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

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I play by the Yes-No-Maybe rule.

I adjudicate everything narratively. If it sounds plausible, then yes, it happens. If it sounds implausible, then no, it doesnt happen.

Only, in the rare situations where it seems like the possibility could go either way, do skill checks then come into play.

This approach also keeps the story in focus.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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: ...
I think it’s pretty obvious that in that situation, the “just say no” heuristic would translate to the spell having no effect, the “I’ll allow it” heuristic would translate to the spell accomplishing whatever it is the player was trying to use it to do (in this case, presumably shut off the bats’ blindsight*), and the “roll for it” heuristic would translate to the DM calling for a check, and the bats’ blindsight being shut off on a success.

*which I must again emphasize is objectively the correct ruling in this case, so a heuristic shouldn’t even be needed
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.
I agree with you, I’m just clarifying my understanding of how @Snarf Zagyg appears to be using the term “heuristics.”
 

Mercurius

Legend
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.

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.
You said what I was going to say, and probably better. Thanks for that.

I kind of see it similar to point-of-view in books, specifically omniscient vs. limited. I find limited easier to write well in that it has a build-in methodology for defining the scope of perspective, but it is more, well, limited in terms of what you can write. Omniscient, on the other hand, can do everything limited can do, but adds even more freedom to write outside of a viewpoint character. But it is tricky and requires a bit more finesse, and can easily become awkward.

The approach you speak of here, which is the general approach I take, is akin to "omniscient." It can and will employ specific heuristics, but isn't tied to any one. Of course it can be viewed as inconsistent, depending upon how the players respond, so requires a certain degree of finesse and balance.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

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.

So what I was thinking about when I wrote the thread was the following-

1. In the world of corporations, it is a truism that you'd rather deal with a consistent and bad law, than an inconsistent and arbitrary law that might occasionally be good. When people first hear this, they are often surprised; by definition, bad laws are bad! But consistency is such a virtue that the consistent application of "badness" is preferable to arbitrary application of occasional "goodness." You can plan for, contract around, avoid, and have settled expectations regarding the bad law. On the other hand, when the law is arbitrary and inconsistent, you got nothing. Any upside for the company is negated by the inconsistent application- since the company can't assume the good application, and can't plan for the bad application, it's in the worst of all possible worlds (or, at best, it always has to be planning for the absolute worst application). This is a long way of saying that consistency is an overlooked virtue.

2. I think that there are two general types of ad hoc rulings- those that are using unexamined heuristics (type A), and those that are inconsistent, arbitrary, and capricious (type B). Type A rulings are those made by DMs that believe that they are employing a case-by-case method of adjudication, but are, in fact, using certain internal rules of thumb (heuristics) in order to achieve relatively uniform results. They may not have interrogated their own internal processes very much at this point in order to tease out what it is they are doing, but they are in doing it. Type B rulings are those that are truly ad hoc; there are no heuristics being employed by the DM, and every adjudication is a new walk in the park, the result being unpredictable and unknown.

3. Moving from 1 & 2, I look to the players at the table. The consistency of adjudication by the DM matters greatly to the players. A DM that is predictable in the results (at least in the process) invites the players to perform to a certain standard; inconsistent and arbitrary rulings are more frustrating to players than "bad" rulings. Using the Strict/Permissive binaries above as exemplar heuristics, a DM using a strict heuristic will likely foster a table that sticks to "by the book," while a DM using a "permissive" heuristic will likely foster a table that goes beyond the rules more; a DM that inconsistently applies ad hoc rulings, however, will most likely engender that type of "mother may I" resentment at the table, as the players will never be certain how the DM will rule.

4. As with most of my posts, I present the typology mostly for discussion. I don't think these categories are all-encompassing or that most people fit neatly within only one of them. Moreover, the main purpose is to get people to think about, well, thinking. Too often most DMs assume that every ruling they make in D&D is an ad hoc ruling; unlike other games, there is just the division of rules and rulings, and it is not very clear what factors the DM is supposed to use to make those rulings (unlike other games, which make it explicit with guidelines like, 'The GM is a fan of the players'). I think it is a helpful and important exercise for DMs to interrogate the assumptions and heuristics that they use when making rulings. I know that it was a few decades in before I even started thinking about it!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

This is an interesting question, and I suppose it depends upon whom you ask (and, for that matter, whether they are fans, or not fans, of the 5e approach).

I would say that at first approximation, the answer is "yes." 5e can be incredibly simple to run in terms of the player-facing rules. I don't want to oversell this point; it's still a crunchy system in comparison to other, "rules-lite" systems. But having repeatedly run 5e for brand-new players, I can say that in terms of "D&D," it may be more crunchy at than, say, B/X, but otherwise can be simplified down to the very basics for new (or young) players.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
*which I must again emphasize is objectively the correct ruling in this case, so a heuristic shouldn’t even be needed

Small sidenote- this came up way back in another edition, so I hadn't bothered to look at the new MM for it. That said, the new MM brings up a slightly different issue. If you notice, "senses" (such as the Bat) can be either 'sole senses' or additional senses.

The giant centipede, for example also lists blindsight (and is arguably fully blind and without eyes). Dragons also have blindsight yet have eyes.

If a bat is deafened, that means it can't use its blindsight. But can it see with the same felicity as the party (assuming light sources, etc.)?

Any way, I need to find a different example. :)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Small sidenote- this came up way back in another edition, so I hadn't bothered to look at the new MM for it. That said, the new MM brings up a slightly different issue. If you notice, "senses" (such as the Bat) can be either 'sole senses' or additional senses.

The giant centipede, for example also lists blindsight (and is arguably fully blind and without eyes). Dragons also have blindsight yet have eyes.

If a bat is deafened, that means it can't use its blindsight. But can it see with the same felicity as the party (assuming light sources, etc.)?
Yes, otherwise its senses would say “Blindsight X feet (blind beyond this radius.)” See oozes for an example of this.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
-
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.
We can probably improve the situation by changing some of the above steps to a different process:

a. DM pictures a change in the scenario
b. DM presents the change
c. PCs hear the presentation
d. PCs picture the change
e. everyone discusses evolution of scenario
f. DM asks for rolls if necessary
g. everyone discusses outcome of the rolls

In this method, the DM doesn't need to say no or allow things, because the group has determined where the story should go. Also, since the PCs contribute to the scenario, there is less discrepancy caused by miscommunication.
 

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