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The Temperature of the Rules
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

I was chatting with Mike Mearls about thermostats. Mike said that he wanted a book describing a thermostat to state, "The temperature is set at 70 degrees. If you want it warmer or cooler, here's how you adjust the temperature." I said that I would want the book to state, "You can set the temperature to anything you want, and here's how. If you do nothing, the default setting is 70 degrees."

Okay. So we weren't actually talking about thermostats. Or rather, our discussion about thermostats was actually a metaphor for how to present information to a DM. The "temperature," in this case, is rules implementation, and the adjustments represent the ability of the DM to alter things as he or she sees fit, based on the situation.

But the crux of the discussion wasn't around the ability of the DM to be final arbiter. We both agreed that should be the case. The discussion, rather, was about the default assumption of the game: do you tell the DM how to adjust the temperature from the start, or do you tell him to set the thermostat to 70, and then if he doesn't like that, to adjust it from there? In other words, do you give the DM a rule and then give him permission (and guidance) to break if necessary, or do you assume the DM will make adjustments from the get-go?

Last week, I wrote about what you can do in a round. Pretend for a moment that you played in a game where you could do one thing and move your speed on your turn. So you could move and attack, move and cast a spell, or move and do some other action. That's straightforward and requires no DM adjudication. It's not until less common actions, such as opening a door, come into play. One approach would be to give a rule specifying whether opening a door counted as an action, something you could do instead of moving, or if it just didn't count as an action at all, but then tell the DM that he can vary that rule based on the situation. The other approach would be give the DM a lengthy bit of guidance on how to adjudicate what can be done in a round based on circumstances, with lots of basic examples.

Both approaches have merit. The first approach gives the DM clear direction and adds more concrete definition to the game. The other puts more power into the DM's hands immediately.

Since the launch of 3rd edition and continuing on into 4th edition, the game has focused more on providing rules directly and overtly. This approach also made it easier to adjudicate situations that the rules didn't cover explicitly. Prior to 3rd edition, however, "the DM decides" wasn't just a fallback position; it often was the rule. This sometimes cultivated the perception that if a DM makes a call that goes contrary to the rules then he's doing something wrong. And of course, there's a tendency for rules-lawyer players to challenge or at least question such rulings.


If you give a concrete rule for most every situation, the game becomes easier to DM insofar as you rarely have to make a decision or create a ruling on the fly (which can be difficult). If the rule is printed in a book, it's easier to assume that it's balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it. On the other hand, if you take the time instead to teach DMs how to make fair, intelligent, and consistent decisions and rulings on the fly, you make it easier to DM because there's less referring to the rules in the books. Nothing makes a game move faster than a DM who is empowered and able to make wise rulings whenever situations arise.

Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?

Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten. Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can't do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don't need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player's crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.

DMs need to be able to run the game, but is their right to override the rules "Plan B" or "Plan A"? Is DM adjudication breaking the rules, or is it in fact the rule itself?



This Week's Polls

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements about D&D rules:

 The DM is the final arbiter of the rules and should feel empowered to break them as the situation warrants.  
1
2
3
4
5

 The rules are the rules, and the DM should only break them when necessary.  
1
2
3
4
5

 The DM should feel empowered to adjudicate any situation that comes up in play, with guidance and examples rather than hard and fast rules.  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Polls

Speeding up play is a good thing.
1 73 3.8%
2 77 4.1%
3 320 16.7%
4 581 30.2%
5 867 45.2%
Total 1918 100.0%

Breaking the round down into categorized components (the status quo) is a good thing.
1 125 6.7%
2 184 9.9%
3 647 34.9%
4 494 26.6%
5 403 21.7%
Total 1853 100.0%

Characters should take just one action per round.
1 711 29.8%
2 390 16.4%
3 396 16.6%
4 651 27.3%
5 235 9.9%
Total 2383 100.0%

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