log in or register to remove this ad

 

D&D 5E Respect Mah Authoritah: Thoughts on DM and Player Authority in 5e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is part 2 on my ruminations regarding D&D and 5e that have been brought up due to some recent conversations, this one dealing with narrative authority. The third, and final, installment will be rules.

Please note that I am going to try and use words in their, um, natural language (it's 5e!) so as to allow a multiplicity of opinions. To the extent that I accidentally employ jargon, it is not intentional, and I will explain any terms I use if they are meant to be "terms."

1. The Traditional Play Loop of 5e
I've only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror.

When I say, "play loop," what I mean is the method by which play usually happens (I'm simplifying here). For example, if you are playing Monopoly (traditional, not one of the million Hasbro-approved variants), then the play loop is:
A. Active player rolls dice.
B. Active player moves silly-looking token (yeah, we miss you thimble)
C. Active player resolves what happens based upon square landed upon
D. Active player passed dice to player on the left who becomes the active player.

We could expand upon this by adding in subsystems and making sure all the rules are encoded- for example, this doesn't take into account trading (which any player can do) all mortgaging (for the active player) or subsystems (rolling doubles, jail), but it is the basic play loop of monopoly.

D&D, and 5e, also has a traditional play loop. The three-step process is described in the 5e PHB on page 5, under "How To Play":
"The play of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game unfolds according to this basic pattern:
1. The DM describes the environment. ...
2. The players describe what they want to do. ...
3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions. Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1."

So far, so obvious, right? Notice that this play loop, as described, tends to lend itself to a certain division of authority. The players have the authority over their characters to decide what to do, and the DM has the authority to narrate the results and describe the environment. This ties into another aspect of D&D ....


2. Rule 0, and Rule ... 1?
Sometimes the most positive thing you can be in a boring society is absolutely negative.

The final authority of the DM in D&D is often referred to as the meta-rule, "Rule 0." While I am quite positive we are all familiar with it, it's a short hand way of referring to DM fiat- that the DM has final authority in all rules, and can abolish, supersede, or create new rules as needed. While there is a great deal of argument over it, Rule 0 also follows as an almost implicit corollary of the third step of the play loop. Absent explicit rules that bind the DM (which do exist in other games), the ability of the DM to narrate outcomes would allow for the DM to narrate those outcomes as the DM requires. The DMG (which no one reads) is chock full of different ways to play- from using dice, to ignoring dice, to ad hoc adjudications. In the end, the DM is the "master of the world" and the "master of the rules" (also from the DMG, which no one reads).

But there's another common issue in D&D- let's call it Rule 1. Players describe what they (their PCs) want to do. They have unfettered authority over that. While there are "conditions" and the occasional spell effect, for the most part- players have absolutely unfettered authority to roleplay their characters as they wish. Does one PC (or an NPC) want to intimidate another PC? Well, in 5e, you roleplay that. This respect for player authority (some call it agency, but that's a loaded term and applies to all sorts of other cases) in decision-making and roleplaying is one of the foundational aspects of D&D in general, and 5e in particular.

If Rule 0 is about the DM's authority over the world, then Rule 1 in D&D is about the Players' authority over their characters.

If you only play D&D, this might seem banal to the point of uselessness so far. The idea that a player has full control over their PC is ingrained, at this point, that there are many people who play 5e who argue that even spell effects that negate player authority over the PC's decision making (such as charm, or any controlling spells) should not be used on PCs. For that matter, the idea that the DM authority over the world is probably not that controversial (although I am positive that there most people would articulate that the DM must follow published rules, or must be neutral, or transparent, or communicate, etc. in order to run a successful game).

...but this isn't how all TTRPGs operate. There are models that allow Players to narrate results. There are models that allow Players to override the GM's narration. There are models that bind the Players' roleplaying options- just as, in D&D, you lose a combat, in other games you might have to roleplay certain ways as a result of dice rolls or certain events in the game. Which is to say- pointing out the division of authority in D&D, and 5e, might seem banal, but it is worthwhile because it doesn't have to be that way. Moreover, as I go through in the next section, even assuming this traditional division of authority, there is still a lot of play in the joints, and it's worthwhile for those people playing 5e to examine how they play, and how they want to play.


3. Where are the Limits to Player Authority over Narrative in 5e?
If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.

Looking back at the history of D&D, one thing does seem clear- despite the success of other games in introducing play concepts and rules that affect roleplaying, the history of D&D has shown that (D&D) Players do not like that, and do not want that in their D&D. Whether it's the various OD&D/1e attempts to lore-ifying classes with roleplaying restrictions (such as the proverbial Lawful Stupid Paladin) or ditching the XP rewards and penalties for roleplaying within your alignment, or even the continued movement to ditch alignment- the arc of D&D history has always bent toward complete Player authority over the roleplaying and decision-making regarding their PC.

(Now, I will again say that the DMG does offer some optional rules regarding roleplaying, such as Honor Points, and narrative control, such as Plot Points .... but ... wait for it ....NO ONE READS THE DMG!)

The more interesting question is- what about narrative control? What amount of control does the Player have over the narrative and the environment of the world? I will start by recounting an example I saw where this issue caused a table conflict, and then delve into why this might be important-
Briefly, an individual was trying to DM for the first time, and was running a "canned" adventure. One of the Players ("Player A") used a very heavy "narrative" approach to the game. At a certain point, there was an encounter with a guard. Player A engaged the DM in dialogue, and seized narrative control by creating fiction that had not previously exists (that Player A's character had a relative that the guard knew, that the relative was sick, etc.). Again, this was not a bluff, nor part of the prior knowledge of the world- just extemporaneously created fiction. Which caused the DM to freeze up, because the DM didn't know how to deal with it. And led some of the other Players to question Player A - as they felt Player A was trying to "game" the system.

Personally, I don't think anyone did anything wrong there. A more experienced DM who did not want to cede narrative control could easily have parried Player A ("Oh, you must have mistaken me for the other Guard. No, I don't know you.") until the table could discuss it. But it illuminates the issue of mismatched expectations regarding the amount of control Players have over narrative, and why it's important to have that division of authority ironed out. Importantly, it also illustrated the usual point of conflict that might occur-

Because D&D has so many rules, and such a concept of the "party" and the "spotlight" and "balance" and "fairness," there can be concerns that unchecked Player Authority over the narrative (the environment) can be unfair or unbalancing.

One thing I have seen repeatedly is a conflict in that interstitial area- the Player declaration prior to the DM narration. And this is where I think that it is worth exploring, at your own table, what level of narrative control and authorial responsibility should Players have? What is acceptable?

I don't think that there is a single, correct, answer. For example, if you using 5e to do a "old school" dungeon crawl with a keyed map, and descriptions of the things in each room, you should probably avoid having Players describe new things in the rooms. On the other hand, if the party goes into a bustling metropolis that hasn't been full described, is there any harm in having the Players narrate the name and location of the place they are staying, such that it becomes part of the fiction of the world? Or is this something that your table prefers remains exclusively within the province of the DM?

I put this out not because I have an answer, but simply to outline the issues and to see what other people say. So, have at it!
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Mort

Legend
I don't think that there is a single, correct, answer. For example, if you using 5e to do a "old school" dungeon crawl with a keyed map, and descriptions of the things in each room, you should probably avoid having Players describe new things in the rooms. On the other hand, if the party goes into a bustling metropolis that hasn't been full described, is there any harm in having the Players narrate the name and location of the place they are staying, such that it becomes part of the fiction of the world? Or is this something that your table prefers remains exclusively within the province of the DM?

I put this out not because I have an answer, but simply to outline the issues and to see what other people say. So, have at it!

One interesting place 5e has introduced player player authority (I'd call it narrative control): player backgrounds. Many of the features give significant narrative control to the player over the environment or even the situation, examples:

Urchin: Move through city environments twice as fast. This would imply going over roofs, through alleys, even through houses etc.

Noble: The DM has to accommodate you in social situations. You are assumed to fit into high society, "common" people defer to you AND if you need to you can secure an audience with a local noble - that's narrative control.

Etc.

But you are correct, MANY people don't like narrative control in their D&D. A while back I suggested a scenario where a PC is running from someone. They duck into an alley. DM narrates a dead end. Player then says, I'm a city rat born and bred (lets say this is borne out by their background) I KNOW there are tons of secret ways in these alleys! How about there being one in this one? Some people liked the idea of a check, some people REALLY hated giving the player anything like this at all - it was an interesting discussion. Here it is if you want to take a look,
 
Last edited:

payn

Hero
But you are correct, MANY people don't like narrative control in their D&D. A while back I suggested a scenario where a PC is running from someone. They duck into an alley. DM narrates a dead end. Player then says, I'm a city rat born and bred (lets say this is borne out by their background) I KNOW there are tons of secret ways in these alleys! How about there being one in this one? Some people liked the idea of a check, some people REALLY hated giving the player anything like this at all - it was an interesting discussion. Here it is if you want to take a look,
As a GM, I love when players explain why something should work out. I'll do my best to work with what they give me as long as it makes sense.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
It's a good article, in the end I think it all comes back to the issue of trust between the player and the DM. Trust for the player that the DM will not twist the world to screw him, and trust from the DM that the player will not abuse his background and narrative freedom to get undue advantage. Especially, I might add, in the last case, about getting undue advantage over his fellow players. We all know about people with good social skills who play characters with dumped charisma and no social skills as if it was themselves, because that allows them to win on both counts, this is similar, some people being more inventive than others.

That trust might not be easy to achieve depending on the environment, but for me it's the only way to get rid of the ambiguity.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
One interesting place 5e has introduced player player authority (I'd call it narrative control): player backgrounds. Many of the features give significant narrative control to the player over the environment or even the situation, examples:

I had another whole section planned on player authority in character creation and some of the background abilities, but ... I'm starting to get to War & Peace levels. Heck, most people just read the title, anyway. :)
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think the listed play loop leaves out a lot of nuance of what play actually looks like because it is only concerned with authority and not expectations or responsibilities. It's also a lot more permissive to the DM then actual play at actual tables tends to be in my experience.

..... I mean, that is the official and published play loop for 5e! I even cited the page and everything. :)

To the extent you want nuance*, you should probably take it up with WoTC.

EDIT: *As in nuance in the published materials, not "variation in play" amongst the millions of players and countless tables.
 
Last edited:

As a GM, I love when players explain why something should work out. I'll do my best to work with what they give me as long as it makes sense.
I think this is appropriate and how I generally do it. I very rarely give the players cart blanche to dictate the narrative as they wish but do listen to their suggestions and adjudicate as I see fit. In the above example of a street rat knowing secret ways out of the alley I would handle this several different ways. If they were in the place they grew up in and knew well, then Id agree with the player and no check needed. I they were out of the area they are familiar with or its the next city over Id give them a check as in the neighboring city probably has similar construction and layout. Now if the street rat were in a city totally in a foreign area, in a random alley, Id probably just say no, youve never been here theres no chance of you knowing that.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm probably old school (surprise, surprise I know) but I maintain narrative control of the world. I try to take and encourage people to contribute, but I'm always going to have the last say. The PC is in control of what they do and think, but if they want to say that they know every back alley in every city in the entire world ... umm ... no. In their home town, in their old neighborhood? Sure. But if in a city they've never been before? They know what to look for and recognize patterns so getting around town more quickly is fine, but it only goes so far.

Similar with being in a noble family. In most cases it's a benefit, but it can also be detrimental. Yes, you are a recognized member of nobility but noble families feud all the time. It's kind of a hobby.

On the other hand I do encourage people to contribute, but much of the time it's offline. If someone has an idea of who there family is and some history that goes along with it, I'll work with them to make it fit into the existing lore and setting. Sometimes there are things that particular player does not know, sometimes I just want to think how it impacts the larger world and if I can use their ideas in the campaign.

Part of this is because I've run a consistent campaign world for a long time. The world has to make sense to me first. So if someone could say they're best buds with the bartender it may or may not make sense because I know (and my wife knows because she was in the previous campaign before we moved) that the bartender is not what they seem. If they're a retired villain from a previous campaign secretly plotting a comeback I don't want it to feel like a gotcha when they lace the group's drink with a sleeping draught.

Ultimately though, I'm just doing it for a couple of reasons. First, people don't control the world around them they only control their actions and we like to think we control our responses. More importantly the world has to make sense to me if I'm going to make it come to life for them. I give players a lot of leeway on what they do, what options they pursue, where they go. The world then responds to their actions and deeds, the control they have on the world is based on their ability to influence it not just because the player said so.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think this completely misses a huge place where players have narrative control in 5e -- spells. Spells are packages of narrative control that players can deploy and the effects happen. The GM is, without blatant and obvious execution of Rule 0 to force their preferred outcome, bound by the effects of the spell. Some spells have grey areas, or require negotiation between player and GM on outcomes, but the effects of the spell are still binding on the GM as far as narrating outcomes go. This seems to get overlooked in discussions of authorities in D&D. I'm not sure why.
 

MarkB

Legend
It's funny - I really like some systems that give players a lot of narrative control, like Blades in the Dark, but when I'm playing D&D I much prefer to know that I am playing my character, not any part of the wider world.

I remember a discussion in another thread, ages ago, about running investigation-based adventures, in which the scenario under discussion was the PCs searching a house for a hidden document. One suggestion was that if a player rolled particularly high on their Investigation check when examining a particular location, such as a desk or cupboard, the DM should narrate that this was where the document was. I hated that concept. If I as the player was taking my character through searching the house, I didn't want my success or failure dictated by my die roll re-shaping the reality of that situation - I wanted to know that, if I did find the document, it was through my deduction based upon my knowledge of the suspect and of what would make a good hiding place, not just because I got a lucky roll, and if that meant I came up empty in the search, that's just the way it goes.

I've softened on that a little these days, but I still do prefer my character's interactions with the world to be framed in terms of their own capabilities, at least when I'm playing D&D.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Good article!

I've got a question though. I agree that it's kind of expected that players have authority over their characters. But I can't help but think that they don't have authority over some facets of it. For example, what do they character know?

It happens very often in my sessions that a player will ask me "Would I know about that because of [...]?" and I have to adjudicate. This is in relation to their Backgrounds (chosen from the book), their character's background which they wrote themselves and just general common sense related to the worldbuilding.

I'm wondering what others think about this? And is there other areas of a player's character where they don't have full authority?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Good article!

I've got a question though. I agree that it's kind of expected that players have authority over their characters. But I can't help but think that they don't have authority over some facets of it. For example, what do they character know?

It happens very often in my sessions that a player will ask me "Would I know about that because of [...]?" and I have to adjudicate. This is in relation to their Backgrounds (chosen from the book), their character's background which they wrote themselves and just general common sense related to the worldbuilding.

I'm wondering what others think about this? And is there other areas of a player's character where they don't have full authority?

Great question.

So when I say that the default assumption in 5e is that players have full authority over their character, what I mean is that they have the full implied authority derived from Step 2 of the Play Loop- what I refer to as Rule 1.

The Player can choose to roleplay the character in any manner they want and make any decision they want.

That's why, in D&D terms, it's anathema for a DM to say, "No, your character wouldn't do that."

What asking what the PC knows is where we get to the play in the joints- what can the player narrate about the world itself? Here, what can the player decide that the PC "knows" about the world?

I don't think that there's a set answer- I think that some tables are fine with the player authority to make that determination, and some table defer to the DM (and often some kind of roll) to make those determinations. I don't think that there is a single "right" answer. IMO.
 



what do they character know?
I'm wondering what others think about this?
I always rule this on a case to case basis based on common sense. A player telling me they are a cleric for example, I have skill "x" or 'y" and also have this background I would/should know this doesnt always work when Im DMing. Some information is just beyond their knowledge no matter what their class, background or skills known.
 
Last edited:

payn

Hero
Good article!

I've got a question though. I agree that it's kind of expected that players have authority over their characters. But I can't help but think that they don't have authority over some facets of it. For example, what do they character know?

It happens very often in my sessions that a player will ask me "Would I know about that because of [...]?" and I have to adjudicate. This is in relation to their Backgrounds (chosen from the book), their character's background which they wrote themselves and just general common sense related to the worldbuilding.

I'm wondering what others think about this? And is there other areas of a player's character where they don't have full authority?
As GM, I'll often tell a player what their PC might know if its not obvious to the table. This works well for giving hints to players who seem stuck at the moment. I also encourage my players to ask what their character knows about the situation and/or subject as a good way to interact with the setting.
 

Campbell

Legend
I think within the context of D&D in particular the more interesting question is how much authority do players have to define their aims rather than just their actions. Who sets the agenda for play basically?

What about backstory authority? Who gets to define where characters have been? Who they know? What sort of existing relationships they have?
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
That being said, I need to share the most outrageous story about player agency ever, we had been captured by an army, and one of the players (he was a very lucky guy, nicknamed "Moulux Jones", for his luck, carefree manner and slightly couch potato style) asked the DM if, perchance, as he had been in an army too, he would know one of the officers. The DM asked him to roll a d100 twice and told him that if he gor 00 twice, he would indeed know the officer...

00

00

"So, this guys is actually my best pal from the military academy of Greyhawk..."
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top