I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

RULES TRUMP COMMON SENSE

Yes, you've read that right.

Regardless of what people might say, this is how most RPGs work - and that DEFINITELY includes "old school" RPGs.

It's pretty obvious when you think of it, but I've heard the contrary repeated so many times that I think it is worth addressing. In fact, I think this is so obvious that a few people will find it hard to see - like a fish trying to discern water, to use a common metaphor.

A few points that might make things even clearer:

* Most of the process of playing RPGs is made through conversation, with a fair amount of common sense. This does not require using rules, so there is no conflict.
* If the rule comes into play, they trump common sense. You'll choose the rules over common sense almost all of the time; if the rule becomes too absurd, you either make an exception or create a new rule. You do not use common sense to overcome the rules often. If you do, the rules are either bad or a bad fit for your group.
* Of course, the rules must be used WITH common sense. Most of the time, you'll use BOTH. It is also good if the rules are BASED on common sense, but they might also be mostly abstract. Does a sword to the gut kill you? Well, it depends on your HP.
* You also use common sense when there is NO clear rule.
* Frequent use of common sense to replace the rules may lead to GM tyranny, but may also lead to greater freedom for the players - it all depends on the specific examples (see below). This doesn't change the point I'm making.


Let me give you some examples.

Combat: How many attacks can a fighter make with a sword or dagger in six seconds? What about a dagger? Can you shoot a crossbow four times in six seconds? Is a short-bow any faster? The answer is found in the rules, despite what common sense or real life might indicate.

Weapons and armor: do you benefit form using a helmet or from taking it off? Can you use padding under plate to improve your AC? Can you attack twice in the same round by using a rapier in one hand and a dagger in the other? This is determined by the rules.

Movement: How many feet can you move in a second? How many miles can you travel in a day? Look at the rules. The answer is only 42 if the rules say it is.

Falling and other hazards: can you survive a 200 feet fall? Three days or 30 days without food? Check the book.

Encumbrance: can you carry 150 pounds without ill effects, or 50 pounds are enough to slow you down? Depends on the rules you're using.

Conflicts: how often can the Str 13 paladin beat the Str 14 demon when arm wrestling? What about the Str 8 wizard? And what if each of them is attempting to perform a similar feat of strength? Jus do whatever the rules tell you to do.

I think that's enough to make a point. Let us discuss a few related issues.

GM tyranny x  Player Freedom

Ignoring the rules in favor of perceived "common sense" may make the PCs feel powerless and frustrated.

- "What do you mean my Str 13 paladin has no chance against a Str 14 demon? Don't I get a roll?"
- "Penalty for traveling in armor? Since when? I wish I knew that when I made my character!"
- "So, I get 10d6 damage from the fall and... Dead? But I have 70 HP left!"

If the GM decides to change the rules, we should do it in advance, with player's consent, or both.

On the other hand, the GM is free to ignore rules in order to allow PCs to do things the books forbid. For example, you may want to treat a rapier as a light weapon when holding a dagger in the other hand in 5e, or allow an elf with a Charisma bonus, instead of Intelligence. But it doesn't hurt to do so in advance, to, to allow all PCs to benefit.

These changes to the rules are usually made with balance, not only common sense, in mind. Can the wizard use Wisdom instead of Intelligence to cast spells? Probably not.

If you follow this blog, you may have noticed that I allow wizards to use swords too. Common sense says this is obvious - but, again, the rules trump common sense, so your wizard can only use a sword if the GM allows.

Reductio ad absurdum. Magic and the gods.

There are extreme cases in which the rules will be so absurd that they should obviously be disregard - for example you shouldn't be able to break a wall with a whip in most circumstances, but you might do it with a pick, no matter if they both deal 1d6 damage (for example).

This is a small minority of the cases. Most of the time, they both deal 1d6 damage and that's that.

If the rules require common sense to fix all of the time, they are bad rules. If a rule says "if you roll a natural 20 you can achieve anything you want", this is a bad rule. If a rule says "if you roll a natural 20 you can achieve anything you want, within reason", this is not a bad rule, but an incomplete rule that requires common sense to actually use. You might say that "within reason" is implicit - in this case, the rule is just badly written.

There are also rules meant to fill any gaps in other rules - Moldvay's "there is always a chance" comes to mind.

Of course, intentional misuse of the rules are the fault of the users, not the rules!

- Using a helmet gives you +1 AC!
- Cool! I'll fold this piece of paper into a helmet!
- ... Yeah, this is not a helmet.

Magic and the gods may change the rules of the universe, but, ordinarily, they cannot change the rules of the game. If Thor has 100 HP in your game, he should die after taking 100 points of damage. If he has no stats... then it's up to the GM.

To roll or not to roll (shades of gray)

Sometimes, it isn't clear if you should use the rules or common sense. I've wrote a post on that a while ago. But, basically. it's not black and white.

But I like changing the rules!

Me too! That is why I write lots of house rules which, in my opinion, make more sense than the ones used in the game. Still, these are rules. They are BASED on common sense, but they are not common sense, they are rules.

In any case, I'd be curious to hear from you if you think common sense trumps rules (except for extreme cases).

14 comments:

  1. Do you change common sense to match the rules, or do you change the rules to match common sense?

    Answer that, and you know which trumps the other.

    Rules exist to allow us to understand and interact with the game milieu. There is not always a 1-to-1 parity with real life. Scratch that...there is never a 1-to-1 parity with real life, nor would it be desirable that there should be.

    Where the rules offend common sense, the rules must shift.

    Where common sense offends the rules, the rules must shift.

    You make an interesting argument here, but not one I find compelling. Cheers!

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    1. Well, Iam not sure we disagree. Give me some examples; my point is that most examples will be extreme cases, and you shouldn't be frequently changing the rules to match common sense. Common sense would make combat, falling, HP, etc., all work differently.

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    2. Some of those examples, I note, are questionable. Hit points, for instance, do not tell you whether or not you survive a sword through the gut. They tell you whether or not that sword stroke is through the gut.

      The only reason you shouldn't be frequently changing the rules to match common sense is that the rules should already do so as much as possible.

      It should be noted that "common sense" is not "reality", either in game or out.

      In particular:

      > Do you benefit form using a helmet or from taking it off?

      Probably. It depends upon the circumstances. A game need not have a rule about doffing helmets to listen at doors for the GM to take it into account. Nor does a game need to have rules about helmets providing specific benefits for the GM to include them when it makes sense.

      > Can you use padding under plate to improve your AC?

      Normally, that padding is there to prevent the armor from hurting you when it absorbs a blow. I assume that it is there already.

      > Can you attack twice in the same round by using a rapier in one hand and a dagger in the other? This is determined by the rules.

      Rules attempt to come up with ways to handle these things, based in general upon common sense.

      > Movement: How many feet can you move in a second? How many miles can you travel in a day? Look at the rules. The answer is only 42 if the rules say it is.

      Some sets of rules may attempt to codify every circumstance. Others provide a general answer, based on the author's view of common sense, and assume that the GM will modify that circumstantially - again, based on common sense.

      > Falling and other hazards: can you survive a 200 feet fall? Three days or 30 days without food? Check the book.

      Why do you have to check the book?

      > Encumbrance: can you carry 150 pounds without ill effects, or 50 pounds are enough to slow you down? Depends on the rules you're using.

      Depends on the suspension of disbelief at the table, which in turn depends upon common sense. The rules might say you can carry X pounds without penalty, but the GM might point out that that long rolled up carpet is too bulky for you to do so.

      I know of at least one ruleset that explicitly tells players to use their common sense.

      > Conflicts: how often can the Str 13 paladin beat the Str 14 demon when arm wrestling? What about the Str 8 wizard? And what if each of them is attempting to perform a similar feat of strength? Jus do whatever the rules tell you to do.

      Just use your common sense to tell you if the general rules apply.

      Again, where the rules offend common sense, the rules must shift.

      Where common sense offends the rules, the rules must shift.

      You make that point yourself.

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    3. Thanks for the detailed reply!

      Well, I agree with most of what you're saying - if I get this right: the rules should be based on common sense. I also think they should be used WITH common sense. But they aren't meant to be REPLACED by common sense often.

      When the rules "tells players to use their common sense" they are saying: "there are no specific rules for this, you're on your own here (but you should be fine)".

      One example from my game:

      "Most of the time, the weight a character is carrying can
      be ignored unless it is metal armor, bulky or numerous
      items, or any heavy burden. If this is the case, the GM
      might assign consequences based on common sense, or
      use the rules below."

      So, I am explicitly recognizing the rules limitations in this regard. Yes, in corner cases - carrying a carpet, for example - you cannot solve the problem with the rules. But most of the time you do not need to rely on common sense since there is a table saying exactly how much heavy armor weights and how that weight affects you. If PCs were to carry lots of carpets, I'd make an explicit rule about that instead of relying on common sense.

      Other examples:

      Helmets: you mentioned "Nor does a game need to have rules about helmets providing specific benefits for the GM to include them when it makes sense" - it seems to me that a helmet should give you specific benefit in every fight. But this is not adjudicated via common sense: ordinarily, you rely on the rules to know the armor's AC. Likewise, a helmet shouldn't impair your hearing if that's not in the rules, IMO - even tough it might be common sense.

      Falling and other hazards: you said "Why do you have to check the book?". This is a thing I mentioned in the post. If your fighter expects to suffer 10d6 damage from falling (or 30 days without food), it seems unjust to me to kill the PC outright because common sense dictates they shouldn't survive.

      Combat: you've said "Rules attempt to come up with ways to handle these things, based in general upon common sense." Yes, but you see - when you enter a fight, you rely on rules, not common sense, to make an attack. It doesn't matter if the rules say you can attack once every minute (OD&D) or four times in six seconds (D&D 5e): you follow the rule despite what common sense might indicate in one case or the other.

      A PC once asked me (in OD&D) "can I hold two swords and attack at the same time?", showing me the movement with his hands. I've said "no", not because this style might be sub-optimal in real life, but because the rules forbid you to do that. Were we playing 5e, I'd allow it if he had the right feat.

      You see, if my answer was based on common sense, it would be the same despite the edition. But the answer is strictly dependent on the rules.

      There's another point I should have made clearer: my common sense isn't necessarily the same as yours. So, how would you deal with my Str 13 versus Str 14 example? What about Str 8?

      It seems to me that if the rules say you get a chance, then you get a chance - even tough it might seems absurd. If it seems TOO absurd, then you must CHANGE the rule by creating ANOTHER rule, not simply adjudicate the result based on common sense ("well, Str 14 is obviously stronger, so he wins").

      The gist of the post is this: the rules are meant to work as written 90% of the time, despite of what common sense might say. Common sense will apply without any reference to the rules most of the time. But actually changing the rules to fit common sense should be a rare occurrence - if you're changing the rules often, you might be using the wrong ruleset.

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  2. Rules aren't meant to be replaced by common sense often, because if they are often replaced they are not performing their function as rules. However, that function is subservient to common sense, and the rules must be replaced when they offend common sense.

    As I said earlier:

    Do you change common sense to match the rules, or do you change the rules to match common sense?

    Answer that, and you know which trumps the other.

    No set of rules is going to cover everything, nor would such an unwieldy mess be desirable if it existed. We have all, myself included, allowed the rules to occlude common sense from time to time, but I would contend that this is a mistake. Rather than disallow the two-weapon attack because it is not in the rules, you should have generated a rule to allow it.

    We both agree that "the rules are meant to work as written 90% of the time", but we disagree with your caveat of "despite of what common sense might say."

    The rules are meant to work as written 90% of the time *because they are written to avoid offending common sense 90% of the time*. In fact, I would say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of the point I am making:

    "if the rule becomes too absurd, you either make an exception or create a new rule. You do not use common sense to overcome the rules often. If you do, the rules are either bad or a bad fit for your group."

    It acknowledges that if common sense is offended ("the rule becomes too absurd") it is the rule that must change, not common sense.

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  3. Lets examine something else:

    > Falling and other hazards: you said "Why do you have to check the book?". This is a thing I mentioned in the post. If your fighter expects to suffer 10d6 damage from falling (or 30 days without food), it seems unjust to me to kill the PC outright because common sense dictates they shouldn't survive.

    Your specific quote includes "if your fighter expects". This acknowledges that what is "common sense" within the game milieu may differ from what is "common sense" in the real world. That can obviously be influenced by the rules.

    The problem here is that the outcome offends common sense for the GM, but not for the player. I.e., they do not share a common sense of common sense. This is a problem that could easily have been sorted by the GM selecting a ruleset that doesn't offend his common sense, by discussing the relationship or the rules as written with what might be considered common sense in the real world, or by selecting players with similar ideas of what common sense means within the context of the game.

    But, please note, it is the expectations - common sense - that you are pointing to as being important.

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    Replies
    1. You make some fair points. The thing is - I do agree that common sense trumps rules sometimes, but these are exceptions, not the norm.

      Let me try to pin down where we disagree.

      "No set of rules is going to cover everything, nor would such an unwieldy mess be desirable if it existed" - I agree; however they should cover MOST of the situations we will encounter in any given game.

      "Rules aren't meant to be replaced by common sense often, because if they are often replaced they are not performing their function as rules." - Well said, that's exactly it.

      "However, that function is subservient to common sense, and the rules must be replaced when they offend common sense.[...] Do you change common sense to match the rules, or do you change the rules to match common sense?" - I will acknowledge that yes, you can change the rules to match common sense, and of course you cant' change common sense; however, my point is that this should be a rare occurrence.

      Most times, you have to take the rules for what they say despite common sense (this is probably where we disagree, as you've said).

      I think the best examples is combat. I disagree that you need to create a rule for two-weapon fighting; "there is no utility in the game for using a sword in each hand" is a viable answer.

      Also, think about one-minute rounds: how many attacks can you make? "One" is not what most people would respond if using common sense.

      I think the best objection to this is "but the rules are abstractions!", and yes, that might be the reason why we must choose the rules over common sense instead of the other way around. We TRUST the rules to replace our common sense in most (but not all) cases.

      "This acknowledges that what is "common sense" within the game milieu may differ from what is "common sense" in the real world. That can obviously be influenced by the rules. [...] But, please note, it is the expectations - common sense - that you are pointing to as being important."

      I don't think that's the case. We don't accept the 10d6 falling damage because we think physics work differently within D&D (although they certainly do), but because the rules say so. A more sensible rule - say, 1d6 Con damage, save for half - would be equally valid.

      I'm not sure if you meant "game milieu" as in "our table" or "Greyhawk", for example, but adding sensible falling rules for humans in Greyhawk wouldn't significantly change the setting.

      I do agree that I'm pointing expectations to be important, but I'm talking about one particular expectation: that the rules will be followed despite circumstantial objections, and only be overruled in favor of common sense in extreme cases.

      (please let me know if I missed some point you think should be addressed).

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    2. I would say that we do not trust the rules to replace our common sense, but rather to conform to it.

      For falling rules, by the way, the best rules I know of are in DCC RPG. The general rule is 1d6 per 10', but every "6" indicates a broken bone. I have survived a 35 foot fall onto concrete, and in game terms I suffered 3 breaks (18 points of damage), although in real life two of those three breaks were actually multiple breaks in the same areas.

      But...and this is important....those really significant falls in DCC? No hit point damage is given in the adventures. They fall to their (likely) deaths.

      The "recover the body" roll may be seen as violating the common sense of the real world (although, again, I survived), but it doesn't violate the common sense of the literature the game is designed to emulate.

      And, again, there is a simple test to determine whether or not rules trump common sense: If a rule offends your common sense, which is most likely to change for the other?

      More house rules have been proposed to fix falling damage, btw, than any other rule in the game. At least in my experience. And, in my experience, it is because we *don't* accept 10d6 damage as reasonable.

      The more a rule offends common sense, the more we attempt to find something that does not.

      This is a good, and friendly, discussion. A rare thing on the Internet, and I thank you for it.

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    3. If you read your DMG, you will discover that Gary Gygax addressed the 1 minute round, and the number of attacks actually made within it. The attack roll doesn't represent your only attack, but rather your best attack (or series of attacks against the same opponent).

      Gygax was attempting to conform to common sense.

      Many games now use 10-second or 6-second rounds now. Again, this is because the more a rule offends common sense, the more we attempt to find something that does not.

      Every time we set common sense aside to accept a rule that makes no sense to us, the rule trumps common sense. Every time we change or ignore a rule because common sense needs to be satisfied, common sense trumps the rule. In my experience, the latter occurs far more often than the former. Your mileage may vary.

      4th Edition included tons of rules that violated common sense. That definitely turned me off.

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    4. These DCC rules are awesome - and man I am glad you made it!

      You make a good point about both falls and 1-minute rounds, which is (I think): rules that offend common sense makes people want to change it.

      I agree that this is the sentiment, but the sometimes the rules are kept. I certainly have my own house rules for falling damage, but in 5e D&D falling is still 1d6 per 10 feet, and its playable.

      Likewise, 1-minute round (and HP, and every other abstraction in the game): I think they work because we accept them as they are instead of comparing them to what common sense would dictate (for example, common sense might dictate two sword expert to have at least a minimal chance of dying within five minutes of combat, or something).

      "Every time we set common sense aside to accept a rule that makes no sense to us, the rule trumps common sense. Every time we change or ignore a rule because common sense needs to be satisfied, common sense trumps the rule. In my experience, the latter occurs far more often than the former. Your mileage may vary. 4th Edition included tons of rules that violated common sense. That definitely turned me off."

      Yeah, this is exactly the crux of the matter. Maybe our disagreement here is mostly semantic: for me, every time I accept my 7th level fighter has no chance to kill the 2 HD bandit within a minute, or no chance to get meaningfully hurt from a 40 foot fall, I'm leaving common sense aside to play the game, with the rules as written.

      I think you might be right in the sense that, when we stop to think and compare, common sense wins. I think that most of the times we accept the rules automatically (and "unconsciously"), tough - so they (stealthy) win by default. This is probably a necessity, otherwise the game would be unplayable, as you've said.

      I also agree that 4e went too far in the other direction, so there might be a limit to rules trumping common sense. On the other hand, 4e has plenty of fans, so our opinion is definitely not universal. This game is a good example on why sometimes you must take the rules over common sense - it would clearly be impossible to play 4e without leaving common sense aside most of the time, in my opinion.

      In any case, thank you too! It's good to be able to have a friendly discussion, hear different opinions, and reflect on all this stuff.

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    5. The argument at this point is mostly semantics, I would agree. (And I mean "argument" in the sense of a reasonable discussion or debate!) I found your blog post thought-provoking, but I think that the purpose of rules is actually to allow the participants to engage the fictional milieu, and that this requires the rules to mesh with common sense enough to do so. The harder it is to mesh a rule with common sense, the harder it is to accept that rule.

      Re: Your 7th level fighter and the 2 HD bandit: The 2 HD bandit could, presumably, have 2 hp and has an average of 9 hp. In DCC, a warrior gains a Deed Die which is added to both attack roll and damage. It starts with 1d3, but becomes higher every time the warrior gains a level.

      With a longsword, your warrior can do 1d8 + 1d3 at 1st level with a single attack. At 7th level, this is 1d8 + 1d10 + 1. Strength modifiers may also apply.



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    6. You're right about my example; wasn't a good one, specially in DCC.

      I think you might be mistaking personal preference with an universal rule - but since I prefer rules that mesh well with common sense, its hard for me to actually defend those which don't, except to say that I think games such as 4e have their fans - one of my friends played all editions and prefer 4e over all (this is not meant as a jab against 4e, BTW, just something we commented above). Also, the "1d6 per 10 foot fallen" is popular until today because people accept it for waht it is - a simple rule within a game.

      I am probably repeating myself here, sorry... I think we've made our points. Anyway, that was enjoyable.

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    7. Agreed! Thank you for the thought-provoking and civil discussion. All the best to you, sir!

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