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

Mercurius

Legend
First of all, this is why I think this very important to understand the genre your are emulating.
Yes, this. The Legolas maneuver stood out because it seemed in line with the post-Matrix/Hong Kong/MCU paradigm of over-the-top superheroics, which was jarring with most of the film and the general vibe of Middle-earth. But it works better in most D&D campaigns, which are closer to that paradigm than they are to LotR/Game of Thrones, which are a bit more grounded and "mundanely heroic."

But it also depends upon the campaign - what the GM and group is trying to emulate. This is the sort of thing that is probably best discussed up front. Does everyone have buy-in to a certain style and sub-genre of fantasy? What do people want to play?

I personally tend to leave that up to the players, and let them do (or try to do) whatever they want, as far as maneuvers and such. Individual players have their own styles - some like to continually do wild and crazy things, while others just look at their sheet and pick an option, or play relatively straightforward ("I attack").
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
Considering how poorly even older gamers are at remembering their shared past, you can really blame younger gamers for not having a clue about the past?
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.
There is such a thing as learning from your own mistakes. Parents who smoked being adamant that their kids don't start smoking as one example. Parents who didn't take school seriously wanting their kids to take school seriously. Etc.
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."

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.
As an older gamer who's on the fence about the Mos Eisley Cantina Effect, I think it's less about yelling at clouds or awesomeness aversion, rather it's about a shifting baseline and the escalation effect. It ties back to the weird melange of old-school D&D being fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, horror, kaiju, western, swords & sorcery inspired mess of influences.

It might also help to reference some other games and IPs in this. Fringe. X-Files. Men in Black. Over the Edge RPG. In Fringe, the main character starts not knowing a thing about what's going on but over time she learns what's going on. In X-Files, the main characters start wanting to believe/know and knowing it's all bunk but over time they learn what's going on. In Men in Black, one of the main characters starts not knowing while the other is a long-time pro but over time the newbie learns what's going on.

In all three, the main character starts either in the completely mundane world then learns about and engages with the weird world, or they start on the verge of entering the weird. The characters have a chance to settle in, adjust to the setting, as does the audience. Things slowly ramp up as the shows/movies progress. Then there's Over the Edge RPG. Instead of the weirdness being something the players/characters start out not knowing anything about and slowly learn about over time, they start as knee deep in ancient global conspiracies and the Island is the hot spot for every fringe movement, conspiracy theory, and pseudoscience quackery we can imagine. Things start at 11 and somehow need to go up from there...but there's nowhere to go. You can't get more crazy than all the crazy. The only place you have to go is less crazy and more mundane...which is anti-climactic.

Point being, the bigger you go, the higher your baseline becomes, and the less room you have to maneuver. If you start at 1, you can go up to 10. If you start at 10...you have nowhere to go but down, which is anti-climactic. Unless yours goes to 11, which is a funny reference, but not helpful.

When you start with a mostly human party, running into a robot in an otherwise explicitly fantasy game is a big deal. There's a "wow" reaction. It's also why Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a higher level module. You don't want to go that gonzo too early. You have to establish a baseline before you can escalate. When you start with a party that includes a robot, running into a bunch of robots is meh at best...because the presence of the robot in your group tells you the setting is science fantasy. So there's no reveal, no surprise. When everyone's playing some wild fantasy race, the baseline starts at 10 and you have nowhere to go.

You can see the escalation problem in the history of horror movies, action-adventure franchises, and superheroes. Every new entry has to be bigger, better, bolder, bloodier, more action-packed, more thrilling, more more more than the last...otherwise it's no longer exciting. Superman single-handedly saving the world or the universe on a weekly basis is where we are...but Superman started by stopping bank robbers. Thinking of Superman stopping bank robbers now isn't much of a story, it's more a silly prologue or throwback, but there's certainly no dramatic tension there.
 

MGibster

Legend
And I see it as "What does it harm to let Legolas do this, other than possibly offending Celebrim's sensibilities?" See, it's not my scene the player is trying to "cheese" with "unnecessary showboating." It is, or should be, all of ours at the table. If Legolas is trying to get around the mechanics (like, trying to move farther in one round than his movement would normally allow), then I might disallow it because it wouldn't be fair to the other players. But otherwise, again: what's the harm?
As of late, I've adopted a new philosophy. Is the player trying to do something that actually matters? And I define matter as whether or not something interesting will happen depending on the roll. If the answer is that it doesn't matter, I usually just let the player do it and move on.
 

Lord Shark

Explorer
It makes the transcript of the play dumber. And well, my sensibilities count for that. One of the reasons we have rules is to share the sensibilities of story construction in a way that you don't have when you pass around a notebook and take turns adding to the story - a process that if you have done then you know it almost always goes wrong as people begin to offend each others sensibilities and take story in directions that they don't like. Rules are what help us share the story by defining a set of sensibilities we agree to share.
Sorry, I'm not hearing what harm it does other than it's not to your taste. And you're not at my table, so you don't get a vote.

But that's the opposite of when I would allow it. If Legolas's player found himself in a situation where the only way he could do the scene and accomplish the goal was jump on a shield and start sledding, that's precisely when I would err on the side of allowing it. (I mean, technically, I'd allow it at any point it's just that in the example scene my allowing it would look a lot like punishing the player for trying the stunt, since it would actually make the scene harder while giving the player no advantage.) For example, if the scene was, "300 yards below down the mountain, you see part of the orc warband is in the village, and amidst the chaos you see one of the orcs is dragging Lady Delia by the hair toward one of their wagons", and the player responds, "I jump my shield and start sledding down the icy mountain slopes, firing off arrows at the orcs that try to stop me!" then that is is "AWESOME!" and we definitely are doing that scene.

Will it be easy? Probably not. But it there is a clear purpose and logic to the stunt, and while it isn't easy it's probably easier than accomplishing the purpose in any other way. Hopefully the character has the skills to attempt such a feat of daring, because I'm wanting him to succeed and not face plant unheroically as he goes down the slope.

To me, that doesn't look like punishing the player for trying the stunt, it is punishing the player for trying the stunt. Especially depending on how high you set the difficulty. If Legolas needs a natural 20 to do this and ends up face planting and Lady Delia is never seen again, the player is going to learn there's no point in trying stunts. That way lies players who only go down stairs with a safety line clipped onto the banister and poking every step with a 10' pole for five minutes before stepping down.

And I don't really understand why shield-sliding down stairs is bad but shield-sliding down a mountainside is acceptable.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Point being, the bigger you go, the higher your baseline becomes, and the less room you have to maneuver. If you start at 1, you can go up to 10. If you start at 10...you have nowhere to go but down, which is anti-climactic. Unless yours goes to 11, which is a funny reference, but not helpful.

Very good post.

When I say things like, "Sometimes less is more.", this is exactly what I'm thinking about. There is a point when you go bigger that you don't make more of an emotional impact, you make of less of one. For me one of these points is when things seem to happen because of power of plot and not because of internal logic of the setting. Like for me, Oliphants maybe a little bit larger than Columbian Mammoths would have been sufficient. When they are like 60' high at the shoulder, the hero killing one seems less of a feat than it would have been if they were smaller and more grounded in reality because the scene would have felt more grounded in reality and less in movie logic and things happen just because plot. It's the same problem as it's very hard for Superman to have a real moment of awesomeness because his powers are always limited to power of plot anyway that when he does something it's always pretty ho hum, of course he did.
 

Mercurius

Legend
There is such a thing as learning from your own mistakes. Parents who smoked being adamant that their kids don't start smoking as one example. Parents who didn't take school seriously wanting their kids to take school seriously. Etc.
Yes, although with the caveat that as a general rule, at least at certain stages of adolescent development, the best way to get your kids to do something you don't want them to do, is tell them they can't do it - and in reverse ;). Like the old joke about if you don't want your daughter to date a certain guy, tell her how much you like him.
As an older gamer who's on the fence about the Mos Eisley Cantina Effect, I think it's less about yelling at clouds or awesomeness aversion, rather it's about a shifting baseline and the escalation effect. It ties back to the weird melange of old-school D&D being fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, horror, kaiju, western, swords & sorcery inspired mess of influences.
My dislike of certain D&D races is less about the range and diversity of races, and more about the aesthetics of the specific races that I don't like, and/or how they fit within (or don't) the campaign setting and tone I'm wanting to set.

For example, I love Talislanta - which is about as Mos Eisley-esque as you can get. I think most of the races are very interesting, both aesthetically and culturally. But for whatever reason, I dislike many of the more "non-traditional" D&D races: dragonborn, ardlings, etc - at least within the context of my own D&D settings (as a general rule). Some of that is due to simply not liking them on an aesthetic level, and some of that is because they don't fit in with the tone of a specific setting.

But I hear you about escalation, though I don't think it is inherently from "mundane vanilla fantasy to crazy gonzo, techno-fantasy" (or whatever). In a similar sense that most songs don't develop into all sounds happening at once, which is total chaos. A campaign is like a jazz suite: It develops along certain lines and limitations, both through the initial themes set down and through the improvisation of the players. But only the rare avant garde piece ends up in all-sounds-at-once, and even then, most of them come back down to earth.
 

Mercurius

Legend
To me, that doesn't look like punishing the player for trying the stunt, it is punishing the player for trying the stunt. Especially depending on how high you set the difficulty. If Legolas needs a natural 20 to do this and ends up face planting and Lady Delia is never seen again, the player is going to learn there's no point in trying stunts. That way lies players who only go down stairs with a safety line clipped onto the banister and poking every step with a 10' pole for five minutes before stepping down.
This seems a tad hyperbolic. I mean, DCs are set based upon the difficulty of a task; some tasks should require a natural 20, no? Not everything that is hard, of course, but for extremely difficult tasks, a natural 20 still means that a player can do almost anything with at least a 5% of success. There are plenty of things imaginable, even within a superheroic game genre, that should only have a 5% chance of success, imo.

Now of course if a player is constantly wanting to do things that the GM is putting out of reach (and requiring a natural 20 on), it might mean the GM is being too restrictive; but it also could mean that the player needs to re-calibrate a bit towards the context of the game that is being run - the level, genre, themes, etc.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Sorry, I'm not hearing what harm it does other than it's not to your taste. And you're not at my table, so you don't get a vote.

Of course, at your own table you can decide what is cool and rule accordingly. But all I'm trying to show is why if you are at my table, rule of cool doesn't resolve the real conflict here.

I think what you are asking when you ask, "I'm not hearing what harm it does other than it's not to your taste", is something like, "If the player gains no advantage from it, why can't you add it is color as part of the adjudication of success?" And sure, I could arbitrarily adjust the difficulty of sledding down stairs to be the same as the difficulty of running down stairs simply because I want the player to succeed here. Or I could even simply add the sledding down stairs part into the narration as part of the resolution narration, even if the character didn't explicitly propose it.

But I don't either one at my table, and ironically I'll cite the Rule of Cool as to why. Because I don't think it's cool. I'm not the part of the audience cheering at that scene. I'm not the part of the audience laughing at that scene. I'm the part of the audience groaning at that scene because it isn't cool. Sorry that my aesthetics aren't the same as yours, but as you noted, you aren't at my table.

To me, that doesn't look like punishing the player for trying the stunt, it is punishing the player for trying the stunt. Especially depending on how high you set the difficulty.

No, it isn't. It may look like it, but it isn't. This is very important. That the difficulty of sledding down stairs is higher than the difficulty of running down stairs isn't an arbitrary decision, but a decision based not just on how I want this scene to play out, but how I want all my stories to play out. That is to say in a very real sense I'm not deciding it then at the point that it came up, but I pre-decided it before we ever started play. It is part of my demographics, logic, and physics of the world that I'll appeal to to figure out what I should rule when I don't have something already written down.

UPDATE: Let me add to that by talking about how I would decide how hard it is to slide down stairs on a shield. So confronted by this question, my thoughts would probably first turn to tic tock and stupid people stunts or those "people are awesome" videos where some person has practiced some trick over and over and then records his success. Sliding down stairs on something is on the lower end of that that doesn't require a world class athlete, but it is still something you probably don't want to try to do until you are pretty proficient "board slider". So I'd probably think something like, "Well, this is probably something a second or third level character with decent DEX has a decent chance of pulling off without breaking their face.", and I'd set the difficulty accordingly. What I never would be doing was going, "What do I want to have the outcome be?"

UPDATE #2: Let me further add that if you are at player at my table, and you think it is cool to slide down shields to no purpose, and I don't, then the rules provide for you to gain that narrative power that you want and override my taste preferences. If you are playing a medium to high level character with high DEX and you take something like my Poetry in Motion feat, you can have your character showboat sliding down shields til your heart is content while I the GM roll my eyes and laugh "unable to do anything to stop you" because you are using my rules "against me". (Rules that in fact I created to provide players the ability to do that sort of thing if they really want to.) But notably, that isn't relying on "Rule of Cool".

If Legolas needs a natural 20 to do this and ends up face planting and Lady Delia is never seen again, the player is going to learn there's no point in trying stunts. That way lies players who only go down stairs with a safety line clipped onto the banister and poking every step with a 10' pole for five minutes before stepping down.

See at this point it reads like you are spittle flinging rage as you type at your computer.

And I don't really understand why shield-sliding down stairs is bad but shield-sliding down a mountainside is acceptable.

Yes, but your lack of understanding is your problem and not mine. The fact that you don't understand shouldn't provoke you to assume I don't have a sound reason for my preferences. It should provoke you to question how much understanding you actually have.

The reason why shield-sliding down stair is bad but shield-sliding down a mountain side is awesome is in real life we do one of those things because it actually makes sense to do it. We don't normally slide on a board down stairs for any practical reason because sliding on a board down stairs is impractical and generally accomplishes not a whole lot. But we do normally slide on a mountain on a board, and we call those boards sleds and skis and snowboards, because at the root of that sliding down a mountain on a "board" is in fact a very practical thing to do. Real world militaries operating in arctic conditions still use and train with "boards" on ice and now precisely because they can then move with greater ease than those that aren't proficient "board sliders".

So in one case the character is leaning into the fictional setting and engaging with it in a practical manner that conforms to the setting tropes. And in the other case the player is leaning out of the fictional setting, disengaging from it, doing nothing practical, and ignoring the setting tropes. Which do you imagine I think is awesome?
 
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CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
And I don't really understand why shield-sliding down stairs is bad but shield-sliding down a mountainside is acceptable.
Sliding down the stairs seems like it’s just making things more awkward than walking down them the ordinary way, sliding down the mountain on the other hand seems like an efficient and possibility the only currently available way to travel such a great distance quickly in the circumstances
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Sliding down the stairs seems like it’s just making things more awkward than walking down them the ordinary way, sliding down the mountain on the other hand seems like an efficient and possibility the only currently available way to travel such a great distance quickly in the circumstances
The way I see things like that is it’s the player saying they want to add descriptive flourish to their otherwise mundane action. No real difference between that and getting flowery with an attack. No need to make them roll extra dice and reduce their chance if success for describing their character doing a thing in a cool way. The mechanics aren’t a physics simulation, they’re a poor abstraction at best.

If it’s a low-level character, with not great DEX, and no athletics or acrobatics, I’d make them roll for it. If the character has a few levels, decent DEX, and athletics or acrobatics, no roll required. Because it’s a descriptive flourish that is in line with the character.
 

Sliding down the stairs seems like it’s just making things more awkward than walking down them the ordinary way, sliding down the mountain on the other hand seems like an efficient and possibility the only currently available way to travel such a great distance quickly in the circumstances
Legolas isn't just shield surfing for effect. He's surfing so he can also full attack while moving. Its like doing a run and full attack in one turn to put it in 3E talk. 5E is different in that you don't sacrifice movement to attack more, making a shield surf less needed.
 

Celebrim

Legend
So when you say a system that relies heavily on rulings is "objectively bad," you're saying that lots of people like systems that are objectively bad - which of course then means that either those people have bad taste (and also implies that taste is mostly objectively measurable), or that it isn't an objective matter at all, because it isn't bad for the many who embrace rulings. I tend to think that the latter is a better approach to take, because it doesn't reduce such differences to those who have good vs. bad taste.

I don't want to engage heavily with this because I don't think I can do so without a bunch of people getting really upset. But, I don't think is just a matter of taste. I think it is an objective matter. I think "rulings not rules" is objectively nonsense, and have already made that post.

What I think though is that by Celebrim's 2nd Law of RPGs, how you think that about playing an RPG and how you go about preparing an RPG has more of an impact on play than the rules of an RPG. And, under the 2nd law, "Rulings not rules", while objectively a nonsensical statement, can be a proxy for very powerful and important claim about RPGs that is more complex than that overly simplistic and trite statement. The statement is "true" only if it is standing as a short hand for that larger idea. And that idea is that fundamentally the GM of an RPG is not merely the crank of a rules engine operating in a mechanical fashion. If that was true, then cRPGs would give a better experience in every regard than tRPGs. Fundamentally, to run a good table you as the GM frequently have to apply your judgement and handle things according to the situation that the rules designer didn't account for. In other words, "rulings not rules" if it means something like "the GM is greater than the rules and that's a good thing" is something that I think people need to hear and something that a player or GM introduced to the game in certain eras, that if they hear it, can so radically change how they think about playing the game as to be revolutionary to them.

And that's great and good, and I think that a lot of the people who defend "rulings not rules" fall into the category of people who needed to hear that and needed to change the way they thought about the game. But that still doesn't mean that as a bare statement, "rulings not rules" isn't objectively nonsense and often used as such or that a game that relied heavily on "rulings not rules" didn't objectively have a huge glaring objective problem.

And I think at some level, when you get away from how you feel about me saying "rulings not rules" is objectively nonsense, that you get that. Because you go on to say this:

Well I don't think anyone is advocating for "arbitrary rulings," because that implies a lack of any kind of consistency or logic. I think most DMs, or at least reasonably proficient ones, develop a style and follow a certain logic. Players learn the style and logic of the GM, and dialogue/negotiate with it. I think that's just a natural part of the game, and not dissimilar to students learning the individual proclivities of a teacher. Where it becomes problematic is if the teacher (or GM) isn't consistent or fair, which inevitably happens at times - it is just part of the nature of the beast. But it really depends on the teacher (or GM), and varies by degree. A good GM (or teacher) cultivates self-awareness and tries to be as fair and consistent as possible, but will inevitable miss the mark at times.

And I can totally agree with that. But what I see you writing about there is in fact how rulings are rules, that as a table plays together and a skilled GM creates rulings, those rulings become rules in the same way that a judge ruling on the law becomes a common law ruling. That is to say, common law created by the judiciary ruling is as much rules as the written legislative law. Most tables don't take the step to write their common law down, but they do know it and abide by it. You don't think of that as being "mechanical systems", but in fact it is basically not any different than the mechanical systems. The game became more consistent, logical, through dialogue, but the product of that was indistinguishable in practice from a rule. And if isn't indistinguishable in practice from a rule, then it's going to fall into that area of arbitrary rulings you agree no one wants.

The craft of good GMing includes turning rulings into rules, even if you never write them all down.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
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.

Gygax I suspect was a very nuanced GM, and nuance is a very hard thing to capture. Sometimes nuance sounds like two contradictory claims at once. The sort of writing you are talking about is the Gygaxian principle: "Never give the players an inch." Gygax says, "The players will regularly wheedle you and try to take advantage of you. Don't let them."

There is a tension here that I think Gygax recognizes between wanting to have something and actually feeling validation on receiving it. I don't think Gygax or indeed most GMs that manage to keep tables for a considerable period are in any way adverse to the PC's succeeding and doing awesome things. Indeed, the PC's succeeding and doing awesome things is much of the fun of GMing. It's the pay off for most successful GMs. (There are GMs with other less salubrious pay offs, but let's not go there yet.)

Gygax in his terms put this as the tension between a Monte Haul campaign where the players get instant gratification and full validation of everything that they do, and a Death Dungeon campaign where the players are ground down by the GM's unwillingness to let the players succeed. Gygax suggests the way of the Skilled GM is the middle way.

I think awesome aversion is a cultivated response to being a good GM. Even good players are looking for a loophole and a shortcut, because ultimately all the players want is to win. And "The Rule of Cool" is a terrible rule in practice, because you haven't DMed for very long if you don't have a point where you deeply regretted saying "Yes" and had to go, "Ok, I know I said "Yes" that once but now I have to take it back because otherwise this is going to ruin the game for everyone."

The problems with "The Rule of Cool" are numerous, but one of the problems is that typically from the players perspective is some movie stunt that they watched one time where the protagonist or antagonist did that thing that worked and they want to replicate that. But things that happen in the movies according to movie logic worked in the movie because of movie logic. It's very hard to translate movie logic into a long running RPG because movies aren't simulating anything and they are usually over in about two hours. Movies don't have to deal with the implications of an individual scene. They can just forget about it because while it worked in that one scene for something to work, the writer just did that to be entertaining and they know that repeating it in a second scene would be boring.

Players though on the other hand if they find a tactic that works will naturally and quite reasonably want to repeat it over and over again. This creates a problem, because "it worked in that one scene" doesn't take into account that it might have been a desperation tactic used in that one scene knowing that it had a low probability of success and therefore only done out of desperation and that's why the protagonist doesn't do it again. So as GM you often in a very uncomfortable situation when the player wants to perform a stunt. If you treat that stunt as a desperation tactic that had a low probability of success, then the players says you are stifling his creativity. But if you don't treat it as a desperation tactic, then you are saying, "This is a world where this is extremely effective and relatively easy to do." and that will be setting changing.

Usually I have players that have a high trust in my GMing ability. They know that if something is in their characters ability to do that I will let them pull off the crazy stunt with a reasonable chance of success and reasonable advantages gained. But if I got situation where I'm stuck between the players belief that my ruling was harshing up the game and stifling creativity and my desire to keep the game sane and with a certain heroic feel to it, the way I address that distrust is to openly and honestly bring that player into my rules adjudication process and explain why I'm ruling like I'm ruling.

And generally I find that players back down over this point: "Whatever I rule in your favor, I will also rule in the favor of the NPCs. Whatever you open up for yourself, you will also open up as something the NPCs do back to you. Everyone is using the same rules here. The NPCs don't get to have it easy as a way to challenge or beat you. I'm not favoring them or disfavoring you. If you think that your ruling is fair, then realize that it will be used against you."

To hitch a ride on someone else's earlier comment, if the PC wants to throw sand in the eyes of the bad guy to blind them and thinks that ought to be a low risk and high reward tactic with a reasonable chance of success, then we exist in a universe where throwing sand to blind people is a low risk, high reward tactic with a high chance of success. And the PC wasn't the first person to discover that in the world's ten thousand year history, so if it is true then all the bad guys know about it too. If it is true that works, every goblin in the dungeon and all the world's armies just added a bag of sand to their inventory, and we live in a world where combat looks like people throwing dirt at each other.

"The Rule of Cool" is actually giving terrible advice here in the sand throwing situation. If you listen to it, you'll end up with a situation that isn't cool for anyone.

Now of course there is a counter-argument to what I just outlined. What if the whole table just enjoys a Monte Haul campaign? What's wrong with that? Why can't you just validate the player no matter what? What is wrong with being a little inconsistent and having NPCs just not be awesome enough to do the things that the PCs do? And I suppose at some level the answer is nothing. It's a stylistic choice to have no real difficulty in the game and let everything come easy. And there are parallels in the larger gaming world. We've seen trends of games that back off the difficulty so much that you basically don't need to develop any skill at playing the game to easily progress through it. And there isn't anything wrong with that, and certainly there are games where I just wanted to play them casually. But we've also seen that aesthetic create a deep hunger for more meaningful challenges, creating a wave of "Dark Souls" inspired games that are unapologetic about requiring skillful play if you want to progress.

I think Gygax's middle way with it's high dose of "awesomeness aversion" is meant to satisfy as many different player aesthetics as possible.
 


Mercurius

Legend
I don't want to engage heavily with this because I don't think I can do so without a bunch of people getting really upset. But, I don't think is just a matter of taste. I think it is an objective matter. I think "rulings not rules" is objectively nonsense, and have already made that post.
Half-jokingly:
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What I think though is that by Celebrim's 2nd Law of RPGs, how you think that about playing an RPG and how you go about preparing an RPG has more of an impact on play than the rules of an RPG. And, under the 2nd law, "Rulings not rules", while objectively a nonsensical statement, can be a proxy for very powerful and important claim about RPGs that is more complex than that overly simplistic and trite statement. The statement is "true" only if it is standing as a short hand for that larger idea. And that idea is that fundamentally the GM of an RPG is not merely the crank of a rules engine operating in a mechanical fashion. If that was true, then cRPGs would give a better experience in every regard than tRPGs. Fundamentally, to run a good table you as the GM frequently have to apply your judgement and handle things according to the situation that the rules designer didn't account for. In other words, "rulings not rules" if it means something like "the GM is greater than the rules and that's a good thing" is something that I think people need to hear and something that a player or GM introduced to the game in certain eras, that if they hear it, can so radically change how they think about playing the game as to be revolutionary to them.

And that's great and good, and I think that a lot of the people who defend "rulings not rules" fall into the category of people who needed to hear that and needed to change the way they thought about the game. But that still doesn't mean that as a bare statement, "rulings not rules" isn't objectively nonsense and often used as such or that a game that relied heavily on "rulings not rules" didn't objectively have a huge glaring objective problem.

And I think at some level, when you get away from how you feel about me saying "rulings not rules" is objectively nonsense, that you get that.

It is hard to get around how I feel about you saying that "rulings not rules is objectively nonsense," because you're confusing the meaning of what "objective" means. I don't want to have the age-old internet conversation of subjective vs objective, but I think it applies, if for no other reason that your so-called "objective truth" relegates a large number of people to be nonsensical in their understanding and approach to a game - some folks who have played that way for 40+ years, and have had no to little problems with it.

Meaning, it isn't something "people need to hear" but is the way many people play, and have always played.
Because you go on to say this:



And I can totally agree with that. But what I see you writing about there is in fact how rulings are rules, that as a table plays together and a skilled GM creates rulings, those rulings become rules in the same way that a judge ruling on the law becomes a common law ruling. That is to say, common law created by the judiciary ruling is as much rules as the written legislative law. Most tables don't take the step to write their common law down, but they do know it and abide by it. You don't think of that as being "mechanical systems", but in fact it is basically not any different than the mechanical systems. The game became more consistent, logical, through dialogue, but the product of that was indistinguishable in practice from a rule. And if isn't indistinguishable in practice from a rule, then it's going to fall into that area of arbitrary rulings you agree no one wants.

The craft of good GMing includes turning rulings into rules, even if you never write them all down.
This isn't how I see what "rulings" mean: they are not always or even usually to-be codified common laws, but rather a basic approach of reliance on the judgement of the GM in a context-specific moment. It is simply the idea that in any given moment in a game session, a GM is required to use their best judgment to apply an in-the-moment and contextual rule(ing), that may or may not continue on or become codified. It may be assigning a DC, or it may be an interpretation of a result, or an added on narrative element that isn't clearly defined by the rules. It is a license to "riff off" the rules as the GM sees fit, that they feel serves the game as a whole.

Sometimes rulings becoming semi-official or codified; sometimes they become a "table rule." But often times they're simply a GM's adjudication in the moment.

You kind of go to that point above, but again, it is not simply something "people need to hear" but an ongoing approach of the GM using their best judgment in the moment.
 


payn

Legend
I think Gygax's middle way with it's high dose of "awesomeness aversion" is meant to satisfy as many different player aesthetics as possible.
I think the issue is this compromise gets less and less satisfying with each edition. Folks want a wide disparate experience from the ruleset.
 

I think awesome aversion is a cultivated response to being a good GM. Even good players are looking for a loophole and a shortcut, because ultimately all the players want is to win. And "The Rule of Cool" is a terrible rule in practice, because you haven't DMed for very long if you don't have a point where you deeply regretted saying "Yes" and had to go, "Ok, I know I said "Yes" that once but now I have to take it back because otherwise this is going to ruin the game for everyone."
Er...I've been DMing actively for over four years now. Haven't once had that happen. The absolute closest thing is, one time I quickly belted off a new benefit for a player's abilities, and it turned out that I did the numbers slightly wrong, causing it to be too powerful. I had a chat with the player, voiced my concerns, and we toned it down slightly (upped the cost and reduced its snowball rate, more or less.) Hasn't caused a problem since.

And my game absolutely uses the Rule of Cool (or Rule of Interesting) very heavily.

The problems with "The Rule of Cool" are numerous,
I really don't think they are--or, at least, you're going to have to defend them, rather than just allege their existence and presume you have my agreement.

It's very hard to translate movie logic into a long running RPG because movies aren't simulating anything and they are usually over in about two hours.
The only thing my game is "simulating" is the One Thousand And One Nights. Which are absolutely full of some of the most ridiculous crap you'll ever read about in myth and legend. Now, I myself do place a priority on having a world that is well-grounded and makes sense, but that's far from the same thing.

For example, I have (as I've mentioned many times around here) heavily reworked the behavior of Devils (and, to a lesser extent, Demons) because the way D&D devils are written is idiotic. Mine are scary, and yet "less" evil, or at least less blatantly evil. Their evil is cunning, shrewd, and (most importantly) genuinely concerned more about success and significance than about rapaciousness or screwing over mortals. I have, as a result, made devils in my game significantly more grounded, even though the delightful consequence of doing so is that (at least in my opinion) this also happens to make them much cooler (or at least more interesting) than they were before. My devils actually have a chance to tempt the party into calling on their aid....just this once....when they really need it....it can't hurt, right? Not that badly... 😉

Players though on the other hand if they find a tactic that works will naturally and quite reasonably want to repeat it over and over again.
This has nothing to do with the Rule of Cool though. It's the result of giving a general benefit with no limitations, rather than addressing a specific scene and tailoring the response to fit. So, for example, in that parallel thread about whether a Fighter could pray for divine aid, my process might look like this:
DM (me): "Paladin, the behir has you under one of its far-too-many legs. Its scales are surprisingly pretty up close, but it's hard to appreciate them when you know a blast of lightning is about to strike you in the face. What do you do?"
Paladin: "I'm stuck under one of its feet? Damn...not that I have much chance to dodge out of the way. This really isn't good. Can I wrestle my way out of the pin, throwing all I have into it?"
DM: Sure, that sounds like a Defy Danger with Strength. Roll that beautiful dice footage.
Paladin: (rolls snake eyes) "Oof. That's a miss."
DM: "Unfortunately, you take that blast of lightning straight to the face, as you wriggle helplessly under its claws. That's..." (rolls damage--high!) "...12 damage. And being lightning, it ignores armor, I'm afraid."
Paladin: "Crap. I'm at zero. Guess it's Last Breath time..."
Fighter: "I shout a big dramatic 'no! Surely this is not how it ends!' Isn't there something I can do, DM? Could I like...pray to his god, try to save him?"
DM: "Hmm. You've not really shown much piety up to this point. Or any piety, really. How do you intend to do that?"
Fighter: "Yeah...you're right, I haven't. But...I really have come to respect Paladin and his faith, even if I've sucked at telling him that. He's, he's always been there for me, and he didn't just judge me when he found out about my past and some of the unsavory things I'd done. He's shown me there's real strength to be found in Bahamut's teachings. It never really hit me before, but...I really wasn't just being dramatic, I genuinely can't believe this is how it ends. All that faithful service, for nothing."
DM: "Alright--that's a pretty fervent prayer, sounds like it's genuine to me. Are you willing to accept the possible consequences of doing this? Calling out to the divine with no training and no experience can be...well, very dangerous. To you...and maybe to Paladin too."
Fighter: "Yeah, this is absolutely a 'Hail Mary' play. Or, I guess, a 'Hail Bahamut' play, hah. I'm desperate."
Paladin: "If you end up beseeching Asmodeus to help me I'm gonna be SO MAD." (Said while grinning like an idiot.)
Fighter: "Guess we'll have to find out just how bothersome the gods can be for a god-botherer, eh?"
DM: "Alright. Give me a Charisma roll. Normally I might let you choose to use Wisdom instead, but between lack of training and how desperate you are, this sounds like praying from the heart, not from the head."
Fighter: "Here goes nothing..." (Roll: Partial success.) "Hey, that's an 8, not half bad."
DM: "You hear a strange voice in your mind. It is powerful, even terrifying, and yet at the same time comforting and nurturing, like a stern but loving father. 'Iꜰ ᴛʜᴏᴜ ᴡᴏᴜʟᴅsᴛ ᴩʀᴇsᴇʀᴠᴇ ᴛʜɪs ɴᴏʙʟᴇ sᴏᴜʟ, ᴡʜᴏᴍ I ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʟᴏᴠᴇᴅ ᴀɴᴅ ᴡᴏᴜʟᴅ ᴡᴇʟᴄᴏᴍᴇ ʜᴏᴍᴇ, ᴛʜɪɴᴇ ᴏᴡɴ ᴍᴜsᴛ ʙᴇ ʀᴇɴᴅᴇʀᴇᴅ ᴜᴩ ɪɴ sᴇʀᴠɪᴄᴇ. Wɪʟᴛ ᴛʜᴏᴜ sᴜʀʀᴇɴᴅᴇʀ ᴛʜʏ ʙᴇʟᴏᴠᴇᴅ ʙᴇᴅʟᴀᴍ, ᴛʜʏ ʟɪʙᴇʀᴀᴛᴇᴅ ʟɪᴄᴇɴsᴇ? I ᴍᴀʀᴋ ᴡᴇʟʟ ᴛʜᴏsᴇ ᴡʜᴏ sᴀᴄʀɪꜰɪᴄᴇ ꜰᴏʀ ᴀɴᴏᴛʜᴇʀ.' It's clear you're being offered a deal, but the terms are...pretty open-ended, and not necessarily favorable to you. What do you do?"
Fighter: (long pause) "It's tough, I agonize about it for a long moment...but I accept."
DM: "You can feel that something has changed, Fighter. But the promise is fulfilled: Paladin, a surge of divine light bursts forth from your prone body. You throw off the behir's claw that was keeping you down, and you are filled with vigor and vitality, ready to show this jerk what Bahamut's wrath is like. What will you do?"
Note that the specific context matters here. Calling on a deity is not safe, and even here it comes with serious strings attached. It also needed to be a genuine, heartfelt prayer, which isn't something that you can just belt out any time you like. I can't see this becoming a Standard Operating Procedure. And if the players clearly start pulling stunts where the Paladin intentionally gets splattered so an ally can call on divine aid...well, the gods don't like being used. They will not be conveniences. Absolutely a scene powered by the Rule of Cool, and yet not one that leads to a "use it literally every time, all the time, forever" tactic.

if the PC wants to throw sand in the eyes of the bad guy to blind them and thinks that ought to be a low risk and high reward tactic with a reasonable chance of success
There's your problem. You're assuming that "Rule of Cool" means "low-risk, high-reward tactic(s.)" It doesn't. It means, at least to me, appropriate-risk, appropriate-reward tactics, with an eye toward high-flying action, competence over ineptitude, and enabling things that enrich the experience. Letting players create "I Win" buttons is not something that enriches the experience.

Why can't you just validate the player no matter what?
...what on earth? You can always validate your players without bowing to their every whim. Don't conflate being a supportive DM with being a completely permissive doormat.

We've seen trends of games that back off the difficulty so much that you basically don't need to develop any skill at playing the game to easily progress through it.
I have no interest in doing this. My favorite edition is 4e, an edition where skillful play is extremely important to success--because the system will not hold your hand, and absolutely will punish you for failing to be a team player.

But we've also seen that aesthetic create a deep hunger for more meaningful challenges, creating a wave of "Dark Souls" inspired games that are unapologetic about requiring skillful play if you want to progress.

I think Gygax's middle way with it's high dose of "awesomeness aversion" is meant to satisfy as many different player aesthetics as possible.
These two things are totally orthogonal. I'm honestly deeply confused why you would think there's any relation between them at all.
 



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