“You want to do what?”

Part of the D&D Bloggers Carnival.

5 Rules for Smart D&D Players

It is the moment I love. That moment when the GM stares at you, first in disbelieve and then in realisation of what it means. The moment your cunning plan comes together and the GM suddenly finds all his plans falling apart. I love it even when I’m the GM. It is not about the players ruining the adventure but about them immersing themselves in your world so much they see things you don’t. To a GM, having players think that hard about your game is a tribute.

D&D in particular lends itself to this because of the huge variety of classes, feats, items and spells. There are so many potential combinations that there is always some new trick waiting to be discovered. But to find it, to be a smart D&D player and flummox your GM, there are five important steps.

1. Lay the Groundwork

There are limited opportunities for a fighter who stands there and hits things with swords. Classes like Bards and Monks have all sorts of interesting abilities that can be subverted. Spell casters also have a big head start but with modern versions of D&D, even the humble fighter can be smart. Feats and skills that allow extra movement or different types of movement ( e.g. Spring Attack or Tumble) are effective when combined with grapple, trip or disarm. Suddenly your boring fighter can be standing where they are least expected, putting a big spanner in your GM’s careful prepared plan of attack.

2. Unconsidered Trifles

Throughout their adventuring career, a character will collect a variety of wondrous items that are not worth keeping. Would your average fighter prefer to have an Eversmoking Bottle or its 2,200gp sale price? Whilst most would take the money, the smart character collects these miscellaneous objects because they give options. They may be useless on their own but combined with other powers or the right situation and they can be game changers.

3. Know Your Spells

Smart spell selection is vital but that doesn’t mean picking the spells with the most bang per buck. Spells that may do little directly often have no saving throw. The 1st level spell Fairy Fire has no saving throw but it can be used to cancel out much more powerful abilities like Invisibility or Blur. The sort of magic a boss monster might be relying on, opening them up to a world of pain from your front rank fighters.

Consider spells that attack creatures indirectly. A Grease spell against giants and other large creatures is incredibly useful because it targets reflex rather than AC. Such unexpected obstacles and hinderances are especially effective when the GM has carefully planned an encounter or you are caught by surprise. Slowing down the enemy, buying the party an extra round to prepare can be the difference between life and death.

4. Ask Questions

Often, the fun of the game is getting swept up in the situation but that is not good for smart play. Being able to step back and question your assumptions about the situation and also the GM’s assumptions. Instead of thinking about the obvious question of “How can I do the most damage?” ask “How can I help someone else do the most damage?” or better yet “How can I disrupt the enemies plans?”.

Examine your magic items and ask yourself “What can I do with these that is not expected?” – Often the answer is nothing, but just occasionally that Eversmoking Bottle or that Figurine of Wondrous Power suddenly presents itself as the perfect tool for the job.

5. Smart Gamers Practice at Being Smart

Opportunities to dumbfound your GM only present themselves rarely and you cannot expect to spot them unless you are constantly vigilant. In each and every encounter you need to be reviewing your abilities and items to see what you can do. Only by doing this have you a chance of finding the right action for the right situation that out-thinks the GM.

It takes work and practice to get become a smart D&D player but when it comes together, the look on the GM’s face is priceless.


  1. I like it when players use their smarts, but I also like players in my campaign to be aware of the fine line that’s drawn between smart play and abusing rules ambiguities and loopholes, and I’m very wary about setting precedents that I will later regret. (Which is why our campaign is still going after 13 years).

    Smart play is coming up with a clever thing to do in a specific situation. Rules abuse is finding a point of leverage in the rules, usually based on combining two or more abilities or spells in a way not envisaged by the designers, or else an interpretation of the wording that’s too liberal; and furthermore, in a way that’s repeatable, and that continually unbalances the game from that point onward.

    It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, because when a player (especially a newcomer to RP) tries to be creative, but comes up with something that you think falls on the rules abuse side of the line, you don’t want to slap them down too hard for fear of discouraging them from playing smart in the future.

    Lurkinggherkin´s last blog post..Quest For The Hanging Glacier – Part 6

  2. @LurkingGherkin – That is the dark side of being a smart player and one players & GMs have to wary of. Everyone around a table has a responsibility to keep the game fun for all so I should a sixth rule.

    6. Don’t push your luck
    Being smart is about knowing when to be smart. It is possible to try to hard, to strive for something that isn’t worth having because it would unbalance the game or ruin the fun of other players. Sometimes it is better be dump and just hit things with your sword.

    @Razor – Thanks

  3. Great list!

    I was once lucky enough to have a group of very suspicious players that thought that every bit of random treasure they found was going to be somehow critical to their progress through the campaign. The occasional MacGyver moment really made GMing for them worth it.

    jatori´s last blog post..[Durban] Second Game Day – 25 July 2009

  4. @Jatori – It is flattering that the players put that much thought into things but it can be frustrating as GM when you just want the players to get on with the plot.

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