Poem: The Days

THE DAYS

These are the days

when fire falls

and water rises.

These are the days

when heaven yawns

and earth topples.

These are the days

when the wind screams

and thunder roars.

These are the days

I remember

what might have been.

Wisdom of the Ages

One thing I don’t think I’ve mentioned because it kind of took a back seat to the snow and water shenanigans, but I have a wisdom tooth coming in. It seems to be coming in straight up and down and without running awkwardly into any other teeth or a wall or anyone I went to high school with.

It was pretty painful when it first started erupting, and after putting some numbing gel on it I wound up biting my cheek pretty badly, which made it swell up, which created a sort of vicious cycle where I would bite my cheek some more. I’ve had to spend a week or so taking extreme care every time I spoke or bit down on something, but as of today I can casually close my mouth all the way without taking a bite out of myself. So, hooray for that.

As long as I’m talking about weird body things: my recent change of habits is having a diuretic effect. This was not unexpected, but it kind of caught me off-guard how strong it was. I mean, caffeine is a diuretic. Green tea is a diuretic. Many of the supplements I take have a diuretic effect. This is something else entirely. I don’t think I have ever in my adult life or child memory gone to the bathroom as many times in a day as I did yesterday.

Did you know that it is possible for a human being to wake up in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, while still quite tired, for no reason other than they have a full bladder? I did not know that, and now that I do I would like to know who I can see about having that changed, because it’s really neither comfortable nor convenient. I don’t know whose bright idea that sort of thing was, but they should really reconsider it.

My mental and physical energy levels have been pretty low the past couple days after a really dynamic Monday, but that was also expected. Things should level out before too long, and meanwhile, my mood is excellent.

Spherical Goblins: Start Making Sense

In my last Spherical Goblins post, I talked about how to read and interpret the rules governing a special ability on a mechanical level. In this post, I’m going to talk about how to do so thematically.

An awful lot of DMing advice centers around the idea that you as DM have complete control over the world and over interpreting the rules of the game. “The rules are just guidelines!”, after all. And “if something doesn’t make sense to you, you can just change it!”

At the risk of going against the conventional thinking, I’m going to say that the latter suggestion is actually terrible advice, particularly to new DMs. A lot of things that “don’t make sense” about a roleplaying only don’t make sense because you don’t yet have the experience to see how it all hangs together, or you’re hung up on a preconceived notion about how you think things should work.

For instance, a lot of DMs will disregard the cap on falling damage (it stops accumulating at 20d6) or simply rule that certain falls are insta-kills, because “obviously there’s no way you could survive that.”

But the thing is, if we’re talking “realism”? There is no actual upper limit on how far a human being can fall and survive. The world record for surviving free fall is something like 10 miles. Terminal velocity means that past a certain point, a body in motion stops accruing kinetic energy, which means that just like in the game, there is a cap on the damage that can be done from falling.

Of course, it’s not likely you’ll survive a fall of multiple miles, or even multiple hundred feet. People die falling fifteen feet sometimes. A lot of it is down to what part of you lands on what kind of surface, and you don’t have a lot of control over that in the moments you spend falling, which is why the game uses dice for the falling damage.

So this is an example of a rule that is if not a perfect model of reality, at least based in reality, but which many people throw out for being counterintuitive.

Other rules that commonly get ruled against in the name of reality include:

  • The ability to sneak attack when you’re not literally sneaking.
  • The ability to regain HP by resting.
  • All manner of things having to do with the monk’s Martial Arts and related abilities, like doing more damage with weapons and using Stunning Strike on various non-humanoid creatures.

One thing all of these things have in common is that they’re all changes that take something away from a player character. I mean, sure, the rules for natural HP recovery could be used by a DM to figure out how much antagonists bounce back between encounters, and an NPC could have levels in rogue or monk, or the equivalent abilities. But by and large, DMs who engage in these kinds of off-the-cuff reality checks are making calls that “nerf” the player characters.

Less formally, it’s not uncommon to encounter DMs who do things like have all the players’ enemies immediately stick their hands through any illusion cast by a PC on the grounds that “obviously they’re not going to believe it’s real when it just appeared out of nowhere.” Notably, those same DMs never have a character stick their hand into a wall of fire or poke at a summoned bear, even though these things also “just appear out of nowhere”.

It’s the illusion one more so than anything that reveals one of the subconscious motivations of these kinds of objections and the rulings that they spawn: an inability to let go of an adversarial approach to the game. If you think of the NPCs under your control as “your side”, playing pieces to fight against the PCs—even if you’re just trying to give them a run for their money, not outright crush them—then you’ll be concerned, consciously or not, with making sure “your side” gets a fair shake.

For things like illusions, disguises, mystical compulsions, and other sundry ruses, there’s the added dimension that you as DM are expected to play along with them even though you know better. If you have a hard time separating your ego from the persona of the characters who are being fooled, this can be a tad insulting.

So you rule that “your side” doesn’t fall for the sneak attack, or illusion, or mind control spell, or whatever… not because you’re on an overt power trip, but because it’s in your perceived interest to find objections, and you also happen to be the one who rules on such objections.  If you were a player and your character was a gelatinous blob with no nervous system and the DM said you were paralyzed by a fancy martial arts punch, you’d be like, “Wait, how…?”, and so you do the same as a DM, only you’re the one you’re asking, “Wait, how…?”, and so without an obvious answer, you say those four little words that should strike more fear into the hearts of a player than any other, up to and including “The dragon looks hungry”.

Those words are, “That doesn’t make sense.”

The thing is that when you’re DMing and you ask, “Wait, how…?”, not only are you implicitly asking yourself, but you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t bother coming up with an answer. This is a game powered by the human imagination. Nothing in it makes sense in any inherent way; it’s all abstract rules and arbitrary numbers until someone comes along and makes sense of it, and when you are the Dungeon Master, that someone is you.

As soon as a DM declares that some intersection of the rules, the dice, and a player’s decisions don’t make sense… well, that’s like a pilot wandering back into the cabin and announcing that no one is flying the plane. It’s technically true, and yes, it is a pressing problem… but one easily solved by the person pointing it out turning around and doing their job.

As a DM, it is your responsibility to make sense of things. The rules of D&D are not a detailed model of reality. They are (particular in 5th Edition) a very simplistic way of calculating success or failure for broadly defined tasks, with a bunch of exceptions stapled on to represent Cool Things Some People Can Do. There is a high level of abstraction and simplification

Ideally, players are making their decisions (both when creating characters and while playing the game) based on an understanding of what things the rules allow them to do, or at least try to do, and what the general odds of success will be.

If a player chooses to play a rogue based on the understanding that they have the ability to Sneak Attack for extra damage in certain circumstances and that same player chooses to engage an enemy based on the understanding that they will be able to use this ability, a DM who declares, “Wait, that makes no sense. The guard knows you’re standing right there. How could you Sneak Attack?” is invalidating that player’s choices and more, destroying the ability of the player to make informed choices.

Now, you can accept that the rule is what it is and just chuckle about how ridiculous and unrealistic the world of D&D is, that you can Sneak Attack someone who knows you’re there. Many people do, concluding that the game makes no sense and just rolling with it.

But there’s no reason to choose between accepting a lack of plausibility or nerfing the everloving heck out of certain classes. You can make sense of these things. The most important step in doing so is realizing how simplified the rules are. They act as though combatants are standing still 5 feet away from each other while fighting. They act as though battle is a matter of taking turns. If you realize that the actual battle that the rules and die rolls and turns would be describing would not unfold as neatly or nicely as the one the turn system and movement system approximate, it’s a lot easier to understand how a moment’s distraction on the target’s part is enough to score a “Sneak Attack”.

It isn’t that the victim didn’t expect to be attacked; it’s enough that they didn’t see a particular attack coming.

Now, the text of the Player’s Handbook never actually explains this. In 5E, they have a huge tendency to stick to the nuts and bolts of mechanics rather than explaining the intent. There is, however, a single line of descriptive text at the start of the Sneak Attack ability:

“Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction.”

A lot of the people who are hung up on how Sneak Attack can work when you’re not sneaking miss that (just as they miss the fact that the rules for Sneak Attack don’t mention stealth once). Last time, I mentioned how remembering the shorthand version of a rule can trip you up. This is the thematic counterpart of that: only remembering a single shorthand version of what it is an ability is supposed to represent.

Sneak Attack works (among other times) whenever you have advantage, and you can get advantage by attacking from hiding… that coupled with the name makes it easy to think of it as the “attack-from-hiding” ability. But that one line of descriptive text should be enough to prove that wrong; Sneak Attack is the ability to “exploit a foe’s distraction”.

But say that text wasn’t there. Say you had nothing but the bare mechanics to read:

“Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on
the attack roll.”

Can we make sense of this? Of course we can. First, the rogue can do more damage when using weapons that may use dexterity to attack, so we can infer that the added damage is due to what we might term precision. The extra damage only happens if the attack has advantage—meaning the target is in a vulnerable position—or the target has another enemy within 5 feet.

Why would having another enemy nearby make the target vulnerable like this? The most obvious answer is: they are distracted.

Why aren’t they so distracted that anyone can do this extra damage?

Because no one else has this feature, is the obvious answer. And maybe it sounds glib, but from that we can make the next inference: only the rogue has the expertise necessary to do this.

How do we know it’s this and not something else?

Because this is the explanation that makes sense.

Many other common complaints about a lack of sense in the rules similarly comes down to failing to understand or accept the amount of fuzziness in the model. The rules for HP recovery are an example of this. I’ll admit, this one can be a matter of taste, which is why the DMG includes official variant rules for making healing either more or less forgiving than the default. But I have seen a lot of people running for the “gritty” variant as their new default because “it doesn’t make sense that someone could be almost dead and then rest a bit and get all their HP back.”

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what hit points are. The truth is, the number of dagger wounds it takes to kill a person is one, as long as it’s the right one. No amount of fighting experience changes this; instead, it makes one better at avoiding that last hit that will put you down. This is what Hit Points are: not the size of the dog in the fight, but the amount of fight left in the dog. The hit points you have don’t measure health or vitality or life force or blood left in your body, and the amount of hit points you lose don’t measure your woundedness in any absolute sense.

The hit points are your grit, your determination, your pain resistance, your ability to keep your guard up and take hits in a way that won”t take you down. The damage is pain, fatigue, eroding morale, minor injuries that slow you down. The last hit that takes you down is the only one likely to be “bad”, and how bad it turns out to be is going to depend on how you roll afterwards… after all, if you were bleeding to death from severe internal or external injuries, you couldn’t make three “death saves” and spontaneously stabilize within 30 seconds.

It wouldn’t make sense.

So we make sense of it: being reduced to 0 HP is being taken out of the fight, with a hit that is certainly worrying to look at but may or may not be serious.

Now, it is a serious simplification that the game by default does not allow for even the possibility of a long term injury from such a hit, and given that the player characters are the only combatants we follow for the long term, this simplification is definitely in their favor.

But that is all the more reason not to change the rules on the fly. If you want to inject a little gritty realism with things like lasting injuries, have at it. Just make sure everyone knows the score before they wind up in a situation where they’re going to be saddled with one.

If a player makes the choice to rush into the dragon’s den or jump off a cliff, they are already accepting the possibility that their character might die… but that is balanced against the possibility that they might not. They make the decision based on what they know of their character’s capabilities, as measured by their abilities (including hit points) and the rules for interpreting those abilities.

Changing the rules on the fly makes the whole system make less sense, because every rule in the book now has an implicit asterisk after it that says, “Unless something bugs me about a particular example, in which case we’ll just make something up.”

At the end of the day, it’s true that the DM is the final arbiter of the rules, and there’s nothing wrong with adding a house rule or two or seven.

Just follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Make sure you understand the rules as written before you start trying to fix them.
  2. Only make mid-game rule adjustments or exceptions to the rules when they benefit the players.
  3. Do not introduce changes that hurt the player characters without discussing it outside of gameplay first. Ideally players should know any such house rules before the campaign begins.
  4. Never introduce changes that remove or massively deflate a class feature.

And above all, when you find that something doesn’t make sense… make sense of it. It’s what you’re there for. The dice and the rules, they tell you what’s possible, what succeeds and fails. They don’t tell you the story. You, the DM, do that.

February 2nd: Happy New Year

So, I’m not going to be posting a lot of (or any) “diet talk” to my blog here, but I am making some pointed changes to the way I eat that I hope will have some beneficial effects in regulating my mood and executive function. I’m excited about how it’s going so far, though admittedly the biggest effects right now at the start are from general optimism and a better sense of structure to my day.

I read a thing on Facebook about January being basically a practice month for the rest of the year. I’ve decided to embrace that notion. For me, 2016 began yesterday. Kind of weird to realize that we watched Groundhog Day as part of a New Year’s movie marathon, and here I am observing the start of the new year in early February.

I’m working on changing some of my worse habits, not through a process of denial and self-castigation but by finding other things that scratch the same itch. During the big snowstorm, one of the reasons I wound up digging out the front and back doors was that I discovered that shoveling snow off the porches triggered the same impulses in my mind that doing an achievement-based video game does, where every little bit I do is followed by the realization that if I go a *little bit further*, I’ll have accomplished some milestone or benchmark.

This is the way that I wind up frittering away hours (or occasionally, days) when I meant to take a quick 30 minute break, or play a little bit before going to bed, often playing the same games that I’ve played through a dozen times before.

I’ve got no intention of giving up video games, but I would like to use my time better. So yesterday when I felt the urge to close the document I was wrestling with and do something else for a bit, I defrosted our aging and ice-encrusted freezer instead of loading up Don’t Starve or Terraria.

Not only is doing a physical activity in the real world more actually rewarding than building my 1,000th digital tree fort, but the fact that there’s a physical toll and feedback from the effort makes it harder to lose track of time or get completely sucked into the “just a little bit further…” mentality. I spent a reasonable amount of time yesterday away from the computer, doing something that engaged my brain just enough, and then went back to resume the creative work I’d hit a block on.

There’s no shortage of such things around the house that really need to be done, either. The freezer has needed defrosting since before I moved here. I’ve known it’s needed it. It was getting to the point that we had lost basically the equivalent of shelves of usable space, and the ice build up makes the whole thing less efficient. But somehow it both never felt like I had the time, and I never felt a sense of ownership over the situation. I think that’s because I moved here before the previous inhabitants had finished moving out (they still haven’t completely), so I feel a bit more like a squatter in someone else’s home. The feeling gets stronger the farther I get away from my own rooms, and the kitchen is about as far as it gets in terms of distance traveled to get there.

So, this is the year I’m taking charge of my time and my space.

FLASH FICTION: Hooked on a Feeling

Hooked on a Feeling

By Alexandra Erin

 

I used to eat my feelings.

It was mostly just a thing to do. I did it because I was bored, or lonely, or scared. Never because I was hungry. Yo don’t get any nourishent from a feeling. They don’t fill you up at all. They hollow you out, at least when you’re eating your own.

So I would be anxious about something, or nothing, or everything, and I’d eat it. The anxiety. Or whatever. And then I’d feel ashamed about it, and I’d eat that, too. Sometimes I’d be surprised how easily it worked, but never for long. Surprise tastes better than shame, much better.

Before long, I never felt anything except for the things I felt about never feeling anything, and I never felt those for long. Every day I got a smaller on the inside, a little fainter around the edges. Feelings aren’t very substantial on their own, but they add up over time, and over time I was chipping away at the core of who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t know how to react to anything, how to respond to people or situations, because all my emotional cues had been chewed away into ragged little splintery stubs, like fingernails that have been bitten off one time too many.

I couldn’t stop, even if I’d felt any desire to. I had been doing it for too long. Even if I couldn’t live on emotion, it fed something inside me. I wasn’t exactly afraid to stop, but then, I wasn’t afraid of anything.

I didn’t know what to do about my growing state of disaffection, and I didn’t care. The people in my life did, though, the ones who hadn’t slid off me or been pushed away. They cared so much, it was painful to be around them. Briefly, anyway. But I can only eat so much pain, and it was getting to be a problem.

So I don’t eat my feelings anymore. I’ve found a better way, and now no one cares what I do.

At least, not for long.

Progressing Towards Normalcy

Well, yesterday we got our driveway cleared which allowed Sarah to get her car out and us to go collect Jack’s car from where it was towed. That was as pleasant an experience as it possibly could have been, as the tow lot folks were pleasant, personable, and professional about the whole thing, and they also did us the courtesy of digging the car out before we got there and waiving a day’s fees due to the storm. We are getting reimbursed for the cost, but a courtesy is a courtesy.

Today was our scheduled recycling pick up day. We only get pick-up every other week, they’ll only take what’s in the (admittedly large) container provided, and the last time we were scheduled for pick-up was the middle of the week we were away for the belated holidays. I had no idea if they were keeping to the pick-up schedule this week, but I wasn’t about to miss the chance to unload some of the backlog, so I managed to wrestle our recycling can down to the curb yesterday and carve out a spot in the snow-covered shoulder for it to stand where it would be accessible to the collections truck but not in the way of traffic or our driveway.

We were the only house on the street with our bin out, but my faith was rewarded when the truck pulled up at 9 and collected it as normal.

Our landlords just called to tell us that now that our house is accessible from the street, a plumber is coming over to take a look at the water heater within the next hour and a half or so. I have barricaded the cats inside the cat/author suite to prevent any further magical adventures in the root cellar for them. They’re warier about being shut up inside a room than they used to be, and better at opening doors than ever, but thankfully they’re still distracted by bird calls, even ones that are actually coming from a computer speaker. As I type this, they’re currently going window to window, trying to figure out where their elusive blue jay friend is hiding.

Based on my third hand understanding, it sounds like the plumber expects to just replace the heating element outright, and if that’s the case, we’ll have hot water again within the day. I mean, it’s going to be heating the whole tank from stone cold, so I expect it’s going to be hours before we get lukewarm. If it’s anything more complicated, he’ll be back tomorrow.

But either way, progress.

Let It Blow, Let It Blow, Let It Blow

Thank every star in the heavens and some in other places, but five days since the snow started and three days after it ended, we are finally going to be able to get out of our driveway. The farthest I’ve been out of the house since at least Thursday was yesterday when I trudged across three yards’ worth of snow to help bring in an emergency grocery drop from Sarah’s parents, parked at the mouth of the alley behind our house.

Given that I sometimes go a week without going anywhere, you wouldn’t think that cabin fever would be a thing, but it’s different when it’s voluntary and you don’t have to worry about when the next time you’ll be able to get to the store is.

The cats are fascinated by the snowblower at work. They’ve been absolutely rapt by this whole drama. It’s not their first winter, but probably the first one they remember. During the blizzard they sat at the window, wide-eyed and trying to track individual flakes as they fell, occasionally looking over their shoulders at us as if to gauge our reactions and figure out if they should be doing something more to let us know about all this fluffy whiteness going on.

Gone Away Is The Blue Bird

An actual beautiful sight this morning, as I settled into my office chair: both of our cats sitting on their platform by what I think of as the “tree window”, staring in rapt fascination at a pair of blue jays perched in the willow tree. The female was letting out the characteristic harsh jeer at a regular interval, and Tony, the more talkative and burbly of our tiny house panthers, was repeating it as best as she can every time she did.

I tried to snap a picture of the window with the two cats staring up at the birds, but the jays didn’t stay long (most birds, I think, are frankly weirded out when Tony starts calling back to them).

Funny side note: just now I went looking for a sound clip of the jay’s cry so I could figure out how best to describe it. When I played it on my computer, Tommy went running back to the window and pressed her nose against it, looking for the bird.

Something to remember for the next time I can’t find her.

Life During Snowtime

Given that the snowstorm that did it apparently made the international news in at least some markets, you might well have guessed that we are buried under several feet of snow.

Our blizzard experience got off to a rocky start before the snow even started, with our hot water heater failing just before and then Jack’s car getting towed by an over-zealous home owners’ association in the neighborhood in which he worked. His employers did not warn him, but in their defense, they were not warned, either.

The frustrating thing about it is he was supposed to have been relieved (and thus gone) long before then, and also that four days on, I’m told they *still* haven’t plowed the street it was towed from. We’re not going to have to pay for the tow or impound, at least.

Here at Chez The Place Where We Live, the one car that we do have has forty feet of snow-drifted driveway in front of it, and about sixty feet of driveway behind it leading to an alley whose condition I am not able to assess. Our yard slopes up from the driveway, which created the perfect surface for snow to drift against all the way down to the street. The only reason our back door opens is that I went out and shoveled snow away from it a couple of times during the blizzard; even with a covered back porch, I had to push away two and a half feet of snow the first time I went out. The only reason our front door opens is that I trudged around and cleared off half the front porch that wraps around the front of the house.

Sarah usually does that sort of stuff, but she’s a bit under the weather and I was curious to know how much snow I could move in an emergency. I rewarded myself by sculpting a dinosaur with the mound of shoveled snow, since the snow was too dry and powdery to make a good snowman. Well, no one said it *has* to be a snowman.

The snow removal people we contract with have been working 18 hour days to dig out their more elderly and infirm clients, and lost two guys and a $3,000 snowblower to the effort while the snow was still falling. I choose to believe the snowblower gained sentience in an accident involving a snowman and a silk top hat, and the two men were injured fighting to stop its malevolent rise to power.

Whether that is true or not, we are not going anywhere for a while. Dozens of people died and there are people still without heat or electricity, so as much as the fact that we have no hot water is driving me up a wall, it’s not a big deal in comparison. We’re not going to starve, though our meals are a little sparser and less interesting than we would like and snack options are pretty much nonexistent. Trying to find out where the car was towed to (all the lots in town were apparently full or closed, so it was towed to the next town over, where roads were already closing by the time we found out) ate up a lot of time Friday that would have been otherwise used doing last minute stock-ups and preparations.

We were well situated in some regards, at least. The battery-operated LED lanterns and rechargeable floodlight I got for illuminating the grounds for Halloween make for handy emergency lighting, too. That’s part of why I got them.

Anyway, things aren’t necessarily comfortable or fun here, but we’re all at least safe and we’ve carved out some fun for ourselves. I’ll keep you posted as things change.

Spherical Goblins: Rules, Exceptions, and Procedural Thinking

A lot of the pitfalls I talk about regarding gaming come down to the attitude that players or DMs take towards it, but even the best attitude can lead to confusion and frustration and arguments when you don’t grasp how the rules of the game actually work together. This is how you wind up with situations where the people on the opposite sides of the table have very different ideas of what the PCs’ actual capabilities are, or where neither side actually understands what the characters are capable of doing.

It usually manifests something like this:

A character has a certain feature or skill or spell. This ability is described in the rulebook as a set of rules, procedures, really, that govern how it works. The rules are designed to convey how to apply it to the game, so they are not easy to hold in your head unless you’ve got a particular turn of mind. So you don’t remember the rules, you remember what the rules do, what they mean for you.

Really, it’s a failure to understand how the rules are written and why they’re written that way, which leads to the failure to understand how to read them in the first place, which leads to you asking (yourself or the DM), “So, what’s this do in simple terms?” and only ever internalizing the plain speech explanation.

One root of the problem is not understanding that the description of an ability or spell is its rules, to a greater degree in 5th Edition than any edition before. “I can’t find the rules for Sneak Attack.” or “I can’t find the rules for Stunning Strike.” or “I can’t find the rules for [a particular spell].” are all things you hear pretty frequently, sometimes with the explanation of everywhere they looked: in the combat rules, in the rules for spellcasting, in the Monster Manual, the DMG, et cetera.

Sometimes it’s apparent their approach was pretty exhaustive. They might have literally looked through all three core books trying to find the rules for this one ability.

The one place they don’t look is under Sneak Attack, or Stunning Strike, or under the heading of the spell they’re confused about. I mean, they read it, or at least looked at it. They figured out what it’s saying, generally. And then they went looking for the actual rules, and failed to find them.

Usually this question will be accompanied by a situation that arose at their table, where a player tried to do something (like, let’s say, stun a Fire Elemental with Stunning Strike) and the DM wasn’t sure it would work. So they went looking for the rules governing it, and when they couldn’t find it, they just ruled on the fly based on their understanding of how it should work, then went looking for a definitive answer for next time.

If you’re thinking about the text below the heading of a special ability or spell as nothing more than a sort of general description in game terms of what happens, not only are you going to be looking in some nebulous elsewhere for clarity about its exact limits and implications, but you’re not going to have any reason to prioritize the text over your own, simpler version of the general description.

Stunning Strike and Sneak Attack are frequent sources of confusion, because they’re two abilities that people tend to think of in very precise “in-game” terms that aren’t really portable to different situations: you’re hitting someone in a vulnerable spot, like a nerve cluster (Stunning Strike) or organ (Sneak Attack). That’s a great capsule description of what the ability might represent happening in-game in a particular (fairly frequent) case, but it’s not even a general description of what the abilities do. 

Stunning Strike lets you stun someone. That’s what it does, in shorthand terms. Sneak Attack lets you hit for more damage. That’s what it does, in shorthand terms. And the rules that govern each are neatly self-contained within the short paragraph or two of text that describes each ability. And if you don’t know this, if you don’t get this, then you’re likely to look at those short paragraphs and say, “There has to be more to this, but where?”

A buzzword people use a lot to describe 4th and 5th edition is “exception-based design”. The actual rules describing what characters can do in general are relatively few and fairly simple. An individual character, be it a heroic adventurer or monster, is a set of exceptions to those rules. Fighters replace some of the normal rules of combat with rules that represent better fighting. Rogues replace the normal skill rules with rules that represent better skill. Wizards replace all sorts of rules, temporarily, using spells.

A buzzword that should be used more often than it is for describing how 5E works is “procedural logic”. What people frequently write off as a general description or just overly wordy stuff designed to sound formal and technical is not just actual rules, but in fact a set of instructions that tell you how and when something applies, and what it does. The vast majority of apparent ambiguities in how things work and disputes over what abilities can do could be settled simply by looking at the abilities in question and following them, word by word and line by line, like you’re a computer executing a compiled program.

For example, let’s take what is both a common special ability and a common cause of confusion. About half or so of the character classes in the Player’s Handbook gain an ability at level 5 or 6 that’s called Extra Attack.

Now, you probably don’t even need to read the rules for Extra Attack to understand what it does, especially when you notice that the classes that get it are the “warrior” ones like Fighter and Barbarian. It lets you attack more often. It gives you an extra attack. The general rule is that you can attack once per turn; this lets you attack again.

And if that’s your guess, you’ve nailed it. Here’s the actual text for the feature:

“Beginning at 5th level, you can attack twice, instead of once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.”

Oh, boy. They crammed what looks like some extra verbiage in there, but even if you don’t understand the formal meaning of “take the Attack action”, you can tell that Extra Attack does what it says: it gives you an extra attack. That’s all you know and it’s all you need to know.

Except if that’s all you know, you’ll run into situations where you’re not sure how it applies. If you’re just thinking, “I can attack twice”, what happens if you cast a spell that is kind of an attack, or even definitely an attack? Do you get to attack again? Could you cast two such spells? What happens if you take an opportunity attack, do you get another one? If you have two copies of this ability (after all, multiple classes have it), do you get an extra attack from each one?

Now, if you have any familiarity with the rules of the game and maybe even if you don’t, sitting there with the actual text staring at you, the answer to all those questions might be pretty obvious. No, you can’t more attacks by taking the ability more than once because it doesn’t give you an additional attack in the first place, it lets you attack “twice instead of once”. No, you can’t mix it with spells or use it when taking an opportunity attack, because it only applies “when you take the Attack action on your turn.”

The text I excerpted above for the Extra Attack ability is not just a clunky way of describing the bare fact that you get to attack more. They are exact instructions for how the ability is applied. IF you are 5th level, and IF you take the Attack action on your turn, THEN in place of the one attack you normally get, you can make two instead.

Procedural logic. We have conditions that must be met, and if those conditions are met, we process the ability, which provides us with an exception to the normal rule that you can attack once by taking the Attack action.

I’ve seen a load of questions about how this one ability interacts with this, that, or the other thing… but they can all be answered just by parsing the one line of text I excerpted above.

Let’s take the Monk’s Stunning Strike. The rules for that read, in their entirety:

Starting at 5th level, you can interfere with the flow of ki in an opponent’s body. When you hit another creature with a melee weapon attack, you can spend 1 ki point to attempt a stunning strike. The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of your next turn.

That’s all the text under the heading of “Stunning Strike”. It is, in fact, the complete rules for how Stunning Strike works. There’s a bit more descriptive text. I mean, “interfere with the flow of ki in an opponent’s body” is not a precise game term, but a flavorful description of what’s happening. It does at least do the job of telling us that no, this ability does not depend in any way on the target having identifiable nerve clusters, which should stop a lot of arguments that it shouldn’t work on creatures without nerves (though, it doesn’t).

Still, it’s pretty straightforward: if you are 5th level and if you hit another creature with a melee weapon attack, then you can use the ability, the effects of which are—again—contained within this short block of text.

Now, you have to know what a melee weapon attack is and what constitutes a creature and how a Constitution saving throw works and what it means to be stunned, and those things are defined elsewhere (poorly, in the case of “melee weapon attack”, though I’ll get to that later). But they’re all general rules. You don’t have to look them up in relation to the Stunning Strike ability. You don’t have to know some secret intersection of those rules and this rule.

Got a question about how and when you can use Stunning Strike? You can answer it with this text.

“Can I use Stunning Strike when I hit with an opportunity attack, or only on my turn?” It doesn’t say anything about your turn, so it doesn’t have to be your turn. It doesn’t say you have to use the Attack action, so literally anytime you hit with a melee weapon attack it’s good.

“Do I have to declare I’m using it in advance?” It doesn’t say that, so you don’t have to.

“If I have a spell that lets me make a melee weapon attack, can I stack its effects with this?”

It says “when you hit with a melee weapon attack.” If you hit with a melee weapon attack, then you can use Stunning Strike. Nothing else matters, not how the attack happened or what other awesome things the attack does.

“Can I use this on a Fire Elemental?” It doesn’t say particular types of creatures, it says “creature”, which all monsters and characters recognized by the rules are considered to be. Fire Elementals are creatures; ergo, you can use Stunning Strike on them.

Now, I have to point out that “It doesn’t say you can’t, so you can.” is not a great principle to follow, generally. But when you’re parsing out the rules of an ability, any requirement it doesn’t explicitly lay out does not exist. Any limitation it doesn’t explicitly lay out does not exist. If you have a question about what does or does not work, just follow it through procedurally.

Let me lay out an example that’s going to get a little complicated and nerdy, but it just shows how to apply procedural logic to determine what is and isn’t possible, what does and doesn’t work together.

Say you are a 5th level Monk with Stunning Strike and the Extra Attack feature, and you have learned through some means a spell called Greenflame Blade. This spell’s description reads, in part:

“As part of the action used to cast this spell, you must make a melee attack with a weapon against one creature within the spell’s range, otherwise the spell fails. On a hit, the target suffers the attack’s normal effects, and green fire leaps from the target to a different creature of your choice that you can see within 5 feet of it. The second creature takes fire damage equal to your spellcasting ability modifier.”

You also have the Monk Martial Arts ability, which includes this line:

“When you use the Attack action with an unarmed strike or a monk weapon on your turn, you can make one unarmed strike as a bonus action.”

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff going on. You’ve got a spell that lets you make an attack and then zap someone else with green fire, you have the ability to attack twice every time from Extra Attack, and you have the ability to make a bonus unarmed strike! That’s a whole lot of moving pieces to sort out, but it sounds like there’s going to be a whole lot of attacking going on, right?

So it’s our turn. We cast Greenflame Blade, and “as part of the action used to cast this spell”, we “must make a melee attack with a weapon”.

Let’s say that we’re using a short sword.

A short sword has a blade, and you might think this is important because the name of the spell is “Greenflame Blade”. You might even spend some time looking all over the place to find where it says that Greenflame Blade does or doesn’t allow non-bladed weapons, but the text is right there: it says “with a weapon”. Type unspecified, so any weapon will do.

So we use our action to cast the spell, and then we immediately make a melee attack using the short sword. We hit, let’s say, an Ogre Zombie. At this moment in time, we have hit with a melee weapon attack.

That means we can use Stunning Strike.

But wait, can we stun zombies? Nothing in the rules for Stunning Strike says it only works on certain creatures. We can check the “stunned” condition, but spoiler warning: it doesn’t list exceptions, either. None of the conditions do. That’s because conditions are a general rule, and in exception based design, the exceptions are self-contained. This means if the combination of ogre and zombie is immune to being stunned, it will be found in the listing for Ogre Zombie. We check, and it lists only one condition it’s immune to: poisoned. They can be stunned.

So we use Stunning Strike. Depending on how well the Ogre Zombie rolls, it may or may not be stunned, but we have used Stunning Strike. This brings me to an important point: imagine that the Ogre Zombie was immune to being stunned. This would not mean you can’t use Stunning Strike on the Ogre Zombie; it would mean the effect would be negated. This might seem like splitting hairs, but it does help you understand the flow of things better. The “program” we’re following continues until we hit an exception.

But, another thing is happening. Greenflame Blade provides another thing that happens when this attack hits: fire leaps to another target (let’s say a Zombie Donkey). And with that, we are done processing Greenflame Blade.

Can we use Extra Attack? No. Even though we attacked, we took the “Cast A Spell” Action, not the “Attack” Action.

Can we use the bonus attack from Martial Arts? No. Again, we did not take the “Attack” Action.

So the next turn comes and this time, we decide we want to use our attacks. We take the Attack Action, though we probably just say, “I attack the Ogre Zombie,” just we didn’t actually say, “I take the Cast A Spell Action” last turn, we just went straight to “I cast Greenflame Blade.” We are taking the Attack Action, which lets us use Extra Attack, allows us to attack twice.

We attack the Ogre Zombie twice, and let’s say we missed both times. Can we still use Martial Arts for a bonus attack? Yes. Greenflame Blade and Stunning Strike “proc”, as they say, on a hit, but Martial Arts doesn’t mention having to hit, only taking the Attack action and a requirement that we be using an unarmed strike or a monk weapon.

“Monk weapons” are defined elsewhere in the text of the Martial Arts ability, and they do include short swords, so we’re good. We make our bonus attack.

Can we apply Extra Attack to this to make two attacks? No. A bonus action granted by a special ability is not the same thing as the Attack action.

Of course, if you’re familiar with the Monk class, you know they’ve got the ability to make two bonus attacks if they want to, resources allowing, but there’s enough going on here for you to get the idea.

Any place where people are discussing the game, you’ll see questions about these kinds of interactions repeated again and again. Can a Paladin combine a spell like Searing Smite with their Divine Smite ability? Does a Paladin have to declare the use of Divine Smite in advance? Can a Rogue Sneak Attack even if the target is aware of them? Can a Rogue Sneak Attack if they hit on someone else’s turn? Can you use an unarmed strike with a smite spell? Can you use it with Greenflame Blade? Can you use Greenflame Blade as an opportunity attack?

In every case, if you understand the basic game terms, then the answer to the question is contained within the text of the abilities or spells under discussion.

(For reference, the answers are yes, no, yes, yes, yes, no, and no.)

Of course, some of the game terms are better defined than others, and I really can’t claim to be telling you how to read a character ability if I don’t explain the taxonomy of attacks.

You will never see this spelled out in a rulebook, but almost all attacks in the game fall into one of four categories: melee weapon attacks, melee spell attacks, ranged weapon attacks, and ranged spell attacks.

Both melee weapon attacks and melee spell attacks fall into the supercategory of “melee attacks”, just as melee weapon attacks and ranged weapon attacks fall into the supercategory of “weapon attacks”, but you will never see something that is both a spell attack and a weapon attack, or both a ranged attack and a melee attack. These categories are explicit and exclusive of each other.

Because of this, we end up with some oddities, like an unarmed strike being considered a “melee weapon attack” even though it is not an “attack with a melee weapon”. This means you can use the Monk’s Stunning Fist when you hit with an unarmed strike, but you cannot use an unarmed strike with the Greenflame Blade spell. The spell specifies “with a weapon”.

If all of this procedural stuff and precise taxonomies doesn’t sound very magical or adventurous to you, don’t fear. You very rarely have to sit down and explicitly proc a thing, like, “I take the Cast a Spell Action. I use it to cast Greenflame Blade.” and so on. One of the reasons that people stick with the shorthand version so often is that so often, it works. It’s only really when there’s a question about whether or not a combination of things work together that you have to sit down and process it step by step, and once you’ve done that, you know.

Now, this post has been talking about how to read and understand an ability like Stunning Strike or Extra Attack, and I’ve mostly been framing it in terms of not understanding the logic of the rules because it’s never been explained. There is another thing that is sometimes at play, sometimes, in the nagging insistence that surely there must be additional rules for Sneak Attack, and that’s the belief that whatever the player is proposing is too ridiculous to possibly be allowed.

I’ve got a whole post about that topic that I’ve actually been prepping for a while. I realized as I was writing it, though, that this one really needed to go up first for it to make any sense. For now, I’ll give you the shorthand version of the next post’s message, which is: never change the rules mid-game to make them make more sense. 

I’ll tell you why next week.