D&D Manifesto

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It was occasional but substantial bumps in play after adopting the 3rd Edition rules which led me to realize that players are not always operating on the same page as their DM even if they’ve played together for years. All DM’s face similar problems but it’s so easy to eliminate a lot of them with simple communication.

Everyone has different ideas of what the approach of a DM or player should be to the game. No matter how many years you’ve been discussing little bits of philosophy regarding how or why you should do this or that, what you have specifically in mind and what your players understand to be the case are two very different beasts. In my case what I thought I'd said, and what certain players thought they heard were quite different.

So, I initially was going to write an essay merely re-stating the specific things that got misunderstood but decided against that. I figured it would be far more useful to formally set out some general principles that everyone could use reference to. It’s what I think should be not just the expectations but the “rights and obligations” of everyone at my table, indeed at every table. It’s the difference between what players and the DM can do, should do, and are obligated to do, and it's stuff nobody should have an excuse NOT to know.

I certainly haven’t personally experienced everything discussed below and don't expect to, but everybody has undoubtedly seen some part of it in their games and faced resolving the issues created. I think most of those issues could have been prevented ahead of time with a document like this.

You may believe differently than I do on specific issues like fudging dice rolls, or how to handle death and resurrection in the game. This isn’t meant to be a full-blown set of house rules in and of itself, but a general philosophy to be basing house rules upon. It’s a “same page” for all the participants to work from regardless of the specific rules a DM applies. As such it should make a good initial contribution to any collection of house rules you assemble.

  1. The first job of everyone playing the game, the point of the exercise, is to enjoy it. If you're not having fun why are you here?  If you're not having fun, try to do something constructive about it. Don’t be disruptive in the name of finding something to do, but don’t expect someone else to come along and inflict fun upon you either. Your participation is a desired, even necessary component and you're not here just to be passively entertained. The worst thing a player can do is to do nothing.

  2. Communicate! Even though you may think it's very obvious the DM might not know you aren't having fun unless you say something. DM's also don’t have to put up with not enjoying the experience either. Nobody can force you to run a game, and if players are unappreciative of the sacrifices a DM makes they don’t deserve to be rewarded with the fruit of your efforts. If you have a problem then say so. You can read online every week about another campaign blowing up (or about to) which can ALWAYS be traced to the fact that nobody spoke up before it festered into a truly destructive problem.

  3. The day a DM can't deal with a helpful suggestion or sincere criticism from players about the campaign is the day the DM needs to give up the chair. The game does not revolve around stroking the DM's ego.

  4. A campaign is not absolutely under a DM's control but there’s a reason he’s in The Chair. The PC's have to live and function with some fantasy approximation of a life. That means that when characters take actions within the campaign, the campaign needs to take those actions into account. Through their characters the players make changes to the campaign. Therefore the DM cannot and should not attempt to force the campaign to progress ONLY in predestined directions. The freedom of action that is necessary for player characters can and will foil prearranged plans.

  5. Since things do not always go as the DM plans (see #5) the DM should really not be seeking to tell a story with predetermined results. The only way to do that would be to force them into it. Campaigns are supposed to be about the Player Characters, not the NPC’s. If the PC's are plugged into a story whose details are preordained by the DM, if the PC’s are mere witnesses to more important events being decided by a cast of NPC’s rather than being influential participants themselves then players will frequently and rightfully chafe. You must provide opportunity for the characters to do things, but not dictate what they do.

  6. The most satisfying combats are usually the ones that take characters right to the dangerous edge of death yet without actually crossing that threshold unnecessarily. The game is random and contains so many variables that it is impossible to plan perfectly. Combat encounters are never a sure thing regardless of how meticulously designed they are. Playing at the edge of disaster it is the most exciting place to be but it is also more likely for events to slip out of control. This is just something that needs to be kept in mind by everyone.

  7. A DM who truly sets out to deliberately kill the PC's has no business being a DM. The DM has at all times and in all ways the ability to kill the PC's whenever he bloody well feels like it. Simply having the next encounter be intentionally lethal is as easy as breathing. Intending to kill the PC's... what kind of fun is that for anybody? A DM who acts that way doesn't deserve the patience that players undoubtedly have to give him.

  8. Even given #’s 7 and 8 above it is still in everybody's interest for a campaign to have plenty of places, creatures, or encounters that the PC's are not actually able to defeat. It gives a campaign world a needed aura that it does not exist purely for the benefit of the PC's advancement but has a life of it's own. I believe this is necessary for having any kind of verisimilitude and willing suspension of disbelief. Without that the game world and its dangers always scale precisely to the PC's capabilities which feels fake when it doesn't need to be.

  9. If the characters ignore in-game or out-of-game warnings about dangers to their characters then the DM is then justified in applying what he actually knows to be lethal force in an encounter. Still doesn't mean he should, but it can’t really be held against him if he does. It also means that players are doing themselves no favors by never retreating or backing down and always pushing mindlessly for victory in a fight, because this leaves the DM with no options except mindlessly pushing back.

  10. It is generally in the interest of "fair play" for the DM to have his campaign world operating under generally the same rules that the PC's do. But to get fanatical about “being fair” is not in anyone’s best interests either. The DM should not be needlessly restricted in creating new and interesting challenges for the characters. Creating new rules, singular exceptions to rules, and even things that would not otherwise be possible under the rules is a DM's prerogative. Only if the DM overuses or abuses this privilege to no good purpose should players consider it an issue. Rule #0: Don't assume that the DM has not, or will not alter rules for his campaign. Those alterations don't have to apply both to NPC’s and PC’s. Still, the DM may need to explain some of those alterations up front while others remain entirely secret.

  11. The players and their characters are not always bound by "the rules" in what they can do (or at least in what they can attempt.) There simply isn’t a rule for everything. One of a DM's biggest jobs is adjudication and adaptation of rules to the many situations that arise within a game. So, by definition PC's can at least attempt to do things outside of the rules (and generally get a little extra credit for such creativity, unless they make themselves a pest by constantly trying to do things not covered by the rules). To deny the same privilege to the DM would be silly.

  12. The DM is not a slave to the dice. Dice don’t run the game, the DM does. I feel that at the very least the DM should be free to alter dice rolls that would negatively affect the PC's but, again, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. It is a useful tool to have so long as the sting of PC death is not being entirely removed as a result. To arbitrarily adjust results against the PC’s is a questionable move because it often serves no purpose but to force the game to play out exactly the way the DM has pictured it in his mind. Slavish obedience to the dice and their results is often actually an attempt to dodge the responsibilities of the DM as primary instigator of a fun, interesting, and exciting game: “Don't blame ME, that's what the dice dictated...” The DM already has vast latitude in deciding how many and how often dice rolls get made as well as in applying many of the modifiers that would affect them so to simply short-circuit the process and dictate the die roll is functionally no different.

  13. The DM is not required to roll his dice in the open and I believe should even be discouraged from doing so. There are often factors at work that the players need not – even should not – know, suspect, or be able to infer by meta-game mathematics. It enables the occasions when dice are rolled publicly to have inherent tension.  The DM can communicate an attitude about the outcome of a roll if it is unusual to roll it publicly without needing to "break character" in order explain the whys and wherefores behind the screen. Players should always roll their dice openly, only AS needed or requested (no rolling ahead of time and saving a good result for your "next" roll), must use dice that the DM can read and verify results of at all times, and in general are expected to be honest and above-board regarding dice rolls. Nothing is kept secret from the DM once it is put into play because the DM has adjudication and veto power.

  14. There WILL be differences of opinion about rules between anyone at the table, player or DM's. When feasible rules-lawyering should be kept to a minimum during the game. Players should state the substance of objections, the DM should make a ruling after listening to all sides, and if players take exception to the ruling it should be noted for later consideration - but then play should proceed. If something can be resolved by simply looking it up quickly in the rules, do it. Still, the DM is not perfect and not every ruling in a game is a new a law graven in stone.

  15. Retconning or Retcon is short for Retroactive Continuity and means making everything better by saying, "Okay, what really happened instead was this...” It is the cousin to the deus ex machina. It's a “Do-Over”. When bad rulings, mistakes, oversights, meta-game complications, or bad/boring plots go really bad this is one way to fix things. It works but it is never very satisfying, so it may still be better to simply accept what has taken place - no matter how stupidly or badly it was done. When a situation has degraded to where this sort of action is even contemplated it frequently seems to involve a character's death, making the resolution more emotionally charged for a player than would normally be the case.

  16. The DM is not there to oppose the players. A DM should want to see the PC's succeed, but that success should be earned. The DM provides the world for the characters, things for them to do within it, and adjudicates their actions. If the DM sees himself as the opponent for the players he cannot help but win because that is the power given to the DM – but it wasn't given so that he could use it to win. It is given so that he can use it to make the game more fun for the players; to create or override rules when necessary in doing that.

  17. Characters die, and occasionally should die permanently. It is my firm belief that resurrection magic is in the game only because it is so easy for characters to die. Playing on the edge of disaster is more fun and exciting (see #7), but if permanent character death never really occurs then playing “on the edge” is actually meaningless. Players easily forget and become reckless; they always seem to push an encounter to its limits with their characters and even moreso when they know resurrection is available. This leads to an unsatisfying fearlessness in all characters and prevents the DM from planning any sort of fight other than Last Man Standing. The DM can’t predict who will die or when. Players must be willing to have their characters flee to survive and the DM must accept that when that happens he should almost certainly let them go. Players must then not attempt to turn THAT against the DM: fight goes bad, PC’s run, DM lets them pull back, PC’s take advantage of the DM not wanting to massacre the entire party to simply recover and deceitfully renew their attack.

  18. Players must learn the rules. Nobody needs to pass a written test - not even the DM - but it's reasonable to expect that players read the entire Players Handbook and be able to understand it. Everyone new to the game must accept that they will need to do a lot of reading and put effort into learning the game, and there is a lot of information they need to absorb right from the start. The basics have always been learnable in perhaps an hour or maybe a game session. After a few sessions of play they should NOT require having basics repeatedly explained. Pay attention to the application of the rules by other players and their characters, not just your own. Players who can't be bothered to learn the game should only be given so much leeway before a DM asks them to leave. Only if the DM informs players up front that the rules don't matter, or the player actually has learning disabilities is anyone excused from achieving a general, functional knowledge of the game.
  19. Regarding "Table Rules": Wherever the game session is taking place respect the host and the hosts property. Don't make a mess. Clean it up if you do. Behave. You are a GUEST, even if you are in the house of a friend you have known since birth, so act accordingly. Sadly, it is necessary to state that this includes being mindful of your own hygiene. Just because nobody tells you, "You stink!" doesn't mean that you don't. Often they want to tell you so, but are TOO polite to do so. Perhaps they don't know how to tactfully tell you you're acting like a jerk, need a shower and clean shirt, have breath that will drop a rhino because you don't brush your teeth, etc. Perhaps they just fear that no matter how they phrase it you'll take it the wrong way. Assist the host and/or DM in getting others to respect the Table Rules as well as yourself. This shouldn't be necessary to even list, but sadly it seems it too often is, since the subject repeatedly pops up for discussion online. Any simple request that you bathe, brush your teeth, stop interrupting, stop being an ass, pay attention to the game instead of your phone, computer, book, TV, your navel lint, etc. must NOT be considered an insult. It will be considered a FAVOR to you, and an opportunity to better yourself as a person if not as a player. A simple, direct apology and correction of the situation is all that should be necessary. Players are typically responsible for their own food, drinks, etc. unless arrangements are made ahead of time. It is BASIC manners to reciprocate other players hospitality if/when it comes to be your turn to host the game. If you so desire or cannot afford to do so then advise people ahead of time so that other arrangements can be made. Be on time. Many people have limited hours to devote to the game so don't waste it for them. If you will be late or can't make the game let people know. Bring the things you need to bring (dice, character sheets, players handbook, etc.) and be ready to play when you arrive without wasting time.
  20. There are some game details which are simply subject to wide interpretation no matter what. The meaning of alignment and how it works is probably chief among these. Paladins and their obligations are related and a close second. How certain abilities actually function, or maybe just what you will and won't generally allow players/PC's to do are variables. These things MUST be clarified at the start and perhaps even occasionally restated - even if you go by the book. Really, this should be assumed under #3 but communication (or really the lack thereof) is the single most common cause of ALL problems in D&D. The DM should not always assume the players know what he wants, how he interprets things, or runs things. These things must be TOLD to players early and often to eliminate misunderstandings and arguments. If players are not given this information then they should demand it - or else they must not be held liable for having not been provided it.
  21. Players are obliged to be fair and reasonable to other players, as well as for their characters to act likewise towards other PC's. There is no excuse for either you or your character to be an ass. NONE. An exception can be granted if the ALL the players are mature enough for their characters to be openly antagonistic of each other, and the DM has made it clear from the start that such behavior is allowed, as well as how it will be kept in line. This is NOT an unreasonable restriction upon roleplaying but is in fact a very basic supposition of the game - that an often radically diverse party of adventurers nonetheless DO work together for money, glory, and other mutually agreeable ends. This means that right from the start, as a player you are largely obliged to find reasons for your character to LIKE the other PC's, not openly antagonize them. It means that no single player OR character gets to dictate to the others the circumstances of their participation in the game in general or the PC party in particular without MUTUAL consent, nor may an exclusive collection of two or more players/characters do so. The DM is obliged to maintain this atmosphere of civility and cooperation, or, if it has been agreed by all beforehand to allow crossing that line, he is obliged to keep in- and out-of-character attitudes and behavior from becoming disruptive.
  22. The DM is not required to accommodate or allow everything that the player wants to actually play out in the game. In other words, if the player is about to do something the DM feels is either really stupid or openly disruptive he should stop the game and get clarification or correction before proceeding. For example, if a character is about to kill an NPC for no apparent reason, then rather than allow it to happen and then get angry that it was done, the DM should stop the player and find out what's going on. If the players response is unsatisfactory he might even disallow the action from taking place at all and let play proceed from THAT point instead of proceeding from the point AFTER the disruptive act has been allowed to occur and trying to pick up the pieces. This idea certainly extends to actions which in the real world are openly offensive, or even simply socially inappropriate.  While D&D inherently involves violence in particular, going into pornographic details of, say, torture or sex, is not acceptable without express agreement of everyone at the table of where the boundries will be moved to.  Specifically, acts against children and women are of concern because of how some players react to those subjects.  D&D is not now and never will be intended as a vehicle to casually engage the twisted, deviant fantasies of immature players.  Not all behavior is appropriate to bring to the table in the first place and CERTAINLY not handling such things in degrading detail in the game.  DM's can simply state they will not allow certain actions because they are needlessly disruptive, or disallow detailed description of certain actions as being inappropriate for the game.
  23. Communication flows both ways and the DM does not need to act as though players should be forbidden to ever know what goes on in a DM's mind or behind the DM shield. When a DM makes rulings there is no reason not to freely explain why he rules as he does unless there is in-game information involved that PC's should not be privy to.
  24. The players run their characters - the DM does NOT. Unless players are being disruptive the DM should keep his stinking paws off the PC's. The DM does not control what the PC's do except if some form of in-game magical control has removed it from the player (such as charm, or lycanthropy) - and then the DM needs to be VERY judicious about what he does with the character. The ONE THING players get to control in the game is the attempted actions of their characters. DM's should interfere with or overrule that control only in extremis and with great care and caution even then. This extends to not interfering with treasure distribution. Although the DM determines what treasure is found it must generally be left up to the players and their characters to determine how it is distributed (unless it is done so badly by the players as to be disruptive or patently unfair).  DM's must also remember that when players are given choices, ALL the possible options must be equally acceptable to the DM or else removed as possibilities in the first place.

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