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D&D 5E How to Rule: Three Ways to Adjudicate in D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So, earlier I had a post on skilled play ("SP"), which was a predominant modality of play in early D&D. I was hoping to explore how some of the elements of SP continue to be relevant to discussions that we have about 5e. Unfortunately, it didn't work out so well! At least, not in terms of the original topic. That said, it did get me to focus on what I was thinking of more specifically in terms of 5e, and rulings not rules, and DM heuristics.

Oh, one more thing- I use the terms 'heuristics' and 'DM heuristics' repeatedly. It's just a quick and fancy way of discusisng the internal 'rules of thumb' or 'shortcuts' that the DM is using. One easy example of a DM heuristic is the 'rule of cool' - some DMs will use a rule of cool heuristic and be more lenient if a player is trying to do something 'cool' (awesome, cinematic, fun).

1. The Original Problem, in three parts.
You can fool some of the people some of the time, and that's more than enough for a decent living.

D&D traditionally has a divide between subjects that the rules heavily prescribe, such as combat, and subjects that the rules do not heavily prescribe, such as the way that the plumbing system works in the world. Some rulesets are more light on prescription (OD&D, B/X) and some are more heavy on prescription (3e), but all D&D rulesets have that duality to some extent (between rulings and rules, between topics that are more rule-intensive such as combat, and topics that are not). This is partly due to the nature of TTRPGs in general - they are not circumscribed like a boardgame, and rely on a person (or persons, for some games) to describe the overall world. Since the world and the actions are not circumscribed, no ruleset can adequately capture everything that can be done. And this is partly due to the evolution of D&D in particular, and the need to rely on legacy aspects of the game.

With that in mind, there are three foundational issues that come up in D&D rulings. I'm not going to go into them in depth, as they aren't really the main focus of the post.

A. What is red, exactly?
To crib a little Gusdorf, language is imperfect. When I hear the word 'red' and when you hear the word 'red,' we both have similar images of colors- enough that we can communicate. Yet, the exact shade of 'red' that is in my mind will undoubtedly be different that what you picture. This is one way to describe the general loop in D&D-
a. DM pictures the scenario.
b. DM describes the scenario.
c. Player hears the scenario.
d. Player pictures the scenario.
e. Player describes player's action.
f. DM hears the player's description of player's action.
g. DM pictures how player's description of player's action will impact the scenario.
h. DM determines what to do- roll, ruling, rule, something else.
i. DM resolves the player's action.

Within that loop, there are numerous chances for a miscommunication, starting with the DM not describing the scenario (scene, encounter, room, etc.) that the DM has pictured in such a manner that the player will picture it in the same way. The vast majority of the time, this loop is simplified (combat, for example), or there are no issues. Nevertheless, imperfect communication, the inability to use language to convey what we mean with precision to each other, is always lurking in the background to these conversations.

B. A Ruling, or a Rule?
What is not a rule, we must pass over in silence. I'm not sure that Wittgenstein was thinking about D&D, but the phrase works well enough. The second issue that occurs in D&D is whether the issue is a ruling, or a rule. If it's a rule, there is a mechanical method of adjudication (the AC is X, so you must roll Y to hit). If there is no rule, or if the application of a rule is unclear, then the DM must determine what happens in the fictional world (The druid dons the metal armor ...). The boundaries of rulings and rules can be imprecise (is not wearing metal armor a rule? is setting a certain unspecified DC a ruling?), and issues often pop up in the liminal space between them.

C. Common sense is not so common.
Finally, we get to the third issue, one of the primary issues with "skilled play," and the one that gives rise to DM heuristics. Briefly put, when DMs are using their own common sense to make rulings, we often learn that so-called common sense isn't so common. On this, we can use the bat example:
A player says that he is casting silence on a swarm of bats that is attacking the party. How does the DM rule?

First, the DM might just look at the rules, not see anything in the 'natural language' of 5e with regard to bats and that spell, and say that nothing happens. But let's assume that this is a fictional world ruling, not just a keyword rule. Well-
DM A may not know anything about bats, and rule that nothing happens.
DM B may know that bats use echolocation to see, and rule that the silence has a devastating effect on the bats that is at least equivalent to blindness.
DM C may know a LOT about bats, and realizes that they aren't blind and the silence wouldn't effect the bats.
DM D also knows a LOT about bats, and thinks that while they wouldn't be blinded, the loss of their echolocation would be disorienting.

All four DMs are using their common sense of how the world works to adjudicate an action by the player, with disparate results. This type of issue (sometimes referred to, incorrectly, as "mother may I") will crop up in games whenever you move past the specified ruleset, and is why most DMs gravitate toward consistent heuristics for adjudications.

Before going into these methods (heuristics) for adjudication, I want to emphasize that these are best used in situations when there is doubt. In other words, when there is already a rule in place, or when there is already what seems to be a clear application of a ruling within the fictional world, there is no need to employ these heuristics.


2. Method The First: The Parent/Cop, "Just Say No."
Beloved by parents, cops, and authority figures everywhere (especially the DMV), the first heuristic is often the simplest. When in doubt, just say no. Saying no never causes any problems. If there is a rule that allows something, great! That's the rule. But what is not allowed is forbidden! The advantage of this heuristic is the simplicity of the application, and the lack of unintended consequences. I have often seen new(er) DMs employ variations of this heuristic, simply because it is very difficult to ad lib, to improv, and to make permissive adjudications on the spot.


3. Method the Second: Mills Lane, "I'll Allow It."
If you don't get the reference, there used to be a show called Celebrity Deathmatch, and they would have (real-life) boxing referee Mills Lane in claymation, and no matter what happened in the ring, Mill Lane would say, "I'll allow it!" This is the superset of the 'rule of cool' or 'just have fun' or 'fan of players' or the 'say yes' mode of DMing. In effect, if there is no clear reason to say no to a player's action, then you allow it. While this heuristic sacrifices simplicity, especially for the DM, it tends to encourage more creative play from players.


4. Method the Third: Roll Dem Bones.
The final heuristic is the old, "When in doubt, roll the dice." Most of the bespoke subsystems in OD&D and AD&D arose organically from the early application of this heuristic. In 5e, the setting of DCs (for example) is nothing more than a loosely systematized way of codifying this heuristic into a rule. The advantage of this heuristic is that is provides variance for the resolution of player actions that are outside of the rules- the disadvantage is ... it provides randomness to the resolution of player actions that are outside of the rules. It's worth breaking this down quickly-
It's fair, because the DM will be rolling, and not choosing (unlike the other heuristics). It's also unfair, because the DM will be determining what the roll is (thumb on scale).
It's interesting, because it allows for more emergent outcomes due to randomness, but it's also occasionally frustrating, as players may have less ability to understand what those outcomes might be (in contrast to other heuristics).


CONCLUSION- Why does this matter?
5e is a great D&D system, in that it empowers DMs to make rulings. Unfortunately, the core books tend to treat DM adjudication as some sort of ad hoc, case-by-base issue, when most good DMs eventually come up with systematized heuristics for determining resolution.

When I look back at the history of D&D, I often see a commonality in the types of DMs that most people consider "good." For example, going all the way back to Gygax, you will see that while his books often seem punitive or "Just Say No" in nature, his actual play employed "I'll Allow It," or "Roll Dem Bones," as needed. However, that's because he expected a certain level of engagement that was outside of the stated rules. If a table (the DM and the players) prefer a game that is heavily into the rules and clarity, you might expect that an approach that heavily relies on "Just Say No" would work.

I think it is helpful for DMs to think about the heuristics that they are using when making these adjudications. Not because there is a single best one, but instead because it is an often unexamined aspect of DMing in 5e that can have a massive impact on the way that the game is run.

Edited for typos
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Excellent post! Of course, this being the internet, I am contractually obligated to nitpick one tiny thing out of all the other, great stuff you said.
5e is a great D&D system, in that it empowers DMs to make rulings. Unfortunately, the core books tend to treat DM adjudication as some sort of ad hoc, case-by-base issue, when most good DMs eventually come up with systematized heuristics for determining resolution.
I don’t agree that most good DMs necessarily come up with systematized heuristics. Certainly many DMs do, and many of them are good. But many of them are bad, and many good DMs stick to ad hoc, case by case adjudication.

Take your Silence on a Swarm of Bats example (and set aside the fact that the rules of 5e at least are actually quite clear on what happens in that scenario). Is the game really better served by ruling “no effect” simply because the DM uses that heuristic consistently, than it would be to rule based on their (possibly incomplete) understanding of bats? I don’t think so.

Heuristics like this can be useful, but they can also be inflexible. I think it’s a good DM who recognizes when to employ heuristics and when to go with ad hoc rulings.
 


Minigiant

Legend
Great Post

I know one more Method that I've seen

The Genre Stickler
The heuristic is simple. You choose a genre or flavor of D&D and stick to it. Anything that matches the genre expectations suceeds. Anything that doesn'tmatch the genre fails. Anything not important to a genre is a 50/50 coin flip. Breaking genre tropes and expectations much be hinted at blantantly before it is done. If the game is a mashup of multiple genres and something conflicts, it's a coin flip.
 

Voadam

Legend
I think you missed a couple methods.

Method the fourth: The DM adjudicates.: Instead of a general no or yes or rolling a die the DM judges whether something seems reasonable to them and makes a judgment call on that basis.

So your four bat DMs seems to demonstrate that such an adjudication can vary by individual and situation.

This would have subcategories of a DM adjudicating based on what they consider reasonable real world effects of an action or genre appropriate ones, i.e. a rule of cool. Both of which could lead to different results.

Method the fifth: What do you think happens? A newer indie school way of sharing adjudication with the players by turning some resolution back to the group so that they can participate in more of the story shaping. This can be done as a sometimes thing and can be directed back to the player who initiated the action or to another player, both of which options have different impacts on the feel of play at the moment.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
At the start of a session (7:00), I'm a "roll them bones" DM. BY 9:00 I'm an "I'll allow it" DM. At 10:30 when the session is wrapping up I'm a "just say no" DM.

I always tell my players to try out crazy, rule-breaking stuff at the start of the session when I'm more awake!
It looks to me that the best time is mid session when you'll just allow it. ;)
 


It looks to me that the best time is mid session when you'll just allow it. ;)
Normally I'd argue this point but eh.... I'll allow it.

This just reminded me that with my first group apparently "I'll allow it" was a common phrase I'd use as a DM. I was totally unaware of this until they pointed it out to me.

Fast forward to my first year as a teacher. A kid asks me a question (something like asking if they can write with a marker instead of a pen) and I catch myself saying, "Yeah, sure, I'll allow it."

On the reverse of that, I invited one of my teacher friends to start playing D&D. This was her first game, along with some other first timers. When I started explaining the rules, she cracked up, saying that I had immediately switched into my "teacher voice!"
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think you missed a couple methods.

Method the fourth: The DM adjudicates.: Instead of a general no or yes or rolling a die the DM judges whether something seems reasonable to them and makes a judgment call on that basis.

So your four bat DMs seems to demonstrate that such an adjudication can vary by individual and situation.

This would have subcategories of a DM adjudicating based on what they consider reasonable real world effects of an action or genre appropriate ones, i.e. a rule of cool. Both of which could lead to different results.
While I’m a big fan of this technique, I don’t think it’s really a heuristic, as they’re being defined here.
 

Comparing DMing to teaching again, as a teacher I'm always seeking to put systems in place so that I don't have to make authoritarian decisions. If the students buy into the system, I can remind them of what the system "says" instead of forcing them to behave through my ego.

As a DM, I feel like the dice are that system. When in doubt, I'll have players roll. Even when success is guaranteed, I'll often have players roll, if only for descriptive effect. The Strength 18 barbarian can easily break through that old, rotting wooden door, but a 24 Athletics check is going to look a lot cooler than a 5.

On top of that, I apply the edict "everything should have an effect." If a player is going out of their way to try something, especially if it's at a cost (a spell slot, risk of HP loss, etc), then there will be an effect.

This effect may just be knowledge (you find out the enemy is immune to fire), or a cool visual, but more often than not I'll fall back on Advantage / Disadvantage... So in the bat example, if the character casts Silence on.the bats, I'll absolutely say "oh yeah those bats now have disadvantage to perception checks, that's a great idea."
 


Aging Bard

Canaith
The more you want to play an RPG as a game (and not a story), and to play skillfully (back to your OP), the more you need to convert rulings into rules that you carry into future play. Skillful play requires an understanding of opportunities and odds, and if these are inconsistent, the game boils down to convincing the GM to do what you want each time (Rule of Cool falls under this). I can understand some people preferring this latter style of play, but I don't.

If your players are constantly asking to swing from chandeliers, then you ought to have a rule to do that so that they know the risks and rewards. Crazy one-off requests probably don't need a rule. A compromise to making lots of new rules from rulings is to make the mechanic for rulings foreseeable. This is not a perfect example, but a group could agree that any action that requires a ruling will first be ruled as some kind of ability check. This provides foreseeability as to the mechanic, and probably the ability score as well, so the player can think ahead.

Here's a question I have, as I truly do not have enough experience with 5e to know the answer. The whole "5e is easy for new players to play" pitch is partially based upon the modularity and optionality of various 5e rulesets. Is it also the case that the return of rulings to 5e is also being used to simply avoid having to learn all the rules? We know that players will happily learns rules they like (character creation, combat), and if a player requests to do something complex, the DM can always default to ruling a DC check of some kind instead. That would be a new form of ruling if it is taking place, at least compared to older styles of play.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Here's a question I have, as I truly do not have enough experience with 5e to know the answer. The whole "5e is easy for new players to play" pitch is partially based upon the modularity and optionality of various 5e rulesets. Is it also the case that the return of rulings to 5e is also being used to simply avoid having to learn all the rules?

It's kinda the opposite.

It's often so players and DMs don't have to look up the rules because they are supposed to know them.
That's the goal of heuristic approaches. To increase speed and clarity without losing too much accuracy. The idea is that the rules are all supposed to be known because those are the things you can't speed up without being very inaccurate or unclear.

The conversion from ruling to rule is for when heuristics breaks down.
 

Voadam

Legend
Oh, one more thing- I use the terms 'heuristics' and 'DM heuristics' repeatedly. It's just a quick and fancy way of discusisng the internal 'rules of thumb' or 'shortcuts' that the DM is using. One easy example of a DM heuristic is the 'rule of cool' - some DMs will use a rule of cool heuristic and be more lenient if a player is trying to do something 'cool' (awesome, cinematic, fun).

While I’m a big fan of this technique, I don’t think it’s really a heuristic, as they’re being defined here.

Exactly. The point of heuristics is to make quick and consistent judgement without heavy thinking that are semi-accurate for what is needed right now.
I think DM adjudicates based on rule of cool fits heuristics as defined here.

In my experience "does it seem reasonable to you" whether in a realism framework or a genre framework is often a quick, easy to apply rule of thumb.

I use it often as my general rule of thumb for adjudicating situations quickly that are not straightforward rules applications.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think DM adjudicates based on rule of cool fits heuristics as defined here.

In my experience "does it seem reasonable to you" whether in a realism framework or a genre framework is often a quick, easy to apply rule of thumb.

I use it often as my general rule of thumb for adjudicating situations quickly that are not straightforward rules applications.
I guess I’ll let @Snarf Zagyg be the judge of if this fits with how they were using the term heuristics in their opening post, but to me, “ruling based on what seems reasonable” appears to be what’s going on in the hypothetical Silence cast on a swarm of bats scenario, which was specifically being used to demonstrate the need for heuristics. What seems reasonable will vary from DM to DM based on a lot of factors, including things like their knowledge of chiropterology.*

Now, to be clear, I’m very much in favor of the “does it seem reasonable to you?” guideline. I just think it’s the exact opposite of what Snarf is defining as a heuristic here.

*again, for this specific example, we have to ignore the fact that the 5e rules are actually quite clear on what happens to a swarm of bats when silence is cast on them. Namely, they can’t use their blindsight
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
I don't think your 3 methods are always distinct, and can often be combined into a consistent rule.

Example: swinging on a rope across a gorge (which did not have a rule in older editions):
Case 1: 5' across--automatic success in almost every case
Case 2: 200' across--tell the player this will fail and then let the player fall where they may
Case 3: 30' across--DM decides that 10-50' require a Str or Dex check, set the rules, and use them going forward

As a player, I'd prefer knowing this up front as opposed to relying on the DM being consistent, and I'd also prefer it as a DM.

However, your bat example is really excellent and shows how my preferred approach ultimately cannot escape making some rulings. In an ideal world, your bat example should be part of the ruleset about bats. But there is no way we can matrix every monster with every possible effect. Conditions and statuses reduce the complexity, but they still can't handle all cases. Any your example continues to be excellent because it solidly shows that DM skill and knowledge matter and will always be a variable across tables.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I guess I would say I base my heuristics on a different standard: what type of movie or TV show am I trying to emulate. Although maybe that's just genre. :unsure:

In other words, am I trying to replicate the look and feel of a relatively realistic war movie such as Saving Private Ryan? A action flick like the Die Hard movies (or LOTR)? Superhero Avengers? Wire fu Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Over the top anime?

So for me I do action movie logic most of the time. What the PC is attempting has to look plausible even if it isn't particularly realistic. This seems to fit the feel of D&D to me. You can even see that moment in a lot of action sequences where the protagonist fighter gets that second wind because he just had a memory of that puppy he had when he was a kid or something.

But it's also a mix. Once I make a ruling, I like to stick with the theme for the campaign. I think consistency in rulings is important unless you realize that it was just a bad ruling. In addition, there are times when I will do a timeout and ask the group what they think the ruling will should be. I always warn them though, whatever we decide works for the enemy as well, so just keep it in mind.
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I guess I’ll let @Snarf Zagyg be the judge of if this fits with how they were using the term heuristics in their opening post, but to me, “ruling based on what seems reasonable” appears to be what’s going on in the hypothetical Silence cast on a swarm of bats scenario, which was specifically being used to demonstrate the need for heuristics. What seems reasonable will vary from DM to DM based on a lot of factors, including things like their knowledge of chiropterology.*
The bat scenario doesn't even fall within any of his three DM ruling methods.

Player: I cast silence on the swarm of bats.
DM: I'll allow it.
Player: Okay, what happens?
DM: ...

Player: I cast silence on the swarm of bats.
DM: No.
Player: Er, that's what my PC does. I control his actions.
DM: ...

Player: I cast silence on the swarm of bats.
DM: Okay. Roll for it.
Player: Roll for what?
DM: ...

Lots of situations fall outside any sort of set rules and rulings, and have to be ruled on as best the DM can, and the bats scenario is a perfect example of that. And would be happy with a DM ruling B, C, or D, happily and quickly educating him if he tried A. As long as the DM is trying to be both reasonable and fair, I'm okay with things, even if they don't match reality exactly.
 

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