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As we all know from page 7 of the Player's Handbook, "Specific Beats General". The way it discusses 'general' and 'specific' is basically that 'general' means the standard game rules, as given in chapters 7-10 (and, I suppose, much of the Dungeon Master's Guide); and the 'specifics' are things like class features, racial traits, spells, conditions, and magic items.

But is there a hierarchy of specificity, or different levels of specific-ness? Is a magic item "more specific" than a spell? More or less than a condition?

In most cases, they both apply, and there are rules for how to combine them, but sometimes you have one exception that says "you can" and another that says "you can't". Is there any actual rules guidance for how to untangle those, or is it just down to the DM to decide which effect takes precedence?

I hesitate to give specific examples, which may tend to drive answers in the direction of discussing those examples rather than the overall idea that some rules are 'more specific' than others.

But, purely for the purpose of clarifying the kind of things I'm talking about:

  • Brad the Fighter has been Stunned, and as a result automatically fails all Dexterity saves. He finds himself within the area of a fireball cast by his Evoker friend, who uses Sculpt Spells to allow Brad to automatically succeed the save. (I certainly think Sculpt Spells wins for storytelling reasons; but is there something that would make Sculpt Spells inherently more specific than Stunned?)

  • Brad the Fighter is facing a pair of wizards, who stand side by side. First, he fails his saving throw against a fear spell, and thus must use his action to Dash away. However, he then fails his save against the wizard's compulsion spell that demands that he must run towards the pair. (Is one effect more specific than the other? Does the answer change if it were a command spell with the command 'Approach'? Does "specific beats general" even apply in such a situation?)

I ask this because I have recently heard some claims that, for example, a class ability is 'more specific' than a condition, which confused me, and I wonder if I've missed a game concept somewhere along the way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about a structured hierarchy or about different levels of specificity? \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Nov 6 '18 at 22:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just generally when something is more specific than another. Somebody made a comment in another question about one kind of thing being "more specific" than another and I thought it was sort of a strange idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Nov 6 '18 at 23:33
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"Specific Beats General" is about the effect itself, not where it comes from

"Specific Beats General" doesn't prioritize Item effects over Spells, or Spells over Class Features, or any other possible permutation of sources of features. It's simply a description of the scope of the abilities.

Consider the following item and class feature (invented, probably aren't real):

  • Rod of Holding. As an Action, point at a creature with this Rod. That creature is now paralyzed for 1 minute
  • Paralysis Resistance. When an effect causes Paralysis against you, roll a d20. On a 10 or better, the effect fails.

In this situation, when I wield the Rod of Holding, I can paralyze anyone I point it at, except for when I point it at someone who has the Paralysis Resistance feature, where even with no saving throw, they still have a 55% chance of resisting the rod. In this case, the "Specific Beats General" wording says that a "General effect" (A rod that paralyzes anyone I point it at) is beaten by a "Specific Situation" (... except for this one creature that can maybe resist the effect).

But you could easily reverse this situation and get the same result:

  • Paralyzing Gaze. As an Action, look at a creature. That creature is Paralyzed for 1 minute
  • Armor of Paralysis Resistance. When an effect causes Paralysis against the wielder, roll a d20. On a 10 or better, the effect fails.

Now, it's a class feature targeting a creature that has a special item, but it's the same result: The Class Feature is a General Effect (paralyze anyone you look at) being beaten by an Item creating a Specific Situation (... except this creature wearing this magic armor, which resists it 55% of the time).

But this could be beaten. Now consider the following examples:

  • Better Rod of Holding. As an Action, point at a creature with this Rod. That creature is now paralyzed for 1 minute. This ignores any effects which partially resist Paralysis, or which have a variable chance of ignoring paralysis.
  • Paralysis Resistance. When an effect causes Paralysis against you, roll a d20. On a 10 or better, the effect fails.

Now the Better Rod of Holding will win out over the class feature, simply because the parameters specified by the item have been made more specific. "Cause Paralysis, even if they have a thing which allows them to maybe resist paralysis" is more specific than "maybe resist paralysis effects", which would then be less specific than the Better Paralysis Resistance's "resist ALL paralysis effects", which would then be less specific than the Betterer Rod of Holding's "Cause Paralysis, this cannot be ignored under any circumstances", which is then less specific than... you get the idea.

Some of this comes down to DM fiat (what happens if "Cause Paralysis, ignore immunities" collides with "Cannot be paralyzed, even if the effect says it ignores immunities"??), and I'm only focusing on the interaction between two features/items/whatever because that's simpler to explain. But the Heirarchy of specificity generally just boils down to how many stipulations are made about what an effect says it does. If an effect specifically calls attention to exceptions and circumstantial situations, it's probably a more specific effect than an effect that does not.

For your Specific Examples

Sculpt Spell is more specific than the Stunned condition. The Stunned condition says "for all Dexterity Saving Throws, you automatically fail", and Sculpt Spell says "for this specific Dexterity Saving Throw, you automatically succeed". So a Stunned character in the middle of a Fireball sculpted to protect them would still succeed and take no damage.

The confluence of Fear and Compulsion is exactly the kind of DM fiat situation I hinted at. Two effects which both make sweeping statements about what the target must do. As DM, I'd probably rule that the target tries to do both: both moving away from the first caster, and laterally around the second caster, using their Action to Dash as they do so. Some other DMs might rule that Fear negates the features of Compulsion, or that one causes the other effect to disappear entirely, either based on timing or based on the spellcasting abilities of either caster.

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A is more specific than B if, and only if, A applies to a strict subset of B's scope.

For example, Joe is a creature, so in combat, he can take one action per turn. Then he gets knocked unconscious and can't take actions. Why does that rule prevail over the one saying he can take actions?

Because all incapacitated creatures are creatures. Therefore we can reasonably assume that whoever wrote that rule knew that it would conflict with the normal behavior of creatures, and wrote it anyway, and therefore it was intended to overrule the more general rule.

The alternative is that the rule about incapacitated creatures would never apply to any creatures, and would be entirely vacuous. We assume that rules are intended to do something.

This is usually not the case.

Far more often, we have corner cases and can't resolve them this way.

For example, Joe is a human, so he has a speed of 30. If he gets restrained, he would have a speed of zero, right?

Not necessarily. If restrained non-humans had speed of zero and non-restrained humans had speed 30, then both rules would be effective at least some of the time, regardless of what we decide about restrained humans. So the reasoning above doesn't apply.

We have to go to less reliable heuristics. In this case, we could consider that every creature has some racial trait that defines its speed, and all of those traits are functionally equivalent, so by symmetry either all creatures lose their speed when restrained or none of them do. And if none of them did, then we'd have a vacuous rule, which we assume we don't.

Or we can apply physical reasoning and notice that "speed" represents ability to move, and "restrained" means bound to an immobile object, which negates your ability to move.

Or we can notice that the "restrained" condition also says you can't benefit from bonuses to your speed, which asserts supremacy in a sense. It expects your speed to go to zero and stay there.

What we can't do is show conclusively that either of these rules is more specific.

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There is no hierarchy of specificity.

Multiple different exceptions to the basic rules may apply in a given situation, and there usually isn't a specific, consistent, repeatable way to identify which of the exception should be the one that wins out. There is no meaningful way to determine that one effect 'more specific' than another, and the rules don't even support the need to figure it out; "specific beats general" doesn't necessarily imply that "more specific beats less specific".

The DM just has to make a judgement call.

Sometimes, looking at the narrative elements will help the DM and players see which effect would override the other; but often there is no clear 'winner' when multiple rules conflict in this way. The right answer is the one that the DM thinks makes the most sense in the story, which might be one of the rules -- or none of them. It might mean the DM makes up some ad-hoc decision that thematically shows the conflict instead of choosing one rule over the other.

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A hierarchy of specificity would not matter.

General game rules ban you from doing certain things. Everything else allows you to do certain things. The exception is a spell or feature that another character used that does not allow you to do something.

When a feature allows you to do something, it states specific criteria. If the criteria are met, you can do what the feature allows you to, even if normally you would not be able to. It does not matter whether the feature is given by a class, magic item, etc. If, however, you are banned from doing something that the feature does not give reminiscence from, you still cannot do it. This is independent of how specific the feature is.

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The rules of D&D are meant to be evaluated using critical thinking skills. This often means that when two rules are in apparent conflict, one is expected to think about the logic behind the rule instead of just the mechanics. Specific Beats General (SBG) is the rule that outlines this, but it's not clearly defined, and that's intentional. There's so many specific circumstances it would be impossible to cover them all.

The most basic rule of thumb is this: each rule exists for a purpose, so if a rule would completely nullify another rule, then it must be a general rule, and the rule it is compared to is the specific rule. The second part of SBG is to consider how many circumstances a rule applies to. The fewer the circumstances, the narrower the rule, and the more specific it is.

Consider the rules for Dash and Paralysis. Dash allows a creature to move an extra movement during their turn by expending an Action. Paralysis prevents a creature from moving at all. By comparing the two rules, you would see that if you could Dash while Paralyzed, then the Paralyzed rule would be essentially useless. Therefore, Dash must be a more general rule than Paralysis. Thinking about it critically, you can say that you have to be able to move in order to be able to Dash. Now, this seems like a completely obvious observation, but the exact same principles apply when considering any two rules. It's just a matter of taking it up to the next level.

In virtually all cases that seem diametrically opposed have relative specificity in some form. Fear versus Command seems like there is no obvious specificity, until you realize that Fear makes a target mortally afraid of the target, and Command cannot force a creature to go in a direction where it perceives an obvious mortal danger. Again, this is a matter of thinking beyond the mechanics, and exploring why the rule causes the effect it causes.

Similarly, Stunned versus Sculpt Spell expects you to actually read the rule and understand the why, not just the what. The reason for the automatic save is because the feat creates pockets of safety within the spell's effect. It applies to a specific instance of the spell itself, and is very circumstantial. Stunned is a very broad effect that can benefit dozens of spells. Sculpt Spell is far more specific than Stunned. It doesn't even benefit one spell, just an instance of a spell cast by a specific creature.

The only rare time where SBG can't help is when there are specially constructed instances that are designed to be diametrically opposed and have no obvious order. For example, two creatures could cast Enlarge Reduce on the same target with opposing effects. In this case, the published (or even SBG) rules are not going to help you. The DM will have to come up with a fair way to determine how the effects resolve. While other answers give all sorts of rules like "duration" or "first come, first serve," those are all variants of house rules.

The generally accepted form of this is an opposed roll between the two casters, which was in previous versions of D&D but does not formally apply in 5e RAW. This form of opposed roll is usually defined as d20 + caster level + caster ability modifier, with ties going to the spell that was cast first (initiative order if within the same turn). However, it's not the only way to resolve this, and each DM and player group must choose a method they consider to be fair.


tl;dr There is no specific hierarchy, it is meant to be reasoned out logically when apparent conflicts arise. Most rules are written in a way that they specifically override another or allow others to behave normally. If a rule nullifies another, it is a general rule. If a rule applies to many circumstances, it is a general rule. If they are both specific rules with no obvious reasoning, a house rule should be established beforehand to resolve those situations.

They should be rare to non-existent in normal game play, so if one thinks they need to house-rule, they most likely are missing a logical tiebreaker written in the rules. Also, checking the errata or "word of god" posts (e.g. from Jeremy Crawford) can often clarify ambiguity, though these are usually the results of rules that were unclear to begin with.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you say 'paralyzed' when you meant 'restrained'? Because Paralyzed makes you Incapacitated, so you can't take actions, so you can't Dash anyway. Even if you could, there's no conflict there; Dash says you 'gain extra movement', Paralyzed says you can't move. Both of those can be true at the same time - you get more movement, but you can't use it. And I don't buy your fear vs command analysis; Command is restricted from forcing directly harmful actions, like making somebody walk off a cliff, not "probably harmful" like making you approach a threat. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Nov 19 '18 at 21:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym The first example was absurd, on purpose, focusing only on "can't move" versus "double movement," just to make a point. These rules are obviously not in direct conflict; that wasn't the point. I've had players with selective understanding of rules, even as obvious as this. As far as Fear goes, you apparently have never seen someone with a phobia. It's not a potential threat, it's a literal life-or-death situation in their mind. To them, the source will end their life. The failed Will save shows they've gone from rational thinking to irrational instincts.. \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Nov 19 '18 at 23:07
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Time is usually the best indicator of priority

To clarify, time does not give an effect priority, It is just a good rule of thumb for resolving conflicts when there are rules that actually conflict with each other.

Basically, create a stack of the effects based on when they where applied to the character. Last one on the stack trumps previous rules. Note that it's important to pay attention to if rules actually clash, so keep track of each rule separately while resolving the stack.

For example, let's take: "Can my character fly?"

  1. Flying is not a default ability, so no
  2. But I took an avian race that grants flight, so yes
  3. But then I added the "clipped wings" (requires flight) flaw, so no
  4. But my friend cast fly on me, so yes
  5. But the enemy rogue poisoned me before 4 so I'm paralyzed (can't move). Fly only grants a flying movement speed; it doesn't grant any form of "freedom of movement", so no, and 4 should be no in this case. (Order doesn't matter here because it's not a conflict. Both apply. You gain a fly movement speed, but you currently can't move)

Where spells are involved, it's also important to remember that "Spells do what they say they do, and only what they say they do", so magic should generally trump non-magic. For example, if I am paralyzed, and a spell says I automatically pass my Dex save, the spell should take priority unless the thing causing paralysis explicitly says that magic cannot bypass it.

If you have multiple effects that don't conflict, but can cancel each other out, than you resolve all of those effects in the order they are triggered.


Using your added examples...

In the first case, a creature is stunned, and then is exempted by the spell he is caught it. The spell was the last thing applied, so it's a fairly strong indicator it takes priority.

In your second example, there is no rules conflict. Compulsion forces you to use your movement to move in a direction of the caster's choice, while fear requires you to use the dash action to move away. So the conditions of both can be applied without conflict. So lets assume both spells use your action to move you for the duration. Both spells where applied "very recently", and there is a general sense that the order spells are cast in shouldn't affect their results. Both spells have limits to how much they can be obeyed, so the creature's movement should be used to appease both spells as much as possible (~half movement to both). If for that turn both spells compel in opposite directions, then they cancel each other that round (like having advantage and disadvantage). (The RAW for these spells however is that the target dashes away, and moves their move speed in the direction of the other caster's choice, with the target creature deciding weather they take their action before or after moving)

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