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:
- Make sure you understand the rules as written before you start trying to fix them.
- Only make mid-game rule adjustments or exceptions to the rules when they benefit the players.
- 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.
- 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.