How Well Do You Know Your Rules?

For a large segment of the roleplaying gamer population, familiarity with the rules of their game of choice is something that is almost taken for granted. After more than a few months of playing with any game, to suggest that a player or DM should refamiliarize themselves with the system is a breach of etiquette and often met with dismissal or outright derision. After all, we’ve play once (or more) a week every week over the course of a year, obviously we know what the rules are, right? To suggest otherwise is insulting the intelligence and the integrity of the gamer, especially if it’s directed to a DM, who must adjudicate fairly for his or her players on top of merely knowing the relevant rules for one particular set of actions.

The problem with the knee-jerk defensiveness that can arise so readily from such a suggestion is that in many cases it’s a valid suggestion. As a DM I make a habit of actively reading the rules every three to five months—and not just skimming, either. Each time I do so, I discover some nuance of the rules I’ve missed, or that I’d misremembered during a session and had to make a quick call on to keep the game running. Each time I make a point of noting down what the correct rule is and make certain to adhere to it more closely in the future.

Something that can exacerbate the issue is that many (or most) groups play with house rules in place, and over time it’s relatively easy to lose sight of which rules are the “official” rules and which rules are in place only at your particular table. This is less important if you only ever play within the same circle, but when you bring in a new player (or play at someone else’s, or in a public game at a convention, game day, or Encounters night) it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between the two. Even something relatively minor can throw people for a loop.

Refamiliarizing yourself with the rules isn’t hard, and it’s not a particularly onerous task. The most difficult part is simply forcing yourself not to assume that you’re familiar with a given rule and skim past it—read it again as though for the first time, so as not to miss anything. Your understanding of the game will improve, and you’ll always be able to speak confidently and with assurance when you need to make a rules call, even if it’s a relatively obscure bit of mechanics that doesn’t come up very often. Don’t sweat too much if you’re not always spot on, though—nobody’s perfect.

Comments (2)

Morten Greis (November 12th, 2010)

Well, that is not quite how it works in groups. Usually I - as the GM - knows the rules and makes the calls, but with rules intensive games like D&D, I often relegate the specialized knowledge of the rules to some of the players, and then ask them for details on a rule, and either play from that or make a calling based on that. Likewise I don’t bother to read up on the rules on a regular basis, it more generally happens if there is some aspect of them, that I want to employ, or if there have been some special case, that needs looking into.
Not all of my players knows the rules, and that is after years of regular playing. I know that they don’t, they know it and the other players know it, and it is completely okay. Not everybody find it interesting to know the rules beyond the most basic - and even that they may forget. Nobody bats an eye at that.

Secondly I use a lot of house rules, that they are kept in a special document - the theme-document for campaign - so that we are aware of which rules are valid. We use two kind of house rules - the temporary (‘rule of the day’) and the permanent (‘house rule’). A temporary rule only applies for one session or for a specific mission, whereas a permanent rule always applies. Popular rules of the day gets promoted to permanent rules. This allows me to do a lot of experimenting and tinkering with the game, and most importantly to support a theme with a specific rule.

Fatman (November 18th, 2010)

Some very good points. I have been DMing for a long time and sometimes take my knowledge of the rules for granted. There are quite a few nuances that one can miss, especially if DMing several different settings over the course of a year. Not to mention the various changes from 3E to 3.5E.

Let us face it - getting called out for misinterpreting/fumbling the rules is very embarrassing for a seasoned DM, or basically anyone who’s not a DMing newbie. It undermines your authority within the group and diminishes the gaming experience. The players can get away with it - a DM should not get caught out. At least not often.

Good call, I’ll start re-reading my PHB as of tonight :) Interesting blog too.

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