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Rules, Rules, Rules
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

I'm Monte Cook, a game designer working with the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I share some thoughts about the game, its history, and its future. I'm mostly interested in the essence of the game, and what makes D&D really D&D. I'm also very interested in what you think, because ultimately it's the people playing the game that define it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how the rules affect the game—not just whether an ability should offer a +2 or +3 bonus, but how the existence and expression of the rule affects the way the game is played. I used to say that rules and game play were separate aspects of the game that didn't really interact. I'd like that to be true, but it's not. While some people say—correctly—that a masterful Dungeon Master can run a good game using any rules set, one can also say that a rules set can encourage or discourage good game play. In a way, any time a designer puts a rule in a rulebook, he is saying "no" to the DM. The rule takes away the DM's ability to make a judgment call in her game. It's something for a rules lawyer to point to and tell her that she's handled something incorrectly.

Now, am I stating that there should be no rules, and the game should just be freeform with the DM in charge? Of course not. The game needs rules. They form the basis of the shared reality that allows everyone to participate in the same game. And that foundation should be something that everyone playing the game adheres to (more or less), including the DM. The DM can change the rules, of course, but the whole group has to buy off on those changes.

A game designer can affect the play of the game by how a rule is presented, and what is said or not said within the framework of that rule. Let's look at an in-depth example: the rules for climbing. Climbing rules in the game could be presented in some different ways. For example:

Option 1
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing.

Option 2
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing. You must make a Climb check to ascend a vertical surface, with a Difficulty Class based on the difficulty of the climb. You grant combat advantage to opponents while you climb.

Option 3
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing. You must make a Climb check to ascend a vertical surface, with a Difficulty Class based on the difficulty of the climb. A Climb check is a skill check based on a character's Strength score plus the number of skill ranks he has devoted to the Climb skill, if any. If you fail the check, you make no progress. If you fail the check by more than 5, you fall. You can make a check to catch yourself again before you take falling damage, the DC of which is equal to the Climb DC of the surface plus 5.

The difficulty class of the climb is based on the incline of the surface, the number of handholds, and the slickness of the surface. See the chart below.

Climbing counts as movement.

A climber's kit adds to the climber's check, as do various magical items such as a potion of climbing or a ring of climbing and so on.

You grant combat advantage to opponents while you climb. If you suffer damage while climbing, you must make an immediate check or fall.

You can attempt to climb faster, using your normal speed, but your check is made with a -5 penalty.

Creatures with a natural climb speed do not need to make Climb checks and ignore difficult terrain while climbing.

Typical Climb DCs include:

Surface DC
Ladder 0
Knotted rope 5
Rope 10
Uneven surface 15
Rough surface 20
Slippery surface +5
Unusually smooth surface +5
Corner with two surfaces to brace against -5
Chimney (two opposite walls to brace against) -10


Experienced players will note that the last entry is sort of a weird collision of 3rd edition and 4th edition rules. I did that because minor edition differences are not the point. For our purposes today, the specifics of the rule itself aren't as important as the overall approach. Obviously, the first example is extremely sparse. If that were the rule, there might be a rule somewhere else that suggests that anytime you have your hands full and are preoccupied, you grant combat advantage. But the idea of the approach is to let the DM make calls as she sees fit, using logic and circumstance as her guide. In a game with this rule, the DM might only call for a check to climb if it seemed appropriate. She might never do so, in fact, and might assume that there is no success or failure involved with climb unless it seemed right, in the same way that there is no success or failure conditions for walking across the floor.

The second example is slightly meatier, and in no way contradicts the first. However, it suggests that there is a mechanic for determining success. That might seem like a small thing, but it's not. It changes the entire expectation of the act of climbing. Now the player reading the rule not only knows that some climbs are harder but also expects that some characters and creatures are better at making them. The reader also knows that there is a set combat effect of climbing, and the rule requires that he understand what "combat advantage" means. Still, the difficulty of each individual climb remains entirely in the hands of the DM, as are corner-case situations such as falls. Using this rule, for example, some DMs might call for a saving throw while others might ask for another climb check in order to allow someone to catch themselves.

The third example does not contradict the other two but is expansive in detail. DCs are set, corner-cases are covered. It takes most of the assumptions of the second version and sets everything further in stone. It ensures that everyone's going to be using climbing in their game the same way, and it doesn't force the DM to make any on-the-fly decisions about how climbing works in the game. At the same time, it's potentially cumbersome in its description and the amount of information provided, at least compared to the other two. In a game using this rule, it's easy to imagine that any time someone wants to climb a surface, someone's going to crack open a book to check the mechanics of it.

So while the actual mechanics that we're talking about are the same, the way each version of the rule is presented will have very different effects on how the game is actually played once everyone's sitting around the table. More detail does not necessarily mean better rules, but fewer details do not necessarily mean a simpler game.


Regarding the options for rules presentation, given the examples above, I prefer:

 Regarding the options for rules presentation, given the examples above, I prefer:  
Option 1
Option 2
Option 3
None. I don't even want any rule. I want it all up to the DM.
None. I want something radically different from what is presented.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 10/18/2011

Which of the following statements do you believe most strongly to be true?
The game's history is very important and should be preserved. 76.3%
The game's history isn't that important. We should focus on the present and the future. 23.7%

Monte Cook is a game designer who has worked on RPGs for more than 20 years. He was one of the designers of 3rd Edition D&D and created his own award-winning design studio, Malhavoc Press.

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