“The orc raises its battleaxe high over its head and attempts to coup de grace you.”
“Coup de wha—?”
“Coup de grace. Basically, it takes advantage of your helpless state to deliver a killing blow, scoring an automatic critical hit.”
“Wait, where is that in the rules?”
“Um…it’s under coup de grace.”
If there’s one thing D&D Encounters and other public play programs have taught me—it’s that not many players read the rules. One of the reasons I really enjoy running D&D for the “average player” is that it shows me what rules they miss or don’t understand. As an editor and the rule update guy, it’s important to see where sticking points in the game are, and how we can smooth them out. Even the designer in me needs to be reminded that the average player isn’t picking up on 95% of the stuff that is being discussed in the forums. Most people have their hands full remembering to use all their powers, let alone remembering what a charge does or that you can give someone a Heal check to let them make a saving throw.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slighting the “average player.” Our game has a lot of moving parts, and unless you take time to really read the rules, digest them, and read them again, you’re going to miss some stuff. And that’s fine. The thing about D&D is that you could use a fragment of the rules—roll a d20 to attack, roll some dice to deal damage—and still have fun. The enjoyment one gets from the game rarely depends on the nuances of the rules. Heck, I’d feel confident improvising half the rules, so long as I had a good story.
Jeremy Crawford, one of my colleagues, was discussing this very issue with me today. He’s been playing D&D much longer than me (since Original D&D), and he remarked that it used to be only the DM who read the rules, and even he or she would have only a vague grasp on them. Rules lawyers didn’t exist. They were more like rules interns—the guys in the law office that fetched coffee for everyone. They might know a smattering of rules, but they were in no position to call the DM on it, especially since the DM was making up half the stuff and throwing half the stuff away.
This notion that players should have a vivid knowledge of the rules seems to have evolved in the last few editions. Particularly in third edition, where I think there was an advantage to knowing the rules because it let you “game” the system. I’m guilty of this in fact. Oh yes, I definitely went after my +1 attack bonus for having high ground whenever I could. Suddenly, the Player’s Handbook was rewarding me for knowing the rules. It made my character more effect.
I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone besides the DM to know the rules, so long as players are willing to listen and learn, and eventually, show some investment in building his or her character. D&D is one of those games that is best learned by doing. Computer games already work this way. And if you play board games, you know that it’s usually a single person who learns that rules and then teaches everyone else. As brilliant and well-organized as Rules Compendium (coming in September)—and trust me, it will be like a Second Coming—the best way to learn D&D will always be to sit down with a buddy who knows the game. Fortunately, with the arrival of other products like the Red Box and the D&D Essentials line, it’ll be easier than ever to learn, regardless if you have someone to run you through a few roleplaying scenarios or combat encounters.
So I’m curious, how many people in your group have read the rules. Let me know!