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)

Rulings Require Rules

I hate disagreeing with Matt Colville.

One, because he is an unprecedentedly wonderful resource for GMs, by all accounts a top-rate employer, and an exemplary creative professional. Two, because he so often gets things perfectly right and I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying Matt Colville is fundamentally wrong-headed and not worth listening to. Three, because he takes criticism kind of poorly and his community, which I consider myself a part of, is very defensive of him. In his “Language, Not Rules” video posted yesterday, he says “Take [this video] in the spirit it is meant . . . you are encouraged to disagree loudly.”

So here I go.

I Actually Agree a Lot

I disagree with that video’s conclusion, but I agree with a lot of the specific points he raises and I think he and I would ultimately come pretty close to agreement if we had a dialogue about it. He is right that 3E’s “a rule for everything under the sun” approach bogged down the game in minutiae and litigation, that rules are a language we use to communicate our role play, and that mastery of language means knowing how to break the rules to invent new expressions. He’s right that minutiae like the comma in “Let’s eat, grandma” can be omitted without anyone thinking you are suggesting cannibalism. He’s right that there is no reward for playing 100% by the rules, and that getting them right is not required to have fun.

Perhaps most of all, he’s right that you should not “waste time looking [rules] up, just guess, and if you’re familiar with the rules, your guess might not be ‘correct’ but it will be ‘good’: your players will think ‘that’s fair,’ and you can move on.” That’s what a good ruling is, and he argues, ultimately, that good rulings are what make RPGs work, not getting the rule for every possible scenario “right.” In fact, he argues that whatever rules are there are just the spelling and grammar of an emergent spoken language that can’t be perfectly described by the rules text, only indicated or approximated: the rules don’t matter themselves, they only suggest and prompt the emergent gameplay at the table. Thus “rulings, not rules.”

The Dark Side of “Rulings, not Rules”

I wholeheartedly agree that 3E’s maximalist approach went well past the point where additional detail’s marginal benefit in terms of robustness and predictability sunk below its marginal cost in terms of rules look-ups/memorization and disputes. I don’t want to return to that. However, I would suggest that “rulings, not rules” simply replaces one extreme for another.

Take the classic example of a DM imposing “realistic” limitations on feats of martial prowess while allowing magical power to increase freely since that’s what the rules indicate and the magic doesn’t run up against real-world baggage in the DM’s mind. Perhaps a more even-handed DM imposes a risk of madness when a mage uses powerful magic. But even then, PC abilities are now like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously available and not available until observed, contingent on getting the DM’s buy-in. Players have traded disputes over hard-wired rules for negotiations over quantum rulings.

What is lost in that mode is not just the players’ entitlement to the shiny buttons on their character sheet, i.e. their most direct ability to self-express, but also the players’ ability to solve problems creatively. If there are no rules for digging holes in the ground, PCs may never realize they can bypass a dungeon level by doing so, and even if they do they will have to play Mother May I to see if it might succeed. If there are no rules for what acid does to objects, it will be much harder to rely on it in concocting a way to escape the prison of the usurper king because if you pitch it to the DM who had a big thing planned in the dungeon, they might say it doesn’t work that way simply to keep you aimed at what they have prepped. Creative applications of known quantities – not undefined suggestions – are the building blocks of the kind of schemes that are at the heart of so many excellent, dramatic D&D stories.

I think Colville might agree with that in theory, but say that it’s still an improvement over death-by-rulesphyxiation, and that training DMs to be more consistent and more sensitive to and encouraging of players’ fun can prevent the bad scenarios. Lots of tables did it right back in the day, after all. It’s a personality problem, a table problem, not a design problem or a systemic problem. The language metaphor would come up: mastery of language is not obeying every rule but using novel variations of the basic rules to better express oneself. The DM and the players have to have the negotiation to truly explore and express the drama of the story they tell. But I think the problem is systemic, that the old days were full of bad tables as well, and applying individual fixes to systemic problems is a recipe for frustration and failure. I don’t think that means we need to pre-solve every rules problem with a right answer, though.

Laying Down the Law

I have a degree in the Chinese language, so I understand the language metaphor. I also have a degree in law, and I think law is the better comparison, and not just for the obvious reason that they’re both systems of rules. The law is made of rules, yes, but society uses the law’s rules to organize activities with many participants. And not just for the sake of a fair competition, but for people who want to cooperate to achieve a goal together. When two savvy businesses enter into a contract, neither of them is controlling or policing or gatekeeping the other, they are clarifying their agreement very precisely and making their cooperation as predictable as possible. Predictability enables and encourages action in a group.

But complexity undermines predictability. Law, like 3E, wants to create the perfect answer for every scenario ahead of time, so while any question has a theoretical answer, the process of making an agreement is so complex that it’s difficult to predict what will end up happening anyway. It requires immense knowledge of a complicated ruleset to execute the kind of interactions both sides want. That, frankly, doesn’t benefit the law that much, and it is certainly unacceptable for TTRPGs, where the game moving forward is more important than the answer to any one question.

That’s where rulings come in. But first, let’s talk about language as self-expression.

Fickledorfs and Padawaggers

The audience of a play or a novel or a YouTube video is passive, and the context of the invented expression will passively inform its contours. The precise meaning is unimportant because the author will simply avoid scenarios where “blue flavor” could be ambiguous, like referring to a sad flavor as well as referring to blue raspberry. But RPGs are not passive experiences, they are participatory. They don’t just tell stories, nor are their rules just there to generate improv prompts. They also create expectations and inform choices, inform role-playing.

If you’re called up on stage at a game show and told to use the fickledorf to shmurt the padawagger, you will be lost until you see more context, like a hammer lying next to a nail. But if there is a hammer, a saw, and a pair of scissors on one table and a nail, a log, and a piece of paper on the other, suddenly the invented language isn’t clear anymore because it’s no longer confined to a context that makes it clear; any one of the former could be the fickledorf, and any of the latter the padawagger you must shmurt. The language is no longer actionable, and the game can no longer be played, because neither the text nor the context give foreseeable meaning to any choice.

Rulings Require Context

We communicate a lot, if not predominantly, through context. That’s why “let’s eat grandma” is not confusing, even without the comma. It’s not that commas are actually meaningless, it’s that context does the heavy lifting despite the text. And so it is in RPGs: rulings rely on mechanical and fictional context. Good rulings flow from good rules. Colville even says good rulings come from familiarity with the rules, and the players’ response to a good ruling is “that’s fair.” And that is telling; in Colville’s own description, the DM is pitching a novel mechanical resolution and the players are assenting to it based on what, exactly? Based on the context of the rest of the game’s rules and the fiction. The DM is resolving this action in this way because that is how similar actions are resolved in the rules. That’s why it’s “fair;” it is precedented, it is foreseeable; it is consistent with other, similar resolutions.

Good rulings flow from good rules.

Rulings are a useful tool in a DM’s toolbox: use the rules you know to resolve an action whose resolution is unclear, either because you don’t know the rule or because there is no rule or because the actual rule is terrible and doesn’t fit the fiction, or whatever other reason. Good rulings fill in the creases and gaps in a necessarily limited rule-set in a foreseeable way that is substantially consistent with that rule-set and the fiction of the game.

In general, though, rulings supplement rules, they don’t displace them. The rules establish the baseline expectations for both players and DM, the foundation on which players make role-playing choices and DMs make rulings.

What Even Are Good Rules?

3E’s problem wasn’t that it wanted to give DMs the tools to adjudicate any scenario, it’s that its tools were too specific, they couldn’t be generalized. You had to learn each of them, and they tended to be complicated in their operation to ensure every angle was covered. The 4+ step process to grapple is the most famous example, but building monsters was also frighteningly complicated with the number of feats and other rules you had to track and apply properly. The rule-set was robust, sure, but its tools and processes were just so needlessly difficult to learn and difficult to use.

The ideal is a rule-set that resolves similar things similarly and simply, that naturally creates the model for further rulings. Fifth Edition made a wonderfully flexible, easy-to-use mechanic in Advantage/Disadvantage, but then also adds a bunch of other ways to improve rolls, like Bardic Inspiration (+d6-d12, depending on level), the bless spell (+d4), and the Archery Fighting Style (+2), among many others. It’s inconsistent on when rider effects on monsters’ attacks , e.g. vampires and vampire spawn have multiattack and can choose to grab a target they hit in lieu of dealing damage, whereas the mind flayer’s tentacles attack deals damage and grapples and has a chance to stun the target. How stealth works is infamously open to interpretation. And let’s not get started on “melee weapon attacks” vs. “attacks with a melee weapon.” While it’s got a fraction of 3E’s complexity, it still has a lot of fiddly, inconsistent rules that offer little guidance for rulings in a game that explicitly endorses rulings over rules.

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a more consistent approach. Bonuses and penalties are condensed into a system of boons and banes, e.g. d6s that are rolled with the d20. You take the largest d6 result and add it to or subtract it from your d20 roll, depending on if you rolled boons or banes. Spells like bless, advantageous positioning, the aid of a comrade, those all give you a boon or two, consistent across the board. 5e would benefit from adopting that consistent approach, both in terms of setting expectations for players to be creative around, and in terms of making ad hoc rulings easier to be consistent about.


I think on some level Colville would agree that neither absolute rules fidelity nor absolute rules freeform is ideal for most groups. Whether you lean on rules or rulings, what you want is a consistent, predictable mechanical context in which to explore dramatic situations without bogging down the free flow of the narrative aspects with either extensive litigation or negotiation.

To my mind, that means a well-defined ruleset that uses similar building blocks as widely as possible to create clear expectations and predictability on both sides of the screen. The drama and shock and surprise should come from the choices of characters and the dice, not the ad hoc resolution mechanics.

Rulings are integral to any TTRPG, but they are ultimately tools that serve their greatest purpose in the context of consistent, clear rules. Jettisoning the latter and filling in everything with rulings can work, just as the opposite can work with the right group, too, but common, shared, comprehensible rules that set expectations for actions and for rulings will facilitate action, and thus, in the semiotics of TTRPGs, communication, more than rulings or rules alone.