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.

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.


Spherical Goblins: Never Metagame I Didn’t Like

Tanks For The Memories

I saw a thread on a D&D forum recently where someone was talking about making a defensive Fighter build, but said they worry about what they called “the standard tank problem of ‘if I can’t harm it, then why focus on it?'”

A little bit of background here to get everyone on the same page: the concept of a “tank” comes from computer games based (through winding paths) on Dungeons & Dragons. In Dungeons & Dragons, the Fighter’s high AC and Hit Points has always meant that other characters would tend to hide behind the Fighter, especially during lower levels.

In a computer game where there’s no human mind directing all the monsters and minions you fight, this is represented by giving Fighter-type characters abilities that allow them to attract a monster’s hostile attention—“aggro” in the parlance—and hold it better than more vulnerable characters. In simple terms, a tank is a higher priority target for the computer than other characters are. The tank’s two defining abilities are to be attacked more often than their teammates and to survive more attacks than their teammates.

In D&D, a human mind is directly responsible for directing the “aggro” of any NPC enemies the party fights, so all you really need to have in order to tank is the second clause: the ability to survive more attacks. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The “standard tank problem” described by this prospective player is the notion that in the absence of any mechanical incentive for monsters to attack the Fighter, game theory demands that they don’t. The odds of hitting the well-defended Fighter are lower than the odds of hitting another target. It will take more hits to drop the “Fighter than anyone else on the field, a side’s ability to inflict damage does not decrease until a member of that side is taken out of the fight, and it decreases fastest when characters optimized for doing damage rather than taking it are knocked out first.

This is an example of the law of unintended consequences in action: in making it so that your character is the best at taking hits, you become the least attractive target on the battlefield.

This was considered a big enough mechanical flaw in the era of 4th Edition that they did attempt to import some computer-game style “aggro grabbing” mechanics that complicated battle but made it easier for tanky warrior characters to do their job of standing between the oncoming horde and their squishier friends.

Some of those mechanics survive in 5E as an optional rule in the DMG and an equally optional feat in the PHB, but I’m not going to talk about those rules or their effectiveness. Instead I’m going to talk about the mindset that leads to the situation where they seem necessary, and how to avoid it.

What’s A Meta For?

The “metagame” is essentially the game of playing a game. A boxer who notices that their opponent has trouble keeping their left glove up because of an old injury that’s bothering them is metagaming the sport of boxing, as is a boxer’s manager who cherrypicks opponents to build their fighter’s confidence and public profile.

Though you can game a system for many purposes, metagamers typically analyze the rules of a game, the social practices of playing it, and even the context in which it’s played in order to figure out how to achieve their goals within the game.

When people talk about metagaming a roleplaying game, they usually mean taking advantage of their mastery of the system in order to first build the most mathematically optimal character and second to use that character to overcome all challenges they encounter while playing it. My previous column touched on the problem of thinking there’s a single path to “optimizing” a character, alluding to metagaming in the process.

A lot of players will metagame combat in particular, out of some combination of desire to crush their opponents decisively because it’s awesome and fear that if they don’t leverage their characters’ abilities to the hilt, those characters will die and they will lose the fight and fail in their quest. They see metagaming and playing to win as being interchangeable concepts, and don’t understand why anyone would not play to win.

I will argue until I’m blue in the face against the idea that such metagaming is the only way to play the game, but I’m not overly concerned with players who do it. The problem comes when Dungeon Masters match a player’s metagaming with metagaming of their own. This is what creates the supposedly standard problem for tanks. DMs who metgame in the same way that players do and for the same reasons will inevitably deform the game system, breaking down the tacit assumptions on which the combat system is based and robbing it of any hint of realism.

The Conga Line of Death

A textbook example of how two-way metagaming deforms things is a phenomenon of the 3E/d20 system known as the Conga Line of Death. Internet personality Spoony explains the concept in a video.

The basic idea of this: since you get a mechanical advantage to hit enemies when you have an ally on the other side of them (called flanking, in the system), the “correct” strategy is to always flank.

And since you can still form a flank against an enemy that is flanking you, once someone has you flanked you’re halfway to flanking them back; it just takes one ally moving into position opposite you on the other side of a flanking enemy and now the two of you are flanking that enemy.

And now that enemy is halfway towards flanking your ally, so another enemy moves into position, and so on.

If this continues, then before too long the entire battle will consist of people standing in a line, alternating between your side and their side. A battle that is 5 people against 5 people somehow becomes a series of fights that are all two-on-one fights.

The first time I saw someone watching this video, I was fascinated by the fact that Spoony is describing the concept with a bit of frustration, but he treats the Conga Line of Death as an inevitable outgrowth of the rules, because “you always want to flank.” You never don’t want that advantage. There’s a sense of, “This is terrible, but what are you going to do about it?”

Despite Spoony’s air of resignation, the Conga Line of Death is not inevitable. Probably more groups have played 3E-style games without it happening than have played it with it happening. Or maybe it happens once, everyone sees how ridiculous it is, and never again. It’s just that in the circles in which it does happen, it will keep happening. Because the logic that drives it will lead to the same conclusion in every situation where there are enough combatants, because everybody involved wants that mechanical advantage of flanking.

But all it takes to break the deadlock that creates the Conga Line is for one person in particular to abstain: the DM. If the DM controls one entire side of the battle. If the DM isn’t in a dancing mood, the conga line can’t happen. In a very real sense, players can’t create a Conga Line situation. It’s what happens when the DM matches them flank for flank, meta-tactic for meta-tactic.

People who defend this type of metagaming by the DM often make the argument that it would be unrealistic to not metagame, because everybody in the fight knows that it’s likely to the death and the best way to survive is to win, and the best way to win is to use the best tactics. It’s not really metagaming to take advantage of rules like flanking because the characters in the game know how flanking works, too.

But I think it’s obvious to everyone that the Conga Line of Death is not a realistic depiction of how a skirmish among two groups of about half a dozen or so combatants would break out and then break down. People would never line up like that for a fight.

As a DM, you can’t prevent this by telling the players, “That wouldn’t happen.” when they try to grab the first or second flank in a sequence. The rules say they can, so they can. And so can you. But you don’t have to. If you know that it wouldn’t happen, your job is to make sure it doesn’t. As a DM, your number one power for preventing the game from devolving into a ridiculous farce is to not do things that wouldn’t happen.

So I Just Have To Let Them Flank Me?

Yes, you do have to let the players grab mechanical advantages without concern for verisimilitude, the suggestion of reality. It’s not their job to provide that kind of feeling. It’s your job to do so. The rules are there to provide them with knowable, predictable limits of what they can and can’t do. The fact that they’re knowable and predictable means they’re game-able. The fact that they can be gamed means that some people will game them. But you don’t have to game them back.

A lot of times, when someone goes on a D&D forum asking for DM advice about what to do with metagaming players, particularly ones who only seem to be metagaming, not roleplaying or engaging with the game on any level except “How do I win?”, the advice is that you have to match them move for move or they’ll walk all over you.

Unfortunately, this tends to make the game less fun for everybody, and it also reinforces the mistaken notion that this is just how the game is played. It not only reinforces the behavior in the first player, but it teaches everyone at your table that they have to play the metagame to the hilt, even if it comes at expense of playing the actual game.

The truth is that as a DM, you are really not playing the same game as the players are, which means you shouldn’t be playing the same metagame. There are some goals that everybody at the table shares. Having fun is the obvious one. Telling a story is another possible one.

But the players are also trying to complete a quest, and/or advance their characters’ goals, and/or amass riches and power through daring exploits and/or living out their heroic (or villainous) fantasies. You as DM are not trying to do any that. You’re trying to provide an environment where they can do all that while being entertained and challenged. The balance of challenge might vary from group to group, and there’s no right level except the level that provides the most fun for the group (yourself included). But even acknowledging that challenge is one of your goals, you’re still not playing the same game as they are.

Unlike a player who is playing to win, a DM’s metagame doesn’t—or shouldn’t, at least—consist of things like knowing that if you combine this ability with that rule and take advantage of an exception provided by interference from a conflicting interpretation of an optional rule then you can do an extra 37.5 damage per round. A DM’s metagame consists of taking the knowledge that Player A is motivated by the thrill of combat, but Player B likes a good mystery and Player C just wants to goof off and coming up with an encounter that has something for everyone.

A player who builds a “tank” character by making a Hill Dwarf Fighter with the defensive fighting style and maximum Constitution, AC, and HP for level one is using metagame knowledge to create a character who can fulfill a certain role on the battle field: being a living meat shield for the rest of the party to hide behind.

The DM’s metagame should take into account that this player created this character to achieve a particular experience in combat; i.e., the thrill of being in the thick of things, laughing as sword and axe blows slide off their armor with nothing more than a bruise underneath. This knowledge helps the DM “win” by allowing them to run the game in a way the player will enjoy more.

A DM who choose to ignore the Dwarf in order to pile on the weaker party members and obliterate them so they can then dogpile on the defense-optimized Dwarf safely is playing the player’s metagame.

Now, is it realistic for the party’s foes to focus their “aggro” on the one target they’re least likely to meaningfully affect, in favor of immediately changing the course of the battle by taking out the unarmored wizard in a single round?

Of course it is.

In terms of in-game “reality”, none of the little people on the battle grid are actually little or on a battle grid. None of them are watching the battle with a bird’s eye view. None of them are seeing things in terms of polite, orderly turns during which they can assess, over the course of a minute or so, the possible targets and note their odds of a successful attack. They don’t know the D&D rules of combat, only the reality that they are intended to—with some help from the DM—loosely emulate, and the reality is that there’s big armored dwarf right in front of them who is the most obvious, most immediate threat, too dangerous to be ignored.

The weakling in the robe, the skinny person with the knives? The DM knows that they are a Wizard and a Rogue, two of the most dangerous people to ignore on a battlefield. But most people in the world who don’t wear heavy armor or carry big weapons aren’t particularly dangerous in a fight, and the average NPCs won’t know on sight that they’re looking at exceptional individuals who are the protagonists of a heroic adventure story.

The trick is actually to let it go. Let them have their metagame and focus on your own. Once you do that, all the things that seem inevitable—the “standard” problem for tanks, the “unavoidable” Conga Lines—just sort of fall away.

Death of the Ego

The hardest part about adopting a better attitude towards metagaming as a DM is the feeling that when the players are winning, you’re losing. Very few DMs consciously believe this, but when characters under your control are dying and the people across the table are crowing about how easily they dispatched them, it can be hard to let go of the idea that you yourself are suffering a defeat. It doesn’t help if the player is obnoxious about it and talking about “owning” you, of course.

The trick is to remind yourself as well as them that you are not the bad guy. The best way to do this is to celebrate with them. Say “Nice one!” instead of “Ouch!” or “You all are really kick butt.” instead of “I’m getting my butt kicked here.” Involve yourself in what the players are doing.

Ironically, the more you separate yourself from the NPCs in an encounter, the easier it becomes to consider how the battle looks from their actual point of view instead of what the winning move in the metagame would be. This also discourages even more objectively deplorable types of meta-DMing, such as shutting down a player’s illusion or charm spell or clever non-magical trick because “Sorry, I just can’t see this person falling for that. It’s not realistic that they’d be caught off-guard.”; i.e., you feel like a chump when you have to go along with something that you know is a trick.

I’ll likely talk more about that—particularly as it applies to illusion and trickery—in a future column.

Don’t Just Let Them Win…

…but remember it’s not your job to make them lose, either. Give the metagaming players challenges that give them the benefits of being awesome, rather than challenges that take away their awesomeness. If someone made a character who really is the best at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum, throw a lot of things at them that they can kill. If someone is enjoying always having the answer to everything (because they know the books inside and out), make that knowledge relevant some of the time instead of trying to put a mechanical stranglehold on it (“You don’t know that. Your character wouldn’t know that. Make a knowledge check.”) or constantly pulling gotchas and switcheroos like trolls that are healed by fire instead of being vulnerable to it.

Now, you can’t let the game become about celebrating the one player who has mastered the metagame the most to the exclusion of everyone else, of course. As a DM, your metagame is figuring out what every player is looking to get out of the game and, within reason, helping them find it.

Related: sometimes people will lament that you can’t balance combat when one character is heavily optimized for fighting and the others aren’t, because anything that challenges the overpowered character will wipe the floor with everyone else, while anything the others can handle will be wiped out by the overpowered one.

This is actually less of a problem in 5E than many people think, because of the care that went into the system’s design. But even to the extent that it’s true, it’s actually pretty easy to balance encounters for characters of disparate power levels, whether because one’s super optimized, or you rolled for stats and someone got lucky, or because they’re all different actual levels.

The key is to remember your metagame as DM: you’re not playing the combat to win, you’re playing it to provide an experience. And no one said you have to give everybody the same experience.

Spherical goblin-type game theory says that the PCs’ enemies should always focus their fire on the same target, preferably the one at the greatest intersection of “easy to kill” and “does the most damage per round”. But that’s not a realistic model of how the fight would actually go down.

Again, in real life, the most obvious, immediate threats grab the most attention first. And in stories, what usually happens when one person in the group is the best warrior is that someone on the other side recognizes this and chooses to engage them, either for the protection of their friends or because “At last! A challenge worthy of my skills!”

One of your goals is to challenge the players, yes. But it helps to think about designing adventures and encounters the way you would a similar thing in a video game; i.e., remember that the point of the challenge is that the players can overcome it.

Don’t Go Soft, Either

Finally, remember that this not about being a soft touch as a DM. Allowing players to metagame doesn’t mean you have to put up with argumentative rules lawyering or let them tell you how to run the game or dictate the terms of combat.

When it comes to interpreting the rules as written, I can be pretty hard line. I have the exceptions and house rules I allow at my table, but I know they’re exceptions and house rules. When it comes to what you can do and can’t do in combat, I’m very much a stickler.

I mean, if you’ve got a rad stunt that just doesn’t follow any particular rules, I’ll let you try it… if it fits the situation, doesn’t exactly emulate an existing ability that you don’t have, and it’s clear you don’t think you’re inventing a new rule that lets you do this cool thing at will. But don’t try to tell me that Quicken Spell should let you ignore the per-turn limits attached to spells with a casting time of bonus action because you think it stands to reason that it does. I’ll ask you to read what it actually says and then hold you to that.

If that example in particular means nothing to you, I’ll put it like this: allowing players to have their own metagame you don’t need to let players build “game breaking” characters or tactics that rely on questionable rules interpretations. If you don’t think the thing a player is trying to string together should work, you don’t have to give in. Deciding and enforcing the limits of what’s possible is part of your job as DM.

Also, just because you don’t automatically follow the same metagame tactics as the players doesn’t mean the rules that enable those tactics are off-limits to you. You can flank, if your edition includes flanking rules. You can decide that some of the enemies will gang up on a particularly troublesome hero (once the hero has had a chance to prove troublesome).

In particular, it’s worth remembering that you can always increase the ruthlessness of your tactics if a fight is going a lot easier than you expected… but it’s also worth remembering that there should be some easy fights. The fact that the dice are kind to the players isn’t something you have to actively counter. The law of averages will take care of that down the road for you.

But I don’t set limits within the rules on what players can “get away with”, nor do I try to match them meta for meta.

Remember: you’re the DM. If you won the game by killing the player characters, you could win it at any time. If you don’t just want to declare “Rocks fall, everyone dies,” you could have them accidentally wander into the dragon version of a chamber of commerce meeting. There’s no rule that says you can’t, only guidelines that say you shouldn’t.

You don’t do that kind of thing because it’s not fun. (Maybe funny, maybe once, but not fun the way the game is supposed to be.) And while working out the limits of what’s allowed and making use of that knowledge is a metagame for players, working out the limits of what’s fun and making use of that knowledge is the metagame for DMs.