I wrote this for Game Geek 7:
“‘If the player’s [sic] can’t do it, neither can I’ is sort of my rule (though obviously, there are exceptions).”
So wrote a poster in a recent thread in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game forums. I’ve heard many DMs express this ideal, invariably advancing it as some sort of laudable concession to the spirit of fair play. On the surface, the sentiment does seem praiseworthy. Who could object to fairness, to a level playing field, to all the players (including the DM) using the same rules the same way?
Well, I could, because RPGs aren’t the kind of games that expect DMs and players to be equal to each other. Permit me to explain.
Some Rules Aren’t Rules
Right off, let’s note that the “if the players can’t do it, neither can the DM” (ITPCDINCTDM, for short) rule isn’t really a rule. Note the ubiquitous qualifier that, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Who gets to decide what the exceptions are? The DM. A rule that the DM can choose to enforce, expand, contract, or ignore whenever an exception rears its head isn’t really a rule.
Perhaps a metaphor will help. Imagine a prison with one cell, one inmate, and one guard who has the key to the cell’s door. Now imagine that the inmate and guard are the same person. Not much of a prison, huh? That’s what the ITPCDINCTDM rule is like.
What’s more, I’ve yet to actually see the ITPCDINCTDM rule in any RPG’s rules. Admittedly, I’ve not read every single RPG out there. (Who has?) Still, I’ve been around RPGs since about 1978, and I’ve at least dabbled in dozens of systems. So, sure, ITPCDINCTDM could actually be a rule in some game somewhere. If so, I’d be willing to bet that an official rules expression of ITPCDINCTDM would end up just being an example of the one-man prison metaphor.
Why Have the ITPCDINCTDM Rule?
As mentioned above, a sense of fairness is the motive. Everyone uses the same rules the same way (except, of course, for all of those DM-defined exceptions, not to mention explicit cases in the rules where the rules aren’t same for players and DMs). Unfortunately, ITPCDINCTDM misjudges the nature of RPGs. Consequently, what rises from a noble intention ends up being little more than a nice sentiment. The underlying arbitrariness of ITPCDINCTDM undermines the fairness the rule supposedly serves.
Why Not Have the ITPCDINCTDM Rule?
Aside from ITPCDINCTDM not really being a rule, it’s a rule that misjudges the nature of RPGs. All players using the exact same rules is a key feature of competitive games. Consider a game of Risk. Every player uses the same rules without exceptions because the game is competitive. There’s going to be one winner, and everyone else loses. If one player decides to use different rules from everyone else, then that player is cheating. The same applies to checkers, football, and five card stud.
RPGs are not competitive games. There isn’t a winner or a loser. Rather, RPGs are cooperative. Every player (including the DM) cooperates to create an entertaining story. The rules assist the storytelling, to be sure, but that’s only because there needs to be some mechanism to determine resource management and the success or failure of story elements.
The rules provide a structure for the players’ characters to ensure that they all use the same resource management and success/failure mechanisms. This structure sets the characters’ abilities in relative balance one with the other. The DM sets up situations to challenge how well the players manage their resources and exploit their characters’ strengths in order to tilt the success/failure mechanisms in their favor. Consequently, the challenges set up by the DM need to work within the parameters of the game’s system or else meaningful collaboration can’t happen. But this collaboration does not mean the DM is limited to the structure meant to balance the characters with each other.
How About a Specific Example?
A frequent complaint about d20 System games is that it is very difficult to create a single enemy capable of providing a challenge to an adventuring group. In order to keep the fighter-types from hitting too much, the BBEG’s armor class needs to be jacked up to the point no one can hit him. To keep the magic-types from taking out the BBEG with a single spell means jacking up his saving throws so much that many spells end up being ineffective. The BBEG creation process ends up looking more like an intricate system of checks and balances requiring endless scouring through a pile of books looking for the just the right ITPCDINCTDM combination of stats, feats, and equipment.
To fix the horror of BBEG creation, I glommed a section of Bad Axe Games‘s excellent Trailblazer and tinkered it a bit. What I came up with are these special rules for solo monsters:
* Do not adjust the solo’s CR.
* Multiply its hit points by the number of PCs it is facing to create “chunks” of hit points (e.g. four PCs, 4 x hit points in four chunks).
* If a PC drops, scratch off an entire chunk of hit points unless doing so will render the solo unconscious or dead.
* Start the creature with 2 Action Dice per PC it is facing. (My Action Dice rules are similar to those in d20 Modern.)
* Add the Extra Action extraordinary ability to the solo’s stat block. (See below.)
Extra Action (Ex) Once per round at initiative count minus 10, the solo gets a single extra standard action. If the adjustment reduces the initiative court for the extra action to zero or less, the solo forfeits its extra action that round. For example, if the solo’s initiative roll totals 15 it gets to act normally at 15 and then gets an extra standard action at 5.
I’ve shared these rules several times in Internet forums. Every single time I’ve done so, at least one person devoted to ITPCDINCTDM shows up to accuse me of not playing the game correctly. “Those rules aren’t fair! Everyone has to use the same rules!” the detractors exclaim.
RPGs aren’t set up to be fair, meaning set up to require ITPCDINCTDM. They’re set up to help people kill time creating entertaining stories in a collaborative manner. The RPG is not a competition in which the DM pits his library of splatbooks and optimization talents against the players’ splatbook-optimized characters. Consequently, everyone does not have to use the same rules if doing so deforms the collaborative nature of the game into a DM versus player arms race.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, let me offer some closing advice to DMs.
Take a look at the games you’ve been running. Is the way you’re running the game encouraging collaboration between you and your players? If not, why not? Is ITPCDINCTDM or something like it lurking in your game’s subtext? If so, think seriously about rooting out those anti-collaborative elements and replacing them with other elements. You’ll end up with a better game, and you’re players may actually thank you for it.