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My question is how to manage to not create unbalanced changes to the game when making the resolution of player's actions that are not covered by the rules, specifically considering damage and effects. Is there any guideline in the DMG?

For example, in one of my game, my players used oil to create flaming arrows. I ruled that it would add +2 fire damage to their attacks. As the game continued, they made it obvious they would now always use this trick, so it felt like I introduced maybe a bonus that was too big or inappropriate.

I don't thinks they will be resentful if I explain to them I want to rollback that ruling. But for consistency sake, I would like to have some kind of guideline to guess the right amount when the situation occurs, not after the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ With regards not only to this specific example but in general remember: Improving on the current standard is usually hard. Unfortunately lots of CRPG's seem to have taught us that crafting is of the type "oil+arrow=flaming arrow". There are a number of good answers already but pretty much it boils down to, unless the players have put in a serious amount of engineering (real engineering not using a skill) chances are their idea is totally impractical as it is with these flaming arrows. \$\endgroup\$ – DRF Jun 8 '17 at 6:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ The flaming arrow so created wouldn't work at all. You would need a rag to douse in the oil and even then shooting at standard speeds would douse the flame. Flaming arrows made in this way were used in the middle ages but not to put people on fire, rather to set fire to buildings. They were shot from loose bows and had essentially no accuracy (you could hit a town/village/castle but probably not even a specific building with any great success). \$\endgroup\$ – DRF Jun 8 '17 at 6:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ When are they putting oil on the arrow? If it is during the combat then you can count some penalties (additional action), while if it is before the oil can dry out, or be less effective. Moreover as DRF says the flame can be doused when launched (so once in a while you can negate this bonus), or if they miss they can set on fire something, thus losing some loot/opportunities \$\endgroup\$ – frarugi87 Jun 8 '17 at 8:39
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For a basic rule of thumb, I suggest two things.

First, I would suggest comparing the bonuses you offer to magic equipment from the DMG and other Campaign Books.

In Out of the Abyss there is a Magic Item that...

is a Mace that can be activated to deal +1 Fire Damage. It's considered a 'Common' magic item

So, look at the bonuses you are offering them....look at Magic Items in the rulebooks, and see how they compare. That'll give you an idea of how much of an impact your ruling will have on the gameplay.

The second piece of advice I would offer is to think realistically about how their idea would work. Your archer is using oil and cloth to make Flaming Arrows (You can't just dump oil on an arrow and light it...you'll either destroy the arrow, or the oil will just run off and the arrow will put itself out the moment you fire it). How is he lighting them? They aren't magical, so they can't light themselves. Historically, archers using flaming arrows would have a small fire lit at their feet that they would stand near while firing to dip the arrow head into to ignite it. Lighters don't exist in D&D...he's going to need something like Flint and Steel to light his arrows. Perhaps at the simplest, I'd consume his Bonus Action to light his arrow.

One solution for him in this particular case would be to set an open lantern on the ground in front of him, and use that to light...but now he has to move the lantern any time he tries to move. If he just carries the lantern, then pulling the lantern off his belt, opening it, and putting the arrow in is 2 object interactions (at least), more than you can do without having to use an Action.

Additionally, flaming arrows were less accurate (because you're trying to aim past a bright flame, and the arrow is point-heavy) so you could also potentially impose a penalty to his attack roll.

And, again, to this particular point...assuming he is pre-crafting these arrows (which he has to be, in order to use them in combat), he has a whole pile of oil-soaked arrows sitting in his quiver. That's quite prone to ignite if he gets hit with Fire Damage.

In short: This is how I normally rule it when my players get creative with trying to eke out more damage. Magic Items provide simple flat bonuses, because they are magic and can do that. Getting 'Creative' tends to come with a bonus and a drawback (based in realism)...so you have to decide whether or not it's worth it to use your creative idea. I like it when my players are creative though, so I try to make sure the drawback isn't so bad that they never want to use their idea.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are a huge amount of drawbacks to using flaming arrows made the mundane way. Accuracy is pretty much nonexistent and the arrows must be shot slowly. These arrows were never used to increase the damage to a person that was shot (they wouldn't really they would most likely decrease the damage, if you manage to hi,t since the penetrative power would be much lower both due to the lower speed and the fact that something is tied to the shaft so it can't go through you as easily) they were used to set fire to towns/castles/villages. \$\endgroup\$ – DRF Jun 8 '17 at 6:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin For this, I am drawing reference to the stats on Oil in the PHB. Where it specifies that if you douse someone in oil, they take extra damage if they get hit by fire damage. I was imagining something similar to that case, and pitching it as an idea. Obviously, this is DM ruling, and I was just idea-dumping anyway :) \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Jun 9 '17 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty yeah, my bad. Let me reword: But the arrows won't ignite if he takes fire damage. only if the fire-damage-causing-effect states that flammables catch fire. One could fail saves on a fireballs all day while soaked in oil, and his clothes won't burn (still takes extra damage). - --- > It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jun 9 '17 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin Fair enough, poor wording on my part. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Jun 9 '17 at 17:17
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It's okay to be wrong

When creating on-the-fly rulings for nonstandard maneuvers, you and your players should understand that snap decisions may be revisited once given more time. Keep the communication open with your players and come up with something that works for everyone and that makes logical sense for you and them.

On the Fly - Rule of Cool

As I said above, it's absolutely fine to make a quick call and realize you made a mistake later. The guideline at the table should be "Have Fun" - so the Rule of Cool comes into play. Don't let it break your encounter, but if it does because the idea was that good - roll with it!

Specifics - The Flaming Arrow

There are some things to consider with this example. How are they lighting the arrow? If they're pouring oil, lighting it, and firing it - that is some action economy to consider. The pour/light might be an action, with another to fire it. Allowing you to roll that into one single action doesn't make sense with action economy. In addition, an arrow on fire it pretty just going to douse itself once it sticks into someone. I don't really see how damage gets transferred in a way that Poison would.

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There is a chain of logic that you're partly through, that runs approximately like this:

"Hey, what if...?"

In this case, hey, what if we dunked our arrows in oil and set them on fire and did more damage? This is an idea, by the way, that can just as easily come from the GM side as the player side.

"Well that worked, so..."

So we're going to keep doing it, ad infinitum. Because why wouldn't we? Free bonus! At that point, it seems pretty obvious that if this always works, then everyone should do it, which is a conclusion your players have reached. There is no reason you should not reach it, too, at least for any creatures that use ranged weapons and have mastered fire.

This at least puts everyone back on the same balance, at least as far as those creatures are concerned.

"But then...?"

But then, why isn't everyone doing that? Why is it the case that, literally, everyone with arrows and fire does not default to this action? There's a certain assumption in the basic actions of the game that the actions are... well... basic. That they are default. That they are the base cases to which bonuses or penalties are added, because bonuses or penalties are in some way non-normal or exceptional.

But your players are trying to move the goal posts of normal. Are they really that brilliant that they are the first people in the world to see this obvious tactic? Or has everyone else tried this and discovered that there is a reason it is not standard?

"Ohhh, I see!"

This is the approach I take: In a standard D&D type campaign, the players have great license to be heroes, but not necessarily great license to be fertile and revolutionary innovators for basic actions. Reasoning backwards, there is some reason that these ideas are not standard, some drawback that may not be apparent at first. In this situation, I would consider things like:

  • It takes time to properly coat weapons with oil or pitch
  • The right type of oil or pitch is expensive
  • ...or hard to transport safely
  • ...or prone to critical failures without specialized techniques or gear

Something which, on average, makes the fire arrows not much of an advantage except in particular situations (flammable mummies, maybe, I dunno.) The particular rationale is somewhat important, but more important in my mind is the general lawyer-like (which I mean in a good way) reasoning backwards from "There is a reason this is not standard," to finding and enforcing the reason.

I don't always get this right the first time, but I am also not shy to jump on something the second time. I would much rather have a cool idea work once, dramatically, and then stop; than to disallow all cool ideas forever or to have something cool work for five sessions and then stop dead.

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Give and Take

5e's very focused on keeping things balanced (which I really appreciate). On the other hand, 5e definitely encourages player creativity to problem solving and you don't want to stifle that. I think you should try to always have a give and take with things like that. Your ranger wants to light their arrows on fire to deal +2 damage (or some other amount of damage if you find +2 is too much), then stipulate that will cost them their bonus action to do.

This tax on their action economy means they can't use their bonus action for something else including, but not limited to casting or moving Hunter's Mark.

Alternately, maybe this extra weight unbalances the arrow, imposing disadvantage on the shot.

You shouldn't stack so many penalties on these sorts of things that it's never worth the gamble unless you're trying to enforce a hyper-realistic view of the world. But some sort of give and take is always recommended. Otherwise, it's always going to be superior to just attacking normally.

Personally, I don't ever recommend setting an on the fly houserule in stone. Your table should understand that you'll see how it flies and make adjustments as appropriate.

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I'd say look at the bonuses and the circumstances. You shouldn't penalize players for coming up with non-standard things and tactics that 'aren't in the rules', but are feasible.

Ok, maybe the first time somebody comes up with something cool, unique, and/or innovative -- perhaps the extra plus is warranted.
Or, if it's circumstantially warranted (e.g. the monster is standing in the middle of a Grease spell or a puddle of flammable liquid -- of course then you could justify other extra initial damage as well as secondary effects).

Now, let's say you think that +2 damage was overly generous -- I'd say scale it back to a +1, which isn't that game breaking. If questioned, you could say it was a fluke event -- you the player just happened to have the right amount of oil, rags, and luck to get a +2 that time.

Hypothetically, also, as others have pointed out, should players ALWAYS want to use their new trick -- there's the must use your bonus action to carry out the action ... e.g. to shoot a flaming arrow you'd need to quench it in oil and light it.

Also, of course, is it's not so unique an idea that others might not have had the same idea -- I mean, in this case, you can shoot flaming missiles at monsters so why can't they shoot some back at you (assuming they're somewhat intelligent or cunning or have seen you do it to them).

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