D&D General Arbitrary and Capricious: Unpacking Rules and Rulings in the Context of Fairness

Cruentus

Adventurer
As a kid playing Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or Justice League that is playing a game of make believe and roleplay with no win condition or playing against each other. What else would you call that?
Playing. I wouldn't call it a "game" like, say kickball, or baseball, or wiffle ball, or the other things we did as kids. Games have rules, and usually a winner and loser. There really aren't rules when kids play make believe other than "I got you!", "No you didn't!"

As far as DnD, and RPG's, they walk a line between Play and Game. 'Role Playing Activity' and 'Role Play Playing' doesn't roll off the tongue like 'Role Playing Game', and it did derive from Wargames, so likely retained some of that nomenclature. It also has rules, and the win condition I think changes and has changed as the game has changed and players have changed. Some of the earliest win conditions were 1) survival, and/or 2) winning at Conventions where the early modules were designed for parties to compete with one another.

Regarding Rules Lawyers - I am a reformed Rules Lawyer - and it was only really a "thing" for our group when we started playing 1e all those many decades ago, and I read all the books and could quote page and paragraph where rules were in the PHB and DMG for the table. It was used to 1) curtail the group's "min-maxxer' who never found a rule he couldn't misconstrue always to his advantage, and 2) to deflect capricious rulings by the DM in our decidedly "Us vs the DM" style of game. He tried to kill our characters, and we tried to survive it. Sometimes that came down to how the rule was written, clarified in Sage Advice, and table debate, etc. It definitely didn't slow things down at the table, the DM always had final say.

I will also add that I now find (for me) that that level of rules arguing, or antagonistic DM'ing just isn't that much fun. Though it must have been fun for us when we were 12, because we kept playing, and the same group still plays 40 years later.
 

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Yora

Legend
A desire for fairness appears to be instinctual at some level:

If we use fairness as "equal treatment" (which I think is a very useful definition), then we have to distinguish between fairness from the GM towards all the players, which absolutely is paramount, and fairness of the rules towards both GM and players, which I think is a meaningless concept.
 

MGibster

Legend
Yeah, I've been having real doubt for a while if "game" actually is a fitting term for roleplaying activities. What are the win conditions? Who is playing against who?
At it's most simple and basic, the win conditions for a classic D&D game were to survive, gain treasure, and become more powerful (gain experience points). And for the majority of games in 2023 this still holds true in some form or another.

(And to go really noodly with semantics, is the fact that German has no separate words for play and game making the problem worse or better?)
I don't know. My language took a turn from German more than a thousand years ago.

I'm really just trying to understand what people here mean when they talk about fairness? What would be actual examples of unfairness in RPGs that people here take issue with?
This is like trying to explain to someone what wet is. It's like watching a bad science fiction show from the 1960s where the alien lands on Earth and wants to understand this human emotion called love. It's like a bunch of other puzzling similies I don't feel like typing out right now.

I guess a classic example of unfairness might be the GM's girlfriend which is a phenomenon that isn't as common as it used to be. Nothing bad ever happens to her character, basic rules that apply to the rest of the players don't apply to her, and she pretty much gets whatever she wants.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
You .... you wanted me to write more?


That's a first.
I agree with him and would add a second point to continue with about fairness from the player to the gm. It almost came up in 33-35 but was going elsewhere. There are lots of things players can do that will unquestionably fall on one side or the other of being (un)fair, but this presents fairness as a thing the players have no role or responsibility in maintaining as a two way thing at the table & that's a mindset that the 5e era along with video games has done a lot to encourage as an A-OK way for a player to view the meat computer across the gm screen.
 

Clint_L

Hero
If we use fairness as "equal treatment" (which I think is a very useful definition), then we have to distinguish between fairness from the GM towards all the players, which absolutely is paramount, and fairness of the rules towards both GM and players, which I think is a meaningless concept.
Can you give an example of what you mean by the latter? I thought of responding based on how I interpret your words, but would rather discuss what you actually mean rather than what I think you mean.
 

Clint_L

Hero
Going back to my last post, I was thinking about the reason I switched to open rolling, and that is the ever present temptation, as DM, to fudge the dice in favour of what I think would be the better or more fun outcome from a story perspective. And the catalyst for change was an interview with Matt Mercer - very usefully, Critical Role has, for years, done talk shows where cast members go over the events of the show and discuss what they were thinking, why they did what they did, etc. Mercer's responses give a lot of insight into his DM decision making, which I consider superlative (YVMV; he's a fairly old-school style DM, etc.).

The specific instance was when the party killed a very memorable BBEG, an oni named Lorenzo, who had personally killed a player character, Mollymauk, a few episodes earlier. Mercer revealed that he loved Lorenzo as a character and after Mollymauk's death had made big plans for Lorenzo to become the party's nemesis for some time. But, in the episode in question, the party made some smart choices and had a few very lucky rolls, managing to kill Lorenzo just before he successfully escaped, and foiling Mercer's plans. Mercer could have changed that outcome in a variety of ways to let Lorenzo escape as intended, but didn't.

Mercer explained his philosophy that, as DM, you have to respect player choices and the dice, even when they go against what you personally wanted and felt would be a better story outcome. In his experience, he explained, the opposite is true: playing fairly and allowing the game to function as intended allows the players to feel like equal partners in the narrative, and this is always better in the end. After listening to that interview, I reflected a lot on my own long experience as a GM, and while I had generally respected the dice, I had certainly occasionally engaged in what I had always considered benevolent fudging, to achieve what I considered a better outcome for the players. I think now that this was arrogant of me, unfair, and disempowering to my players. They could sense that something was up, and this, I think, made them question the story at a fundamental level: was it my story, or their story? Was the end result arbitrary and capricious?

I think we all understand issues of fundamental fairness, and I think it is integral to the game. I think when we are unfair, it often comes from a place of caring, but that doesn't make it right, because I think it also comes from a place of wanting to be in control. I will also add that the game is much more fun for me since I began open rolling. I truly never know where things are going to end up, and so I get to share in the group's thrill of excitement at the new and unexpected.
 
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Thomas Shey

Legend
When you make a ruling, you argue "this is what I decide is happening because I feel that it's appropriate and works best in this situation". It's inherently subjective.
In contrast, when evoking a rule, you argue "this is what the book says does happen".

You can argue over the interpretation of the grammar of a sentence and try to objectively prove that another interpretation does not conform to the sentence. If you don't like a ruling, all you can say is "well, I don't like it". The GM's subjective opinion against a player's subjective opinion.
And the whole point of the game having a GM is to make those subjective decisions.

More to the point, you can ask the following question "Why do you think that's appropriate and best?" At that point the GM either needs to defend it, or just push "Because!" which, well, let's say I don't think is going to necessarily go well with any group where someone felt able to ask the question in the first place.

Or put another way, the fact there are subjective elements to a decision does not automatically get someone off the hook.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
As an aside, I wanted to just make a (hopefully) small bit of side commentary that has some bearing here.

Frequently you'll get someone who says something to the effect of "If you don't trust your GM, why are you playing with them?"

Skipping for the moment people for whom distrust of GMs is a default state, but who still want to play, I often say "There's a big difference in not trusting a GM's motives and not trusting their judgment", but I've concluded even that is a bit too simple.

There's a whole range of degrees of trust people are willing to extend to GMs that cover a world of different issues; and not all of them imply moral failings on GMs, or in cases where they do necessarily imply severe ones (unconscious favoritism isn't a virtue, but its also common enough that it sets the bar pretty low to call someone "bad").

So its entirely possible to consider some amount of rulings necessary, while still wanting to keep them to a minimum, because you take it as a given that they're a field ripe for the limitations of knowledge, judgement or self-awareness a GM has who otherwise may have any number of strong virtues in the role to express themselves in unfun and potentially unpleasant ways. The fact keeping the rules centered and to your understanding or alternatively pressing the GM on his ruling can have its own malignancies sometimes does not make that any less true.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
So I have a ... well, let's say a well-known dislike of the use of certain jargon, and a belief that some terms (such as "player agency" or the more recent "DM agency") tend to generate more heat than light. That said, I do think it might be interesting (again, for certain values of "interesting") to look more deeply into the ideas of rules and rulings, and to look at them in to the context of fairness. Because while fairness can certainly be a squishy and subjective concept, I think it is also at the heart of what animates many of these conversations.

To look at this in the context of Dungeons and Dragons, I'll start by first looking at a slightly related concept from the legal field; a standard called "arbitrary and capricious." From there, I'll then examine why people look askance at rules that they feel are aren't fair, and then follow that up with an examination of fairness in rulings from DMs (you can mentally substitute "GMs" or "Referees" or your preferred term).

Or, if you prefer, you can skip this essay entirely. Because as Mama Snarf always used to tell me, "Snarf, life ain't fair, so quit yer whinin' already. Jus' means that you need to do unto others before they do unto you. Now, get yer Mama a four-pack of that vintage Four Loko so she can get the party started."


1. What is Arbitrary and Capricious?
Let his vices be forgotten, and his virtues be remembered. It will not infringe upon your time.

When you're on the internet, people often sling legal terms at each other with the weight of sewer grates and the corresponding grace as well. And some of those terms include what are called "standards of review." Quick background- when you are appealing a decision, you go to an appellate court. One of the most important things an appellate court has to determine is the standard of review- in other words, how much (if any) deference do they give to what the trial court has already decided? The standard of review can make or break an appellate case. An example of one of those standards for an appellate court is de novo. Generally, when there is a pure question of law, the appellate court reviews it "anew" or de novo, and can review the issue without referring to any legal conclusions of assumptions being made by the lower court.

A much more deferential standard used in certain types of cases is called "arbitrary and capricious." Generally, this standard means that the lower tribunal acted with willful and unreasoning action without due consideration and in disregard of the facts. A longer definition of this, in more detailed legal-ese, was stated by Justice Douglas:

Under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard the scope of review is a narrow one. A reviewing court must consider whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment. . . . Although this inquiry into the facts is to be searching and careful, the ultimate standard of review is a narrow one. The court is not empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency. The agency must articulate a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made. While we may not supply a reasoned basis for the agency's action that the agency itself has not given, we will uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the agency's path may reasonably be discerned. Bowman Transp. Inc. v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 419 U.S. 281, 285-86 (1974) (internal citations omitted; emphasis supplied; formatting changed from the original).

Understanding this, you can see that the issue on review isn't whether or not the reviewing court believes that the agency made the right decision. It's whether or not the agency's decision was rational ... whether it could be supported by the facts. In other words, so long as the decision was not arbitrary and capricious, the decision will be upheld, even if it might not have been the "right" or "best" decision.

Which gets us to the idea of fairness in this context. This standard is usually employed in intensively fact-intensive proceedings. So long as the original decision was "fair," (not arbitrary and capricious), the reviewing court will not disturb it. Moreover, it would be unfair, after a lengthy, expensive, and fact-intensive proceeding, for an appeal to simply be another lengthy and fact-intensive proceeding re-arguing the facts that were already argued and decided ... so long as the final decision wasn't arbitrary and capricious. In the end, the concerns over fairness are what truly animates the various arguments related to jargon.


2. Fairness and Rules
I love criticism, so long as I am the critic.

I've used the story before, so I'll use it again. A commenter here once relayed a story about playing D&D (assumedly 3e?). They had a great time playing it- the DM was amazing, and the adventures were great. However, after some time, they realized that all of their carefully crafted bonuses and skills meant nothing- the DM was just looking at rolls and thinking, "Eh, looks about right," without actually doing any of the math. In short, high rolls succeeded, low rolls didn't. Immediately, this adventure, and all the prior adventures, became a horrible experience. The reason I like to use this example is because it illustrates a lot of points- here, it illustrates the issue of fairness. For the player, it was fundamentally unfair to spend time and optimize a character and work within the rules when it all meant nothing.

This often comes up in conversations we have about hypothetical rules. At some point, a person will always say, "Well, you could just have a ruleset that says whenever there is a conflict, you flip a coin." And while this is true, it also feels wrong. The reason it feels wrong is because this game, while having a completely valid rule, would feel unfair. Why bother doing anything when you know for a fact that no matter how you create a character, no matter how you position yourself within the fiction, no matter how you leverage your abilities ... it will eventually come down to a coin flip. It's a perfectly valid rule, and yet ... it's also unfair. It feels arbitrary and capricious. Imagine if you had a lengthy court case and at the end, the judge whipped out a coin and said, "Okay, heads plaintiff wins, tails defendant wins." It's certainly a rule! Yet ... unfair. Or a college professor who collects all of the term papers, and to grade them throws them down the stairwell and assigns them grades depending on where they land? Again, it's a perfectly valid rule that will produce grades ... and yet, also profoundly unfair.

A lot of the time when we talk about "unfairness" in this squishy kind of way, we are really looking at whether the rule is, for lack of a better term, arbitrary and capricious. Whether there is a rational connection between the "facts" that go into the rule and the "choices" that the rule provides.

Once you start to see this, you begin to realize that many of the debates about rules in D&D have, underlying them, concerns about fairness. Of course, fairness is not just subjective, it is also system-dependent! What can be a fair rule in one system might seem less fair in another. Let's use the example of the Druid 'splodin' in metal armor. In the context of AD&D (1e), this rule was eminently fair. Because the entire game was built on various "game-y" restrictions! Druids can't wear metal armor. Magic Users and Illusionists and Monks can't wear armor. Thieves and Assassins only wear leather armor. Clerics can't use edged weapons. Magic Users only use staffs, darts, and dagger. Monks can't use oil. Paladins have to be lawful stupid. Etc. On the other hand, 5e no longer has that restriction-based system, so those sweet, sweet Druid 'splosions seem not just out of place, but arguably ... unfair as a rule. Why? Because it seems arbitrary and capricious. There is no longer a rational connection between the facts that go into the rule and the choices that the rule provides; there is no system reason (like 1e) and there is no real explanation for what happens, either.


3. Fairness and Rulings
Once you put down the 5e DMG, you simply can't pick it up.

While the application of the concept of fairness to rules seems somewhat easy, I think it is the application of fairness to rulings that really allows us to examine the usefulness of the concept. In many versions of D&D, the DM is afforded an amazing amount of latitude, and this includes 5e. A good DM can make a campaign, a bad DM will break it. But what, exactly, makes a good DM? Is it hours and hours of prep time? The ability to do funny voices? Weeks spent watching every episode of Critical Role? A place to play? An unlimited pizza budget? Knowledge of the rules? The ability to raise their hand when someone says, "Who wants to DM?"

It could be one, or all of these. Heck, I'm not turning down pizza ... well, Derek and I are going to throw hands if he orders pineapple and anchovies again, but still. Anyway, I would say that the fundamental quality of a good DM is that they are fair, which is a nebulous, squishy, yet indispensable quality. And by fair, I mean that they are not arbitrary and capricious. That the DM is consistent, and that their decisions (their rulings) have a rational connection to the facts.

This is where I want to detour briefly and re-introduce that whole, long, boring legal section I started with and that you skipped over (it's okay, I did too!). A DM can be fair, and be wrong. I would go so far as to say that a DM who has never been wrong, has never DM'd. But there's a difference between being wrong, and being arbitrary and capricious. To understand that, we first need to look at what it means for a DM to be wrong.

DMs can mess things up, just like all of us. They might screw up the math. They might forget about an ability. They might not remember the way a rule works (or a rule). A fair DM, when this is mentioned, will correct it, because this is a simple issue, and we are all here to have fun and gain XP through the killing of intelligent creatures. Um .... have fun and play a game. But sometimes a DM will be "wrong" in a way that you just disagree with. The way that various rules interact. The setting of a DC. The way that an NPC reacts. The effect or narration of your failure (or success, or partial failure or partial success if you're using optional rules). The difference between a fair DM, and an arbitrary and capricious DM, is that the fair DM's rulings (decisions) should have a rational connection between the choice the DM made and the facts prior to the decision. You, as a player, may have made a different decision. You may think that there is a better decision that could have been made. But so long as the DM's decision is rational- it is defensible, it is a fair decision.

This gets to the the heart of most conflicts regarding the DM in any given game; not whether the DM is making the "right" rulings all the time, but whether the DM is making rulings that are consistent and fair. Whether the DM is, in good faith, applying what the DM knows in such a way that, if asked after the session is over with, the players would be able to determine the path the DM took in making this decision.

When looked at through this lens, you can see many of the discussions we have, whether about "illusionism," or "railroading," or "agency," or whatever term is currently percolating up and down the boards essentially boil down to fairness. In short, whether the DM the fairly applying the facts (including the decisions of the players) when making rulings. After all, what is a quantum ogre (ugh) but the DM being arbitrary and capricious and deciding that no matter what the facts are, the result will be an ogre?


4. Conclusion
The trouble is that the stupid people, who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of all nations, do believe and are molded by what they see on the 'Gram.

I don't expect that this will add much to the omnipresent theory discussions that occur; after all, fairness is far too understandable to be of much use, yet too difficult to pin down to argue over endlessly. But it might be of help when you think about how you frame different conversations, given that it is a quality that should be indispensable for a DM. After all, no one in the history of ever has uttered the phrase, "As beautiful as an airport." Or, for that matter, "What I'm really looking for is a partial and completely unfair DM."

But this idea of fairness, which is inextricably bound with ideas of trust, animates notions of gameplay. We want to be treated fairly. We want DMs to adjudicate fairly. We want players to play fairly. We want rules to be fair. Fairness may be hard to define, but is easily observed in its absence. After all, every dog knows the difference between being kicked and being stumbled over.
Alright. Aiming for brevity. While this covers some rather important things, it also completely overlooks the elephant in the room. That being GM secrecy. Appropriating your "arbitrary and capricious" courtroom analogy, but extending it so that it actually covers what I consider to be the serious problematic behavior, we get the following.

There is a government agency. It, like any government agency, has policies and such. However, this agency is charged with the serious and momentous duty of safeguarding "national security." Some of the things it does are classified. In fact, almost everything it does is classified. Sometimes for very, very good reasons...sometimes for no real reason...and sometimes for bad reasons. Now, this agency does something to a private citizen, which he alleges violated his rights--and the "arbitrary and capricious" standard is used. The judge requests that the agency provide to her the explanation.

"It was in the interest of national security, your honor."
"Can you explain why it was in the interest of national security?"
"I cannot answer that question, as answering it would be a threat to national security."
"Can you give us any details at all about the nature of this decision, or why it was undertaken? Or at least explain why you cannot share such details?"
"I cannot answer either of those questions as the answers would threaten national security."
"So I am to take on faith that there is a reasonable link between the facts of the case and the decision your agency made, because any information whatsoever that could be communicated to this court would 'threaten national security'."
"That is correct. Everything about this situation is classified."

"National security" becomes the tool which invalidates even this incredibly easy-to-clear bar. There can be no oversight, because to even have oversight would (allegedly) threaten national security. How can even this incredibly low standard be applied in that context? How can we possibly know whether it is correct--to say nothing of sincere--to exploit "national security"/classification/secrecy to make the decisions it makes?

But that's exactly what is required for the very GMing techniques that I take such umbrage with. No explanation, only deferment ("Don't question my rulings during session"...often thereby ensuring that there can be no post-session review either), or worse, outright deception (e.g. "illusionism," railroading, etc.) We cannot even try to apply the "arbitrary and capricious" standard, because no one is allowed to know that a ruling was made, nor why--it simply is, and the GM is never required to explain any of their reasoning at all, let alone show that it meets the incredibly low bar of "someone might potentially think there's a reasonable link."

Of course, none of that actually touches on the problem that...well, I think fairness requires a whole hell of a lot more than the standard being used as an example. The reasoning, as far as I'm concerned, actually needs to be persuasive to some degree, not simply "some person could consider it reasonable, therefore it passes muster, even if we actually think it was outright wrong."
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
As an aside, I wanted to just make a (hopefully) small bit of side commentary that has some bearing here.

Frequently you'll get someone who says something to the effect of "If you don't trust your GM, why are you playing with them?"

Skipping for the moment people for whom distrust of GMs is a default state, but who still want to play, I often say "There's a big difference in not trusting a GM's motives and not trusting their judgment", but I've concluded even that is a bit too simple.

There's a whole range of degrees of trust people are willing to extend to GMs that cover a world of different issues; and not all of them imply moral failings on GMs, or in cases where they do necessarily imply severe ones (unconscious favoritism isn't a virtue, but its also common enough that it sets the bar pretty low to call someone "bad").

So its entirely possible to consider some amount of rulings necessary, while still wanting to keep them to a minimum, because you take it as a given that they're a field ripe for the limitations of knowledge, judgement or self-awareness a GM has who otherwise may have any number of strong virtues in the role to express themselves in unfun and potentially unpleasant ways. The fact keeping the rules centered and to your understanding or alternatively pressing the GM on his ruling can have its own malignancies sometimes does not make that any less true.
Yes!

This! Absolutely, precisely this.

Writing off these criticisms with a mere "if you don't trust why do you even bother" is a refusal to respond to real, valid, reasoned criticism.

Being unsure of motive is certainly part of it. I am, very frequently, playing with GMs I've never played with before, so it is important to clearly establish trust, which means NOT doing tons of things in secret and writing it off with "don't you trust me?" But by far the bigger components are with knowledge, judgment, self-awareness, and reasoning capacity.

Because I find a great many GMs are quite acceptable in terms of their intent. I just see a lot--and I mean a LOT--of evidence that most GMs are spotty at best on translating that intent into reality, specifically because of a breakdown of knowledge, judgment, self-awareness, or reasoning. See: the iterative probability problem, aka "roll Stealth every single round to continue hiding." Statistical reasoning is hard. It is not some horrible moral failing for someone to have faulty reasoning ability when it comes to something like this. In fact, that is the default state of being for humans.

There is, I agree, a pretty serious error on the player's part if they choose to play with a GM whose motives they distrust.

There is no error on the player's part for choosing to play with a GM whose knowledge, judgment, self-awareness, or reasoning capacity they sometimes distrust. Because that statement--"sometimes I don't completely trust the knowledge, judgment, self-awareness, or reasoning capacity of X"--is true of literally all human beings on this Earth.

I don't even trust MY OWN knowledge, judgment, self-awareness, or reasoning capacity sometimes!
 
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