Now, I know this sounds like something small, but it did annoy me. We were fighting an Ankheg. We killed one, and after combat ended the DM had another one come up from the ground and grapple me with no checks to find it (we even have a player character with a passive Perception of 21). It had its full turn attack and movement, then he had it start at the top of initiative after that, giving it effectively two rounds in a row.

This was a little bad, but I'm okay with this. He then would not let my halfling ranger use Acrobatics to escape because it was a vice grip, so my only option to do so was with Athletics. It seemed weird, but I wasn't sure if it was something with the creature. I checked after and couldn't find anything.

Also, the creature was put to sleep by a spell, but he said that even though it was asleep, it would keep me in its grip, and only a successful Athletics check would let me escape.

I enjoy the game, but I get very frustrated when the DM changes the rules to punish the players. He consistently does this type of thing, and I'm starting to get kind of worried for the future of his sessions, but perhaps it is just me.

Can my DM do this, or am I overreacting?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 23:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is he targeting you personally, or is the "new rules to punish the players" thing spread around? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 0:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ More polite phrasing (whether accurate or not, case by case) would be "improvised rules that punish the players". The GM may have thought it would be a fun moment to have to overcome a more difficult or, in their opinion, more believable creature. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 0:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you clarify what it is your underlying question is? I've edited to try and clarify the focus of your question, but your question brings up a few different issues; please check to make sure it matches your intent. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 5:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Need more info. Is DM consistent and treats all players equally with these house rules? Does a house rule stay in effect once it's been established? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 12:55

4 Answers 4


It's normal for the DM to improvise new rules to make the game more interesting. I've never told somebody that they couldn't use acrobatics to escape a grapple, but I've said similar things.

For example I've said: "After the wolf knocks you over, it moves onto you and now it's standing on your stomach, so you won't be able to get free just by spending half your movement, you'll need to make a check." That's not an official rule, but I wanted being tripped-by-a-wolf to have more game impact than just spending half your movement on your next turn to stand up.

I've also done the thing where I improvise new rules simply because the environment seems to call for them. For example, when someone jumped onto a roof, I've said: "you're pretty heavy, and this roof isn't very well built. Give me an acrobatics check to see if you fall through the roof." There are no rules for that, so my player might have viewed it as "changing the rules to punish the players", but I wasn't trying to punish him, I just wanted to make the game interesting.

I've also done the thing where the group kills all my monsters too quickly, so I narrate that actually there were more monsters hiding somewhere and now the group has to fight them too. It sounds like this might be what your DM did.

My guess is that, when doing this, your DM forgot that someone had high passive perception. (Or they decided that passive perception wouldn't work on a creature that was hiding underground.)

The DM is allowed to do things like this, so long as they are doing it in order to make the game more interesting and fun. The DM should be doing this in order to change "that combat was too easy" to "that combat was about the right difficulty".

In this instance it sounds like the DM could have handled it better. For example, instead of saying "there's an ankheg and none of you noticed it so you are surprised", the DM could have said "there are TWO ankhegs and your character who has 21 passive perception notices them so you are not surprised". It sounds like either of those choices would have led to about the same combat difficulty, and the second one avoids nerfing a character's perception ability.

The DM also should try to avoid improvising new rules in a way that consistently hurts one player, because then that player might feel like they're being treated unfairly.

We can't tell you whether you should stay in your game -- it's up to you to decide if you're having fun. But, if I were in your shoes, I'd stay in the game and try not to let it bother me.

If I started to feel like my character could never do anything useful because the DM was always improvising rules to thwart me, that would be when I would leave the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What is a “surprise round” - in D&D 5e there are only surprised creatures \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 2:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't suggest talking to the DM (after the game) about those things that (from the player's PoV) turned out not to feel fun, or felt unfair? I would think that if handled well (from an assumption of good faith on both sides), that could get them on the same page and give the DM some useful feedback about what that player enjoys vs. doesn't. Making stuff up on the fly is part of DMing, but hopefully it's possible to chat after about how well it worked for the players to create a fun challenge in the game. (Again, if both people start from the assumption that that was the goal.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 8:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Does this latitude granted to the DM justify ignoring the effect of the Sleep spell, though? The rules are explicitly clear about unconsciousness ending a grapple. Seems unfair to spring this on players who presumably know the rules, and have decided to use their characters' resources to solve a problem, simply because the DM doesn't like their solution. \$\endgroup\$
    – recognizer
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 8:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Changing the rules is a bad idea 99.9% of the time. The rules are a contract between the DM and the players which lets everyone know that they will be treated fairly. Changing them to suit a situation usually leads to people feeling hard done by. There are limitless ways for the DM to add challenge within the scope of the rules. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 12:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ DMs have the option to create house-rules as they please; but continually doing this without telling players in advance what these altered rules are (especially when they vary from the PHB and DMG guidance on rules) is unfair for players. By RAW the DM ought to have allowed an acrobatics or athletics check to escape the grapple. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 13:33

By RAW your character should have been dropped from the creatures grip when it fell unconscious.

The unconscious status has a number of effects, the important one being:

The creature drops whatever it's holding and falls prone.

Also by RAW the Akheg is incapable of surprising someone with 21 Passive perception. (though they can beat their initiative roll and go before them )

the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception)

Beating a 21 passive wisdom is impossible for the Ankheg unless your at disadvantage as it's a dexterity 0 creature with no proficiency in stealth.

It can however surprise your character if their passive wisdom is 20 or below, and if its initiative roll beats yours it can act against you twice before you have the chance to respond.

So far as breaking a grapple with Acrobatics its allowed by the rules but needs to make sense in context. It seems reasonable to require a strength check to break from the creatures mandibles. (though personally I'd allow acrobatics if well justified in the narrative )

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    \$\begingroup\$ An Ankheg can surprise someone with 21 passive perception if they have disadvantage on the check. For example, if the ankheg is underground (if the DM so rules). \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 20:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of course it would. Disadvantage on a passive check is a straight -5. This is spelled out where advantage/disadvantage is described in the PHB. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 10:00

Nerfing the Sleep spell, without warning, is a jerk move

In another answer, CaptainBumbleFudge mentioned that the Unconscious status should cause the ankheg to "drop whatever it's holding". But the way the rules handle this situation is actually even more specific than that. To run through it all in order:

The Sleep spell states:

...each creature affected by this spell falls unconscious...

The description of the Unconscious condition states:

An unconscious creature is incapacitated...

The description of the Grappled condition states:

The condition ends if the grappler is incapacitated.

These rules interactions are clear. You and your fellow players are right to expect the Sleep spell to cause an affected creature to release a grapple. (Especially when we're talking about a very ordinary, low-CR monster, which you wouldn't expect to be an exception to the rules.)

You're right to be dissatisfied with the result your DM gave you...

...because it doesn't seem to respect your spellcaster's choices as a player. The spellcaster in your party only has so many opportunities to add a new spell to their repertoire, only so many spell slots between rests. They chose to take a spell that has a specific kind of utility, and they chose to use a spell slot when they saw an opportunity to solve a problem. And that was a smart choice, because it's a problem that the rules explicitly state that this spell will solve!

I'm sure that your DM enjoyed surprising the party with a monster that was lying in wait during your previous fight. Setting aside the question of whether this monster could reasonably surprise the party, it should be dramatic in a rather cinematic way. If presented well, it would hopefully get the party fired up to beat this monster. But for some reason, your DM wasn't satisfied when the party came up with an effective solution to this challenge.

If your DM likes presenting the players with unexpected challenges, and is eager to houserule to accomplish that, then he should be prepared for unexpected solutions. Hopefully that's why he's throwing these challenges at you in the first place.

If he likes to be adversarial, and is eager to houserule to get an advantage over the players, then you're in real trouble. After all, a DM can houserule whatever they like, and ensure themself the advantage in every situation... but that's not much of a game. If it really seems that way, then you just gotta tell him, "It seems like you change things just to give yourself an advantage". Maybe he needs to know that's not fun for everyone, or maybe he doesn't realize it comes off that way.

But I think it's more likely that your DM simply didn't like the party's solution. He may be thinking "the Sleep spell shouldn't make this so easy", or "putting monsters to sleep isn't interesting". That's a bad attitude for a DM to have. A player invests in their character's ability to accomplish specific tasks, and generally, a DM should reward this. This isn't a case of an overpowered ability trivializing an encounter. It's a basic spell versus an ordinary monster, in a situation where the rules and the dice dictated that the PCs should get the result they were aiming for.

If that's the case, he might need to keep that in mind, so that players' effort doesn't seem wasted. He should be attentive to situations where the players are using up their resources, or making choices at the cost of missing other opportunities.

But he might also be motivated to provide challenges that the rules DON'T prepare you for! In that case, he should make it a more robust element of the game, not merely a tool for him to use against you.

If your DM likes to improvise stuff like this, he should make it fun

The changes you describe your DM making to the ankheg seem reasonable. It's silent while burrowed underground, and its jaws lock when grappling. They're relatively small modifications, and they fit a sort of fantasy verisimilitude. This could be a lot of fun - if your DM makes it something you can interact with, instead of pulling it out without warning.

It seems like there were a lot of opportunities for your DM to provide a "teaser" for these aspects. If you had a chance to observe the first ankheg before fighting it, he could mention that it's eerily silent in its movement. Or if it was an abrupt confrontation, he could mention that it very nearly got the drop on you, but wasn't quite burrowed in for its ambush.

Once the ankheg grappled your character, he could mention right away that its jaws seem to be locked. If he tells you there's clearly no way you could possibly wriggle free, not without overpowering it or just hacking your way out, this would still be a surprise. But it would be presented as a challenge to face outright, not a "gotcha" that negates your effort after you've already tried to react.

This can be a matter for flavorful description. He could mention that these particular ankhegs have unusually massive and powerful mandibles, or rigid, overgrown carapaces that click like manacles whenever their jaws twitch. If you figure out that they're gonna get you in a vise grip, he can still say "nuh-uh, Acrobatics won't get you out of this one". But once you anticipate that he's made one of its attacks stronger, that lends some additional tension to the fight.

It could be a matter for PCs' skills - Maybe one character logically should've heard all about every ankheg that ever rampaged across someone's farm back home, and would notice something weird about these. Good place to call for a Nature or Survival roll! A poor roll might mean he won't tell you anything more than that, but it would be a good way to let you know "Hey, I'm gonna play some kind of trick on you with this monster", and let you try to anticipate it.

If your DM thinks these changes to the monster are clever (which is hopefully the case; I presume he doesn't think they're cheap tricks), then he can probably come up with a clever way to communicate them. If the players figure it out, everyone feels smart, and the monsters are still tougher than usual. If the players miss the clue, then he can point it out later, and you learn a bit more about how he imagines these aspects of monsters.

Any of these techniques require some forethought, rather than improvising right in the middle of the fight... but that's necessary to make this something the players interact with, instead of something that interferes with players' success.


The DM is NOT your enemy

You are falling into a trap that is very common for beginners. Because your DM is playing all your opponents and he's also the person that has to tell you 'No' every time you ask for something impossible, even though he doesn't always have the rules on his side there, you are starting to see him as playing against you instead of with you.

  • I once had a player complain during an especially tough battle that I just looked up rules when it was to my advantage. Oddly enough, I had just looked up something about an especially horrible effect of a monster they were fighting (simply because I wasn't entirely sure how that worked), and it turned out the players took even more damage than I initially thought they would. But the thing that confused me was that... well... how exactly was that to my advantage?

  • Another time, when I was rolling for the enemies in secret and I rolled two crits and was like "Oh wow... yeah... that... did not work out the way I hoped it would..." one player actually assumed that meant I didn't hit him and it was his turn now.

I understand where those feelings are coming from. I really do. After all, I play all the enemies and if I don't want the round to be boring, I play them halfway intelligently.

  • I sometimes counter things the group is attempting to do.
  • I sometimes put an enemy in their way that they can't beat and when they fight despite all my warnings, I don't cheat so it won't completely take them apart (although I usually still give them a way to escape).
  • When my player wants to use his Second Wind to use wind to push an enemy off the cliff, yeah, I tell him that's not even remotely what that ability does.
  • When a battle gets really boring, I sometimes make it more difficult.
  • And yes, sometimes I overwrite rules because I feel like they're not accurately representing the current situation.

I don't do this to punish players. I do it to keep things interesting and fun. But for the group. Which isn't always the same as keeping it fun for any one individual.

Here's an example of what I mean from one of my more recent games:

A group I ran wanted to play a stealth adventure. They wanted to do something where they'd have to sneak around and be very careful and stealthy. So we went and found one where they had to use everything at their disposal to stay hidden and it was really fun for everyone - until someone realized something that would have completely broken how that adventure worked.

It was an amazing idea. And I would have loved to allow it. Except, the adventure was designed in a way that everything that was yet to come would have become completely trivial if they used that idea. There would have been absolutely no more need for them to even try to be stealthy. And we were only 3 hours into our 8 hour session. The players had no idea what was yet to come of course and I didn't want to spoiler them too much, so I just took a few minutes to think things through (which already annoyed some of them).

I always found it hard to improvise stealth based adventures in a satisfying way (which was the whole reason we searched for an existing one in the first place). And with this, the entire rest of the adventure was completely unusable garbage. So I had two choices here:

  • I could tell the player no, the idea won't work. I could make up some reasons why not, although it's still something I'd rather not do.
  • Or I could continue, start improvising and already be certain that the rest of the adventure won't be nearly as interesting as it should have been for anyone.

In the end I chose the first option and told the player it only worked in a reduced fashion, which did give them an advantage, but not nearly the one they were expecting (and quite frankly should have gotten). Whether or not that was the right decision is always hard to say, but at the time, it seemed like the only one that would be in line with what this session was supposed to be about.

That player was absolutely furious about that decision. Which I understand. I did explain that allowing it would end the adventure right there and the other players (not the one who came up with the idea though) actually understood my position and were quite happy to just keep going. But for that one player this pretty much ruined the session. And I wished he would have just been able to accept it and move on.

Instead, he argued and argued and didn't enjoy much of the rest of the adventure (unlike the rest of the party, who got really fed up by him eventually though).

Obviously after the session I went back to the adventure and came up with ways to prevent this exact problem in the future, but that's just not something I have the time to do mid-session.

I could see that player coming here and asking a question about it, just like you did. Maybe looking through rules to support his point of view as well. Although yes, the situations are different. But it's an example for when the DM makes decisions that he thinks will keep the fun in the game, while a specific player thinks it's the opposite.

Talk to your DM

And I don't mean walk up to him and say: "Hey, what you did was bad, you're a horrible person and should be ashamed of yourself.". Obviously, the DM shouldn't talk to you in that manner either though.

Don't blame him or try to make him feel bad. Explain your point of view. Calmly. And also listen to his.

Keep in mind that you're both just trying to have fun here. Try to discuss what happened and that it wasn't fun for you. You can give reasons, but don't just name rules. Your problem isn't that the DM went against the rules (he didn't). Your problem is that you had less fun than expected. And once that discussion is over - no matter how it ended - move on.

I mention this because you wrote:

It seemed weird, but I wasn't sure if it was something with the creature. I checked after and couldn't find anything.

This gives me pause, because it seems to imply that you're only unhappy with your DMs decision because it wasn't in the rules. Except... it was:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. - DMG, p.4

This is also the rule that makes it relatively pointless to argue using rules. Of course it's always possible your DM just missed a rule and is glad you mentioned it, I'm just saying that you're not actually angry because it was against the rules, you're angry because you felt like the DM purposefully reduced your fun (which I hope the above examples show might have been the opposite of what he intended).

If you can't have a real discussion with your DM because he won't listen to your side (or the other way around), then maybe it is time to move on to a different group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you want to cite actual rules, the DMG says: "The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 13:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you happen to have the page number (I don't have access to my DMG right now)? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's on page 4. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 13:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for contributing this well-written answer! I notice it's gathering some downvotes (including from me) and no-one has talked about why yet. So: at least from my perspective, it's true but unhelpful. This is a good analysis for a DM asking how to address a situation where strictly following the rules is making the game unfun. Here however, departing from the rules is making the game unfun for players. In this situation, your answer seems to reduce to "shut up and get used to not having any fun, plebe!" On top of that, this answer has some tone issues that make it hard to read neutrally. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ This has a very adversarial tone that isn't particularly helpful to the querent. It focuses heavily upon the burden that the DM might be under which is fine, but completely fails to include in that burden that the players should also have fun. It also heavily promotes railroad storyline in lieu of creative player solutions that the DM didn't consider, which is fine for some groups, but should be clearly stated as something that some groups won't like. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 18:27

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