Spherical Goblins: Inference of Destruction

One of the first columns I wrote under the heading of Spherical Goblins was on the subject of how to read the rules. This one is, I suppose, a bit of a sequel to that. I’m writing it to address one specific source of confusion for many players, and to use that example to discuss a general case that causes confusion.

This is fitting, as “specific” and “general” are watchwords for rule interpretation in 5th Edition, as in “specific beats general”. These three little rules are meant to be a key that unlocks the rules, or a razor that cuts through confusion, but the problem that some people have is figuring out what is specific and what is general.

There is a whole series of Frequently Asked Questions in 5th Edition that are all founded on the same misconception about a general rule. It’s really just one question, phrased in different ways. Two of the most common:

  • “When I make a bonus attack using Crossbow Expert, do I get to add my ability modifier to the damage?”
  • “If my monk uses Martial Arts or Flurry of Blows, can I still add my ability modifier to the damage of the extra attacks?”

Now, in that column I linked to in my opening, I spoke about how the rules for a special ability like Martial Arts or Crossbow Expert are largely self-contained, how there aren’t more detailed rules governing them somewhere else, only the general rules with which they interact. An attack you make using one of your special abilities follows the general rules for attacking, except where th ability itself lists an exception.

In the case of these abilities, the exception is that you can use a bonus action to do it. None of these abilities say anything about adding an ability modifier to your damage or not, which means you follow the general case. The general case is yes.

Yet enough people are unsure about this that they feel the need to ask, and whenever there’s that much uncertainty about a thing, there are most assuredly going to be people who are certainly wrong about it. There are tables out there where players are shorting themselves damage in every round of every combat. Why? Because instead of following the general rules for attacks, they are inferring the existence of a general rule that governs bonus action attacks in particular, and they are applying it to any ability that grants one.

The existence of this rule is intuited from the specific rules governing what 5E calls “two-weapon fighting”. When you are wielding a light melee weapon in each hand and you use one of them to attack using the Attack action on your turn, you can spend a bonus action to attack with the other one, at the cost of not adding your ability modifier to the damage. So if you’re a rogue and you’ve got Dexterity of 16 and you’re wielding two short swords, you’ll do 1d6+3 with one and 1d6 with the other.

This specific rule is meant to be a quick-and-dirty representation of the ability to make a slightly wild swing or stab with your off hand, though in keeping with 5E’s general economy and simplicity, the words “off hand” and “main hand” never appear in the text. If the weapons you’re using are identical, then it doesn’t matter at all which one is in which hand; if they’re not, then it hardly matters, to whatever extent that it does, you’re subtly encouraged to envision the hand holding the bigger or better weapon as your main one. Any actual mechanical difference comes out in the wash.

The key thing here is that the fact that you don’t do as much damage with a bonus action attack when it’s delivered in this fashion is not a general rule, though, but a specific one that represents a specific thing; the off-hand nature of the strike.

How is this specific rule mistaken for a general one?

Because it seems to be the closest thing to a general case for bonus action attacks. It doesn’t require a feat. You don’t have to be a particular class or choose a particular option. Anyone who can hold a couple of small axes, swords, or daggers can do it.

And because to someone who has not yet grasped the underlying logic and structure of 5th Edition’s rules it feels like there must be a general case to defer to, it feels like this must be it.

As I said at the outset, this is a specific example of a general problem. This tendency to turn towards specific rules for clues to some hidden general one permeates the way new people tend to approach the game.

For instance, another common question is if poison resistance confers advantage on saving throws against poison. Dwarves have both, and it’s hard to get poison resistance as a PC without being a dwarf, which leads many people to conclude that yes, they are inextricably linked.

But the key here is that dwarves specifically get both. As in, the rules specify that they do. If poison resistance—resistance to poison damage, following the general rules for damage resistance—was the same thing as advantage on saves against poison, the description of the dwarves’ particular hardiness against poison wouldn’t need to mention both.

This is counterintuitive to most people, even veterans of most roleplaying games. A lot of rules texts include more clarifying elaborations than 5E does, reminders of general rules that are useful in context but ultimately redundant within the larger system the text represents. In such a rule book, the entry for dwarves would mention advantage on saving throws alongside the damage resistance as a reminder, a reference to a general rule officially spelled out elsewhere. The rule about two-weapon fighting would likewise be repeating a general case, if not establishing it.

5th Edition eschews these redundancies almost to a fault. None of the spells that inflict the charmed condition spell out the effects of that condition, for instance. They merely reference it and add their own specific effects. In another game system, the text for charm person might include language like, “The creature is charmed by you, becoming unable to attack you and granting you advantage on Charisma checks while the condition lasts.”

But that would be repeating information that is general to a condition shared by multiple spells and other effects, so they don’t. Instead they only mention things that are peculiar to the spell charm person in particular, like the fact that the charmed creature regards you the caster as a friendly acquaintance, or becomes hostile to you when the condition ends.

And so, almost predictably, this creates a new source of confusion among people who feel the charmed condition itself must be more than the two bullet points listed under the heading of “charmed” in the appendix on conditions. They look to charm person as being the nearest thing to a general case, in the same way that dwarves are seen as the general case for poison resistance and two-weapon fighting is seen as the general case for bonus action attacks, and so they conclude that the charmed condition intrinsically includes the notion that it changes how the target sees you, or induces hostility afterwards.

In other words, they operate under the assumption that being under the charmed condition basically means “being under the effects of charm person“.

Categorizing these errors and picking apart the thinking behind them might seem mildly interesting to someone who knows better, and pointing out that they are errors might be useful to someone who’s confused, but my purpose here is to do more than that. My purpose in writing this blog post is to help everyone who plays 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons to better understand how the rules work and why they work, so that specific corrections or clarifications about the rules become less necessary.

In my post about procedural logic, I talked about how to read a rule as a process. Now I’m going to zoom out one level and talk about the same thing on a more macro level, how to fit rules into a hierarchy.

Applying procedural logic to a rule is a bit easier if you have any kind of a background in computer programming. The same is true of this skill, particularly if you’ve ever studied any kind of object-oriented programming language or made use of typed data structures.

Basically, it comes down to inheritance.

Imagine the rules of the game as a chart that looks like a family tree, or rather, a forest of related trees. At the top of one tree, we have top-level rules, like “Roll a d20, add modifiers, compare to a Difficulty Class”. That one would have three branches, for attack rolls, saving throws, and checks, and each of those would have their own branches, which would branch further.

Any rule that occurs at any level of any tree is going to be passed down to the branches below it. This includes rules that modify or even negate higher-level rules. For instance, the rules for attacking include rules for damage rolls, which specify that you add an ability modifier to your damage roll. The rule for two-weapon fighting branches off that, and it includes a rule that removes that ability modifier. One branch below that you can find the Two-Weapon Fighting style available to warriors, which puts the ability modifier back on.

The Dual-Wielding Feat, which (among other things) removes the limitation that the weapons be light could be found either branching from the general case of two-weapon fighting or the style of that name, and would inherit whichever damage modifier rule was being followed by its parent.

So when you have a case and you’re not sure what rules it’s inheriting, you just need to figure out what it’s branching off from. This sounds more complicated than it is. In practical terms, it’s just a matter of following references.

The geas spell inflicts the charmed condition. Its text references the charmed condition. So if you’re not sure if you should be looking at the charm person spell or the charmed condition, you just follow the reference to the condition. The charmed condition does not reference any spell; spells reference the condition. So geas and charm person are both just branches hanging below the condition in the inheritance tree. No matter how much it intuitively feels like a spell that charms a person should refer to the spell called charm person, no such reference exists.

Similarly, the rules for Crossbow Expert might read a bit like the rules for two-weapon fighting, but at no point does it say “you can make an attack as a bonus action, as you would if you were using two-weapon fighting”. The reference is simply to making an attack, so the next thing up the tree would be the general rules for attacking.

It’s just an extension of applying procedural thinking: follow the reference, follow the rules that cover that reference, and you’re done. There’s nothing else to do.

Would it be tedious to run through this process each and every time someone wants to cast a spell or use a special ability? Obviously. But it’s also not necessary. For most people, there will only be a small handful of areas where this kind of confusion arises. Once you’ve used this technique to acquire a basic understanding of where a rule fits into the structure of the rules, you don’t really need to do it again for that rule. And the more you do it, the better an understanding of the overall shape of the system you’ll have, which means you’ll have a better ability to intuitively understand how it hangs together when you encounter a new ability, a new rule.

Perhaps the best skill for avoiding this confusion, though, is simply the ability to recognize when you’re making an undue inference in the first place. Once you understand how self-contained the rules that govern a spell or feature are, and you understand how rare redundant elaborations or reminders are within the text, it gets a bit easier.

Then you can read a spell like shocking grasp and realize that the fact that metal armor gives you advantage on the attack roll is not stating a general rule for all spells that do lightning damage, or it wouldn’t be listed in this specific spell.

You can see that wizards and some druids have an ability that lets them regain a few spell slots in the middle of the day and realize that if this were something that all casters could do, it wouldn’t be listed for these two specific cases.

And while sometimes this means you’ll wind up nerfing some great idea you had, in general, this kind of clarity benefits players, both by allowing you to have a better idea of what exactly your character is capable of while also preventing you from applying limitations from multiple unrelated sources.


Alexandra Erin has been playing roleplaying games since 1989, and has been experimenting with game design and related theory since about one week after that. If you enjoy her writing, you can find her original D&D content on the DMs Guild, or support her directly.