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

Four rogues, Four fighters, or a classic party that cover all the needs, as the DM I can let them be the heroes of a great adventure. Four fighters can find way to travel planes, and four rogues can sweep a dungeon without a fight. That’s is the fun I find in DnD.
The paralysis is only a mind trick, a self restrain.
 

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MGibster

Legend
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.
As a young gamer back in the 1980s, this was how I interpreted the rules. The Thief has skills that allowed him to Move Silently, Open Locks, Climb Walls, and Hear Noise but none of those were explicitly within the abilities of Magic Users, Fighters, or Clerics. How was a DM suppoised to adjudicate according to the rules when the 90 pound wizard in his dress and slippers wanted to daintily tread across the stone floor and avoid the notice of those orcs? My friends and I used to poke fun at the absurdities of not having the ability to do someting so simple as hiding in shadows.

I've never dropped acid, but I imagine it feels a lot like reading your posts. And I mean that in the best way possible.
 

FireLance

Legend
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.
May be tangential to the thread, but I suspect the reason why the bolded portion happened was that many DMs made a ruling that an "ordinary" 1st-level thief could not have an 87% chance to climb a sheer surface because they did not think it was possible for "guy at the gym" to do it. I mean, what would be the point of spider climb otherwise?
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
May be tangential to the thread, but I suspect the reason why the bolded portion happened was that many DMs made a ruling that an "ordinary" 1st-level thief could not have an 87% chance to climb a sheer surface because they did not think it was possible for "guy at the gym" to do it. I mean, what would be the point of spider climb otherwise?
Well, the other 13% and going upside down, for two.
 


Voadam

Legend
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.
That is a point for OD&D RAW.

In 1e AD&D as written by Gygax however RAW was it is the percentage of successfully climbing walls that were explicitly not sheer.

1e PH Page 27: "Ascending and descending vertical surfaces is the ability of the thief to climb up and down walls. It assumes that the surface is coarse and offers ledges and cracks for toe and hand holds."

Page 28: "Climbing Walls is attempted whenever needed and desired. It is assumed that the thief is successful until the mid point of the climb. At that point the dice are rolled to determine continued success. A score in excess of the adjusted base chance indicates the thief has slipped and fallen. (Your referee will inform you of what amount of damage has been done from the fall.) Success indicates that safe ascent or descent has been accomplished. Note that in some cases a third d10 will have to be rolled to determine the success or failure."

Page 28's chart for thief skills also labels the ability "Climb Walls"

Moldvay B/X Basic RAW is a bit contradictory. In the Thief class description on B10 it is "climb steep surfaces," but on the chart on B8 it is labelled "Climb Sheer Surfaces" then in the description on B8 it says steep again "Climb Steep Surfaces, when failed, will result in a fall. The thief will take 1-6 (Id6) points of damage for each 10 feet fallen. This roll should only be made once per 100' of climb attempted. If failed, the fall will be from halfway up the surface."

It would have been great if these were just abilities of a thief. If they had the ability to just straight out succeed on their abilities. In OD&D to strike silently from behind, get +4 to hit, and get a damage multiplier at first level and again every four levels, instead of getting that in the odd conditional circumstance when they could get in a strike that was both from behind and silent. A poor AC, low hp guy who attacked better for more damage is an interesting tank fighter alternative. And it fits the archetype Gray Mouser. If they could just remove small traps that the PC finds (OD&D did not have a detect traps thief skill). If they could just sneak. I could see enjoying playing that character from low to high levels.
 


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.
Whereas I would say 5e is much closer to 50/50, in theory, practice, and empirical examination. As I have previously argued elsewhere. The game was designed to make "but you'd better ask your DM if that's how it works in your game" hard-coded for nearly (but not actually) everything; 5e's tools, advice, and general structure leave vast swathes of the experience either poorly supported or totally absent of guidance; and both the way people talk about actual play and the way people advise about actual play reflects an all-pervasive "you never really know what the game is until the DM tells you" pattern.
 

@Snarf Zagyg I know that you and I often do not see eye to eye, but I was surprised to find myself agreeing with many of your conclusions (despite some more-than-slight disagreement with your premises, but honestly I don't care to litigate that.)

However, I think there's an additional factor involved here that complicates matters. It isn't, strictly, part of "context-switching paralysis," nor is it strictly part of either classic and well-done Old School Style nor modern and well-done New School Style. Instead, it's a creeping issue that can affect anyone of any style, but which becomes heightened significantly by context-switching paralysis or even just context-switching inertia.

I'm not sure quite what I'd call it, in terms of pithy phrases. Perhaps someone else can come up with something better, but my first stab would be "awesomeness aversion." There's a pattern I've seen, one that seems to be a creeping issue that even Gygax himself encouraged with some of his writing (despite at the table apparently being the exact opposite): the reluctance on the part of designers and DMs to just allow players to do crazy impressive things.

There's this desire, this thirst for awesome behind a steep barrier, ever and always, that must be arduously overcome before the awesome will be allowed. This manifests in a variety of ways. For the 3e-style DM, it takes the form of the anti-rules criticism discussed in this thread, where the existence of an awesome thing axiomatically precludes the permission to do that thing unless you have that awesome thing to begin with. The barrier that must be surmounted is the possession of the specific chain of feats or sequence of class levels or whatever which "unlock" the awesome. Some fans find this invigorating, giving them specific targets to shoot for and goals to reach that they can have certainty will "pay off" in the end. Other fans find it absolutely dull as dishwater, a purely transactional, lifeless affair. Other forms of "modern"-style "awesomeness aversion" include hyperspecificity of rules (e.g. Swim, Climb, and Jump are different skills; Use Rope is its own skill; etc.), weird baked-in disadvantages for specific archetypes (Fighters only get 2+Int modifier skill points per level, Barbarians are illiterate, etc.), the example I gave in the other thread of DMs essentially forcing Paladins to fall because choosing good over law or law over good means instant failure, and the rather painfully punishing "level adjustment" mechanic, to name a few. (I'm sure if I thought more deeply about it, I could find more.)

For the OSR-style DM, this "awesomeness aversion" sometimes takes the form of "MMI," "RL/GL," the "Viking Hat," etc. That's already been discussed at length in another thread, so I won't delve deep into it here--just leaving it as a noted example. There's a different example I'd like to consider: the (allegedly) "old-school" antipathy for races (and occasionally classes) that invoke such things. Because this "awesomeness aversion" issue would go a long way toward explaining why allegedly "old-school" folks are so antagonistic toward the idea of playing a dragon-person or a part-werewolf or something, despite the fact that the actual early days of D&D embraced the wild and the weird and, yes, things like inherently-powerful dragon-people. Gygax let players play a balrog or a legit actual dragon at his table, they just had to abide by the fundamental rule: you must always grow into your power.

That spirit has...shall we say, rather waned in the intervening years. And I really think "awesomeness aversion" is to blame. The idea that you have to reach high and far to have anything awesome whatsoever, not just that you must reach high and far in order to have power. Because, don't get me wrong, power is pretty awesome! But it's not the only form of awesome...and conflating "you should earn your power" with "you should earn any awesomeness you might ever have" can have serious, deleterious effects on the overall experience of the game.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
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.
hmmmm... I'm not quite sure that's right...

For example. Let's take a very simple, not well developed game (like ODD). I'll just quote the OP:

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.

So before the new rule (the thief) came along, there were rulings - and those rulings were that everyone could do those things - not restrictive. You could have a player in a game go "I disarm the orc!" and the DM would make something up on the spot like "oh ok, do an opposed strenght check" (or whatever). Again, not (very) restrictive. But if the game later on introduces a rule that you need a feat to disarm someone...

Rulings definitely CAN restrict the game (for example, in that made up disarm example, now low strenght characters are bad at disarming!) but they don't have to ...

(edit: wrote this last night, forgot to click send, may be "out of date" now...)
 

MGibster

Legend
So before the new rule (the thief) came along, there were rulings - and those rulings were that everyone could do those things - not restrictive. You could have a player in a game go "I disarm the orc!" and the DM would make something up on the spot like "oh ok, do an opposed strenght check" (or whatever). Again, not (very) restrictive. But if the game later on introduces a rule that you need a feat to disarm someone...
Didn't third edition have a Feat for tripping people in combat? I remember there were a few things I wanted my Fighter to do, maneuvers which I thought were very basic ones for any fighting man, and the DM had to tell me that these were Feats.
 

Voadam

Legend
Didn't third edition have a Feat for tripping people in combat? I remember there were a few things I wanted my Fighter to do, maneuvers which I thought were very basic ones for any fighting man, and the DM had to tell me that these were Feats.
In 3.5 anyone could trip as a maneuver but it provoked an attack of opportunity in return for an opposed strength roll and if you fail the opponent can immediately make a check to trip you. Some weapons had a special quality allowing them to be used to make a trip attempt without provoking an AoO and allowing the weapon to be dropped instead of being tripped yourself on a successful counter trip.

The improved trip feat removed the AoO and gave a +4 on the strength check.

I remember the first time my 18 strength ranger tried out a trip in 3.0 I ended up knocked down myself. When I later made a fighter with the feat and a trip weapon it became a reasonable tactic.
 

payn

Legend
Didn't third edition have a Feat for tripping people in combat? I remember there were a few things I wanted my Fighter to do, maneuvers which I thought were very basic ones for any fighting man, and the DM had to tell me that these were Feats.
You could always trip if you wanted to, however, without the feat you draw an attack of opportunity. This dynamic often made folks feel like you couldnt attempt something unless you had the feats. It certainly had the desired effect.

Edit: ninja'd
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I've never dropped acid, but I imagine it feels a lot like reading your posts. And I mean that in the best way possible.

No sympathy for Snarf; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride...and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well... maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
Whereas I would say 5e is much closer to 50/50, in theory, practice, and empirical examination. As I have previously argued elsewhere. The game was designed to make "but you'd better ask your DM if that's how it works in your game" hard-coded for nearly (but not actually) everything; 5e's tools, advice, and general structure leave vast swathes of the experience either poorly supported or totally absent of guidance; and both the way people talk about actual play and the way people advise about actual play reflects an all-pervasive "you never really know what the game is until the DM tells you" pattern.
Hopefully it is clear that my point wasn't really about what percentage it is, and to be honest, I haven't thought too deeply into trying to make that determination, mainly because I don't think it is so clear-cut or either/or (in terms of what is a codified rule vs. a DM ruling).

For instance, I see it more in three categories: things for which there are clear rules, things for which there are "run-of-the-mill" rulings, and exceptional/rare instances with little precedent and/or that require the GM to think into how to adjudicate beyond the usual "roll d20 + X." So maybe 50/45/5? Or something like that. And even then, a lot of rules require some degree of GM judgment, and a lot of rulings are relatively straightforward.

I think D&D is a game that generally involves DM adjudication throughout the process and/or in most instances, but some more than others. My sense is that what we're talking about is the degree to which individual players are comfortable with that.

I do wonder if some of this has to do with when one cut one's teeth on D&D. As an "80s boomer," I learned D&D in a context in which the rules were very much a toolset and different groups incorporated different elements and ignored a lot else (e.g. encumbrance, treasure types, etc). By the time 2E rolled out, it was a bit more clear and consistent, but still involved a lot of rulings. 3E and 4E weighed more towards codified rules, and this probably reflected a game developed during the video game era in which there are no rulings. So I'm wondering if those who prefer a more heavily rules-over-rulings style are mostly folks who started with 3E/4E and/or grew up playing video games, whereas maybe those more comfortable with rulings-over-rules started before or after 3E/3E, and/or weren't as imprinted with the video game paradigm.

Not saying this is the only possible factor, but maybe one of the key ones.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I'm not sure quite what I'd call it, in terms of pithy phrases. Perhaps someone else can come up with something better, but my first stab would be "awesomeness aversion." There's a pattern I've seen, one that seems to be a creeping issue that even Gygax himself encouraged with some of his writing (despite at the table apparently being the exact opposite): the reluctance on the part of designers and DMs to just allow players to do crazy impressive things.

I think awesomeness aversion is not jest an apt phrase, it's plenty pithy, as well! Plus bonus points for alliteration.

I would slightly cabin it into different areas, however.

First, there is the "Five miles, uphill, both ways," issue- which you identify as the aversion to (inter alia) new races (Dragonborn, etc.). I think that this comes from a misunderstanding and glorification of the past- which is not just something that occurs in D&D. What you often see is the following:
Younger gamers don't fully understand how weird early D&D was, and so they attribute some sort of "Everyone just played it like Lord of the Rings, but less fun" veneer to D&D- not seeing it for the very weird amalgamation of Swords & Sorcery, Science Fiction, Horror Movies, Westerns, and all sorts of other bizarre influences (even Japanese Kaiju Toys) that it really was.
Older gamers reach into the past and nostalgia, and often (instead of embracing the messiness), try to present a single unified version of what D&D "was," which is just not true. The past is never a monolith. Not to mention there is this weird reactionary impulse as you age- it's the same thing that makes people say, "My kids can't do X, Y, and Z" while conveniently forgetting what they did when they were that age.

So when it comes to issues like races, I'm not sure it's an aversion to awesomeness, as much as a variant of "Yelling at clouds."

Now, there might be valid reasons for excluding races (lineages, ancestries) generally from a curated setting (or adding them), and I am always in favor of nuking elves from high orbit, but D&D has a long history, from the very beginning, of non-standard races. If you doubt that, ask Sir Fang. :)


Where I think awesomeness aversion comes in (and what the phrase evokes for me) is when a DM is afraid of making a ruling because it is awesome. It's the counterpoint to the so-called "Rule of Cool." It's when a player proposes something that is outside of the defined skills or abilities and the DM just reflexively wants to say no, because the DM is afraid of allowing things that are "awesome" that are outside of granted/enumerated abilities. Because if they do, who knows where it will stop? It's a pernicious bugbear that many DMs have in their mind- "If I allow Player X to do this awesome thing, how can I stop Player Y from demanding to do the an even awesomer thing?" Unfortunately, when a DM is in this mindset, it squelches the creativity of the players.

We often talk about trust- especially how some games are "high trust" (in that the players have to trust the DM to make fair rulings). The flip side that we rarely mention, and what I think awesomeness aversion speaks to, is that "high trust" settings also require the DMs to trust the players. That the players are playing to the fiction, and not just looking for a loophole (which ends up in adversarial play, which is fun for no one).
 

Celebrim

Legend
hmmmm... I'm not quite sure that's right...

For example. Let's take a very simple, not well developed game (like ODD). I'll just quote the OP:

So before the new rule (the thief) came along, there were rulings - and those rulings were that everyone could do those things - not restrictive. You could have a player in a game go "I disarm the orc!" and the DM would make something up on the spot like "oh ok, do an opposed strenght check" (or whatever). Again, not (very) restrictive. But if the game later on introduces a rule that you need a feat to disarm someone...

I again don't think you are disagreeing with me much.

Whether we have a rule or a ruling, that rule or ruling can create a silo effect where the answer to something is "no" if it is a bad rule or ruling. Let's not forget that the thief itself started as a house rule. I put it to you that if the rulings at that table by the DM were as generous as "roll under your DEX on a D20" when someone wanted to climb a while no one would have considered a set of rules like the thief. Certainly Gygax didn't see the thief rules as creating restrictions on how he would rule the game or he might have written it up differently.

There may have been tables out there that were extremely forward looking where players proposed to pick pockets, pick locks, free climb dungeon walls, hide in shadows and the DM said, "Ok, let's invent a thing I'll call an ability check where if you roll under your ability score on a D20 you'll succeed. Now, let's make a DEX check to see if you can pick the merchant's pocket", but I doubt that was the typical ruling. Ability checks were always unofficial even when they started showing up in the text of published official adventures, it took a while I think before most tables evolved to using them. More likely the rulings were typically "No, you can't do that", or down to DM whim (whether or not he wanted that to happen) so that metagame wheedling was the process of play and de facto rule, or the chances were set very low by the DM. Certainly the first guy who wanted to play a Thief wasn't at a table where the rulings were not restrictive and he was able to play a Thief without rules, and presumably he didn't feel the rules for the Thief made it harder for him to play one.

I think there is a lot of retroactive claims about how the game played in the early days that strike me as probably romanticizing that era. I doubt that ability checks were used uniformly by a lot of tables until the late '80's at best, at which point those tables might have realized that the thief was creating a silo effect. Where it mostly comes up is when you want the players to climb a wall to keep the narrative going and you don't have rules for the non-thief, something that shows up for example in DL1. I suspect most tables initially found the thief non-restrictive and allowing things that they weren't allowing before, and it took considerable time for most tables to realize the rules around thieves were less than optimal.

Rulings definitely CAN restrict the game (for example, in that made up disarm example, now low strenght characters are bad at disarming!) but they don't have to ...

Rules definitely CAN restrict the game, but they don't have to. It would have been quite possible as a starting point of the thief to write the rules in such a way that the thief was X better at all the things a thief does than the average person. So we aren't really distinguishing rules and rulings here. We are only saying that there are bad rules and bad rulings. The thief itself started out as a ruling before Gygax officially endorsed it.
 

amethal

Adventurer
In 3.5 anyone could trip as a maneuver but it provoked an attack of opportunity in return for an opposed strength roll and if you fail the opponent can immediately make a check to trip you. Some weapons had a special quality allowing them to be used to make a trip attempt without provoking an AoO and allowing the weapon to be dropped instead of being tripped yourself on a successful counter trip.

The improved trip feat removed the AoO and gave a +4 on the strength check.

I remember the first time my 18 strength ranger tried out a trip in 3.0 I ended up knocked down myself. When I later made a fighter with the feat and a trip weapon it became a reasonable tactic.

I once played in an adventure where the villain was wielding twin magical rods that made him much more powerful than he otherwise would be. I decided the logical thing to do would be to attempt to disarm him, despite not having Improved Disarm.

The first 3 times he hit me with the attack of opportunity, dealing me damage and ruining the disarm attempt. The 4th time I managed to disarm him - only for the villain to re-gather the rod as a free action on his turn and continue as if nothing had happened. (It was a pre-written adventure, but I think the DM might have given me a hint that I was wasting my time.)

I've never tried a combat manoeuvre in 3.x since, unless I had the appropriate feat.
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Dr. Zagyg, thank you for finally diagnosing my disdain for "the rule of cool" as "awesomeness aversion," but I am gonna get a second opinion. ;) :ROFLMAO:

Listen Trust Me GIF by Abitan
 

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