Players Need to Be More Creative

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 7, 2011

One significant improvement that 4e D&D has over previous editions is the “say yes” mantra. DMs are actively instructed to let things happen. No matter what comes up at the gaming table the DM is now encouraged to say yes and find a way to make it work. That’s not to say that the DM should let the players get away with anything and everything, but if a player comes up with a creative idea the DM is encouraged to find a way to make it work and say yes.

In my experience the majority of DMs took this idea to heart. At the beginning, when 4e was still relatively new, players were trying all kinds of interesting things because they knew that the DM would likely say yes. However, over the past year or so I’ve realized that most players are content to player squarely within the rules. They are unwilling to take chances and propose ideas that are outside of the normal rule-set. This is especially evident in public-play situations like D&D Encounters. I think it’s time that the DMs make a point of reminding the players it’s ok to use your imagination. Being creative is a big part of what makes D&D fun.

When we first began Dungeon’s Master we wrote a series of articles we called Skill Focus (all of which can be found in our Skill Challenges archive). Each article looked at a different skill and we proposed alternate ways to use your skills at the gaming table. Some of the ideas were clearly outside of the normal rules but all of them had merit. None of these suggestions had the potential to break the game, but all of them gave players the potential to have their PC do something remarkable with a decent skill check.

Some examples include:

  • Using Bluff to create a fake accent in order to blend in better.
  • Using Heal to identify the most vital places on your opponent’s anatomy allowing you to crit on a 19 or 20 on your next attack.
  • Using Endurance to temporarily eliminate your armor’s speed penalty.

Regrettably we didn’t get through all 17 skills but I think the ones we did cover deserve some additional attention. Players should look at the articles from this series and use them as a source of inspiration. These are the kinds of things that you should be trying at your gaming table. Don’t limit yourself to the rules as written. If you can think of something awesome that you want to do on your turn, run it by the DM. Remember that he’s inclined to say yes anyway. If the thing you’re attempting is reasonable and makes sense for the situation you’re in then there’s a really good chance that he’ll allow you to at least try it.

Skills are probably the area of the game that DMs are willing to be most flexible because a skill check is unlikely to cause a monster any damage. When you try to bend the rules to make another attack of inflict more damage than a normal character then the DM will likely be more resistant to your idea. Remember the rule of cool – if your action is appropriate for the story, even during combat, and it’s going to be spectacular if it succeeds, then the DM will almost always let you roll. You many need a natural 20, but in the back of the DM’s mind he’s thinking “say yes” at the same time he’s thinking “this will be awesome if you succeed.” Remember the DM is on your side. It’s not DM vs. players. You’re all in this to have fun and tell a good story.

During out-of-combat situations players should try to be equally creative with their attack powers. I’m not saying you should attack the diplomat during a negotiation, but look at the name of your power and the flavour text. Don’t always look at the literal meanings of things. Use your imagination and think of how that power might be used for some other purpose or effect. When I’m the DM I like to reward players that demonstrate imagination and creativity. So even though they’re asking to use an attack power in a non-combat situation, if they sell it well enough I’m always going to let them try.

If you’re a DM at D&D Encounters it might be worth having a conversation with the players before the beginning of the next season and reminding them that, yes there are rules to D&D, but the rules shouldn’t limit their creativity. They should be encouraged to think outside of the box and play the character they want to play.

How often do players at your gaming table try things that are outside of the normal rules? Have you seen a decline in number of times players try these creative things at the gaming table? What can DMs do to encourage more creativity in their games?

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1 iserith November 7, 2011 at 10:08 am

Based on a thread I was following and engaging in recently at WotC, it doesn’t appear to the be the players that have a problem being creative. It’s that DMs have a problem letting it happen. The players attempt something creative and the DM smacks them down. Arguments I heard against letting people attempt actions not described by their power cards:

“If I allow it once, I have to allow it all the time and adjudicate it exactly the same way every time.”

“If I let my players ‘get away with that,’ they will abuse it.”

This especially goes for using skills like Heal or Nature to allow someone to attempt a “called shot.” The D&D-stapo will lace up their jackboots and disppear you in the dead of night if you suggest this can be attempted. Nevermind that every situation in D&D is different and that Heal or Nature might not be the best skill at that particular moment (and the DM calls it). Nevermind that players often have better options on their power cards than running around making “called shots” all day. Nevermind that I may have a called shot do a crit one time, blind another time, or slow the next time. Nevermind that even if you allow the *attempt* the fact that dice are involved doesn’t mean automatic success. According to these rule-thugs, if you give an inch, players will take a mile and kill and burn every man, woman, and child on that mile using Heal checks.

I wish I was using hyperbole, but I’m not. That’s really how a lot of DMs – at least ones with whom I have dialogued – think. And that’s just plain sad. Remind your players that a power is just a description of a specific action that can be executed perfectly once per round/encounter/day. Note that executing an action and hitting or missing are two different things. Just because there is a power called Tumble doesn’t mean you can’t otherwise tumble if you make the right checks and succeed at those checks.

As well, if a player comes up with something cool and it sounds like it could work – but you can’t think of an interesting condition for failure – then it works. No rolls required. If you can think of an interesting consequence for failure, then have them make the roll. Otherwise, let the player have his or her moment to shine by rewarding the good idea with success.

2 Lahrs November 7, 2011 at 10:59 am

I have to admit, when it comes to public play, I have a much harder time saying yes. In public (LFR and Encounters), I feel I have less control and should more adhere to RAW. That doesn’t mean I completely shut them down, and still try to encourage creativity, especially if I am in a group of vets, but I have to say I am much tighter with the rules in public.

In private play it is the opposite, I feel I have complete control of the situation. Players are allowed to get much more creative, and I get creative with the rules as well while DMing.

3 Kiel Chenier November 7, 2011 at 11:29 am

I had a similar conversation with Zak S. about this, though he put the onus of the problem on the mechanics of 4e. Player creativity is decentivized when a “crazy scheme” or outlandish idea that would (in theory) work like gangbusters, is actually less optimal than using a power like “Mighty Blow #37”.

By its very design, 4e combat (and, to an extent, the rest of the game) is very ridgid in its rules set. It allows for tangible, understandable, and fun combat, but wild creativity doesn’t factor in as much. This is a shame.

Still, I agree that ‘thinking outside the box’ and being creative with skills and attacks would certainly make the game a lot more compelling and interesting, especially in the upcoming season of Encounters. My only worry is that most players won’t really take such advice to heart. In a D&D Encounters setting, players tend to be pretty damn set in their ways, and will take the easiest/quickest path to victory (skipping story, disregarding NPCs, killing everything, arguing over treasure).

Still, anything that gets them at least trying to do something new is a good thing.

4 Kilsek November 7, 2011 at 11:53 am

Iserith makes an excellent point – that’s the reality for many DMs, the whole sense of feeling there’s great risk in adding a bunch of house rules to the game as a fun, creative exception at the time… that could come back to bite them in the ars later! The inch/mile talk is about right.

Honestly, it’s so incredibly tough finding that balance.

Who really wants a house rule glut like 3.x turned into again? That was awful – no two D&D games were recognizable anymore.

And yet, who doesn’t love creative solutions to problems and challenges in the game?

5 iserith November 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm

@ Kilsek

This is the problem I have with that notion – one adjudication to a specific situation in a specific instance does not a house rule make. I think people have lost sight of what a house rule is what making a ruling in the moment is. The latter might never ever come up again and might not be handled in the same way because the situation is different. House rules are specific corrections to rules problems or restrictions/limitations or new rules that are dictated by the style of game. Just because someone comes up with the idea in the moment to “shoot the dragon in his eyeball” doesn’t mean that I have to set up a “called shot” house rule to use going forward. I would laugh at any player who suggested I had to.

The inch/mile, the slippery slope, the dangreous precedent – these are just arguments DMs throw up because they’re scared of losing control. As if they could.

6 OnlineDM November 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Interestingly, the most recent bout of creativity in a 4e game I saw came up when I was filling in as the DM for D&D Encounters last week. A PC was taking ongoing fire damage, so the player asked if diving into a nearby fountain would put it out. Absolutely!

A possibly relevant note here is that this was a new player to D&D.

7 Nex Terren November 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm

@ Iserith

Really, the issue with the “called shot” is that if I did allow it once, why wouldn’t I allow it a second time? Not the slippery slope bit, but rather when I say “no” the next time players will blank-face look at me and ask “Why not?”

To which I likely won’t have a good, honestly answer.

“Because you can’t do it all the time,” I might think, but I won’t be able to come up with a good reason. (So you attempted to blind or slow the creature that one time… how is this different? How was shooting that dire wolf in the leg more fitting to the nature skill than the dragon in the eye?) Soon either I’ll just have to start saying “Well… because,” or have players (and for good reason) doing it at every last chance they get.

I mean, if I had a power that granted combat advantage, I’d use it. Same goes for skills. I can’t expect any different from my players, without being a hypocrite.

So as a general rule I deal with such matters in the same way as the DMG (or was it DMG 2?) suggests dealing with improv damage. Not Improv weapons, mind, but doing things like knocking over that boiling pot of water, or kicking the creature into lava, or knocking over that stack of books on an enemy.

I’m far more likely to let it fly, and reward it greater, if it’s strongly situational and creative.

If I can’t reason up a good reason the first time the character asks to attempt something why *this* time will be different than in the future, I’m not wanting to allow it.

Because like it or not I don’t, it will become an active, ongoing game mechanic, if not a formal house rule.

8 JSchuler November 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I disagree with iserith, and the crux of the matter is two fold: The use of the word “creative,” and the use of the word “cool.”

Using a Heal check to find a weak point or a Nature check to brew a potion is as creative as casting light in someone’s eyes, which is to say not at all. It’s cliche. Therefore, unless it’s a very new player, I have no problems disallowing it, or fluffing it to the point where it has no mechanical impact on the game.

Also, a standard action to maybe get a crit on a 19 is going to fail more likely than not, and it really doesn’t get you all that much more in terms of damage output. So, it’s not going to be awesome if it works, it’s just going to be moderately more effective than two attacks. And then there is describing the action, which doesn’t seem all that exciting, so it fails that as well.

Now, if the PC gave a compelling speech about how he is the slayer of gods or the vengeance he will wreck for the loss of his family, then that’s cool (as long as it’s directed at a suitable target – the bear that just wandered off with his provisions wouldn’t much care about the diatribe).

But yes, the instant something gets codified into a rule, it loses the “creative” label, and moves down the list next to “I hit it with my sword.” You would need something really special about the circumstance to turn it around.

9 iserith November 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm

@ Nex Terren

I would allow it all the time. As much as they wanted. It still wouldn’t become a house rule. To assume that one time means every time is where DMs fear their loss of control over a piece of specious reasoning.

Let’s look at “called shot” as a specific example… this time it’s a Nature check. Depending on the creature they’re fighting RIGHT NOW, it might be Arcana or Dungeoneering since it’s Aberrant. Or it might be Heal. It might just be a Nature check again, but it doesn’t have to be nor should your players have any expectation that it will be since the situation may not be the exact same as before.

What’s important is the *process* and *fairness* of the adjudication, not in the consistency of its moving parts because those parts will change from situation to situation. Hence, you’re adjudicating a particular situation, not a creating a new basic action. The player makes a skill check to attempt an improvised action. If he succeeds, he executes the action (whether it’s an attack, a move, or whatever) and makes any additional rolls to hit or miss if it’s an attack. If he fails the skill check, he suffers a penalty of some kind appropriate to the scene. (In the case of a called shot, perhaps the creature didn’t like that and now the character has inadvertantly marked the creature, overriding the defender. Oops.)

If you are consistent with that formula, you can change the skill, the additional rolls, the failure penalty, and the DC on the check based upon what the player wants to do in that given situation. You can even vary the actual effects on the creature. A called shot to the eyes might blind a minion, cause a standard monster to grant CA, or give a -2 penalty to attack rolls to an elite/solo. This is covered in part on page 42 of the DMG under improvised actions.

When you take this all into consideration, a player has a choice: I can use my power which has a 100% chance of executing a specific action OR I can make a check to pull of an action with (likely) a 50/50 shot at success which carries a penalty for failure and I still have to roll to hit (if it’s an attack). I think you’ll find your players choosing the former every time.

And that’s why you should have no fear whatsoever of saying “Yes,” even to something as lame as called shots.

10 Suddry November 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Howdy. I DM for both Ameron’s Sunday Night gang (from time to time) and for the high school’s D&D club I oversee, I usually fire it back at the player. If you guys can do it then so can the NPCs. Do you still want to attempt that? I’ve found that it allows the group to stop a moment and decide if that creative or cool thing is actually going to turn into a game-changer. In the end, everyone has had a hand in the decision and we can all live with the outcome.

11 rabbitiswise November 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

I see both sides of the argument, but I dont think anyone has fully answered the question. If the archer ranger wants to fire an arrow into the eye of a one eyed pirate lord, the DM lets it go in the awesomeness of the moment, its the climax of the session and everyone leaves the session feeling awesome…

then the next session the barbarion wants to call his shot on the claws of a dire bear, or know our his teeth with his hammer… I would have no problem adopting a houserule to remedy the situation, but what about the DM that doesnt want to have to deal with adjuducating a VERY subjective houserule round after round session after session….

I have no answers

12 iserith November 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm


For reasons I’ve already stated, it just won’t happen very often. After any novelty wears off, the players will realize they have much better options on their sheet. If someone wants to called shot to the eyes all day long, about half the time he’s going to be restringing his bow and doing nothing else. The other half he’ll get a *chance* at hitting the target. The reality is only every now and then will a player be inspired enough to want to risk it and that, like everything else about improvised actions, will make it very situational.

But Ameron – I think I’ve made my point. It’s not the players that are scared to be creative. It’s the DMs afraid to let it happen. No slight on you guys, of course. Nobody wants to give up what little control they have. But if you use the adjudicated system I’ve described (which is exemplified on DMG 42, more or less), improvised actions will come up only as the situation demands it which in practice is not that often. It will retain the cool factor and give your players the satisfaction knowing that they are playing D&D where they can choose to *attempt* anything.

13 Anaxeto November 8, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I guess I did Houserule saying Yes. I strongly believe in saying Yes. The very cool idea is what makes it fun to play. I still challenge my players but they can execute ideas that push the bounds of the game. Some times it’s a wow that was brilliant you don’t need to roll it just happens, sometimes its an easy skill check and sometimes it’s a no freaking way that can work roll me a 20 situation. To keep there expectations in check I gave them each a daily, encounter and at-will power called “do something” cool, cooler or coolest. They have expectations of limited damage expressions or debuffs/buffs based on which power they are using. It also sets the expectation that I can’t do this every round and get über damage but I can do this often with results based on my great ideas. In the much debated example I would rule it as a move or minor action to determine the called shot location. Have them choose a power level and roll the nature check. The ease of the check based on the situation. Then roll their attack. An at-will might give the dragon a -2 to attacks, the encounter a -2 and grant ca, and the daily deal crit damage and enrage the dragon into only attacking the pc for a round or spending its move action to remove the arrow causing it to land etc. Really depends on how the player worded the called shot. The real goal is to let the players do more than stand in the hallway and exchange blows. Saying no sucks the fun out of the game, I have played under both types of dm’s. The most memorable sessions are always the Yes variety.

14 Donalbain December 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm

this was always a problem as D&D editions grew because in my opinio n it was always too easy and i can say i love a bit of challenging but i love 2nd edition because i think thats when they had finally gotten it just right.

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