, and orcs are always evil. Paladins are always lawful good. Dwarves are never wizards. Skeletons are always mindless. Under a Zone of Truth spell, you can never lie. Halflings can never resist a pie.

4 Responses to “the always and never rule”

  1. Rhenium says:

    Gold pieces must always be the default currency.

    Dwarves must always have Scottish accents.

    Big Bad Evil Guys must always monologue.


  2. LS says:

    This might be the best blog post I’ve read in the past few months.

  3. 1d30 says:

    I’d agree except it would expose DMs to even more players relentlessly haranguing them for special exemptions. Plus it makes the special snowflakes even more special – somehow a game with just one Drizzt sounds worse to me than a game with thousands, because when there are thousands nobody minds if one fails his save vs. wood chipper.

    At its heart, I think this speaks to two issues: rules that are too restrictive and make the game less fun, and how tropes are treated in the game.

    While artists and engineers may celebrate the inspiration created by working within strong constraints, I’ve found that RPG players like lots of options (presented in the right way, of course). Taking racial class restrictions as an example, the 1st edition D&D rules are very strict: a dwarf may have only certain classes, a very small choice of multi-classes, and harsh level limits. 3rd edition offers a very wide-open rule instead: a dwarf can be any class and any multi-class, but under certain circumstances which are easy to avoid he will take an XP penalty. As a result, 3E has a very different feeling than 1E when it comes to possible roles: in 1E if you meet a dwarf you feel that you know more certainly what band of possibilities he could be. You know, for example, that it’s extremely unlikely he’s a wizard. What 3E’s more lax rule gains in player enjoyment of playing a customized character, it loses in a watered-down theme of demihumans’ roles in the world. I prefer a moderate approach, and most recently I came up with this: demihumans can be any class they can be on the 1E PHB table, and multiclass any two or three of those if they want. Humans, losing out on multiclassing and racial benefits, instead get some general benefits like an earned XP bonus and excellent physical endurance (which is one of the few real-life perks that humans have as a species). This allows each race to have a greater variety, loses the level limit which puts everyone off, preserves specialties like Human Paladins and Elves who can’t be Druids (suggesting interesting things about what kind of magic Elves really use and what their connection to nature really is), and doesn’t introduce complex new rules or tables that must be inserted into the book or in a house rules document. I wouldn’t say this is objectively better than someone else’s approach. All that matters to me is that I love it, my players think it’s great, and it works in my group.

    To say that there can be some dwarf wizards is all well and good, but the race and class rules exist in two dimensions: what is available to the players and what is available to the NPCs. If there’s a dwarf wizard NPC who happens along and the players interact with him for a little while, then it has little negative impact on the game. The players can still view new dwarves with the understanding that most will be Fighters, Clerics, Thieves, or Assassins. But when a player runs a dwarf wizard, that’s in everyone’s face every game session. Constant exposure to a dwarf wizard makes dwarf wizards seem more commonplace. Encountering one as an NPC seems hardly abnormal and certainly not special. The familiar becomes mundane.

    Better still would be something very rare and special that can happen during the game to create an exemption to a rule. The Hat of Difference, for example, would allow a dwarf to leave off his Fighter ways and be a Wizard. Maybe desecrating the temple of a luck god curses a Wizard with wild magic. None of this needs to be present in the rule book; it’s the domain of the creative DM whose game is filled with the delightful and the unexpected. It’s a counter to video games with their exhaustive wikis, to board games with mathematically perfect sets of moves. We come back to the table every week to find what else is out there, and we bring our reference books knowing they represent only the shallow end of the fantastical.

    If the theme of your game setting is more like 3E, where anyone can be anything, you tend to see some players stick with typical tropes (Elf Wizard, Orc Barbarian, Dwarf Fighter, Halfling Thief, Gnome Illusionist), but others dive into the deep end of multiclassing and weird races. Soon you recognize that, PC and NPC, half of everyone is a very very special snowflake and the other half might as well be clones of six or seven iconic characters. That gives players weird setting expectations that are generally confounded, whether because half the dwarves are loopy, or they created their expectations after encountering too many loopy dwarves.

    TL;DR: Encountering a LG Drow priestess of Eilistraee could be awesome; having Drizzt in your party makes a farce of the setting.

    In the end, though, your Rule -1 is scarcely necessary. It stems from people slavishly worshipping rules. Players should start with a game like 3E or 4E where there’s scarcely a DM at all, learn how to play, get a good DM, pick a game, and they’re golden. Or, as many people do, they should learn to play by joining a group that has some experience and learn from friends, instead of from the manual in isolation.

  4. paul says:

    comment more interesting than post

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