D&D General How to Read a Rule: Dueling Canons in D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
A recent thread on first level Magic Users in AD&D (1e) ended up meandering, as threads are wont to do, into discussing various opaque rules from the Gygaxian era and the "officialness" of Sage Advice from that time. Oh, we also discussed how to best serve Bards ... my suggestion? Medium Rarye.

Anyway, the whole thing started me thinking about the general idea of how we interpret rules, and how we use different authorities when interpreting rules. Unfortunately for you, when I have a thought, I am forced to expound upon that thought with all the prolixity of a legal code ... so, well, you know the drill by now. I would say that this will be a two-part series (this being the first part, How to Read a Rule, and the second forthcoming part will be what counts as authority with a focus on Sage Advice and the history of that column/tweet), but then again, I once promised a three-part series on dice of which I wrote the first part, wrote a second related article that wasn't part of the series, wrote the second part months later, and promptly chose to leave it unfinished.

What can I say? When I say I'm going to write something, it's not a promise; it's a threat!

For this article .... Snarfticle? Am I trying to make fetch happen? Ahem. For this essay, I am going to use a particularly opaque Gygaxian rule that was almost never applied correctly, and break it down to show how a person could attempt to make sense of it. Basically, this is a detailed breakdown of how a person makes sense of not just purplish Gygaxian prose, but rules in general. Without further ado, or, at a minimum, with very few more adoes, I present to you ... the character with two classes!

1. What is "The Character With Two Classes"?
What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean.

First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. And then the oil executives came and they all bought private jets. And then Harry Styles came and became the face of gender-neutral fashion and sold out arenas. But you don't want to know everything that's happened up until now, you want to know what the heck a "character with two classes" is!

Back in the 1e days, there was no simple multiclassing as we know of it today. Instead, multiclassing was an ability reserved for demi-humans (the name given to the playable non-human races, i.e., dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, halflings, and half-orcs*) that had various restrictions about class combinations and class levels. You advanced in your classes at the same time, splitting experience between them, and many (but not all) class restrictions were lifted. So, for example, the Fighter/Magic User could user armor and weapons as well as cast spells.

*Brief aside- along with humans, all the playable races only took up 4 out of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Think of the open design space!

Humans could not multi-class. Instead, they were presented with a completely different, and, frankly, bonkers option. On page 33 of the Player's Handbook was the rule for "The Character with Two Classes" (hereafter, "2C" so I don't have to keep typing it). The opening paragraph of the rule is an introduction, and gives you the idea:

Unlike multi-classed characters who are of non- or semi-human race, the character with two classes must be human. To attain the second class, the character must switch his or her profession at some point. Thereafter no progression in the original class is possible.

That's pretty easy to understand. To do this, you must be a human. You must stop being one class (and no longer progress, aka gain experience or level, in the old class) and start a new class. So far, so good!

2. The Easy(ish) Part of the Rule- How The Rule Works
This case presents us with something mundane, something novel, and something bizarre. . . . The bizarre element is the facially implausible— some might say unappetizing—contention that the man whose chicken is “finger-lickin’ good” has unclean hands.

I will deal with the second paragraph (eligibility) last, and instead skip to the mechanics of how a character actually quits one class and starts another. It's mostly easy, with one slight twist.

When the character opts to cease his or her old profession and become a new class, the character retains the number of hit dice (and the commensurate hit points) due to a character of the level of his or her class. However, all other functions of the character are at 1st level of experience, for that is his or her ability in the newly espoused class. Furthermore, if, during the course of any adventure, the character resorts to the use of any of the capabilities or functions of his or her former class, the character gains no experience for the adventure. Having switched classes, the character must perform strictly within the parameters of his or her new profession. Reversion to the former class negates all experience potential for the new class with respect to the course of recent activities, i.e. the adventure during which original profession functions were resorted to. At such time as the character has attained a level of experience in his or her new class which exceeds the character's former class level, the following benefits are gained:
1. A hit die appropriate to the new class is gained for each increase in level of experience, up to the maximum normal for the class in question (and thereafter hit points are likewise gained), and
2. The character may mix functions freely and still gain experience, although restrictions regarding armor, shield, and/or weapon apply with regard to operations particular to one or both classes.

While this at first appears straight-forward, I have underlined the two parts that will lead to issues. This part of the 2C rule seems simple enough, and I would break it down like this:
A. When the PC chooses to 2C, they immediately stop progressing in their old class and start as 1st level character in their new class.
B. Until the PC has reached a level greater than the level they achieved in their old class, the PC cannot use any of their old abilities (subject to the experience penalty described below), and must function only as the new class. The do not gain any hit dice or hit points in the new class.
C. When the PC has reached a level in their new class greater than the level of their old class, they can use the abilities of both classes however they want (subject to the restriction limitation described below), and gain new hit dice and hit points in their new class.

So far, so simple. Well, simple-ish. For a Gygaxian rule. But there are two issues that immediately raise their ugly head- the experience penalty and the restriction limitation. Here's the issue with each.

a. The experience penalty applies when you use your old class abilities. So, for example, imagine you are in dire straits, and you suddenly need to call on prior (Magic User) abilities to cast a fireball. No worries. That just means you don't get experience for ... the adventure. Which includes "recent activities" before you used the fireball. You can see the problem immediately; 1e doesn't have "short rests" and "long rests" and "adventure" is not a defined term, but it's certainly a lot longer than, say, a combat. And it's not going to be "a day" or some other unit of time, because if it was supposed to be that, then it would say that. But what is an adventure? A whole module? A quest? A level of a dungeon? A mission? And how far back does the XP penalty go? This is clearly a severe penalty, but it's also maddeningly undefined, since one person's adventure is a brief sojourn into a dungeon, while another person's might be an AP! And the answer to this question is ... there is no answer. It is something that will necessarily be discretionary and vary from table to table. It's like including the term "due process," - how much process you are due depends on the circumstances, and there isn't always one right answer.

b. The restriction limitation, on the other hand, is far more interesting. Because while multi-class characters (the demi-human ability above) explicitly allows those character to bypass some limitations, this rule explicitly disallows bypassing those limitations. So a 2C is, in effect, like playing a character that has to "switch" between classes although they can use both! I know ... WOAH. So what does this mean in play? Well, if you are a 2C Fighter / MU, then you have to take off you armor (and not use fighter weapons) when you want to "operat[e]" as a Magic User ... you know, cast spells. Or if you're a Fighter / Cleric, you can't hold an edged weapon while you are trying to turn undead. If you're a Cleric / Monk, you can't wear armor (or use a mace) when you're using a Monk ability, whether it's fighting or speaking with animals.

Now, while you might first look at this and think to yourself, "Self, that seems a little crazy," well, I can make it seem crazier. You have a 2C Cleric 4 Monk 13. The PC is not wearing armor, but has her awesome Mace of St. Cuthbert in her hand ... just in case (it's a hypo!). Suddenly, she falls down a 120' crevasse! Guess what? If she had been holding a Monk Weapon (like a staff), she would have taken no damage. But since she happened to be holding a mace (which is prohibited to monks), she can not "operat[e]" as a monk, and takes ... 12d6. Absurd? Yep. But that's the rule.

You can mix your functions freely, but you have to abide by your class restrictions in armor, weapons, and shield when operating (using the abilities) of that class. This plain reading of the language of the rule is further evidenced by the final lines of an example provided in the PHB (of a 2C Fighter / Magic User), which states as follows about how the 2C functions after they are able to mix abilities freely:

Furthermore, the character can now carry (but not wear) armor and weapons not normally usable by magic-users, and resort to their use if the need arises and not be penalized in respect to experience as a magic-user, for he or she has already surpassed in the new class the disciplines of the former. Thus, no harm accrues to his or her experience as a magic-user. Note that this does not allow spell use while armor clad, such as an elven fighter/magic user is able to-do.

In short, the 2C really is ... a Character With TWO classes (who switches between the two), not a multiclass character.

3. The Hard Part- Eligibility for The Character With Two Classes
As a linguistic matter, ‘and’ and ‘or’ are not synonyms; indeed, they are more nearly antonyms. One need only start the day with a breakfast of ham or eggs to be duly impressed by the difference.

That was actually the easy part! Now, the hard part of the rule, all located in three sentences ....

In order to switch from one class to another, the character must have an ability score of 15 or more in the principal attribute(s) ability of the original class and a 17 or 18 in the principal attribute(s) of the class changed to. Note that nearly any combination of classes is thus possible, i.e. cleric & fighter, cleric & paladin, cleric & ranger, etc. Alignment will preclude some combinations.

At first, this doesn't seem like a very hard rule to understand, and we can break it down as follows:
1. All classes are eligible for 2C (as there are no exclusions).
2. The only outright preclusions are those based on alignment.
3. You must have an ability score of 15 or higher in the "principal attribute(s)" of your old class.
4. You must have an ability score of 17 or higher in the "principal attribute(s)" of your new class.

Breaking it down, the first part is pretty simple. When it comes to 2C, you can do whatever class combo you want, so long as there isn't a countervailing alignment restriction. What does that mean? Here's some examples-
You can't be a Cleric/Druid (Clerics can't be True Neutral, Druids must be).
You can't be an Assassin/Ranger (Assassins must be evil, Rangers must be good).
You can't be a Thief/Paladin (Paladins must be Lawful Good, Thieves cannot be Lawful Good).
You can't be a Druid/Monk (Druids must be True Neutral, Monks must be lawful).
And so on. The alignment "gates" for the classes are- Cleric (can't be N), Druid (must be N), Paladin (must be LG), Ranger (must be LG, NG, CG), Thief (cannot be LG or CG), Assassin (must be LE, NE, CE), and Monk (must be LG, LN, or LE). The other classes have no restrictions. As long as you work with those restrictions, everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden.

Now for the second part of the eligibility requirements; at first, this seems easy. You need a 15 or higher in the principal attribute(s) of the class your old class, and a 17 or higher in the principal attribute(s) of your new class. Stopping right there, we can immediately discern that a class will have one, or more, principal attributes. But then the question arises ... what is a principal attribute? And this is where it gets tricky, because the rule doesn't tell us what a principal attribute is. So when the rule doesn't tell us, we have to look elsewhere! So first we have to find out if "principal attributes" is some kind of known and defined term in 1e ... you know, just like how when "round" or "turn" is mentioned, we know what that means. Unfortunately ... it isn't. So we continue our search to understand what this term means .... which leads us to good news, and bad news. First, the good news ... this term is mentioned twice in class descriptions!
Cleric- "As has been stated previously in the section detailing CHARACTER ABILITIES, the principal attribute of a cleric is wisdom."
Fighter- "The principal attribute of a fighter is strength."
In addition, the Druid refers to wisdom and charisma as "major attributes."

Great! We know the principal attributes of two of the classes because the text tells us what they are! So we then look to the CHARACER ABILITIES section and find that ... no, it wasn't referred to as a principal attribute there, instead it was referred to as a major characteristic of utmost importance. Hmmm. Okay, so looking just at the text again, we can see that for Fighters, Clerics, and Druids they gain an experience bonus for a high score in the ability called their principal (major) attribute! Perhaps this is the key that unlocks the door ... the principal attribute is the ability score (or scores) for a class that will give them a possible experience point bonus (referred to in some old editions as a "prime requisite").

Except ... the 2C Rule allows for any class combination not prohibited by alignment. And there are three classes that don't have any ability score that provides them an experience point bonus ... illusionists, assassins, and monks. That's 30% of the available classes. So from that, we can say that principal attributes are not synonymous with abilities that grant experience points. Which leaves only one possible option for those classes that do not explicitly in the text refer to "principal (major) attributes" of the class - those abilities that the class is required to have a minimum score in, as they are listed in the text for each class. So the principal attributes for each class are as follows, with a T afterwards denoting that it is required by the text of the class.
Cleric- Wisdom (T)
Druid- Wisdom, Charisma (T)
Fighter- Strength (T)
Paladin- Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Charisma
Ranger- Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution
Magic User- Intelligence, Dexterity (see below)
Illusionist- Intelligence, Dexterity
Thief- Dexterity
Assassin- Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity
Monk- Strength, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution

We could (and maybe SHOULD!) stop there. But there's one more issue. We should try to read the rules in pari materia (all together) and there's one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb; the dexterity requirement for Magic Users. So let's delve deeper into that, and why it seems so out-of-place!

1. Magic Users are one of the "core four" classes; regardless of how borked you think the 2C system is, one thing is clear ... the core four are (or should be) easy to do, and the specialty classes vary from hard (like the illusionist, druid, and assassin) to "Are you kidding me????" (Paladin). But three of the core four have a single principal attribute, while the Magic User has 2?

2. The actual requirement is absurdly out of place. It's a requirement to have a dexterity of .... SIX. 6. SIX!!!!

So we look back at the Character Abilities section. In it, we see that Constitution and Charisma both talk about how they are for everyone. Then each of the other four abilities has a call-out to the core four; strength is the "major characteristic" of fighters. Wisdom is the "major characteristic" of Clerics. Dexterity is the "major characteristic" of thieves. And intelligence? Intelligence is the ... wait for it ... "major characteristic" of Magic Users. Finally, we look at the dexterity table itself and see something else important- if you have a five or lower score in your dexterity, you must be a cleric. So six isn't the minimum to be a Magic User, it's just the minimum to not be a cleric. So we can now say that Magic Users only have a principal attribute of Intelligence.

So after all of that, we can finally (FINALLY) have the rule fully explained. Now that we've worked out all of the textual bases, it's time to check our work.

4. Does All of This Actually Make Sense? And Why Bother?
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to purchase fertilizer, and a time to take a deduction for that which is purchased.

I mean ... naw? If you're asking if the rule "makes sense" in terms of realism, I'll get back to you when my 2C Fighter/Druid finishes removing their metal armor in order to cast a spell under penalty of 'splosion. But is this how the rule was supposed to be applied? Well, for that, let's see if Sage Advice has any thing to shed on the subject. (I will go into this in more detail in a separate post, but from Dragon 42 on, Sage Advice was explicitly for answering rules questions, and was published by Dragon Magazine and answered by TSR employees). The following two questions and answers should be useful-

Q. Can a two-classed fighter-cleric use edged weapons and mix the use of these with the use of clerical abilities (spells)? If this is not allowable, does that mean a two-classed character must follow the conditions of the more restricted class with regard to the use of certain weapons, the wearing of certain armor, and other particulars?

A. In essence, being a character with two classes means you can do different things at different times, which makes “double duty” desirable for some players and their characters. But two-classed characters (always human) can’t legitimately mix the abilities and benefits of different classes at the same time the way multi-classed (always non-human or semi-human) characters can. Like it says on page 33 of the Players Handbook, “restrictions regarding armor, shield, and/or weapon apply with regard to operations particular to one or both classes.” From that statement, and the example that follows it concerning a two-classed fighter and magic-user, we can see that the intent of the rules is to keep the class functions separate. The result is that a two-classed character must be played quite a bit differently than a multi-classed character who is practicing the same professions. A fighter-cleric wielding an edged weapon can’t successfully cast a spell, turn an undead, or perform any other cleric-type action. If the character wants to be able to hold a weapon and act as a cleric at the same time, it must be a weapon clerics are permitted to use. A fighter-MU can “carry (but not wear) armor and weapons not normally usable by magic-users,” according to the Players Handbook. Thus, a two-classed fighter-cleric ought to be allowed to carry (but not hold) an edged weapon and still use clerical abilities: It would be okay for the two-classed fighter-cleric to keep a sword at his belt and turn an undead, for instance— but if he tries to do the same thing with a sword in one hand and a holy symbol in the other, he’d better be ready to use that sword. A fighter-cleric carrying more than one weapon but not holding any particular one at a given time can perform as a cleric as long as one of the weapons he carries is permitted to clerics, and as long as that particular weapon is the one (if any) being drawn or wielded.

Q. Are all of the attributes having required minimums to be construed as “principal attributes” for that class with regard to two-classed characters?

A. Yes, with two exceptions. For the purpose of determining whether a character is eligible to take up a second class, principal attributes for each class are considered to be these: cleric, wisdom only; druid, wisdom and charisma; fighter, strength only; paladin, everything but dexterity; ranger, everything but dexterity and charisma; magic-user, intelligence only; illusionist, dexterity and intelligence; thief, dexterity only; assassin, dexterity, intelligence, and strength; and monk, everything but charisma and intelligence. This includes every ability for which a required minimum is given, except for the fighter’s constitution, which must be at least 7, and the magic-user’s dexterity, which the Players Handbook says must be at least 6. The first exception is made because “The principal attribute of a fighter is strength,” but constitution isn’t mentioned in the same sentence (PH, page 22). A “minimum dexterity of 6” is required for magic-users (page 25), but this is superfluous, since a character with a dexterity of 5 or lower is always a cleric (page 11). Note that the principal attribute(s) for each class may include abilities in addition to those that apply toward a bonus to earned experience. To limit the definition of “principal attributes” to only those abilities that pertain to the experience bonus would make the system unbalanced and unplayable — unbalanced because then it would be easier to become a two-classed paladin than a two-classed ranger, and unplayable because the assassin and monk never get an experience bonus, and so by this definition would not have any “principal attributes.”

Dragon #64

I mean ... not bad, right! Maybe a little bit ... shorter ... than what I just went through, but it ends the same.

The bigger question is this ... why did I bother doing this? I mean, why not? My fantasy draft last night SUCKED. Well, that and I think it's useful to think not in terms of the usual rules arguments we get into, but thinking more holistically about how we approach analyzing rules, and breaking them down, and understanding how different rules interact with each other. Admittedly, 5e does not have the same issues of poor editing, lack of cohesion, and High Gygaxian that 1e did, but the general precepts that are used when trying to understand how a rule works should be the same.

And that's it! Feel free to talk about how you approach analyzing tough rules, or, you know, the usual tellin' me how wrong I am. It's all good!
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Uncomfortably diegetic
My long-standing old-school pet peeve: Multiclassing and dual-classing are completely backwards. Humans should be the ones multiclassing, demihumans should be dual-classing.

Humans, in the old school lore, are ambitious and versatile, and also don't live very long, comparatively. If any race should be trying to do two or three things at once, it's humans.

Likewise, the demihumans both have level limits, and live a very long time. It makes sense for them to try something for a while, and then decide to go and try something else entirely. If you've maxed out fighter at level 9, why not go and try some wizardry now?


So what's the explanation for the fighter requirement of a 7 constitution and this rule of principal = actually required minimums specific to the class? Because fighters explicitly have only strength as their principal attribute, so that is just an exception to the rule by fiat?

Afterward those old rules look like an insurance contrat. Every single details are there to make sure you won’t screw the company.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So what's the explanation for the fighter requirement of a 7 constitution and this rule of principal = actually required minimums specific to the class? Because fighters explicitly have only strength as their principal attribute, so that is just an exception to the rule by fiat?

Plain language + every word must be given effect + presumption of consistent usage + harmonious reading.

The 2C Rule states "principal attribute." The section on Fighter explicitly calls Strength the "principal attribute" of the Fighter in a separate sentence than the requirement for Constitution. As I wrote above, three (3) classes explicitly have a textual hook.

ETA- You're looking at this the wrong way. You start by identifying the classes with a textual hook. Then you have to work to understand what it means when there isn't one.


Golden Procrastinator
That rule about minimum Dex for MU's is a bit weird (surprising, right?), because if you look at the the table on page 11, all classes (except for clerics) have a minimum Dex of 6.

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