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


Staff member
I just want to point out that this comment here could be one of the worst posts I’ve ever read on this site. I realize that perhaps it’s not what you intended… you kind of tried to put a positive spin on it there, but that didn’t prevent it from being condescending and elitist and just plain rude.

It’s a real trend around here. That the longer you’ve been doing something, then the better you must be at it. And while there is of course some truth to that (I’m not gonna argue against experience on a site primarily devoted to D&D), there are also negatives that go along with that.

We can get set in our ways. We can think we know it all. We can think there’s nothing mew to be learned. We can be dismissive of people who haven’t “put in the time”. We can try and shut down discussions because “it’s all been said”. And so on.

I’m reminded of some people I’ve worked with in the past who have had more experience than many of those around them… set in their ways, resistant to change, dismissive of new ideas or new voices. Very often these people are not nearly as knowledgable or as capable as they think. They use antiquated processes and don’t take to new methods as quickly.

It’s a poor attitude to have and I wish it was less prevalent on these boards. Because there’s always the possibility that the folks who’ve been GMing for decades have been doing a pisspoor job of it for decades.
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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!).

This clarifies for me why the "social mechanics" question that sometimes comes up doesn't always feel quite right. 5e says the game has three pillars: combat, exploration, and social. So people see those as containers, and see that the combat container is very full, and think that perhaps they can 'fill up' the exploration and social containers in the same way. However, the three pillars are misleading; when you look at the game, there's actually two phases: free play, where you use the ability check system, and combat, where you use the ability check system but with a bunch of specific exceptions. From that perspective, the relative lack of options around a deception check is less glaring (though there are still spells and such that work at this level).

Similarly, games that are credited for handling social engagement well don't have more mechanics, they just don't switch the context. I'll take blades in the dark here because I'm most familiar, but within a score trying to intimidate someone uses the same mechanical structure for trying to knock them over. And thus the former can flow into the latter or vice versa without a lot of friction. In other words, and perhaps just to repeat what you are saying, it's not the amount of rules, but the context in which they come up in play relative to each other, that is more important.
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So you want players to EARN their moments of awesomeness???

While I certainly grant that this scene is chewing the scenery in some questionable ways (though I can see from recommendations that even this scene has its defenders!), the comparison doesn't quite hold for several reasons, most of which you already know, I'm sure.

But, taking this (assumed) joke as a starting point, this does give us an interesting line of discussion nonetheless: What is "appropriate"? When is it jump-from-your-chair exhilarating and when is it "jumping the shark" cringe? Are there rules or limits or patterns we can use to guide us?

Unfortunately, there aren't many guidelines. It depends on context. I take an Aristotelian approach: "Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while Virtue finds and chooses the mean." (The Nicomachean Ethics.) It is possible to be stingy (deficient) or profligate (excessive), both of which are detrimental to play. We must learn how to balance these concerns, not at some fictitious universal, but as a matter of practical choice for each context.

Players should need to work toward mastery and ultimate success. Fairly sure we all agree there. I don't think anyone here thinks it is good or worthwhile to have players sit there, do nothing, and yet gain accolades and rewards. On the flip side, players should not have to earn the right to have fun, to do the baseline stuff they signed up for, to feel like a cool fantasy action hero doing cool fantasy action hero things. It's very easy for "earn your moments of awesomeness" to go from meaning the former thing (you must work to achieve lasting success) to negatively affecting the latter thing (you must work just to do anything cool whatsoever.)

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