The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

In Dungeons & Dragons the dungeon master gets to break the rules, but only so much. The amount of breakage varies from group to group. Some DMs stick to the rules as written, only overriding them when they defy the logic of the game world. Other DMs never track hit points and just declare monsters defeated when it suits the drama of a battle.

Despite a DM’s dominion over the rules, D&D includes some rules DMs must never break—at least if they want their players to stick with the game. Oddly, these rules never appeared in print, so successful DMs learned them by observation and insight. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax made these lessons difficult for many early DMs to learn. He set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to beat players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gary created something to foil them. He and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by this style of play. Still, Gary just aimed to challenge players and he mostly stuck to these rules that he never wrote down.

Meanwhile, struggling DMs never deduced the unwritten rules, and often unknowingly broke them to defeat the players and to “win” D&D. Eventually, these DMs either lost all their players or they learned.

What are the dungeon master’s laws of fair play?

1. Never confront characters with threats they cannot either defeat or avoid.

The avoid part of this rule is important.

In D&D’s early days, players controlled the game’s difficulty by choosing how deep to delve into the dungeon. Certainly Gary introduced tricks aimed at luring characters deeper than they intended, but he saw such traps as avoidable tests of mapping skill. The early rules made fleeing easier and clever players knew when to run. See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

In today’s game, DMs more often contrive threats that the party can beat. DMs can still throw deadly, even lethal challenges, but not without giving players a warning or a way to avoid the peril. See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.

An outrageous violation of this rule appears as a living hill monster described in Booty and the Beasts, the 1979 collection of monsters and treasures co-authored by legendary D&D artist Erol Otus. Living hills look like normal, grassy hills. “They feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits.” Campers only have a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a lost—and digested—party member. Blogger Mr. Lizard writes, “This is a perfect example of the classic ‘gotcha!’ monster. Basically, unless you actually go out of your way to check to see if you’re on a living hill, your character is dead.”

2. Assume players have taken reasonable actions.

Imagine this rule worded in a more amusing way: DMs should always assume the characters are wearing pants, even if no players said that they put them on. Obviously, this guideline exempts the anthropomorphic ducks in RuneQuest.

In the more adversarial days of D&D, some DMs insisted that players announce their intent to draw a weapon before attacking. If the battle started without weapons drawn, characters wasted a turn pulling out blades. Frustrated players took to readying weapons at every sign of danger, as if just entering a monster-infested underground death trap fell short of a sign.

3. Never let players ignorantly take a substantial risk.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know (1) the odds and (2) the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings.

As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.”

4. Never plan to take the players’ freedom or stuff to support your plot.

In the early days of D&D, some gamers coached DMs to deal with excess treasure by having thieves steal it as the characters slept. Often the caper succeeded because the players never listed the reasonable precautions they would take to protect their treasures. (See rule 2.)

Early spells like Leomund’s Secret Chest seem designed to thwart thievery, so perhaps Gary indulged in such thefts. Gary had an excuse: He invented most of the game’s magic items and wanted to test them in play. His players grew accustomed to seeing gear won, lost, and melted by fireballs. Also Gary’s players probably stole from each other—they played to win back then. See Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

None of this applies to today’s game. Never take the character’s hard-won gear. They will resent the loss.

Often DMs who steal gear aim to create a powerful hook, which leads players to chase their treasure through a campaign arc. Those good intentions may make the theft seem permissible, but those schemes only make the situation worse. Such rough hooks make players feel railroaded.

The same rules for gear also apply to the loved ones players invent for their backgrounds. Those casts count as the player’s stuff. Never kill such characters to create a cheap motivation.

The most common and egregious violation of this rule comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Sometimes DMs opt for capture as alternative to a total party kill. While a fair exception to this rule, don’t violate rule 1 in the process by confronting characters with a threat they cannot defeat or avoid. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

What unwritten rules have you spotted in D&D?

33 thoughts on “The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

  1. Dave Dalrymple

    As you imply, Rule 4 isn’t broken when characters have a reasonable chance to avoid capture.

    *SPOILERPLATE*

    When I was running Tomb of Annihilation, and the players had just recovered the last available cube in Omu, they were ambushed by a large group of Yuan-Ti who sought to take them prisoner. I ran the encounter as written in the book, and never once put my thumb on the scales. Despite facing seemingly overwhelming odds, my players used excellent strategy to keep the Yuan-Ti at bay. In the end, there was one character left standing on each side, but the last Yuan-Ti overcame the last player character, and the players awoke in the dungeon of the Fane of the Night Serpent.

    The players did not feel railroaded at all, because it was a battle that demonstrably could have gone either way. Now they were excited to see what the consequences of their imprisonment would be.

    Reply
    1. Viktor

      I was reminded of the same encounter and another way to end up with the characters captured without breaking rule 4:
      We were a bit tired of just walking around and beginning to feel a bit lost for direction. The group had also started to handwave and fast forward a lot of things (such as going from a TPK to having the new group of characters start at the edge of Omu).

      For us the encounter went “how about we fast forward a bit and you get captured during your sleep with a chance of getting your gear back and escape later?”

      Reply
  2. simontmn

    Depending on the genre of the game you’re running, it may be ok to say “You wake up captured” – don’t railroad a capture scene, but it may occur off-camera before play begins, as with Out of the Abyss. If this occurs during the campaign it’s best to give some kind of benny for being ‘screwed over by Fate’ – running OGL Conan I gave a Fate Point. In D6 System I’d give a Hero Point. If I were doing this in a pulpy D&D campaign setting like Primeval Thule I’d want to give a similar award.

    Reply
    1. Edward Schramm

      I’ve been on the receiving end of two situations (from the same DM no less) where rule #1 was ignored. One got me killed off by a demi-god, and dice were not even involved. I got shunted into a pocket dimension with 2 other players, who were IRL BF/GF, and the GF was told to pick one to kill off by the demigod. When she tried to dodge the question, a threat to kill all 3 was issued.
      The other situation the party managed to bail me out, but I spent 4 hours hovering in a containment sphere waiting to see if the party would discover, then solve the puzzle set before a demon lord permanently possessed me and an NPC ally. They finished with about 30 seconds left on their IRL timer, out of the 4 hours. Several of the players called out the GM for it.
      I had that same DM follow rule 3 tho. I pulled an insane stunt that was hands down one of my favorite moments of all time, and it got my character killed. I, with 2 instances of the Haste spell, whilst Mantle of Flame (phoenix sorcerer) and Storm Herald (Sea) barbarian Rage was active, sprint through three sets of enemies to interrupt a BBEG ritual. I triggered 29 attacks of opportunity. I was told I could expend a 5th lvl spell slot to leave a Wall of Flame in my wake. So every enemy I ran through took about 60 assorted damage. I sustained a total of over 800 before I actually dropped. He DID ask a few times if I wanted to use the “Disengage” action, instead of a second Dash action.

      Reply
    2. Chris Rhinebolt

      I’m with Simontmn, I introduced a character in my homebrew campaign already in shackles. The player was new to a story in progress. I found it was easier to have the hook be his “work party” was gathering mushrooms in a cave system, on the edge of a dwarven civilization. The main PC’s also got the same quest later in the day, but they avoided capture by kuo-toan whips on patrol. To facilitate story setting, the new player had had interaction with some dubious fungi, making it easier to apprehend him. Player was cool with that, made his own attempt to break out, and managed to start running amok, finding his way to the main party. Even found a couple nice items to equip himself.

      Reply
  3. MGB

    Nah, I don’t agree with a good bit of four. This sounds much more case-by-case than the others, not very good as a rule.

    Reply
  4. Heretic

    I disagree a great deal with you on this, not every fight should and is one the adventurers should be able to win for one, you take away the planning and thought then. This is overall one of those lists that makes crappy players that feel they can do everything and never have to run or be afraid.

    Reply
    1. Dusey

      I agree that having the players understand they can’t fight their way through everything is great. He doesn’t say every fight should be one they can win, however. If they can’t win it, they should be _able_ to avoid it, Otherwise you are saying, as the DM “I am forcing you into this fight, there is no way to avoid it, and there is no way to win it. You will all die.” Unwinnable fights are here are there are great. Setting up a situation where you can’t run or otherwise avoid an unwindable fight is just the DM railroading events they want to have happen.

      Reply
  5. Locknyvar

    my game, my rules. Its a game and others rules should not dictate why or how you own game runs. I’ve been playing since the red box edition. 1st-5th and have done everything on this list with no ill effect. Some of the most memorable moment happened in the above mentioned scenarios. A

    Reply
    1. Matt

      Amen brother, these aren’t unwritten rules these are 4 unwritten guidelines that OP uses in his own running style. I have broken every single one of these rules and I will break them again. Fun, too, I have no end of players that enjoy and have fun in my games. That’s MY unwritten rule of DMing, everyone have fun.

      Reply
  6. Aaron

    Imagine not throwing gods or creatures that they cant defeat becuase you think it should be a video game. How many high lvl adventurers and monsters are there that could be anywhere at any given time?? Pathetic

    Reply
    1. Dusey

      haha that’s not at all what he said. He said make sure if you do that, that they can still run for their lives. Forcing a no-win, forced-death scenario no matter what choices the PCs make is what rule 1 is about. The PC’s need to have choices when the face they unwinnable fight, otherwise the DM is just railroading a TPK.

      Reply
    2. Viktor

      What you seem to suggest is that it’s pathetic to not use “rocks fall, everybody die!” with the only difference of “A god shows up, everybody die!”

      Reply
  7. Martin

    5e really has turned players into fragile beings that need their hands held so they have fun with no danger. This article is pure bs.

    Reply
  8. Eric

    I think the article is pretty sound. I am a very long time player…but you don’t want my credentials. I’ve seen these pitfalls. Some can be pulled off while others are there purely to indulge the GM.
    The bottom line is that while a great deal of the pressure is on the GM the truth that must be recognized is that the GM and Players are working together to create a game all should be enjoying. Capturing even with a reward works when starting out a campaign because it is usually communicated that this is how the game will start. In other words there is buy in to start.
    However once a game has began depending on the player “railroading them” for capture or taking their stuff will always frustrate them provided it does not makes sense or bypasses player abilities.

    Reply
    1. Matt

      Wow, modern DMs have no spine. Do you ask promission to assign damage from a hit? If the players think thier 1st level character can walk up to the King’s champion and kick his butt they diserve what happens. If the players don’t think that thier characters can die then you are not DMing right. You are the DM, this is your game-grow a pair.

      If the players get in over their heads because they didnt plan properly, or research to know what they were getting into, or just plain got cocky, you need to be a good enough DM to realize that players might learn something from a TPK.

      Reply
      1. Jin

        Maybe learn to read instead of being a dumbass. Nobody said a Level 1 player character can pick a fight with a King’s Champion and win. The player can absolutely choose to avoid the encounter by not doing that.

        What a DM shouldn’t do is have the King’s Champion walk up to Level 1 player and kill him because the DM decided the character looked at the Champion funny even if the Player didn’t say or do anything of the sort.

        Reply
  9. Joan

    The only thing I disagree with is the part of 4 where you say the PCs backstory cast are off limits.

    Character loved ones are ripe fodder for encouraging meaningful character growth and roleplay opportunities, and yes, sometimes that means killing them, or having them betray their PCs. If your player rolls with it, it can be a powerful storytelling moment.

    Reply
    1. Viktor

      One important part of your comment: “if your player rolls with it”.

      If they don’t roll with it there is risk of sinking the entire campaign instead. And the rule also contains an important part in “to create a cheap motivation”. If you can’t come up with a good reason for the PC to want to go after the BBEG, don’t just have the BBEG kill some family members for a plot hook.

      There might be situations where killing the character’s family is useful for the story. However, it has to be something very big, and you have to know the player very well so that you get a “powerful storytelling moment” rather than a “the player ragequitted story”.

      Reply
  10. Corrin DM

    Absolutely essential Rule 5!!
    Do NOT set up reasons for players to fight eachother or otherwise cause a rift in the team!

    A succubus charm or vampire mind control every now and again is good fun. The players can fight to win thier teammates back in those cases.
    But in the long term, the team should WANT to be together. Pitting a player’s NPC brother against a different member of the party is BAD. Letting one player take all the loot is horrible. Yet I’ve seen this happen in several games. If “don’t split the party” is important in the physical sense then it’s extremely so in the mental/social sense too!

    Reply
    1. danielfruth

      I once had one of my player mind controlled to betray the party. He really got into it and had a plan that almost succeeded. When he was finally defeated the other party members took it very personally and it fractured the group and the game ended a few months later. I regretted doing that. If I had to do it again I would either have an NPC betray them or just control the character myself so they didn’t feel truly betrayed. Also he almost wiped the party, so although it was really well done it was also a bit more than I expected.

      Reply
  11. Ben

    Please do not compare what Gygax did in his games to what 5e is all about. In the early editions of D&D players earned xp for gold pieces recovered-this is why Encumbrance was such a vital part of early D&D. It’s also why “Tenser’s Floating Disk” was so vital to a Wizard’s arsonal. You didn’t earn xp for killing monsters, you only earned xp for treasure recovered. So much of early D&D was about avoiding fights and just stealing treasure. 5e players would be lost at Gygax’s table, especially if they were looking for “Fair Fights”. The reason 5e is vastly more popular is the game design has shifted to make player characters much more powerful, and players expect fair fights. In early D&D most problems were solved with gear brought along- 10′ poles, a bag of marbles, string, chalk were all vital to survival and deduction. Through 3.5 edition the game had various “Save or Die” effects. Very few in 5e. Through the years the game has radically changed. I see 5e as much more easily accessible by players, then the early editions. I wouldn”t say it got dumbed down, I’d say the emphasis changed from a thinking persons game where combat is encouraged to be avoided, to a game where for the game to be considered a success, game balance must be prioritized so combat is challenging, but not necessarily deadly-unless players make fooloish choices.

    Reply
    1. Yora

      D&D from the 70s and 80s is a completely different game from D&D from the 2000s and onward.
      They use the same terms and have a few mechanics in common, but the systems have completely different purposes and goals.
      Lessons specific to old D&D have no relevance to new D&D and vice versa.

      But I still think the four rules are actually universal rules that apply to all RPGs (possible exception for parody games).

      Reply
    2. backcountry164

      A- No one compared what Gygax did to what happens in 5e
      B- The “experience points value of monsters” table is on page 85 of the AD&D DMG or page 47 of the 2e DMG…

      I switched directly from 2e to 5e. The main difference is that players are OP right out of the box and “forever dying” is easily avoidable. Other than that the changes to the game, from the earliest editions to the current one, aren’t all that significant. It’s the PLAYERS that have changed drastically. And not always for the better…

      Reply
  12. John Champaign

    Great article!

    The best DM I ever had, back in high school, ran World of Darkness games (this was after Mage and before Changeling). He had all the books, new the world inside and out and ran really fun games.

    For some reason, he *LOVED* to strip anything away from players that he could as part of his game narrative (trying to create a hook as you suggest). The first time I played I created a character who had a bar (and spent points on it, instead of other character options). Within 5 minutes of the first session it was firebombed and destroyed.

    All the other players had clued in to what he would do and made characters who were lean and mobile (built on skills / attributes / abilities) without anything external (equipment, locations or contacts). Within the game they would almost ignore anything that could be taken away from them, because they knew in short order it would be.

    The end result was a strong push on the hobo part of a murder hobo party.

    Reply
  13. Patrick

    I disagree that Rule 4 should be unbreakable. One of the best sessions I ever ran started with my players without any gear and in cells that nullified their powers. One player had no powers without his gear and none of them had any powers while inside the cells.

    My players loved it. The other GM in the group said he felt like he had to step up his game after that session.

    I think it worked for 3 reasons:
    1) I didn’t break Rule 1. Players learned how they were captured in a flashback. That way the players weren’t faced with something they thought they could defeat but had no hope of defeating. They knew they wouldn’t win but wouldn’t die, so there were no hurt feelings.
    2) It tied into a character’s backstory. One character was being hunted by a cult, and I told him this was happening before the session. He rolled with it well and explained that part of his backstory during the flashback.
    3) They got everything back before facing any significant combat. There was some combat before they got their stuff back, but I didn’t let anyone feel completely helpless at any point.

    Long story short, while I agree with the first 3 rules, you can break the 4th if you know what you’re doing.

    Reply
  14. Serena Jordan

    #1 I have used such encounters as party intelligence checks. two decades of gaming with the same group helps in that regard.

    #2 I assume they are wearing pants and that they buy food and the like but i do not assume they are hyper aware of their surroundings. I assume they are like everyone else and sometimes are daydreaming or not paying attention to the task at hand.

    #3 My job as DM is to tell a story, describe the setting and to make encounters that can challenge and possibly kill the characters If the players do not ask the right questions or if they decide to work with faulty or incomplete information it is not only my right but responsibility to work with it.

    #4 the taking of characters freedoms and items is acceptable on a limited basis. If they get busted by the city guard for tearing up a bar or even getting caught killing an assassin in the streets the guards might know the man as upstanding merchant not a travelling assassin sent to kill their lord. just doing it to do it is no no i agree but as the party gets more well known you damn well be be certain that they get on bad peoples radars.

    As i said in rule one i have been playing with the same bunch of people for two decades we have had players come and go either to moving away or being thrown out of the group for bad behavior but never in all that time has anyone who has sat at my table has ever claimed unwritten rules.

    Reply
  15. Cyarra

    I feel like you’re missing rule #1: never take away a player’s agency. As the DM, you control basically everything in the world. The one thing a player controls is their character, and what that character does.

    Reply
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