How do you extrapolate from existing rules to cover new situations?

Ask the gamemasters

Recently, Campaign Mastery was asked,

If a giant has rapid shot can he throw 2 rocks in a full round action? (d&d 3.5)

This sparked some debate over whether Campaign Mastery should answer rules questions of this sort; we aim to deal with big-picture and comprehensive situations where our experience can be of benefit to others, not rules lawyers. The question itself is a minor rules interpretation, but it’s suggestive of a bigger issue: how to extrapolate from the official rules to cover more unusual situations. This is a skill that’s an essential tool in every GM’s armoury, and very much something Campaign Mastery should deal with. So that’s what this Ask The GMs post is about.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

There are 9 steps that I got through when seeking to answer a question of the sort that’s been asked here.

1. Identify an analagous question

This determines where you should look for past rulings that might shed light on the question at hand. If it’s a task, the analogy would be skills rules. If it’s repelling a creature with some force that is anathema to it, the analogy would be clerical turning. If it’s a question of whether or not a combat modifier applies, look at other combat modifiers that only apply at certain times, if a saving throw, look at other saving throws, and so on. Here, the question is exactly what the rocks are to a giant – are they like sling bullets or are they improvised missiles; and whether or not the “rapid shot” feat can be applied to them.

There are big differences between sling bullets and thrown rocks of any size, especially the absence of a sling! If the rocks are considered a weapon, perhaps a spear would be a more appropriate analogy. If they are not, are there any other instances of rapid shot being valid with other improvised missiles like vials of holy water?

2. Review the relevant official rules

Having identified the relevant areas of the rules, the next step is to take a look at what is actually written about them. Here the relevant sections are the Monster Manual, where it talks about Giants’ rock-throwing abilities; the Player’s handbook for the rules on Rapid Shot; and the DMG for anything on improvised missiles.

(Later) The Monster Manual describes the rock throwing ability as an Extraordinary Ability, which (according to the DMG) is a non-magical ability that requires a character to take a new class to achieve. Examples include a Monk’s ability to evade attacks and a Barbarian’s uncanny dodge.

The DMG only mentions thrown items in conjunction with ‘Splash Weapons’, which are explicitly defined in such a way that rocks are definitely not included. And the Player’s Handbook states explicitly that Rapid Shot permits a ranged weapon to be used with exceptional speed.

Since using extraordinary abilities is not the same thing as using a weapon, I would be immediately predisposed to say ‘no, rapid shot can’t be used with giants rock-throwing.’ Considering the analagous situations of a Monk using rapid shot with his ‘evade attacks’ – does this make sense to anyone? It sounds pretty nonsensical to me. Normally, this would be the end of the process, since I seem to have immediately skipped to the last step, of making a ruling.

Side-Note: Flavour Text is rules, too
This example clearly demonstrates a point that needs to be made to every D&D GM: Don’t ignore the flavour text! Looking at the game mechanics for “Rapid Shot” doesn’t answer the question asked, and the same is even more true of many other feats, not to mention prestige classes and spells!

3. Review the relevant house rules

The next step is to check the house rules. Every campaign has these, whether they realise it or not; the DMG lists a number of optional rules, usually in sidebars. Each decision about whether or not one applies to a campaign defines a specific house rule for a campaign!

When I first come up with a concept for a new campaign or a strange game setting within an existing campaign, and have considered the big-picture implications for questions such as ‘How does magic work’ and ‘What are the gods’ (not who are the gods!), I also review the standard rules, looking for any hidden assumptions that might conflict with the game setting, to generate more specific house rules. Add to these any precedents and rules interpretations made on-the-fly at the gaming table.

Furthermore, some house rules are applied to many campaigns by the same referee, making them ‘global’ instead of campaign-’specific’, and some might be applied by multiple GMs within the same gaming group, making them ‘universal’. So there are many sources of house rules, and they all have to be considered.

Yet another source of House Rules is the decision of which supplements (or parts thereof) are to be accepted within the campaign, and which are not. For example, I don’t permit much from The Book Of Exalted Deeds and it’s counterpart, The Book Of Vile Darkness; too much of the contents look to be game-unbalancing or too extreme for my taste.

Any serious GM will keep some form of written record of these house rules so that they are all in one place for easy referance, and are usually organised in some manner that makes sense to the GM – usually, but not always, in the subject order of the official rule books. So far, we have five subjects to look up: Giants, Feats, Rapid Shot, and Extraordinary Abilities.

5100ezjx4plIn this case, a quick glance at one of my favorite supplements, The Monster’s Handbook by Fantasy Flight Games, locates chapter 7, ‘Giants’, and a subsection, ‘Feats’, and a paragraph that reads (in part):

While rock throwing is not a giant’s most potent attack, feats such as Rapid Shot and Precise Shot make giants much more effective with their missile weapons without harming their melee abilities. Stone Giants, in particular, gain a lot from this change.

This is a book that tells GMs how to customise and up-scale a given encounter. So I have a house rule that explicitly permits a Giant to take and apply the Rapid Shot feat to its rock-throwing ability, but which requires a reassessment of the CR of the encounter.

4. Examine the underlying assumptions

Just because a supplement I usually take at face value says it’s ok, that isn’t an automatic ‘yes’. What exactly is involved for a giant to throw a rock, anyway? What could make that process more rapid?

Well, if the rocks are piled up at the giant’s feet, they would have to bend over, pick up a rock, and then throw it. That probably requires both hands, not because of the weight, but in order to get a grip on a more-or-less round surface. Or perhaps they are hurling them like shot puts, which requires the giant to spin around more-or-less in place. Neither of these visualisations makes the case for permitting rapid shot to be very persuasive; but perhaps, if the giant had someone else picking up the rocks and dropping them in their hands, or perhaps if they weren’t using the shot-put method and had the rocks in easy reach, with holes in them for a grip, like bowling balls.

All of these convey the feeling of scrambling to justify something. Furthermore, there’s nothing in the monster manual to suggest that there’s some limit to the rocks that Giants have available – what, do they just magically appear, ready to throw? But wouldn’t that make it a supernatural ability and not an extraordinary one?

That suggests that the giant has to have a supply of rocks that they carry with them, or they can’t throw them – the giant-sized equivalent of sling bullets. And if that’s the case, there is no reason why they can’t be worked to permit a one-handed grip, and that in turn would justify a giant using rapid shot. Rocks that are more cylindrical in shape than round would certainly solve the grip issue, for example.

Getting extra value from the process
Aside from its value in terms of assessing a proposed rules interpretation for common sense and hidden assumptions, this step of the process often yields additional value for the referee. In this case, there are four benefits that come to mind:

  • Evidence Of Stoneworking: Finding a lot of stone chips can be used to forewarn characters of the presence of Giants in the vicinity. Even if no encounter with the Giants eventuates, the paranoia and caution that results can be extremely useful to the GM.
  • Encounter Signature: When a rock comes sailing out of the darkness, or off the edge of a cliff, just about anything from any strong creature to a mechanical rock-thrower can be responsible. Having a shaped rock gives the attack an immediately-recognisable signature, and it might also be accompanied with a signature sound – all effects that help make the encounter memorable for the players and help with the believability of the game world by engaging the character’s other senses.
  • Societal Impact: As background to an encounter setting, having Giants sitting around teaching the young how to shape rocks for throwing helps make a village setting dynamic for the PCs by giving the NPCs something to do. There will be some who are better than others, and perhaps even a unique industry. There might be slight differences to how different subtypes of giant approach the task; Stone Giants might buff and smooth and polish and grind their rocks and carve elaborate decorations into them, while Hill Giants adopt a more jagged, rough-hewn approach. These trivial distinctions add to the atmosphere and uniqueness of encounters with Giants.
  • Unique Tools: It would not be surprising for the more intelligent giants to evolve unique tools for this particular purpose. What else can the tools that result be useful for? Perhaps a sculpter adopts a particular set of tools and arrives at a distinctive style. Perhaps Giants can contribute to a broader economy by being able to produce more effective millstones, or cheaper ones. And counterweights. And anything else that can be carved from stone. These would also influence the architectural style of a Giant settlement. More on this sort of interpretation can be found in one of my prior blogs for Campaign Mastery: Distilled Cultural Essence Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
5. Dissect the proposed action

So there have been reasons found within the rules to say that the answer to the question is “no”, but there have been solid advantages found in campaign terms to justify a house rule permitting it, and a precedent in a game supplement that forms a fundamental part of my campaign structure.

So what exactly is being proposed? That the culture of ‘Giants’ within the campaign be extended to include ‘rock carving’ as a key component, and used to differentiate between Giant subcultures; that the Extraordinary Ability to throw these rocks be defined as a form of weapons use, and that the ability be eligible for the Rapid Shot feat provided that these prepared missiles are used. Giants would be able to utilise any rock they happened to pick up for throwing, but would not be able to apply the “Rapid Shot” feat (even if the character had taken it) except to the prepared weapons. This would also necessitate adding a line to the racial profiles describing how many prepared weapons a Giant normally carries, ie how much ammunition they had available.

6. Assess the campaign

The next step is to look at the campaign itself, at its background and history, and to determine whether or not there have been any precedents set. Would introducing these house rules violate any historical element? Would any encounters with the PCs have played out differently, either directly (because Giants who should have taken ‘Rapid Shot’ did not) or indirectly because there was no sign of these cultural and industrial activities when the PCs visited a Giant village or encountered Giants on a prior occasion? If yes to any of these questions, is there a workable explanation, if one is needed (i.e. if I decide to incorporate the proposed house rules)? Finally, do I have any planned encounters or plots that would be damaged or derailed by incorporating the rules?

The answers are different, according to which of my campaigns I am considering. In the Shards Of Divinity campaign, the PCs have encountered (and were temporarily enslaved by) Hill Giants who had no such industrial activities. The encounter described the Giants as very primitive, culturally, and they did not throw rocks at all. It would not be inappropriate to give them a better level of adaption to the desert and describe them as a new subculture, or to simply exclude Hill Giants completely from the house rules (they are just too primitive). In the Fumanor campaign, no Giant settlements have been discovered by the PCs, and there is no historical reason in the campaign background to say ‘no’ to the proposal.

7. Assess personal preference

Having established the implications of the proposed house rule for the campaign and its background, I next consider my personal preferences. Sometimes I will simply not like a rule, or will consider it to impact too severely on game playability. Sometimes I will feel that it runs counter to the spirit of the rules, or of the campaign. In this case, none of this is a problem; because, in fact, it helps make Giants distinctive, I actually quite like it.

However, I don’t want every Giant to be able to do this. If a Giant with an appropriate character class level wants to expend a feat slot so earned, that’s one thing; giving standard Giants a free feat is quite another.

8. Make a ruling

At this point, I have decided to incorporate the potential for ‘Rapid Shot’ to Giant Rock throwing, having expanded the description of the creatures and their culture to accommodate it. It’s worth observing that my position on the question has completely reversed since I announced a finding of ‘No’ under the standard rules, back in Step 2.

9. Add ruling to the house rules

The final step is to actually write up the decision – whether it was ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – in the house rules, together with all the relevant rules and a one-sentence outline of the reasoning or justification, and insert the ruling into the collected body of house rules and campaign notes. This means that I don’t have to waste time revisiting the decision in the future, if the same question comes up; and it prompts me TO reconsider the ruling’s appropriateness when using those house rules as reference material for developing a new campaign.

(Sometimes I will deliberately say ‘no’ to a house rule imported from a previous campaign while developing the core concepts of a new one just to differentiate the two, and then see where the implications takes me).

In conclusion

A strict interpretation of the official rules answers the question, ‘Can Rapid Shot be applied to a Giant’s ability to Throw Rocks?’ with a fairly strong ‘no’. However, there is a lot of justification for permitting a ‘yes’ case – with restrictions – to be added to the House Rules of a campaign. Furthermore, some game supplements explicitly define a ‘yes’ case. The final choice will vary from campaign to campaign and from referee to referee. Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? Well, maybe….

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Thorough answer as usual Mike! I’m a bad GM in that I haven’t done a lot with rules in the past few years. Time is at a premium due to weekly production of the Roleplaying Tips e-zine, writing, and working on session planning, plus all the other things that fill life up.

Fortunately, my group lets me get away with it.

For D&D 3.5 and 4E I learned the basics and learn new rules each game session. Idle players do rules lookups for me and other players. For tricky situations, I make an arbitrary ruling pretty quick, open the floor up for comment for a minute, and then call it resolved. Group memory helps us keep the game consistent. Between sessions some sleuthing might be done, which can overturn previous rulings.

If a ruling gets overturned, we usually discuss it by email or while a session is starting up and people are unpacking their books, etc.

I should probably switch to a rules-light RPG, heh, butD&D is what we know and has never failed us for being a giant bucket of fun.

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