Think Things, Not Words

(This is a post about rulings in D&D 5e, I promise.)

In 1899, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote the lines “We must think things not words, or at least we must constantly translate our words into the facts for which they stand, if we are to keep to the real and the true.” We live in a very different age where justices allow textual minutiae to erode and diminish the rights secured by past generations’ efforts, then chide the upset citizenry for not knowing that words are more important than things. But that’s a little too significant for this blog.

Almost as significant as that moustache! (Portrait of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., sporting a Wario moustache in white)

It is relevant, though. For the life of D&D 5e, official rule interpretations have come in the form of Sage Advice, mostly tweets from D&D’s Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford. These are compiled into the Sage Advice Compendium, here. As of this writing, the most recent compendium update was released in April of 2020.

The vast majority of Sage Advice’s rulings are fairly noncontroversial, but there are a few that leave you scratching your head. There’s a theme to some of the most egregious of these outliers: they rely on the text of the rules as written to justify an awkward, clunky distinction that doesn’t really make sense based on the apparent in-universe rules of “how things work.” They are rulings based on words, not the actual things the words represent.

A Hero Is Only As Good As His Weapon

The best known example may be the paladin’s Divine Smite ability. The text of the rule reads “when you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack, you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon’s damage.” So the question came: Can a paladin use Divine Smite when they hit using an unarmed strike? Well, in the combat chapter, the PHB tells us “Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike.” In other words, whether you use a weapon or an unarmed strike, that is a melee weapon attack, so either fulfills the requirement of Divine Smite.

And this makes sense, right? What god insists on the use of handheld weapons to the point that they withhold their paladins’ ability to smite enemies if they head-butt them instead of smash them with a hammer? Let alone all gods, since this would apply to all paladins! That’s a pretty arbitrary, if not outright silly limitation. Divine Smite imbues divine energy to a paladin’s physical attack, whatever form that takes. Any other ruling would also create a strange, new distinction between a “melee weapon attack,” which includes unarmed strikes per the combat chapter, and an “attack with a melee weapon,” which does not. Textually, conceptually, structurally, and practically, Divine Smite on an unarmed strike is the clearer, more sensible, more consistent rule.

But it’s not the one Sage Advice went with. You see, according to Sage Advice, “the text of Divine Smite…refers to the ‘weapon’s damage,’ and an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon.” (Compendium, p. 5). Sage Advice gets stuck on the words in the rule, that it refers to “the weapon’s damage,” which must be different from an unarmed strike’s damage, even though they are both melee weapon attacks. If the rule had meant to include unarmed strikes, I suppose it would have said “you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon or unarmed strike’s damage,” or “in addition to the attack’s normal damage,” or something else. But since it said “the weapon’s damage,” well, I guess poor Sage Advice’s hands were tied.

(“Is he though?” still from Thor: Ragnarok)

Paladins got a slight nerf and the category of “attack with a melee weapon” was distinguished from “melee weapon attack,” because Sage Advice answered the question by thinking words, not things. Never mind that the words in Divine Smite were likely drafted without knowing what the combat chapter’s final text would say about unarmed strikes, and likely by a totally different person or even team than whoever wrote the unarmed strike rules. No, Sage Advice instead insists that this was a thematic choice, that paladins are traditionally associated with weapons so the game wouldn’t support unarmed paladins, and not an interpretive choice wherein Crawford answered a question by strictly following a slightly contradictory text. That is difficult to believe, and if true, a bad reason to burden us with “attack with a melee weapon” anyway.

But even more egregious than Divine Smite is what this textualist approach did to magical effects in, say, an antimagic field.

Works Like Magic (Except When It Totally Doesn’t)!

According to antimagic field‘s description, “[s]pells and other magical effects, except those created by an artifact or a deity, are suppressed in the sphere and can’t protrude into it.” There are some further rules describing how spells and other magical effects are suppressed, but that’s the relevant takeaway. So the question comes to Sage Advice: is the breath weapon of a dragon magical? Is it a “magical effect” for antimagic field and similar purposes?

A great question, since “magical effect” is not defined in the rulebooks. There are a number of things to think about while answering it: dragons are inherently magical creatures, and breathing fire or ice or acid or sleep gas seems like a part of their magical nature. At the same time, every elf also has Fey Ancestry which gives them apparently magical immunity to charm and magical sleep effects. Is that also a “magical effect” suppressed by antimagic field? Elementals are beings of almost pure magical energy, are they suppressed, as well? Magic infuses every inch of D&D worlds, it is part of their fundamental make up, yet obviously antimagic field doesn’t blink everything in its radius out of existence. What about a monk’s ki effects? Druid’s Wild Shape? A paladin’s aura? Bardic Inspiration? We have to draw a line somewhere that feels right and that DMs can apply at their own table.

Or we could do what Sage Advice did and make up textual rules about whether something is magical. There are 5 ways an effect can be magical, and if it doesn’t fit any of those 5, then it’s not magical. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it a magic item?
  2. Is it a spell, or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description?
  3. Is it a spell attack?
  4. Is it fueled by the use of spell slots?
  5. Does its description say it’s magical?

If at least one of the answers is yes, the feature/trait is a magical effect. So, a dragon’s breath, it turns out, is not a magical effect since it is not described as “magical” in its statblock or any of the other criteria. (Compendium, p. 20)

But as is often the case when you impose strict textual rules of interpretation on rules written years before by different people in different phases of development, these rigid rules lead to some weird results!

For instance, a bard’s Countercharm ability, whereby you use “musical notes or words of power to disrupt mind-influencing effects[,]” is now not magical. A Light Cleric’s Warding Flare or Life Cleric’s Divine Strikes? Not magical. When a Tempest Cleric takes flight via Stormborn? Also not magical. The Eldritch Knight Fighter – you know, the one who casts spells – gets the ability to teleport when they Action Surge, but it’s not a magical teleport, apparently, just one of those mundane teleports. A paladin’s Lay On Hands is not magical, nor is the Vengeance Paladin’s ability to transform into a winged form with a frightening aura. An Archfey Warlock’s Misty Escape, whereby they become invisible and teleport, is not magical, nor is the Fiend Warlock’s Hurl Through Hell feature which, as you can guess, hurls enemies through hell. All of this can happen in an antimagic field, apparently. Bizarrely, teleportation is one of the specifically enumerated effects of antimagic field, even though some teleports are, by Sage Advice, not magical!

(Woman with math meme)

“OK, fine,” you might say to yourself, “imposing that rule backwards may not work very well, but I’m sure specifying what is meant to be magical became standard practice after that Sage Advice, right?” Well, that Sage Advice response first appeared in 2015, over 2 years before the first major expansion, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, was released. That book featured the Barbarian Path of the Ancestral Guardian, whose key feature, Ancestral Protectors, summons spirits who protect you. It just does so non-magically, apparently. The Grave Cleric can harness the energy of a departing soul to heal others, and this is also not magical. A Hexblade Warlock can raise an undead specter to be its servant all without magic.

Suffice it to say, things don’t get better in Tasha’s, either, in fact it introduces psionic subclasses which are a whole new gray area. Material being released today is just as random on the Sage Advice magical effect criteria as the material that predated it. And this list is by no means exhaustive. There are dozens more class features that are clearly magical in concept but are not technically “magical effects” per Sage Advice. I haven’t even looked at monsters yet, but I assume the problem is just as rampant there.

When PCs are teleporting, hurling fools through hell, and raising spectres and you’re calling that not a magical effect, but a Totem Warrior Barbarian speaking with animals is since the latter directly cites a spell, the term “magical effect” has lost all practical meaning. These are not even the close calls that rules clarifications are helpful for. Sage Advice never should have defined “magical effects” by tying it to the specific words a dozen or more authors happened to use in descriptive text written across the many years of the edition’s lifespan. The results are absurd.

Now, I’m a lawyer, I get where Crawford’s coming from: in an ideal world the words we use to codify rules would perfectly express the scope of what we want the rule to do, so the rules text itself can provide the answers without having to engage with the inherently fuzzy concepts directly. He wanted to find an answer in the words, not the things the words represent, just like a Supreme Court Ju–no, sorry, not getting significant. I get that impulse for easy analysis, but in any sprawling system, the easy answer will often lead to more confusing, less beneficial outcomes. In Justice Holmes’ words, it loses “the real and the true.” Sometimes it is better to let judges just roll up their sleeves and make substantive judgment calls in context.

“I never broke the rules! I AM THE RULES!!” (Judge Dredd)

That means the “rule” on magical effects should have addressed things, not words. Something like:

  • If an effect is accomplished by material, mundane, or mechanical means, it is not a magical effect; but if it is accomplished by applying some source of supernatural energy, whether arcane, divine, mystical, or otherwise, then it is a magical effect.
  • For example, all spells channel arcane or divine energy, so spellcasting is magical, as is any feature or trait that mimics a particular spell or is fueled by spell slots. Likewise, any effect that calls for a spell attack or a save against a Spell DC channels magical energy.
  • Some features and traits are magical even if they don’t refer to spellcasting: a druid takes the form of beasts via Wild Shape, clerics and paladins can Channel Divinity, and Pact of the Fiend warlocks can send their enemies on a trip through hell.
  • Supernatural energies include more than just the arcane and divine, e.g. the mystical or psionic. A monk’s ki powers and a mind flayer’s Mind Blast are also magical effects since they manipulate those energies.
  • Just because something seems unrealistic does not mean it is not mundane in D&D worlds. Realistically, a creature built like a typical fantasy dragon would be unable to fly. But what matters is that dragons have wings, which are a mundane means to fly. Unless something suggests otherwise, creatures with a mundane means to accomplish an effect use those means, and creatures with a magical means to accomplish an effect use those means.
  • When a creature has both mundane and magical means to accomplish an effect, it may help to compare the effect to other effects the creature has to decide which means is likely producing the effect in question.

Thus, the analysis of a white dragon’s Cold Breath would go something like: while we could imagine a mechanical or mundane means of spewing an icy blast at a foe, nothing about a white dragon suggests it has such means. On the other hand, white dragons create icy effects similar to their Cold Breath in their lair and region as they grow in power, which certainly seem to be supernatural. Since the white dragon’s other ice effects appear to be accomplished by magical means, and no mundane means of blasting ice is suggested by what we know of dragons, the white dragon’s Cold Breath is a magical effect.

(Spongebob Squarepants making a rainbow with the words “It’s Magic”)

Maybe you would draw the line slightly differently, maybe “magic” is really only about drawing on external energies and therefore inherent magic like a dragon’s breath or a monk’s ki or an elf’s fey ancestry would not count as “magical effects.” Or some other mental model entirely.

The point is not to draw the perfect line between non-magical and magical effects, the point is that the rules and/or DM rulings should define that line in terms of the fictional things that are happening and not by the words a given author happened to use to describe them.

And that has become very apparent with the updated monster stat blocks! A lot of good changes in the new blocks, but magic is a much more mixed bag. Spellcasting monsters’ key spells will be turned into unique Actions to make them easier to run, while other, mostly out-of-combat utility spells, will be in the general Spellcasting Action. I’m all for making spellcasters easier to run, and Actions written out in the block beat just a spell name I have to look up every time. But changing key effects from spells to non-spells changes things a lot, especially when the new write-up forgets to describe an obviously supernatural effect as magical. Now it’s no longer a spell, no longer uses a spell slot, and isn’t written as “magical,” which makes it not even a magical effect! The old War Priest was, for all intents and purposes, a War Cleric who would be just as affected by antimagic field as the party’s War Cleric. The new one, OTOH, would not be much affected since its at-will Holy Fire attack is neither a spell nor a magical effect, according to Sage Advice.

Enough is enough. Sage Advice put out a rigid, text-based definition of magical effect that was wildly inconsistent with the game as it was written then, has not been applied since, and now the textual and mechanical lines between mundane and magical effects are being blurred even more with the new evolution. DMs shouldn’t follow that Sage Advice, and the new evolution of 5e should write a rule for magical effects and then ensure that magical effects actually follow it.

My definition and ruling are by no means perfect, there are still edge cases like paladin auras or bardic inspiration that you could argue either way for. But when stuff is already published and you’re just looking to interpret it, clear concepts with some unclear application is ultimately preferable to a crystal-clear-to-apply but frequently absurd answer. DMs have to make up how to award magic items and had to invent how stealth is supposed to work entirely: we can decide whether an effect in the narrative and rules is accomplished by mundane or magical means.

Keep to the Real and True

I’m a proponent of robust rules, but no TTRPG can cover everything and making rulings is an important skill for every DM. Unfortunately, 5e really doesn’t provide much guidance on how to make one or how to communicate one. Sage Advice are official rulings: they’re not binding, but they’re a model of rulings. While most Sage Advice is perfectly reasonable (where the rules actually answer the question), occasionally the insistence on ruling from text instead of from the fiction creates absurd results.

Justice Holmes gives us a better way: think things, not words. Understand the rules are imperfectly trying to reflect the fictional world, and that world can and should be the foundation of your rulings, not just the letter of the rules text. Paladins can Smite with their fists. Lay On Hands is a magical effect. Sage Advice can just be wrong. Death to textualism.

(King Theoden shouts “Death!” at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Return of the King)