Flash Fiction: The Stars Don’t Fall Here Anymore

The Stars Don’t Fall Here Anymore

By Alexandra Erin


The stars don’t fall here anymore. Sometime, one night three summers ago, they started giving our planet a miss.

What’s that old joke? They’re called meteorites when they hit the earth because if they missed they’d be meteor-wrongs.

Well, something went wrong, somewhere, because the stars no longer fall here anymore. If you go out into the countryside on a clear night during the Perseids or Leonids, you can watch them streak across the sky and then zig-zag off, pull a u-turn, bugger off to go streak across some other sky.

There’s less and less of them every time, too. It’s like word gets around, somehow.

No one knows how to feel about it. On the one hand, maybe it means we can all stop worrying about ever going the way of the dinosaurs, but on the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about death from above when there’s something so wrong with the ground under our feet that rocks and dust and chunks of stuff from everywhere else have started taking a pass on it.

The stars don’t fall here anymore. No one knows why, or how, or what to do with this information, and now the stars in the sky have started winking out, one by one, a few hundred over the course of the night every night. The moon, bound by tidal forces to show her same face for billions of years, has started to inch around. Some people say she’s started revolving, but I think deep down we all know she’s turning her back on us.

Even the sun is a little colder.

The scientific implications would be profound, if only anyone could make sense of them. There are no answers to be had anywhere, no one to turn to and ask them. It all just keeps happening without any explanation, as if the whole entire universe is telling us, “You know what you did.”

The worst thing is, they’d probably be right, except it’s so hard to narrow it down.

The Snow Falls

Well, it’s snowing again. It’s not supposed to be anything like the blizzard of a few weeks ago, though the snowfall estimates have been revised upwards a couple of times. Also, this time we have hot water.

Yesterday I got a summons for jury duty, reporting middle of next month. I’ll be mentioning that a few times here because things don’t become really real for me unless I blog about them.

I wasn’t intending to do two D&D supplements a row as part of my 40 things in 40 weeks, but the response to Clerics of Lesser Domains has been better than I’d expected, so I’m working on its follow-up, Warlocks of Other Powers. The Warlock is the class I have given the most thought to and actually have the most material already built up for. The highlights for the Warlock manual will include:

  • New patrons, including a force of universal balance, a soul trapping object, a vampire lord, and primal spirits.
  • New pact boons, including an all-seeing eye and a spirit companion.
  • New invocations, including ones representing the things people typically sell their souls for (long life, worldly comforts, etc.)
  • New cantrips, including eldritch strike, an alternative to eldritch blast that makes the pact of the blade a bit more viable as a melee build.
  • New backgrounds, including Astrologer, Diabolist (a student of forbidden lore), Fortune’s Favorite, Spirit Talker, and Well-Kept. Fortune’s Favorite and Well-Kept might be taken by anyone (as can any background), but with a Warlock can be used to represent other, non-adventuring aspects of an eldritch pact.

If the primal spirit patron, spirit companion boon, and spirit talker background have you thinking of a 4E class that did not make the grade for a 5E conversion, you’re not far off.

I might have a few other [Classes] of [Adjective] [Nouns]s in me, although none of them are likely to come together for a while and I don’t plan on forcing it for any class that doesn’t seem ripe for such an expansion.

I’m not abandoning my own game design aspirations, just looking to get paid while I work on them. Actually, the release of the SRD 5.0 has shifted them a bit, as I really think the core rules for 5E are a great light chassis to build on.

Spherical Goblins: The Healing Power of DON’T


Some of the advice I give here is for DMs, some is for players. Today’s column is a little bit of both.

It’s about four magic words that are the answers to a lot of the questions, problems, and dilemmas facing people who play D&D.

It won’t help you with a rule question or a disputed ruling. It’s more a matter of implementation.

Let me give you an example of some of the problems that this miracle answer can help you completely circumvent.

“I want to try this whole group variant initiative rule from the DMG, but I’m worried that if the monsters win initiative they’ll all just focus fire on one player character and kill them in round one before anyone else can do anything.”

“My character concept is a zany chaotic neutral character who is basically a living cartoon character, but I’m worried that I’ll steal focus and annoy the other characters.”

“I really want my PCs to encounter a dragon for story reasons, but they’re not powerful enough to take it on and live, and I don’t want it to be a TPK.”

“I’m playing a traditional lawful good character and it keeps causing problems because my character won’t go along with the rest of the group unless they do things my character’s way.”

These kinds of questions are among the most common non-technical questions you see being asked. A DM has concerns about a scenario or a rule variation that might lead to a less-than-fun curb stomp of doom against the players, or a player has a character concept they’re really attached to but they can’t figure out how to make it work without driving everyone else away.

However, as I said, there are four little words that can solve any one of these situations and hundreds more. Those words are:

Maybe don’t do that?

Understand, this isn’t an injunction to abandon the plans that are giving you pause. See, in each of those cases, it’s not the scenario that the person is worried about, but what they see as the inevitable outcome.

If every single monster goes before every single PC, the monsters will focus on one target to slaughter unopposed.

If the low level PCs fight a dragon, the dragon will kill them.

If you have an honor-bound or zany character, that character will annoy your teammates or derail the story or otherwise ruin everybody’s enjoyment, including yours.

But none of these things are actually inevitable consequences. They’re all choices that, in these cases, are invisible to the people who are making them.

Hence the solution: maybe don’t do that?


Stick-in-the-mud paladin, you seriously don’t have to change your alignment or personality at all. But in the moment when you the player, the person sitting there playing a fun game for fun with your friends who are also looking for fun, are making the decision whether to drag your feet or allow the game to progress, instead of uttering the dreaded “My character wouldn’t do that.” when something obviously needs to be done, figure out how your character would.

In real life, a personality isn’t an iron bound code of parameters that cannot be breached. People do things against their conscience and against their better judgment all the time. Even more to the point, people rationalize the things that seem necessary for them to do.

You might say “My character would never compromise on this.” You know who else says they’ll never compromise on the things that matter to them? Literally everybody on the planet. You know who does? Literally everybody. We’ve just got a reflex in our brain that recasts things before we even realize we’ve decided to do them. When you’re dealing with a fictional character whose adventures are completely imaginary and you can imagine their actions at your leisure, it’s easy to imagine that they’d actually manage to hold on to some kind of moral, ethical, or personal absolute, but actual people are more complex than that.

You can stay in character just fine by voicing an objection as the plot progresses anyway, I promise. If you’re actually into roleplaying, there’s actually more dramatic potential in roleplaying reluctant action than in roleplaying obstinate inaction.

This isn’t just for stick-in-the-mud paladins, either. Your greedy, take-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down rogue type? You don’t have to steal from your teammates. Roleplay the temptation. Roleplay the frustration. Roleplay the character growth. You don’t have to forget that your character is a thief, you just don’t let this fact steal the fun from everyone else.

Your fussy, squeamish, homebody type who hates fighting monsters in dark places and would rather curl up at home with a good book? That’s a fine character concept, but if you attach it to a D&D character in a standard campaign, you’re tacitly agreeing that said character will go into dark places and fight monsters. Bilbo Baggins slept late, but he still got out the door and ran after the dwarves.

Now, you can create a character who absolutely wouldn’t go on the adventure, who wouldn’t work with the others in the party, who wouldn’t work towards the same goal or any goal at all… but, this is an ensemble game about working together to achieve goals on an adventure, so, y’know, maybe don’t do that. Don’t take it that far.

When I run a campaign, I tell my players that no character concept–and no alignment–is off-limits, but the presence of their character in the game means they’re part of a story, and they need to come up with a reason for their character to be there.

If your character is so fussy, so evil, so wacky, so honorbound, so possessed by demons, so a plural entity in one body, or so whatever that you honestly can’t see your character doing the adventure thing with the others, then that character might be perfectly valid in every other way, but you are playing as Ser Not Appearing In This Story.

And Ser Not Appearing In This Story does not appear in this story, which means you need to make another character. This other character might be exactly like Ser Not Appearing in every other regard, but the new character has a reason to be there, and knows how to rope it in.

Remember: there’s no audience watching you at home. Rather, you and the friends with whom you play are the audience. The other players are your audience. If they’re not amused by your antics, then why are you doing them? If your character’s drama and pathos do not help create a richer experience for them, then why is it there?


On the subject of pleasing audiences, when I talk to individual players about not going overboard with their character concepts, I like to talk about Ferengi. When the Ferengi first appeared in the Star Trek universe, early on in The Next Generation, they were these comically exaggerated villains.

Seriously, everything about them was overblown. Their reputation (initially they sounded a bit like the Reavers in Firefly, if the Reavers were trying to sell you something) was overblown. Their mannerism were overblown. Their speech was overblown. Their greed and above all the criminal credulousness caused by their cupidity were overblown.

A thing happened, though. The more that Ferengi appeared on screen, though, the less ridiculous they became. Their first on-screen appearance was the worst, and then it was uphill from there. We could think that maybe it just took the creators a while to get a handle on them, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

See, the biggest leap forward that the Ferengi got in terms of characterization happened when Deep Space Nine started. Armin Shimmerman, who had helped originate the portrayal of the Ferengi on The Next Generation, was cast as a series regular named Quark, the first major Ferengi character and one that viewers would have in their living room week after week.

If Quark had been one of the shrieking, hissing Ferengi of the “HOOO-MAHNS GIVE GOLD”-style (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only very slight), viewers would have been turned off by Quark’s presence, and either he would have gone, or the show would have. Even if the show had survived, it would have been very different without the character we got, and his relationships with the rest of the cast of characters.

Actually, let’s talk about Quark and the show’s lawman, Odo. Quark is chaotic neutral with some evil tendencies, Odo is lawful neutral with some good tendencies. But their obvious mutual antagonism is consistently played in a way that is conducive both to the running of the space station and the running of the show. Neither character runs wild in a way that derails the whole thing, and yet if you watch it, it doesn’t feel like they’re holding anything back.

In the first season, Odo drops by about once an episode to say “I’m watching you, Quark”… but by the very virtue of that, they have more scenes together and lines with each other than either of them do with many other characters.

So there’s your more complete answer for how to play a stick-in-the-mud paladin or a career criminal in an adventuring party: just look to the stars.

It might sound a bit glib, but really, most TV shows give you examples of this principle. All of the characters in an ensemble will have flaws and quirks and codes of honor that would ruin the show nigh-unwatchable if they were treated as simple ironbound rules or always played to the hilt, to say nothing of how it would sabotage whatever the characters are trying to do.

But what happens instead is that the characters all work together anyway. They have to, or else it would all fall apart. This isn’t to say that it’s not “realistic” to have people who just don’t get along or to have a situation go completely pear-shaped because of the foibles of the people involved. Sure it is. But those situations are by definition short-lived compared to ones where people work things out, or just click.


There’s a thing I tell DMs as a general rule of DMing, and that is player agency is all-important. That is, DMs should never blithely narrate that a player’s character does a thing the player did not choose to do.

But this is advice some players need to remember, too. Your character doesn’t decide what happens. You do. Even if it seems so obvious to you that they must do this or they can’t do that, it’s a decision you’re making.

And listen, I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with making a bold stand for what your character believes in, or for letting your character live and breathe as a living, breathing, flawed individual.

But this post is premised on the existence of players who see “their characters” doing things they don’t want them to do, who feel trapped by their character concept into doing things that they’re sure will alienate the rest of the group and ruin the game.

The solution for that really is as simple as four little words:

Maybe don’t do that?

That’s all it takes. People often hype up the roleplaying hobby by saying that you have the power to do whatever you want, the endless power of your imagination. That’s maybe a bit overstating the case, as you don’t need rules or dice for that. What the roleplaying game brings to the table is some kind of limits, definitions, and delineations to give structure and meaning to an imaginary adventure.

But there’s a basic core of truth to the idea that you can do whatever you want in a roleplaying game. The problem some players have is they forget or don’t realize this means they don’t have to do what they don’t want.


The situations I’m talking about for DMs are completely different from the ones that afflict players, even though the answer is the same.

This is because beneath the surface, they all share a common cause: the denial of that agency, the abdication of that responsibility. I spoke about this in a previous Spherical Goblins post, regarding the idea that you just have to form the so-called Conga Line of Death in editions where there’s an advantage to flanking.

I’ve seen DMs say they can’t adjust the difficulty of an encounter if, say, the players encounter the Big Bad a few levels earlier than they planned, “Because my players will know I’m pulling punches.” But this is a roleplaying game. You the DM aren’t the one facing the too-weak opponents, the character is. And would your villains really be pulling punches if they just don’t fight like cornered rabbits?

That’s really what it represents, in-game, when you play every combat out to maximum tactical advantage, [matching the players metagame for metagame], or worse, making them match you. The conventional wisdom that says that tactical metagaming is expected or required for DMs is that someone in a life or death fight would do anything that increases their chance of winning, and thus surviving… but does this logic really apply equally to every conflict?

If you’ve got a situation where you know the creature or creatures facing the PCs could wipe them out in one round if you played them to maximum ruthless efficiency, then how is it the same life-or-death fight you’d expect if both sides were evenly matched?

And if it’s not a life-or-death fight for one side because that side is overpowered, then there’s nothing wrong with playing it as something else, is there? Nothing wrong with the villain being a little cocky, a little complacent.

A dragon that would be an intense challenge for a group of 5 or 6 high level adventurers doesn’t have to go all-out to kill a group of 3 level 1 adventurers.

Listen, I get a lot of pushback when I talk about this in open forums. People say I’m suggesting they “go easy” on their players or “let them win”, but the thing is, I only make these suggestions in contexts where people are talking about how a situation would definitely kill all the player characters and how this is bad.

Letting the players win is not part of the game, even though honestly, 5E is very much built around the idea that they’ll win most of the time, with the challenge coming in how small fights wear them down before the big ones. (People who’ve followed my own game design efforts will understand immediately why I’m such a fan of it.)

But neither is stacking fights to kill them. Unless you’re playing seriously old school with truly random encounters, you don’t give them an inappropriate level of challenge in either direction. You give them a fight they could lose, but one they can win, too.

And no one thinks this is “going easy” on anyone. No one derides it.

Even more so than the players staring at the front of the DM screen, the DM really does have the power to do anything. Yet even more so than among players, there’s a severe tendency among DMs to completely overlook all the choices that go into what they do, until the game in general and combat in particular basically plays out like a script being rigidly executed.

If you’ve fallen into this trap, it’s time to free yourself from it with the magical, life-affirming power of maybe don’t do that.

If you feel like you have to focus fire on a single player character because it’s the tactic that “makes sense” to you as a wargame but you don’t really want to do that because it makes the game less sense, maybe don’t do that.

If you want to have a fight with a small army of some ridiculous number of goblins but you know it will be a crushing TPK if they all attack at once and they all use their Nimble Escape every turn to dance away, maybe don’t do that.

If you want to have (or circumstances create) an encounter with a powerful dragon or other giant creature before the party is ready to actually fight it, it doesn’t have to be a fight. Even if the encounter leads to violence, the monster doesn’t have to “fight” the way it would against credible threats. If there’s something you know the PCs absolutely could not survive, maybe don’t do that.


The bottom line is that whether you’re a player or a DM, if there’s ever a point where it seems inevitable that you’re going to do a thing and this thing will ruin the game, stop and think: is it really inevitable? What or what is the active agent that would make it happen?

Chances are the answer is you. Chances are you’ve already realized this, on some level. Chances are that once you’ve admitted it, it’s just a short walk from there to embracing the power of don’t.

Just don’t.


Alexandra Erin is a 26-year veteran player of Dungeons & Dragons. You can find her original gaming content on the DMs Guild.

Clerics of Lesser Domains (D&D 5E)

Now available through the DMs Guild, Clerics of Lesser Domains is a brand-new 23-page manual of material for players of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Six new domains (Beauty, Illumination, Language, Twilight, Winter, and Youth), four new backgrounds (Beggar, Prophet, Templar, and Zealot), and five new feats (Anointer, Divine Channel, Guiding Spirit, Oracle, and Slayer) allow you to create a functional cleric who serves a less “adventurer-conventional” deity or add a little sacred or supernatural flair to any character. Play a haughty and hauntingly pretty priest of a goddess of love and beauty, a gentle twilit harvester of souls, the mischievous favorite child of a deity of youth, or many other character concepts.

Costing less than $1 per new sub-class, this booklet is a steal at $4.99 even before you get to the optional system of story-rich and flavorful blessings for clerics to give, with three unique blessings for every officially published domain plus the six in this book. After all, what’s the good of being a cleric of beauty if you can’t bless a child with good looks?

Get it today, get it here: http://www.dmsguild.com/product/173314/Clerics-of-Lesser-Domains

40 Things in 40 Weeks


I didn’t blog much last week as my energy levels were all over the place and I got super absorbed in finishing up a thing, but two things I mentioned were a change in life habits and a determination to basically kick off the new year properly in February after January being a mulligan.

That whole sentence is all deeply interconnected, as the fluctuating energy levels were due to the changes in eating, and the thing I was pointedly trying to wrap up by the end of the week related to my resolution. The metabolic stuff has leveled off and even picked up, and I’m now feeling pretty good and expecting as smooth as sailing as is possible for someone with a weird metabolism to begin with. This should mean I can keep to my resolution without detracting from my other activities.

That resolution?

Sometime around or a little bit more than a decade ago, the limited pool of people who knew about me were calling me the most prolific author on the net. I hadn’t figured out how to make money doing what I was doing (and most of the tools necessary honestly didn’t exist, or weren’t quite there). I was writing thousands of words of story per day and posting it for free.

Now the tools are all there, but I’m not… or haven’t been. Too much indecision, too much insecurity, too much paralysis, too many directions being pulled at once, too much brain fog, too much fatigue.

So this year, 2016, is the year that I start getting it back. I started with the goal of every week, putting something up for sale somewhere. A story, an RPG thing, something. Now, for practical reasons,I’m giving myself January as a practice month and considering December a holiday for this purpose, and then just to keep things simple and give myself a little leeway, I’m going to consider every month to be four weeks. Four self-published things “shipped” every month from now through November is the goal, or forty things total for the year.

This might give some people quantity-over-quality concerns, but the thing is: I am that good. I know I’m that good. I know that not everything I write and publish will be everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s not the goal and never the goal. Even if a bunch of people think that 90% of everything I write is unworthy of publication, they’ll never agree on which 10% is, and so if I try to please everyone by withholding the stuff I think people won’t like, I ultimately won’t have anything for anyone to like.

Last week’s thing was a slim, no-frills PDF manual of cleric options for 5th Edition D&D, published on the DMs Guild site. I announced it quietly on social media over the weekend, and will be giving it a proper announcement post here later today. It’s already netted some sales, according to the royalty figures. Not a blockbuster, but not bad.

Now, the other thing I’m going to be working on getting back to is my more daring and experimental phases. Accordingly, some of the things I publish may not be under my own name or visibly connected with me. I’m not 100% committed to that idea because it’s very against the idea of staking out a public position for motivation, but there are a lot more eyes on me than there were in 2004 or 2006 and honestly that’s part of what makes me so inhibited. I’m just leaving myself the option open.

By the end of the week last week I was working exclusively on the D&D manual, but I don’t expect that to be the normal experience. I was learning some things about PDF formatting I’m not going to learn again (nor is everything I publish as part of the 40 going to be a formatted PDF), and dealing with greater than usual fluctuating levels of ability to can.

Don’t take this as an announcement of something I’m going to be doing instead of the stuff I have been trying to do. My approach to this is actually going to be to treat it like a new hobby, something to keep me motivated and moving forward even when I’m stumbling on something else and keep me in the creative brain space between other tasks.

And it’s bound to bring in more money than the other ways I could be spending that time. There’s a question to be answered as to how much, and the only way to find out the answer is by doing, but the number is going to be a positive one. If it’s positive enough, it could make a big difference in my day-to-day stress level.

Poem: 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.