Friday, August 29, 2014

Common Sense vs. The Rules, or How The AngryDM Blew My Mind

Love him or hate him, you can't deny the fact that the AngryDM is a Dungeon/Game Master that adores his craft. Sure, maybe at times he takes a bit of a Gygaxian approach (or seemingly so) and he is definitely out there for a form of gaming that is too hardcore for some, but at the same time the more I read his tweets and his rants the more I find myself nodding along and going "Yeah, I'd love to play in that kind of game." The kind of no holds barred game where every encounter is the monster pulling every dirty trick to kill you and if the PCs lose the entire world - a world the DM put hours of work into - can just vanish in a puff of smoke.

Even with that, one of his recent rants included something so simple that it had completely bypassed me years ago so completely I didn't even think it was possible. The thing in question? Well, it was this question: If you're stealthed and sneak up on an unsuspecting person do you have to make a check/attack roll to kill them?

My Answer
Over the years my answer to this question has been "yes, of course you do." I mean, after all, we have combat rules for a reason complete with special mechanics for things like Rogues getting critical hits in and damage multipliers and all that jazz. So yeah, you sneak up on the person, make your attack, add the sneak attack bonuses and see if you kill them. I've held this as a core belief so firmly that it has actually irked me before in systems that knives in situations like that just weren't lethal enough.

AngryDM's Answer
The AngryDM on the other hand said that he'd have them make the stealth check and that is all that would be needed. The person is completely unaware, and someone good enough to sneak up on them that well (let's assume at minimum a 3rd level rogue) should also be good enough to slash a throat without much fuss. Angry clarified that a person in full plate, or someone with protection for their vitals would change it back to an attack roll (because there is a passive defense in the form of the armor) but ultimately, with an exposed vital, no check is really needed.

The Argument
The argument comes down to the simple statement of Common Sense vs. The Rules. See, like me the Angry DM is a strong supporter of rule 1 (rule 0? The one that says the DM is the final arbiter of the rules and all outcomes) only he actually explores the full meaning of that. To him that means - and I am starting to agree - that the DM is the person who determines resolution. The rules are there to help determine resolution and the DM can employ them, but the game is benefited more from Common Sense when it can work then not.

For example, it is common sense that if you have fully snuck up on someone and they're unaware of you that you can probably take them out quickly and quietly (stealth check!) An alert person is another story, but for the most part if your thief/assassin is good enough to get close, they should be good enough to slit a throat. This is the same way that a sleeping person should also be supremely vulnerable

But when does it fail? Well, in a post Angry made (linked here) he goes on to explain the three types of rules. Rules of Resolution, Rules of the Impossible, and Rules of Structure. Structure is what gives the game its flow (initiative, charachter sheets, etc) and help the game move. Imposisble is how we resolve things we have no basis for comparison (elves, magic, etc.) And Resolution is everything else, like what happens if I hit a guy with a baseball bat.

Games get weird though when Common Sense (i.e. what we all think should be the outcome) conflicts with what the book says is the Rule for Resolution.

For example, who here thinks that killing a naked man in his bed while he sleeps is hard, assuming you've already managed to make it into his room and are armed with a sword or a gun. Anyone? I mean, sure, there is the moral and honor dilemna, but let's be honest with ourselves. The person is unaware, prone, and helpless. Not only are they incapable of defending themselves, they don't even know that they can and should be doing so.

And yet, I would be willing to bet in that exact situation in most games you'd be rolling either for an attack or at least for damage. Which means that you have this person in a situation that everyone knows means the victim should be dead, but in truth a bad die roll (or just not an exceptionally good one) means the target doesn't die, calls for the guards, and you die in the botched attempt.

And so the GM in that situation should step in, say eff the rules, and proceed with common sense, no?

It Cuts Both Ways
This effectively goes both ways. In Angry's post he cites an example where a person wanted to jump a 30' river and he just said no because it was impossible. Now the world record for a long jump is about 25-30' and considering that was done by someone who trained specifically to jump long distances, as unweighed down as possible, and wearing much better gear for the process that ruling makes sense to Common Sense. But a lot of game systems have rules for extending your jump range and they make it mechanically possible to do just that.

For things like that you need to decide if that is the kind of game you are running. Narratively it makes sense for the person to hit in the river somewhere, swim the rest of the way, and go from there. Mechanically it says roll the dice. But what is better?

This isn't a question about realism. Everyone likes realism until it goes against what they want to do in game, and then we get the arguments about fireballs, sorcerors, and flying dragons being realistic. No, this is a question of consistency. If you rule in favor of Common Sense in place A, you should be ruling in favor of it in place B as well (unless we don't actually have common sense because it actually involves magic or something.) Consistency is key for all games.

So how would I handle the long jump? I'd make the player roll a check. They'd likely not clear the whole distance, but could go a good ways, and then they'd have to swim. If they rolled super mega ridiculously well I might give it to them with the dice, but then I learned a lot about GMing over the past weekend at GenCon and I'm not sure how much has settled into my GMing technique just yet.

Time will tell, but I do know that if nothing else I have a much stronger appreciation for the rule of common sense and the GM as the final arbiter of the rules, resolutions, and how they apply.


  1. So I'm not sure if the blog is eating my comments or what. I'll try again...

    I'm a fan of the concept of letting the killing blow occur with no need to involve the dice, but I wonder how players would feel if the same ruling was applied when their character is the victim?

    Detailed blog post where I further develop my concerns:

    1. Great point. Consistency would seem to dictate that if an NPC makes their Stealth check on a PC, then that PC is automatically dead. We all know that's not going to fly.

      Perhaps this is the reason to still require an attack roll against that unaware opponent - because the players want that benefit for themselves.

    2. It's not set to eat comments, not saying google isn't doing it but it's not intentional.

      As for the players, I imagine it would depend on the players. Like I said though, the most important thing here is consistency.

      If I were to be using this rule I would give the player a last Perception check vs. the person's stealth (just like I would in reverse) and that would be it. For that to happen though the PCs would have to be in a place where they could be reached by said stealthy person and asleep.

      My group may be paranoid, but they tend to follow a "watch" schedule even when they're in Inns.

    3. Very much agree on consistency.

      Even if there was a PC posted on watch, that seems like it would mean something like an opposed roll of attacker's Stealth vs the PC-Watch's Awareness. If attacker prevailed, thereby sneaking past the PC-Watch, then presumably there'd be an opposed roll of the attacker's Stealth vs. the PC-target's probably significantly penalized Awareness (not only are they not alert, they're asleep). If the attacker prevailed, then the PC is automatically slain.

      If, for whatever reason, there's not a PC on watch, then it's just the one penalized opposed roll to determine if the PC lived.

      It's reasonable, I think, mechanically & logically. Just wondering what players' reactions would be to their quick quiet demise from just a roll or two...maybe just one penalized roll.