D&D 5E Breakin' the Law! Thoughts on Rules in 5e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is part 3 (and the end of the totally not-controversial trilogy) regarding D&D and 5e that have been brought up due to some recent conversations, this one dealing with rules.

Please note that I am going to try and use words in their, um, natural language (it's 5e!) so as to allow a multiplicity of opinions. To the extent that I accidentally employ jargon, it is not intentional, and I will try and explain any terms I use if they are meant to be "terms."

1. What is a rule?
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

This seems simple, right? There is a (probably) apocryphal story of Ludwig Wittgenstein once spending an entire lecture walking back and forth, muttering, "Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, what is Wittgenstein?" But we all know what a rule is! A rule is, for example, that a fireball causes 8d6 damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one. That's a rule!

But let's say the DM is using a "say yes, and" approach. Is the DM applying a "rule?" When the DM looks at examples and sets a DC, is the DM using a rule? If you use the greatest effect of the spell "Wish" ("You might be able to achieve something beyond the scope of the above examples ...") is that a rule?

I could keep going on, but the point I am making is that there can be a difference between the things people commonly describe as "rules" (usually, the written "crunch" in 5e) and what can also be described as rules (for example, heuristics and norms of decision making). In some other threads, I've tried to typify some of these different categories- norms, heuristics, and so on.

But I think it is incredibly important to have a narrow conception of rules in 5e because 5e has a large vocabulary that already deals with "rules;" everything from "RAW and RAI" to "house rules" and "table rules." While there is always some conflation ("I have a table rule that people need to be nice and not play bards, but I repeat myself") generally, rules in 5e refer to:

The guides or principles for conduct or action within 5e, in published official books, or as agreed-to by the table through the use of additional guides or principles, whether published or generated by the table.

Which is a fancy first stab at saying that the RULES in 5e consist of the published official rules (ahem) and, from table-to-table, the incorporation of additional rules- both from other published sources (UA, 3PP, websites, etc.) or homebrew. Feel free to provide a better definition! All I am trying to do here is to narrow this down to the written rules of 5e (with a nod to homebrew, etc.) and avoiding the minefield that is an expansive definition of rule. For purposes of 5e, I think that this works well given that it has a fair amount of published rules.

2. Rules and Rulings.
'I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm'. It's what I call the Repo Code, kid!

We've all heard the old refrain, "There are times that life seems like a dream, especially when I look down and see that I forgot to put on my pants again." No, wait, that's not it. Oh yeah- 5e is about rulings, not rules. But what does that even mean? 5e does have a lot of rules!

Well, instead of putting my own spin on it, I thought I'd point everyone to what the globe-devouring HASBRO has to say ...

The DM is key. Many unexpected things can happen in a D&D campaign, and no set of rules could reasonably account for every contingency. If the rules tried to do so, the game would become unplayable. An alternative would be for the rules to severely limit what characters can do, which would be counter to the open-endedness of D&D. The direction we chose for the current edition was to lay a foundation of rules that a DM could build on, and we embraced the DM’s role as the bridge between the things the rules address and the things they don’t.

Rulings are the play in the joints; everything from setting a DC to making decisions about the environment that aren't covered in the rules.

But if I had to assign a single, most important distinction between a rule and a ruling, it is this- a rule is mandatory, a ruling is discretionary. At its core, a rule is to be followed. A fireball does 8d6 damage. Not 4d6. Not 30d12. 8d6. Rulings, on the other hand, imply that there was a range of possibilities that could have been adjudicated- maybe the DC of this unfamiliar thing that doesn't have a pre-set DC is set at 15, maybe at 20. That's a ruling; that's up to the discretion of the DM (hopefully applying knowledge, experience, and making it consistent with the expectations of the players).

3. The advantages and disadvantages of rules in 5e.
The problem isn't the number of bards, but the distribution of bard-hating Tarrasques.

All of this leads to the central rumination and reason for the post- why rules? Why rules in 5e? There are various systems that use fewer rules (some TTRPGs use almost no rules) and some, albeit fewer, use more rules (more crunch) than 5e. S

o ... are rules like War? Rules, huh, yeah, what are they good for ... absolutely nothing, yeah! Or do rules provide something absolutely necessary?

At the core, rules (and especially player-facing rules) allow for the following:

A. Consistency. If you order a Big Mac in Peoria, you're pretty sure it will taste the same as one in Tacoma. There is something to be said for consistency. And that's what a rule gives you. A fighter has action surge. A monk has unarmored defense. A bard has suck. No matter where you are, rules allow for this shared consistent application.

B. Reliance. Players can also rely upon a rule. When a player is choosing what weapon to use, they can rely on the published rules about the different weapons to help them choose. Same with the spells. Same with equipment. Same with, well, pretty much everything. The players don't have to worry that if they cast fireball, the DM will decide, "Eh, today fireball does 2d4 damage."

C. Mental Overhead for the DM. This is often-overlooked, but for DMs (especially new DMs), it is often beneficial to be able to rely on a rule. For most people, it is less mentally taxing to be able to just use a rule than to come up with an ad hoc adjudication. There is an AC, there is a to hit roll, boom.

D. Shared framework. One issue that often pops up is that different people will have different conceptions of what might happen in the fictional world, or disagree about "common sense." Referring to the rules allows everyone to use a single common framework that has been agreed-upon beforehand. Whether or not the rules accurately model anything in particular, they are shared and agreed-to.

I am sure that there are others, which people will point out, probably with some variation of "You son of a bard, you're wrong and Ima tell you why!"

But there are also disadvantages to rules- reasons why 5e relies on rulings as well, and why some systems go for fewer rules.

A. The prolixity of a legal code. As you continue adding rules, and the rules you add inevitably interact with the rules you have, and then other rules interact with those rules, you can end up with a system that is both too complex (so it is difficult to adjudicate correctly) and will also have areas where the rules are incomplete due to their interaction. Mo' rules, mo' problems. Good design can ameliorate, but never fully solve, this issue.

B. The rules never cover the richness of the world. All rules are abstractions for a game; to a certain extent, those rules might serve to keep the players from engaging with the fiction. While players will be able to rely on the rules, this can end up resulting in the players resulting on the rules, and not the fiction (the usual example is the player who chooses to jump off the cliff to get down quickly because, hey, he has enough hit points for it).

When it comes to 5e, specifically, I think that there is a good balance in the amount of rules- not too much to cause mental overload or too many issues with conflicting or indeterminate rules, and not too few to keep players from relying on the shared framework and having that consistency which is important for the McDonalds of TTRPGS (heh).

That said, I'm going to throw out this out for everyone else to take up- what do you think about rules in 5e?
Too many, too few, or Goldilocks?

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Lowcountry Low Roller
Of course rules have a purpose, they provide a common ground for this game of make believe. The most fundamental of them being the ability check. Everyone agrees that this is the mechanism to resolve uncertainty and the game can proceed. Everything else is tinkering around the edges.


I keep running into areas that seem like they should be covered by a rule, then I find out they are rulings.

Throwing a five feet wide lightning bolt diagonally on a grid. Does it affect or go between the two creatures whose squares are on either sides of the narrow point of the diagonal line. Half of each of their square has the lightning bolt in it, so it is plausible to say both are hit, but the diagonal line of five foot squares goes between those two so it is also reasonable to say no. 5e says yeah, that's two options DM.


Lowcountry Low Roller
Throwing a five feet wide lightning bolt diagonally on a grid. Does it affect or go between the two creatures whose squares are on either sides of the narrow point of the diagonal line.
Another reason I prefer TotM.


People tend to get caught up on the quantity of the rules - do we have enough of them, or too many, is this system rules-lite or rules-heavy?

But it's the quality of the rules that matters more. Do the action-resolution systems for different aspects of the game share common features, do they integrate well with each other, are they clean and streamlined in actual play?

Rules which don't mesh well will lead to a game feeling clunky or over-complicated, even if it doesn't actually have more rules than its competitors.

5e does well in terms of having unified mechanics. It's just a little unimaginative when it comes to employing them outside of combat situations.


1. What is a rule?
Rule: "If X occurs, then Y happens".

2. Rules and Rulings.
Ruling: "If X occurs, then Y happens....but in this case, Z happens because it makes more sense".

3. The advantages and disadvantages of rules in 5e.
Good n' Bad of Rules in 5e: "I'm gonna say Q happens to Bob. For Fred, L happens in stead. Oh, and Ann? Nothing happens to you. Right, all of you are in the same pit filled with weak acid. Actually, Fred, you aren't because, I don't know, just because I like your character".

That's why Rules are good; a solid baseline for Bob, Fred and Ann to be able to make decisions about their "move" in the game. Rules are bad when applying them goes against players engaging in the world in order to make decisions and in stead only focusing on the rules because nothing else matters (ex: 3.x...wanna sink a boat in no time flat? Swim underneath it and try and lift it out of the water; you'll sink like a ROCK!..at least according to RAW regarding trying to "life/carry weight and swim in water" ;) I'm sure there are situations in 5e that make just as much 'sense').

Rulings are the best because it takes the baseline of Rules, but interjects the ability of a human mind to look at the situation and make adjustments to the Rule on the fly, taking into account a myriad of things that no printed book could ever do or cover.


Paul L. Ming


Too many, too few, or Goldilocks?


5e has too few rules in areas that should be at least covered somewhat, and a few areas where there are far too many rules for its own good.

For example, skills are remarkable bare bones in 5e. What can I actually do with the medicine skill? I feel that there should be at least some example tasks and DCs, to help give DMs and players a feel for what they can do.

An example for the opposit end is the overly technical rules for combat. Melee weapon attack vs Attack with a Melee weapon, anyone?

Spells, too can fall into the latter. See the recent kerfuffle about invisibility vs see invisibility. That's having too many rules, to thr point where the game doesn't make sense


There are always going to be areas the rules don't cover. In 5E there are also areas left intentionally vague such as the stealth rules so that they can be implemented in a way that works best for the game.

But another thing to remember from the intro to the DMG:
The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.

C. Mental Overhead for the DM. This is often-overlooked, but for DMs (especially new DMs), it is often beneficial to be able to rely on a rule. For most people, it is less mentally taxing to be able to just use a rule than to come up with an ad hoc adjudication. There is an AC, there is a to hit roll, boom.
Having to constantly look up and parse rules (especially spells) are what lead to cognitive overload for me. I'm already concentrating so much on the players and reacting to what they are doing, it is too much for me to shift gears and start looking at books and notes in a detailed way. Ideally I would either just remember, be able to figure out how to adjudicate it ("roll intelligence check"), or it would maybe be on a rules reference no longer than 4 pages.


To me... 'too many rules' is the attempted treatment game designers use for the disease of players trying too hard to "win" the game by forsaking common-sense play and adjudication of the rules currently there. Players some time in the past tried to scam their way past a basic rule for their own betterment-- argued their way through a potential loophole in the rules because it got them what they wanted-- and as a result more complex rules ended up getting written to try and fill in that hole to stop similar players in the future.

The best way to have a rules-light game is to have a table full of people who accept the light rules and not do anything to force the DM to had to add in more to cover the holes your sorry ass broke through. ;)


I really like the simplification and speed of 5e advantage and disadvantage versus lots of conditional changing modifiers from past editions such as power attack and expertise in 3e. It works well with keeping things in bounded accuracy as well.

Then I get into the specifics of the 5e game there is cover with conditional static bonuses. And 1st level bless with +1d4 per round (not just add in, but roll), and cantrip guidance. These are not just fiddly friction points, but also mess a little with bounded accuracy.
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D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
5E for me strikes a good balance between the ammount of rules it has and its Rule vs Ruling mantra. It has enought to be functional but not too much to easily get bug down, and can't cover everything so there's room for ruling.

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