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I have seen the term "bag of rats" being used quite frequently (RPG.se search for bag of rats, for example), mainly, but not exclusively, in D&D. It seems to be considered a problem or exploit.

What is it, where does it come from and how do you deal with it?

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Origins

The original "bag of rats" trick was a thought experiment in third edition Dungeons and Dragons involving the feats Great Cleave and Whirlwind Attack, which proceeded about as follows:

  • Whirlwind Attack lets you attack everything next to you once.
  • Great Cleave lets you chain a killing blow into a follow-up attack as many times as you want.
  • Therefore, if you are engaged with a difficult target and surround yourself with arbitrarily many things that are easy to kill, you can get arbitrarily many follow-up attacks when your Whirlwind Attack kills them.

The "bag of rats" was how you surrounded yourself in this way - carrying around a bag of untamed rats and dumping it out.

Principles

This takes advantage of an assumption made by the designers: that killing blows would be comparatively rare events, and therefore any mechanical benefits from striking a killing blow could be given an absolute value. In the case of Great Cleave, the benefit was a follow-up attack.

In the general case, a "bag of rats" is a collection of notionally hostile but essentially helpless targets, used to safely acquire any mechanical benefits gained from hitting or killing an enemy at a trivial additional risk.

Adjudication

Fourth edition D&D, with its many tactical powers and benefits on hit, ultimately just advised the DM that they shouldn't let powers grant these benefits if the PCs are trying to hit something that the DM doesn't consider a threat. That's ultimately where this has to be stopped - an arbitrary DM call with no mechanical absolutes.

You can try to intercept this at a higher level - like "that's a swarm of rats, effectively a single creature, whirlwind hits it once" - but that still leaves the door open. The benefits are there for hitting and killing opposition the DM put there, not for arbitrary player-declared targets.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have also heard it used as a verb. When someone attacks something that's not really a threat to gain some benefit, or engages in similar shenanigans, they may be said to be "ratbagging". \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Jun 22 '18 at 19:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ The origin seems like it wouldn't work, given that Whirlwind Attack lists the caveat that "When you use the Whirlwind Attack feat, you also forfeit any bonus or extra attacks granted by other feats, spells, or abilities". Seems like that would stop it cold, bag of rats or no? \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Jun 24 '18 at 2:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ This has spawned an entire followup question (see sidebar) but for clarity from future readers I've linked the original 3rd edition feats that first spawned this idea, not the 3.5 revamp. You can make an argument that the wording of the 3.5 feat only prevents you from carrying additional attacks into the whirlwind, not getting additional attacks as a result of it, but the 3.0 feat doesn't even have such language to begin with. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jun 24 '18 at 3:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mbomb007 Rat of bag is (kinda) RAW, though. Peasant Railgun is trying to impose real-world physics in the game. I would say you can do the railgun - and it does Improvised Weapon damage :P \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 24 '18 at 5:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ "'That's a swarm of rats, effectively a single creature', and it is not happy with you having kept it in that bag." \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Jun 25 '18 at 17:00
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Glazius’s answer defines the bag of rats, and describes its origins, reasonably well in my opinion. In brief, a bag of rats is a tool for abusing “on kill” mechanics by having a large number of easily-killed creatures available.

That answer, however, only covers what the concept is, and where it came from. There is more to discuss here, especially with respect to how big a problem it actually is, and how you deal with it.

In my opinion, the best discussion of the bag of rats, or as it’s often referred to in Pathfinder due to the coinage by third-party product reviewer EndZeitgeist, the kitten test, is The Bag of Kittens and You, by Jade Ripley, aka Lord_Gareth here and elsewhere. Therein, he describes the difficulties in sourcing your rats or kittens or what have you, the difficulty in keeping them alive long enough to kill them at the moment you need them dead, and the difficulty of efficiently killing them all in the middle of a combat.

In short, a lot of times, it’s a non-issue. 3e-era Whirlwind Attack and Great Cleave? Pulling out your bag of rats probably costs a move action—or more, since it’s probably tied shut—which leaves you without a full-round action to actually use Whirlwind Attack. That makes it a minimum of a 2-round maneuver, and in the middle the enemy is free to, ya know, move away from you and your rats. Or just kill you.

Jade brings this to amusing extremes with Countess Felis von Orphanpuncher, who straps kittens to her for ready stabbing. Even this absurd outfit doesn’t necessarily leave the character eminently capable of abusing the kittens strapped to her body.

But other times, it’s much more serious. D&D 3.5e has a notorious spell named consumptive field (and a higher-level greater consumptive field). These gives caster level bonuses for each thing that dies within, and those last for an hour. This is a much, much more serious problem: those bonuses are potent, and you can easily kill your helpless victims from relative safety and comfort, and then go out into the world with absurdly powerful spells.

Unfortunately, as Jade describes in the linked article, a game designer has limited options for fixing this, as any fixed rules are just as liable to be gamed with some loophole or another. The best approach, for a game designer, is to just limit how much benefit you can actually get from a bag of rats, by capping things, requiring the death be near (in time and in space) to where the benefit applies, by having the benefit be based on the power of the dying creature in question (so helpless things offer you little or no benefit), and so on. If you can’t do that, you have to leverage the GM’s judgment, using vague terms like “a real threat,” and let the GM figure out what does or doesn’t count.

As a GM, you should be up-front with your players when you notice that one has an ability that could be abused with a bag of rats or similar, and that might be problematic. Tell them that you will had to adjudicate on an ad hoc basis whether or not a particular creature “counts” for the ability—any enemy you throw at them, sure, but if they start bringing minions or monsters of their own just to fuel the ability, make sure the risk and difficulty of that is commensurate with the reward—and block it if it becomes too abusive. Be open with players about this, and answer their questions about what does or doesn’t work out of game. Don’t force their characters to try things in-game to find out what the rules are—D&D characters are generally assumed to understand their own abilities and that goes into this as well.

But again, trying to state hard-and-fast rules doesn’t work; that will always just leave some loophole, and potentially cut out opportunities that you wanted to work.

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