D&D 5E Context Switching Paralysis, or Why we Will Always Have the Thief Debate

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Among a certain group of people, there is a driven need to use a mocking term (we'll call it "MMI") to refer to playing D&D and other types of games. However, while the specific pejorative term may have been coined in 2005, the actual debate and the issues it illuminates goes back much farther. I would say that this is, in fact, nothing but a new variation on what older gamers know as the "Thief Debate." In order to understand this debate, it helps to go back to the origins of D&D, to understand the original Thief debate, and then to recognize how that original debate continues to echo through the ages, continuing on today.


A. From the Core Three, to the Core Four.
I care one hundred and crazy percent.

Without getting too deep into the pre-LLB history of OD&D, the important thing to note is that when OD&D was originally published, there were three core classes. In Men & Magic, we had the Core Three of Fighter (called "Fighting Man" at the time), Magic User, and Cleric. That was it. There was an allowance for race that could do some funky things (such as the Elf rule that would let you switch between Fighter and Magic User), but you only had the core three classes. The rules, such as they were .... were sparse. Honestly, the LBBs (the three "Little Brown Books" that were the first release of OD&D) were unplayable without additions or modifications or the use of additional material. They were much more the building blocks of a game than the rules of a game itself.

And then, of course, there came the Thief - the Thief (now generally known as the "Rogue") is widely considered the fourth major class, and part of the "Core Fore" classes of D&D. The Thief was originally created to use a modified "spell system" like the Magic User by Gary Switzer. Gygax took this idea and published it as class, but using a percentile system, in Great Plains Game Players Newsletter #9, and then in the Greyhawk supplement for OD&D.

Of course, the release of a designated thief class in OD&D immediately caused some problems. It's not that there hadn't been an RPG Thief before- Dave Megarry played a thief in Arneson's pre-OD&D campaign called "McDuck." But what made McDuck a thief wasn't enumerated skills- it was what McDuck did. This was similar to many aspects of the Arneson campaign- for example, an "Assassin" didn't have special abilities, per se, it was just a character (Allan Hammock's) that joined the assassin's guild.

Right here, you see the dividing line, and the cause for this incredibly early debate. A character in an Arneson campaign could become a thief by, basically, announcing that they are doing thief-y type activities. After the Greyhawk Supplement, you had to play a Thief Class to be a thief. Which suddenly made for an interesting conundrum for gamers-

If you have to be a Thief Class to "Hide in Shadows" or "Climb Walls" or "Listen to Doors," does that mean that ... the other characters can't? Before the thief class was officially brought into the game, it never occurred to players and DMs that their characters couldn't try and listen at a door, or hide in the shadows, or accomplish any of the tasks that the Thief was now doing. And this was why the Thief started one of the first great debates in D&D- if you give enumerated abilities to a class, does that mean you are now taking them away from everyone else? And if a Thief has those thieving abilities enumerated, does that mean that any other thieving abilities cannot be done?


B. A Brief Aside About Adjectives.
I'm good at everything I do. I'm not bragging, because bragging is the one thing I'm not good at. Although, if I wanted to be, I'd be excellent at that, too. As I just proved.

A long time ago, I had an English teacher who taught me a definition for adjectives that has always stuck with me. "An adjective," he said, "is a word that limits a noun." When I first heard him describe it like that, it didn't make much sense to me. After all, adjective describe nouns! Adjectives are the juice of the English language, giving it color and verve! Limit?

But then, after it was explained, it made perfect sense. A house can be any kind of house. But a red house can only be red. It can no longer be blue, or yellow, or purple. A large house is limited- it cannot be small. And so on. Every adjective limits the noun. It restricts the possibilities.

That also works as a general concept for many things- the description, the enumeration, the categorization of things necessarily limits those things. To describe something ... is to make it lesser than the mystery it was before.


C. What the Thief Debate is Really About.
Meaning lies as much
in the mind of the reader
as in the Haiku.



The "Thief Debate," in essence, was the first and earliest iteration of a debate that continues to recur in TTRPGs in general, but more specifically in D&D. Every time you codify something into a rule, you reduce the space for something to be accomplished by "not rule." There is a legal Latin term for this-

Expressio unius est exclusio alterius

The expression of one thing is the exclusion of others. Whenever new rules are introduced into D&D, whether it was the Thief Class, or the codification (for example) of NWPs (non-weapon proficiencies, AKA "skills" as we know them now) or rules for social abilities, we see people manning the same familiar barricade-

I don't need a rule to tell me what to do.

The flip side of that debate, of course, are those that want these rules. The crave rules to enhance their play. If a Magic User gets to cast spells, why can't a Thief get to ... you know, do Thief-y things? If Duroc the Merciless has rules for hitting the snot out of people, why can't Loring the Charming have rules for convincing the NPC to give up the location of the treasure? Over and over again, it's the same debate- rules, or rulings. Do we need to have a Thief class with thieving abilities, or can I just say I'm hiding?


D. Insults and Context Switching Paralysis in D&D.
I wish my wish would not be granted!

When it comes to playing D&D, people have no shortage of pejorative terms to use (sometimes about D&D, sometimes about editions, or sometimes about other games). Do you like games with rulings? Oh, you like "Mother May I." Do you like games with rules? Oh, you're a "Button Masher" that "Can Only Solve Problems By Looking at the Character Sheet." And so on. None of these terms really add to the discussion, and, instead, are best seen as someone declaring loudly that they are a member of one tribe- watch out!

That said, I think that D&D in general, and 5e in particular, can fall into a problem that I call "Context Switching Paralysis" There are games that heavily dependent on rulings and have minimalist rulesets (such as FKR games or many OSR games). For the most part, they don't have issues with DMs and Players both playing to the fiction- the shared assumption of "playing to the world" are baked into the game itself. On the other hand, games that are heavily bound by rules also don't have a big problem- binding DM authority or making actions and results explicit and predictable through rules also can have a salutary effect.

Instead, I would propose that the majority of problems gaming in so-called "MMI" or "DM Decides" typically occur in games, like 5e, that both depend heavily on rules and heavily on rulings. It's the specific mix of both that can lead to Context Switching Paralysis.

Let's start with the basics- 5e is a game of both rules and rulings. There are large numbers of systems in D&D that are heavily codified; for example, most combat and spells would be examples of this. On the other hand, there are a lot of things in 5e that are lightly codified or uncodified; these would be things like social interactions, setting DCs, or resolving character actions that are not provided for through explicit abilities.

In a typical FKR game, as there nothing that is heavily codified, there is never any need to "switch" between rules and rulings.
In a typical game that is governed almost entirely by rules (say, 3.5e), you are usually operating within the space of a codified rule.

But in 5e, you are often switching between things that are heavily codified (such as a combat, or casting a spell) and things that are not (social encounters, parts of the exploration pillar, etc.). Switching between these two modes of play can, at times, lead to context switching paralysis on the part of the DM or the players (or all of them!). In other words, if you've been using a lot of rules, you become uncertain when you have to venture into the world of pure adjudication (Oh, that's Mother May I!). When you have been relying on adjudication, you get frustrated when you are restricted to actions based the rules and not what you imagine based on the fiction (Oh, now I have to Button Mash!).

I would say that while the allowance for context switching, and allowing groups to have more "rules" or more "rulings" as they might prefer is a strength of 5e, without clear table communication you can also end up with the context switching paralysis and a bad gaming experience.
 

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Mercurius

Legend
As always, nice little journey there, Snarf. I think you make an interesting connection to the thief class.

To some extent I think this issue can be elaborated by what we could call the "80-20 principle." 80% or so of the game is clearly defined by rules, and 20% by rulings. Now it isn't really or exactly 80-20...it might be 75-25 or 90-10, and probably varies by campaign, rules system, GM, etc.

But the key point is that there's this dangling portion of the game beyond the majority (80) that is unclear, that involves rulings - or rather, situations not clearly defined by rules. People who complain of MMI want to reduce that 20 to as small a number as possible, even all the way to 0 (if that's even possible). People who are more in the "playing the world" category are more comfortable with that 20 and see it as a feature and not a flaw of the whole notion of rpgs.

Why this difference exists is, well, debatable. We don't like to bring the personal into the discussion, but I suspect at least some of this is psychological which is inherently personal in nature. Different people are more or less comfortable with or without clearly defined rules. In fact, D&D even has a sub-system that touches upon this: Alignment. People who prefer following the RAW tend more towards "lawful" while those that enjoy a free form rulings paradigm are more "chaotic."

Actually, the British philosopher Alan Watts said something that I think applies:

There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called prickles, the other’s called goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe its waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists, and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was someone advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what a goo was. Because life isn’t either prickles or goo, it’s either gooey prickles or prickly goo.

So we could look at this as an argument of prickles vs goo. "Prickly people" like clearly defined rules, and want to abide by the RAW. "Goo people" like rulings, and see the RAW as just a framework to play off of.

The key point is not whether one or the other is more right, but that both exist - and there's no solving it, except through realizing that "gooey prickles" and "prickly goo" is closer to the nature of reality--or the game--than just prickles or goo alone. The vast majority of us lean one way or the other, but we can become "gooey but open to prickles" or "prickly but open to goo." What doesn't work, and what drives most of these debates, is advocacy for one over the other. This is fine as long as you only play with a group of like-minded people, but leads to problems when one either has a mixed group, or advocates that everyone should do things the way I think is best, which is called OneTrueWayism.
 
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Voadam

Legend
I would be fine with thinking of the Grey Mouser as a Dex-based fighter.

I really hate the underpowered and limited nature of the old school thieves mechanically.

I wonder if I would have felt differently about them if the class had been decent from the beginning.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Why this difference exists is, well, debatable. We don't like to bring the personal into the discussion, but I suspect at least some of this is psychological which is inherently personal in nature. Different people are more or less comfortable with or without clearly defined rules. In fact, D&D even has a sub-system that touches upon this: Alignment. People who prefer following the RAW tend more towards "lawful" while those that enjoy a free form rulings paradigm are more "chaotic."
Honestly, I think the general problem is that people don't think their preference is ultimately psychological and personal. It's like watching people argue over whether being an introvert or extrovert is "better".

I also think that a lot of the conflict comes about due to the transfer of authority between modes. Codification , at least in D&D style games, gives authority to the player at the expense of the referee. This was baked into D&D's DNA as soon as the first spell was created. If D&D magic had been freeform, it might have stayed more like a FKR game for a lot longer.
 

Voadam

Legend
3e was heavily rules codified, but it still had room for a lot of fluid DM adjudication. The social skills in particular RAW required heavy DM interpretation and there is that shift of switching from first or second place interaction to mechanics.
 


Celebrim

Legend
There is no difference between rules and rulings. There are only rules you can read before the session and rules which are issued by the GM during the session. If the GM is fair and impartial, those rules which are issued in play become precedence and are respected out of the principle of stare decisis - not lightly to be overturned or changed. Then when similar situations come up in the future, both the player and the GM know the rules that apply even when they aren't written down. They become a part of the body of unwritten knowledge both parties know about the game.

All systems therefore move to a place where they are heavily codified the longer they are played with processes of play that become conventional and well understood by the table over time.

And if they don't, then the other alternative is that you don't have an impartial referee. You have a tyrant ruling by whim for his own reasons and happiness. No one ever knows what the rules are and the rules can shift from moment to moment. Games of this sort become largely about manipulating the referee, and how you go about successfully manipulating the referee then becomes a body of unwritten knowledge known and utilized by the player until it becomes defacto rules.
 

deganawida

Adventurer
Excellent topic, and you will get full agreement from me. I would add, however, that the paralysis issue is actually compounded by 5e's usage of natural language. This contributes to a lack of clarity as to what the rules mean, and where the division between rules and rulings lies.

Anyway, the thief dilemma is also why I've always been opposed to martial abilities being locked behind feats or the new hotness of superiority dice. Even though it's later pointed out in the 5e core books that anyone can try to trip, or disarm, or whatever, but only the Battle Master gets to do damage on top of it, that's still way later in the books whereas the superiority dice and techniques are listed in the first third of the PHB. That leads people to see it as something only the BM can do. If I were writing it, I'd make it plain first in the class description that everyone else can attempt it, but only [class/subclass] can do [neat little thing] in [situation] or [with bonus].
 

payn

Legend
3e was heavily rules codified, but it still had room for a lot of fluid DM adjudication. The social skills in particular RAW required heavy DM interpretation and there is that shift of switching from first or second place interaction to mechanics.
I think this highlights some of my issues here. Some folks will say the rules have nothing to do with it, but they certainly can. I used an example in the MMI thread about a seduction mechanic. The character has a trait that gives them an advantage if the NPC target finds them attractive. That is much different than a simple diplomacy skill that can change an NPC's attitude towards you. They both are heavy on GM adjudication, but there is far more room for the general diplomacy skill than the seductive trait.

This will likely be controversial on my part, and I want to remind folks these are my opinions I'm about to express. Some folks only play one game. That one game is D&D. So, that one game has to do everything. If you want rules lite and/or FKR, you likely ignore the bits that inhibit that, and focus on the ones that promote it. I dont view my RPG experience in a one size fits all. I dont expect D&D to suit my needs perfectly, I dont houserule it to fit those needs perfectly either. I play it as I see it is designed to be played. Of course, there is always a little tailoring work in houserules that bend the system. However, if the game isn't designed to play rules over rulings, or in the technoir genre, or whatever opposite of FKR is, I play something that is designed for such.

When I play D&D, I like my characters being good at the things they are supposed to be good at. I also happen to like that being more than just combat. I also like specific things, like being a romantic, a stern leader, or sneaky bastard. The more options I can choose to push the favor in a specific playstyle of my character the better. I can certainly see that style being in conflict with folks who just want a basic combat package and everything else just being freestyle. Snarf points out just how this gap developed over time and never really got bridged. I think modular play would have done it, but well we know that turned out vaporware.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
There is no difference between rules and rulings. There are only rules you can read before the session and rules which are issued by the GM during the session. If the GM is fair and impartial, those rules which are issued in play become precedence and are respected out of the principle of stare decisis - not lightly to be overturned or changed. Then when similar situations come up in the future, both the player and the GM know the rules that apply even when they aren't written down. They become a part of the body of unwritten knowledge both parties know about the game.

All systems therefore move to a place where they are heavily codified the longer they are played with processes of play that become conventional and well understood by the table over time.

And if they don't, then the other alternative is that you don't have an impartial referee. You have a tyrant ruling by whim for his own reasons and happiness. No one ever knows what the rules are and the rules can shift from moment to moment. Games of this sort become largely about manipulating the referee, and how you go about successfully manipulating the referee then becomes a body of unwritten knowledge known and utilized by the player until it becomes defacto rules.

I bolded some of the things I take issue with here.

There is definitely at the very least a potential difference between rules and rulings. Even a fair and impartial DM might not always (if ever) be able come up with a waterproof and definitive rule to cover a situation that comes up that the rules as we understand them (or can find in the moment ) do not cover on the fly.

It is much more common, in my experience, for a DM to say, "Let's say it works like this for now and move on, and then revisit it when we have time to think it through in more detail beyond this specific instance." This is because a ruling to cover a specific instance of a situation that comes up may not be good enough to handle the same situation in a different instance because of a bunch of variables we don't have time or ability to account for at the table.

Later when that ruling is returned to between sessions (for example), the table and DM can decide, if they are going to make this ruling into an actual a rule, if another rule or house rule exists that might cover it better, of if the "good enough for now" rule will stay in place until further examples come in.

None of that has to do with whim or tyranny or even an increasingly codified game.
 


payn

Legend
Pathfinder was horrid for having feats do that (with over a 1000)...

Me: My PC (an alchemist) collects the troll's blood/monster venom/etc so we can use it to make healing potions/poison/etc later
DM: Sorry, you need a feat to do that.
PF2 went one step further and made the skill system follow o_O
 

Celebrim

Legend
I bolded some of the things I take issue with here.

There is definitely at the very least a potential difference between rules and rulings. Even a fair and impartial DM might not always (if ever) be able come up with a waterproof and definitive rule to cover a situation that comes up that the rules as we understand them (or can find in the moment ) do not cover on the fly.

It is much more common, in my experience, for a DM to say, "Let's say it works like this for now and move on, and then revisit it when we have time to think it through in more detail beyond this specific instance." This is because a ruling to cover a specific instance of a situation that comes up may not be good enough to handle the same situation in a different instance because of a bunch of variables we don't have time or ability to account for at the table.

Later when that ruling is returned to between sessions (for example), the table and DM can decide, if they are going to make this ruling into an actual a rule, if another rule or house rule exists that might cover it better, of if the "good enough for now" rule will stay in place until further examples come in.

None of that has to do with whim or tyranny or even an increasingly codified game.

For all your taking issue and disagreeing, you just described the process of rules codification that I just described. I mean you outlined a set of steps that described how rulings become rules and never really tried to defend your claim of the potential difference.

I mean literally the same process can happen with a rule. A fair and impartial DM might look at to the rules that explicitly cover a table situation and then say, "You know, I know what the RAW say, but I don't think this is really fair. Let's use the rules like this for now and move on, and then revisit it when we have time to think it through in more detail beyond this specific instance". Then later when the rules are returned to between sessions, the table and the DM can decide if they can think of a ruling that might be better, or if the "good enough for now" RAW will stay in place until further examples come in.

That has everything to do with increasing codification of the game whether you have as a starting point in rules or rulings.

Whim or tyranny doesn't come into play in that because you basically described the sort of process I'm thinking of. Whim or tyranny comes into play when the GM issues a ruling on how a situation will be handled (using Rule Zero), then proceeds to overrule himself when the situation comes up (again, using Rule Zero), without consulting the rest of the table (which admittedly he has the right to do), and with no apparent rhyme or reason to his rulings so that the table couldn't predict the next time the situation comes up what the rules will be.

No of course there is a difference between a rule and a ruling in that you can know the rule before it happens but not the ruling, but my point is that once you have a rule it becomes a known rule because you've experienced it. The fact that you had the DM explain that the ruling was temporary and conditional is itself part of the ruling so that the player knows what the rule is likely to be in the future. You DM is actually like putting a marker here on the ruling to say, "I need a rule. I don't know if this is it. Please don't be upset if I change the ruling.", precisely because the hypothetical DM understands at some level what I've just outlined.
 





overgeeked

B/X Known World
Awesome thread, Snarf. Great topic.

Go team chaotic goo!

Part of the trouble with the thief debate is that a lot of DMs in the early days simply ran thieves wrong. Take one thief skill as an example: climb nearly sheer surfaces, upwards or downwards. Most DMs mentally edited out the words "nearly sheer surfaces" and replaced it with "walls." Which meant that thieves didn't operate as they were meant to, thus nerfing the class. At 1st level, the thief has a 13% chance to slip and fall while climbing a sheer surface, reduced by 1% per level. And because of this, lots and lots of people thought that "thieves suck."

That in no way implies that no one else in the game is prevented from climbing ordinary walls. Only that the thief is the best at climbing sheer surfaces, which also strongly implies that they're the best at climbing ordinary walls. The thief can climb nearly sheer surfaces when no one else can. But the rules don't say anything about anyone climbing an ordinary wall.
 

A Creation Myth​

Once upon a time there was a giant, sleeping afloat in a vast and empty sea. As he slept, he dreamed of fruit-filled gardens and yellow flowers, and he dreamed for so long and with such love that his body hollowed away entirely, until he was nothing but a skeleton among the waves.

One day, a traveling woman docked her boat and set foot among the bones of the sleeping giant, and found the last vestiges of the dream inside his skull. That night, as she slept inside his ribcage, she dreamed the giant’s dream — although it was not exactly his, for the fruits were different and the flowers were blue.

When the woman awoke she took the giant’s dream and her own dream, and used them to plant many flowers nestled among the giant’s bones. And as more people arrived, they brought their own dreams, until what was once a skeleton was filled with countless blooming fruit trees and many flowers of every color there is.

And they called the giant Game Text, and the garden the Game, and these people understood that the process of game design is simply constructing skeletons for dreams.

 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Among a certain group of people, there is a driven need to use a mocking term (we'll call it "MMI") to refer to playing D&D and other types of games.

Mod Note:
It is a shame that, for such a thoughtful post, you felt a desire to start, in the very first sentence, by taking a jab at people you'd been arguing with, on this very topic, in another thread.

Dragging drama around. As if that's a great way to start a new discussion.

Next time, really, choose to not take the shot, please.
 

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