Tuesday, 30 November 2021

The Core and Penumbra of Meaning

To bastardise things slightly, the English legal philosoper HLA Hart described rules as having a "core" and "penumbra" of meaning. At the core, everyone can agree what the meaning of the words are. At the penumbra, they can't, and will have reasonable disagreement. Hence, consider the rule, "No vehicles in the park."

Everybody knows this means that cars, trucks, buses etc. aren't allowed in the park. But does it include bicycles? Skateboards? Aeroplanes? Toy cars? Ambulances? What about (to use Lon Fuller's famous counterexample) a military truck set up in the park as a war memorial?

Different rules vary, of course, in terms of how much "core" they are, and how much "penumbra". Consider:

A: "All applications must be recieved by 5pm on Friday 29th February."

B: "An exclusion clause is invalid unless the party seeking to rely on the clause can prove it is reasonable."

Rule A is mostly core - there is little to disagree about. Rule B is mostly penumbra. What is "reasonable"? It depends. There are probably examples of exclusion clauses which any sane person would agree are reasonable or unreasonable, but the list is small and there are many more examples where universal agreement is not possible. 

The rules of D&D are mostly almost entirely "core" and contain little "penumbra". ("You need to roll your THAC0, subtracting your opponent's AC, on 1d20 in order to hit.") This is why there seems to be something wrong with fudging. In a system which has clear rules without much penumbra, we can all identify very easily when the rules are being broken. If you need to get a 16 to hit, there is no way that reasonable people can disagree and suggest a 15 is good enough. If you need to get a 12 on a save vs death roll, there is no way that a roll of 5 can be interpreted as being sufficient to save you.

A lot of people who play D&D evade this issue with concealed sub-rules which might be said to broaden the penumbra of meaning in an underhand way. A lot of DMs run with rules like, "If a monster needs a particular score on 1d20 to hit, then I need to get that number on my d20 roll unless I consider it preferable that the monster should not hit." Or, "If a player needs to get a particular score on 1d20 for his PC to save ve death, then this shall apply unless it wouldn't suit the dramatic requirements of the narrative in the given moment."

The problem here is that when one enters the realm of the "penumbra" of meaning, one finds oneself in the zone of discretion. If I need a 16 to hit, there is no discretion in the application of the rule. If I need a 16 to hit unless the DM thinks that it wouldn't suit the dramatic requirements of the narrative at that given moment, I am at the whim of his discretion and the application of the rule thus appears arbitrary. As a consequence, I start to become suspicious (perhaps justifiably, perhaps not) about the DM's motives, just as people become suspicious of a legal system in which judges appear to be founding their decisions not on clear rules, but on political or other extra-legal considerations. This, for those of you interested in legal philosophy, is the window into what the legal realists (the subject of some of Hart's criticisms) were talking about, and thereby the critical legal theorists who descended from them: are judges making decisions on the basis of formal rules, or considerations and biases that have nothing to do with law at all? 

In summary, I suppose one can say that fudging dice rolls is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons, but one of the main ones is that it makes the DM appear capricious and biased even if this is not in fact the case.

20 comments:

  1. Can you show us on the doll where fudging the die roll hurt you noisms?

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    1. You're the one who can't help yourself turning up here to comment whenever I address this them. It's almost as though you're nagged at by your conscience...

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    2. No, though I apologize for the heaviness of my snark. It simply baffles me that this is still a thing some gamers fret over.

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  2. https://ifunny.co/picture/CkBCbWCh8

    Dunno if blogger and that link will get you there, but it's a picture of a tottering apartment building (marked "the entire American legal system") being held up by a couple of I-beams wedged between the building and the ground (marked "the word 'reasonable'"

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    1. It inherited this from the English legal system, which can be (almost) fairly summarised as: you can do anything as long as it's reasonable.

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  3. The DM's already biased. unless you're running a tournament module strictly by-the-book, the DM has free reign to decide on aesthetics, decide on house rules, decide on monster selection and monster abilities and pretty much everything, no? and presumably those decisions are made with bias-- hopefully a bias for everyone to have fun, but maybe other biases. that's just what happens when you have a hierarchal structure with the DM making choices that the other players don't. Is he just putting in lots of undead because he wants to? or is it because he has a crush on the Cleric player and wants her to feel good about the game? nobody knows!

    we've all heard anti-fudging polemics before, idk who you're trying to convince with milquetoast political allegories. Besides, the conversational adjudication of D&D has MASSIVE penumbral scope anywhere the rules aren't strictly defined. "I rub myself with pheromone musk to distract the gnolls!" or "my Fighter's autistic, I've been roleplaying her like that for the whole campaign, she'd never look straight into the Medusa's eyes!" all these choices are ultimately made by the DM, and they're presumably made with bias.

    you want a bias-free game? play a game where PC players have powers that infringe onto that of the DM. play some PbtA shit. the OSR structure is inextricable from DM bias.

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    1. Interesting point. I'm not sure what's to be gained by phrasing it in this internet-aggrospeak.

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    2. “a bias for everybody to have fun” is some interesting definition-stretching

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  4. I see it as a moral issue (I know that comes as a shock to no one). Do you do what you say you're going to do? Are the risks really risks, and are smart plays really that smart? It's about keeping the game honest.

    Honesty requires transparency or else no one can tell it's honest. It's also why I can't stand arbitrary XP awards. "And the Oscar goes to... my girlfriend. Bob, you get nothing." Is there some science to that judgment? There's a science to XP for gold.

    Any set of numbers that aren't helping your game can just be thrown out. PCs never die? Then just don't give them hit points. "The troll hits you in the face for 38 da... I mean, really hard! It's painful and embarrassing. -2 to your next attack." Don't want to give XP according to a transparent schedule (gold pieces, monsters slain or whatever)? Just level them up by fiat.

    Only roll the dice when it's a game, and there's a questionable outcome to a decision. But please don't roll, pretending the outcome in doubt, when you already knew before your roll what was going to happen. That's cheating.

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  5. The core rules can be pretty clear but there are plenty of grey areas that need interpretation. Characters want to try something non standard, how different items/creatures/spells might interact, etc. So much so that it's nice that there are a few areas with little argument or judgment involved and there's no need add more complication if you don't have to.

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    1. That's true - there are actually lots of things that aren't covered by rules at all.

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  6. Im not one to fudge rolls often, but ill paraphrase my response to thebother big fudge post: oftentimes a fudge happens at the intersection of (often) over-many rules interacting in a way that the players didnt expect AND WANT (its why i tend to prefer very simple rules as its easier to scope out bugs of that nature).

    i guess that sort of makes it a shadow of a penumbra haha moving the capraciousness from the gm to the rules themselves. i would change the rules myself, but others i think arent that interested in jiggerung with a ruleset and are comfortable enough calling mulligan on an event that might not show up at the table all that often.

    hard for me to consider that a moral failing, butive been wrong before. food for thought as always, cheers

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    1. Interesting comment, but can you give an example of something where there is an intersection of over-many rules interacting in a way the players didn't expect/want?

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  7. I'd never heard of the core vs penumbra definition before - very interesting. I have noticed that very often when I'm arguing - erm debating - with someone and we're going round and round in ever decreasing circles, then what we are actually arguing about is not anything substantive, but rather the definition of a word. I call this "reductio ad Wittgensteinium".

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    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. Especially internet arguments. It very often devolves into arguments over the definition of words or the quality/suitability of an analogy. Just totally pointless.

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  8. I firmly disagree with the lack of a penumbra around DnD rules, though it does vary edition to edition. DnD has rules for a certain set of circumstances, but by virtue of being a game wherein players can act outside those circumstances, the GM often has to make house rules or imperfect rulings. Is that charisma roll good enough to convince the guards? What if it's accompanied by an impassioned IC speech? Etc.

    There's also an entire argument to be had about the circle of play, and how the rules as agreed on by players are arguably more important then the rules as intended by the original designers. If your table is comfortable with dice fudging, that's a part of the expected rules and therefore the game experience- but that gets into a whole debate of designer intent vs player use

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    1. I know what you mean, but I think there is a difference between a rule being indeterminate in some sense, and there being no rule at all. I agree D&D is full of gaps, but where there are rules they tend to be fairly determinate.

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  9. Yes.
    Though we shouldn't forget that later editions periodically added and reduced such penumbra seemingly at will. I think this started with 2nd ed. famous clause of "all rules in this book are completely optional" common for many of their Complete series and other books.
    Mike

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  10. I agree that the distinction between core and penumbra rule "space" is useful. I also agree that fudging rolls is bad practice.

    However, I've recently been playing a 5e game on roll20 - the rolls are visible, there is not dice fudging (and we are playing a giant campaign, so its pretty lethal at times). But the GM has so many other ways to fudge - powerful magical items almost given out, rescuers coming out of nowhere, etc etc...

    I also agree that D&D always has a significant penumbra, and attempting to codify everything is not a good idea...

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