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D&D Burgoo: GM on tactical override

Who said “Damn the torpedoes. … Full speed ahead”?” Well, Navy tradition points to Rear Adm. David Farragut issuing the order Aug. 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Sometimes as a GM, especially in a game as devoted to tactics as D&D, I feel like issuing that order.



Adm. Farragut


That’s especially true during those interminable moments when the game stops to consult a rulebook for a spell’s effects or the exact wording of an exception granted to a feat or special ability.

“Hold on a moment, we’re making a spell check,” is a refrain heard at our table, and we’re not checking for spelling.

There is a growing sentiment at our table to “get it right” with respect to the rules. That’s not a bad thing. We’ve had more than a few instances in the current campaign where we we’ve rushed over a rule, like a car tramples an armadillo on the highway, only to discover later that we weren’t just a little off, but we were “game-changing” off. Meaning, the encounter might well have gone the other way had we stuck more closely to the rules.

Well, an observer might say: Does it matter if you’re having fun?

Yes, in the sense that in our rush to employ a rule, we trample the fun of someone else at the table. That’s another growing sentiment at our table, and a commendable one at that: We want to be considerate of everyone playing at the table. A rush on rulings can result in “stealing the spotlight” from another player.

Even so, stopping to read every little rule can trample the fun, too. It spoils the moment, as much as an errant cell phone ring or the need to excuse oneself from the table can. It can be unavoidable, even understandable, but a spoiler, nonetheless.

Expanding our rules mastery can help. But honestly, I’m not looking to internalize a 575-page game book for the sake of eliminating short stoppages of play.

How do you strike a balance?

My three suggestions:

Spell list mastery. No one can remember every spell in the book. But if it’s on a PC’s sheet, then encourage that player to at least know his or her spells. Admittedly, it’s tougher for a GM. But if a GM asks a player to be competent, then the GM should at least make an effort to footnote or bookmark and review those spells likely to come up during that session.

Full speed ahead on feats and special abilities. Unless this is an introductory game, PCs should be encourage to understand how these rules work in play. Most of these are combat specific, and if you like a brisk combat session, GMs should feel free to keep pressing on the gas pedal. If questions emerge about these, make a ruling for the present encounter, then review the rules afterward.

Be prepared to listen. Chances are, your players have a good grasp of at least a section of the rules. Learn to listen to their advice or understanding of the rules before making a call. Afterward, review the rules as a group and discuss, if there are any disagreements.

Rules don’t always make sense

This is the most problematic of issues. What if a rule doesn’t make sense — at least in the real world?


Guard demonstrates tactics to Cub scout troop.

I recently had the chance to watch National Guard troops demonstrate how they use a squad of three to draw fire, seek cover, and approach a target with the intention of disarming or disabling it. It reminding me a great deal of how a team uses superior numbers to run a fast break drill in basketball, keeping the ball moving and players filling lanes to force the defenders to commit and draw them away from the basket.

Either way, it’s a sound, real-world tested tactical maneuver that doesn’t seem to have an analog in D&D. But what if the players said they wanted to approach an enemy in such a fashion? Would you suspend the rules, momentarily, to see if they could coordinate their attacks and capture a target?

I think it would be worth it to see. I say “Damn the rulebook. Full speed ahead!”

But would you give it a try? I’d like to know.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: GM on tactical override"

#1 Comment By NinjaBait On August 17, 2011 @ 9:14 am

Long ago my players started going “off reservation” in games and finding ways to do strange and awesome things. After a few different ideas we adopted a method of rolling a d20 on whatever variables we thought might go wrong or right, with 10 and up being success as per the Core Mechanic. They would say what they wanted to happen, I would figure out what would most likely go wrong, and we’d roll for the result.

#2 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 17, 2011 @ 10:07 am

I recently played with a new GM, running their first ever game. An issue came up, and she began looking through the rules. After about 30 seconds of nervously flipping through the pages, she looked up over her screen and said, “You know what? Roll a d20. High is good.” And from that point on, I knew I was in good hands.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 17, 2011 @ 10:20 am

[3] [4] – Yes and yes! (Can I borrow that line? “You know what? Roll a d20, high is good.” Priceless)

#4 Comment By evil On August 17, 2011 @ 10:31 am

I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll ask my players to map out what they’d like to do 2 or 3 moves in advance when we’re in a high speed situation. Then, before the action begins they can do checks or whatever, but once the action starts, I officiate on the fly, and the players have a set time limit (usually 30 seconds at most) to keep their originally agreed upon action or come up with something else. That way both the rules lawyers are satisfied and the fast and furious crowd get their kicks.

#5 Comment By Lilk On August 17, 2011 @ 10:36 am

I prefer the old saying “rulings not rules”. The rules are just a framework and story should always come first.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 17, 2011 @ 10:40 am

[5] – Being a d20/D&D/Pathfinder guy myself, it’s hard to get out of a “turn” mindset. But I know a lot of designers have been keen for a long time to arrange mechanics along the lines that seems to be working for you — mapping out several actions ahead, and seeing what’s left once that’s done.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 17, 2011 @ 11:36 am

[6] – Rule 0 lives on. The GM is always right.

#8 Comment By Volcarthe On August 17, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

I have a bad habit of running two or three options at a time in my head, which means I’m constantly double-checking spells (when playing a spellcaster) to make sure I’m doing what I need to.

If my turn comes around and I’m still researching, I say “I’m casting X, it roughly does Y, but double checking the rules. I’ll get back to you by the end of the round.”

When running, I apply the same thing to my players, Especially the new ones.

#9 Comment By Necrognomicon On August 17, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

What specific maneuvers are you are having problems replicating with the 3.5e combat rules?

Living close to both an Army and an Airforce base, I regularly game with active and former military personnel and there’s not a lot we haven’t been able to make happen from a squad tactics standpoint.

The main obstacle I’ve found is players’ reluctance to use the held/readied action options, as it changes their place in the initiative order.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 17, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

[7] – As a grunt, I learned to live by the 3-5 second rush (start prone, roll, get up, sprint 3-5 seconds, drop, shoot, repeat). As a competitive shooter, I know I can run to a door, open it, shoot through it, and step back to cover in just a few seconds. Both sets of actions take 12 seconds in D&D time. Stuff like this used to drive me mad at the table; If a barely-trained oaf like myself could do it, why couldn’t a high-level badass?

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 18, 2011 @ 10:03 am

[7] – I think the issue is not that you can’t duplicate the maneuver, as Kurt says, but that it is no longer an optimal choice — when in the real world, it should be.
That said, not everything in good tactics happens instantaneously. A three-pronged assault on a target, such as what I witnessed, took about 20 seconds as they demonstrated it. That’s a little more than three turns in D&D/PF/d20, or three shots from a wand of magic missile while everyone else gets in position. Target neutralized before the tactical move can be completed. Stuff like that. 🙂

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On August 18, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

[8] – “If a barely-trained oaf like myself could do it, why couldn’t a high-level badass?”

Maybe all the armor, weaponry and other stuff hung on his back?

I have a mini somewhere called “The Compleat Adventurer” and he is carrying just about everything you can think of – including a rather nice kitchen sink – on his back. Hysterical (but so often true).

#13 Comment By Necrognomicon On August 18, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

The correlation to real world time is a non-issue in my opinion, especially since the hostiles are subject to the same real-time/turn-time weirdness. You can’t do all that stuff in a round, but neither can they.

A bigger part of the problem is as Troy points out, magic:

If, on the first day of basic training (lvl 1) you were given a gun (wand) that shot bullets (magic missiles) that would “strike unerringly, even if the target is in melee combat or has less than total cover or total concealment”, modern military tactics would be completely different in the same way that we don’t tend to send people into combat wielding 2-handed swords. You wouldn’t have a bunch of modern soldiers form a phalanx, just because it’s a cool tactic that once worked really well. You use tactics that suit the situation.

Even if you could charge that door, open it, fire through it, and take cover in just one round, you would still be better off doing it with a wand of magic missile than a ranged weapon.

#14 Comment By rabalias On August 21, 2011 @ 2:16 am

One of the reasons I don’t like games with long lists of complex spells/abilities is this problem. It’s also the reason I have never played a spellcaster in D&D. But, when i do use games like this, I make a point of ensuring every player that has such abilities has a printed copy of the relevant rules text, even if I have to type it out by hand, because in my experience it’s the look up time that causes the delay more than the actual reading of the text.

Having said that I just realised I’m breaking the above rule in my Dark Heresy campaign. I’d better go and sort that out.

#15 Comment By ggodo On August 24, 2011 @ 10:44 am

As a Shadowrun GM, this is mostly how I settle hacking. 4e’s Matrix Rules come pretty close to overcomplex, and always grind the game to a halt when in use. Freaking hackers taking up all session if they’re needed at all.