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.