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How closely do I need to stick to the rules?

Dear Roar Cat, I am a new DM, and I find it difficult to manage my players' different social styles. Some are eager to jump in, but others rarely speak up unless I ask them something specifically. How to I make sure both my quiet and my performative players are happy?

This week Roar Cat answers a question by a Dungeons and Dragons player who wants to GM but is intimidated by all the rules. Roar Cat offers advice on how to jump into GMing in the midst of learning the rules.

Dear Roar Cat,

I want to GM, but there are SO MANY rules in D&D, and if I’m honest, they really intimidate me. How closely do I need to stick to the rules, or can I just tell a fun story and make things up as I go?


Overwhelmed by Rulebooks

Dear Overwhelmed by Rulebooks,

You are not the only person who has looked at the 320-page Player’s Handbook and 320-page Dungeon Master’s Guide with fear and trembling. The rules are there for a reason; after all, without them there would be no game! However, that doesn’t mean they are all equally important. When you are GMing, we recommend that you start with a knowledge of core rules and build from there as you play the game. Get a good sense of the following as a foundation:

  • How to Build a Character
  • Basic Combat Rules
  • Ability Checks

Here at Roar Cat Reads, we also believe that the rules of D&D are flexible, meant to be read as guidelines to foster ideas and create game cohesion. When you are creating a game, take the rules that work for you and leave others behind. If you later realize that some of those rules that you ignored would have been useful, that’s totally okay! Use them in your next session. Many of us want our D&D sessions to be perfectly smooth from the jump, but the reality is often messy. A key GM trait is the flexibility to react to new information – both from players in-game and from your expanding knowledge.

While you learn the rules and adapt them to your group’s style, keep the following in mind:

  • Accept corrections with humility and gratitude. You might GM for players who know more of the rules than you do. This can be uncomfortable, but keep in mind that D&D is a collaborative game. Any information shared at the table is useful for everyone, and it doesn’t all have to come from you as the GM.
  • If you’ve homebrewed a rule (accidentally or on purpose) and someone corrects you, make the decision as to whether you’re going to go with the established rulebook or homebrew as a group. While you have the final call as the GM, asking for a vote can keep players feeling like they have a voice at the table.
  • Similarly, if you get into a situation where a rule is not obvious or doesn’t exist, try to avoid breaking out of the story to spend several minutes Googling the scenario. Instead, let your players know that you are making your best call. Then note the question, look it up after the session, and let players know how that scenario will be played out in the future.
  • Explain your thought process as much as possible to your players, balancing the impact upon the session (“If I let this player do this thing, is it going to derail the story so completely that I won’t be able to recover?”) with the rule of cool.
  • Have confidence in your decision!

D&D is fundamentally a game about creativity, and that includes rules. Do your best to learn, but in the end, all that matters is that you and your players are having fun. I recently ran a game where a player wanted to be a wood elf the size of a sprite. Instead of saying no or checking how this request would affect weapon attacks, I simply agreed and let the chaos roll. Everyone had a good time, which is what ultimately matters.

Wishing you high intuition,

Roar Cat Reads

Send your D&D questions to Dear Roar Cat Reads at roarcatreads@gmail.com.

2 comments on “How closely do I need to stick to the rules?

  1. Some great thoughts on jumping in! If I could add anything, my biggest rule, is don’t go back in time, unless its going to drastically mess up the game / campaign / world if you don’t. If there is a rule in question, As a GM I often make a decision on the fly, and ask Chris (he was the one who loved to lookup rules for the group) to confirm what the book said. When he found it, we would either adopt it at move forward, or move forward with the original ruling. This way we at least knew, but we would avoid going back to retcon.

    This also applied to missing extra damage if the GM forgot, or a reaction if the player wasn’t paying attention (because this rule works both ways). This keeps players more engaged if they know they cant go back, but it also avoids endless interruptions trying to go back a turn, a round, or a few rounds to fix it.

    Remember you are there to tell a story and have fun, whatever that means to you.


    • That’s an excellent point! It becomes really difficult for the world to feel real if you can retroactively address or fix things. I’m in total agreement about deciding a rule and continue to move forward!

      Liked by 1 person

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