Cutting Words

There’s a strange mechanic in D&D 5th Edition that doesn’t really jive with the way play flows at the table.

The mechanic allows you to add a die to your roll “after the roll, but before the result is known.”

Cutting Words

The prime example of this mechanic is the College of Lore Bard’s Cutting Words feature:

Cutting Words allows you to roll a die and subtract it from the result of the rolling creature’s die. For some reason unbeknownst to us, it adds a rider that prevents the player from knowing whether the feature can even help.

Determine vs. Disclose

Technically, Cutting Words says “before the DM determines whether the…roll…succeeds.” However, this is an impractical consideration. The DM generally knows whether the roll is a hit when the die lands.

That gives the player no time to use the feature. Alternatively, if the DM isn’t THAC0-ing out the target roll and has to do some quick arithmetic, the time you have is variable depending on how fast your DM does math (instantaneous if you’re rolling on a Virtual Tabletop). And there’s no way for the player to know when the DM has completed that process. So, that can’t be the intended mechanic.

Rather, it appears that the word “determines” should be exchanged for “discloses” so that the mechanic hinges on whether the DM has told the players whether the feature can help against the incoming attack.

Bad Design

This is bad design.

  1. It destroys the flow of communication at the table.
  2. It implicitly operates on the principle of adversarial DMing.

Since the feature presumes you’re rolling in the open, it installs a pause in the action specifically for the purpose of goading the player into using reaction features. This kills the flow of combat, with little upside.

As a practical matter, pausing after every roll to solicit feature usage from your players adds laborious minutiae to a combat pillar that already occupies too much of its time determining results over enacting fiction.

I am all for mechanical processes, where they make sense. This is not one of those scenarios. After all, what’s the added benefit of installing this stop in the action? If it makes for interesting mechanical or narrative choices, it might be worth it.

But, the only practical upshot here is that you’re goading a player into using a feature when they don’t know whether it can even help. If an attack beats my AC by 7, I don’t want to spend a Bardic Inspiration die rolling a d6 to try and prevent it from happening.

We can easily remind our players that they have a feature that applies in a given situation. However, installing a pause in the action just to bait your player into using a feature that won’t work is adversarial DMing. It’s not fun, and it’s the wrong mentality with which to approach the game.

Better Design

The Cutting Words mechanic isn’t some quirk that’s required by a process-oriented system. D&D is perfectly happy with retconning a “hit” into a miss before the damage is rolled.

Compare how this works, for example, vs. the Shield spell. Shield is a reaction spell. The trigger for the reaction is when you are hit by an attack (or targeted by a Magic Missile spell). It gives you +5 Armor Class (AC), including against the triggering attack. So, if the extra 5 AC is enough, the attack misses. Or, in the case of Magic Missile, it does no damage.

This type of mechanic presumes that the players already have the information about whether their spell will work before using it. Now, it’s possible that on the case of Shield, the player only knows whether the attack hit, not whether the spell will help. However, I would suggest that the spell is designed with the intention of the caster knowing whether casting it will help. This is certainly true at most tables, with many DMs rolling in the open, especially with the rise of Virtual Tabletops (VTTs) that share perfect information unless intentionally concealed by a DM roll.

Efficient Markets

The Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) is a financial theory that states that stock share prices on a public market reflect all available information.

In order to preserve this presumed operation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulates market participants by requiring them to “abstain or disclose.” Basically, when someone has insider information that isn’t reflected in the stock price, they are required to tell the public, or refrain from transacting on the stock. Participating in the market without disclosing the information is a big no-no. They even locked up Martha Stewart for it.

If Martha Stewart can’t do it, why should DMs be able to get away with trading on insider information? Combat should be an efficient market.

When casting Shield, you should know the value of your spell (i.e. whether it will work to stop the incoming attack).

Compare this with Cutting Words. It presumes you have some information (the roll) but imperfect information (not whether it will hit). Since Cutting Words prevents you from knowing whether the feature can work before using the feature, it’s not an efficient process. The player is bargaining from an inefficient position.

That’s illegal.

The Fix

Don’t be a Martha Stewart DM. Give your players the information they need to make intelligent choices about their character’s features. Never goad your players into using a feature that just isn’t going to work. Be efficient. Let them know the stakes.

Cut some words from cutting words:

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3 thoughts on “Cutting Words

  1. In the initial couple exchanges-of-blows during combat with a new foe (at our table), the enemy’s capabilities are unknown. You can look and see that *this* ogre, for example, doesn’t bother with a club, and instead has 40+ pounds of dwarven mining-platform chain wrapped around its forearm… it looks more battlescarred, but more confident. You can guess that it might have +1 AC to a normal ogre (blocking with the chain-wrapped arm), maybe more HP from “experience” (i.e. another HD); it might be slightly more accurate, and you’re pretty sure that chain has more function than just “brass knuckles”. As the chain-wrapped punch heads for your friend’s armored chest… do you try to distract it, or do you count on the layers of steel your friend wears safely taking the hit?

    Later in the fight, though… DM: “The Chain Brute rolled a 14, you’ve seen him miss with a 12… Bard, doing anything about this?”

    Next Battle: “The Chain Brute hits AC 20 [the Fighter’s AC is 20]… (momentary pause)… he does 13 damage.”

    There are quite a few abilities like this, it seems. Shield spell of course you mentioned, but there’s also the Defensive Duellist (apply proficiency bonus to AC) and… I’m coming up blank on others, but it feels like my fellow PCs have a bunch of options in this regard. Plus my campaign and my friend’s use “Luck Points”, which can make a “miss by 1” into a hit… or “hit exactly” into a miss. So we naturally pause whenever the result is close.

    *I* can do fast math, but some of my players really cannot. We just help each other out in being most efficient. Only in those initial “oh no, what can *this* guy do?” moments is there really any uncertainty.

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    1. There was a discussion on Reddit about whether or not DM’s should tell players whether or not a Shield spell would prevent a hit or not during combat that is very similar in vein to this one. While we can all agree that the RAW/RAI discussions will never end in no small part due to the clumsy wording for the rules I think in this case it really is up to how the DM wants to run the table. I ran for 2 years under a DM that flat out told us what the to hit number and modifiers were (more or less) so we could choose to use shield or not. I ran in a campaign with a DM that expressly did NOT do this and refused to give any information about whether a roll would hit or not after something like Shield or Arcane Deflection were used. I personally think a middle ground is a better solution… As you stated above after the party has encountered a mob they have a pretty decent idea what their stats are, or at least what roll it takes to ‘make a hit’. I like it better when the DM’s rolls aren’t revealed at all, but are given through context.. “The Ogre winds up and swings mightily with his club directly at ‘PlayerX’ seemingly impossible to miss!” That would ‘tell’ the player the Ogre prob rolled a Crit, or a VERY high to-hit. Giving away the numbers on rolls unnecessarily detracts from the flow of the combat IMO, and isn’t necessary to facilitate the mechanics of spells and abilities that ‘kick in’ after a roll.

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