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


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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.
I'm not sure spells are all that special of a case, compared to any other character ability.

The player decides what the character's choices are (they choose to cast fireball) - the dm decides what that means in the narrative. If it's an anti-magic zone, it means one thing, in a dry forest it means something else... but the dm has final say. The player can't tell the dm that the anti-magic zone isn't there, and that the description in the PHB is to be followed regardless of the fiction. The player has control over the decision (the dm can't tell you what spell you cast), but the results of the act of casting are technically/ultimately under the dm's authority.

But unless there's a reason otherwise, the character's decision to cast fireball, presuming that's a thing the character knows how to do, should almost always result in a ball of fire, at least. Technically the dm can say no, although most of us would expect that a dm who say no to your spell has a good reason for that.

But it's also true that the original breakdown of the play loop left out an important point in step 3: this decision (by the dm) is assumed to follow the agreed-upon rules for that table, whether that means RAW or something else. It's kind of a big thing to gloss over, methinks.

At least, that's how I've always played DnD.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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?
In my games it may be automatic but in many cases it will be advantage on a specific check. I will also throw in proficiency bonus if the PC is not already proficient.

So yes, Grandpa Josiah talked about it, but were you paying attention?
 


payn

Hero
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?
I like in Traveller that an NPC background system is built into chargen. I'd love to see something like that added to D&D.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But it's also true that the original breakdown of the play loop left out an important point in step 3: this decision (by the dm) is assumed to follow the agreed-upon rules for that table, whether that means RAW or something else. It's kind of a big thing to gloss over, methinks.

For that matter, the idea that the DM authority over the world is probably not that controversial (although I am positive that 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).

As always, we must assume good-faith, or things start to break down. :)
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
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?
When I run D&D players seizing narrative control drives me up the wall. I'm perfectly fine with players adding details or assuming details in a space...if it's reasonable. Like a candle merchant in a bazaar. Or tables and chairs in a bar. I don't want to have to describe in perfect detail every bit of detritus in a ruin...just go ahead and assume there are pebbles of various sizes. But that example of adding in family members who know the guard...nope.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm not sure spells are all that special of a case, compared to any other character ability.

The player decides what the character's choices are (they choose to cast fireball) - the dm decides what that means in the narrative. If it's an anti-magic zone, it means one thing, in a dry forest it means something else... but the dm has final say. The player can't tell the dm that the anti-magic zone isn't there, and that the description in the PHB is to be followed regardless of the fiction. The player has control over the decision (the dm can't tell you what spell you cast), but the results of the act of casting are technically/ultimately under the dm's authority.

But unless there's a reason otherwise, the character's decision to cast fireball, presuming that's a thing the character knows how to do, should almost always result in a ball of fire, at least. Technically the dm can say no, although most of us would expect that a dm who say no to your spell has a good reason for that.

But it's also true that the original breakdown of the play loop left out an important point in step 3: this decision (by the dm) is assumed to follow the agreed-upon rules for that table, whether that means RAW or something else. It's kind of a big thing to gloss over, methinks.

At least, that's how I've always played DnD.
Spells step very far outside the realm of most other character abilities in that many create entirely new situations. Instead of fireball, take Banishment, or Illusion spells, or Charm Person. These radically alter the fictional situation and some force continued narration according to the binding resolution on the GM.

The points about anit-magic zones are still rule-0 Force but by more roundabout means. Here the GM is imposing Force through prep decisions rather than in-resolution decisions. This can be better, and even move away from Force, if there's a fictional reason that facing the players and a way to manipulate this available to the players. Most of my experience with anti-magic is just the GM shutting down magic, usually for plot reasons, because otherwise the narrative control that spells allow can derail prep. The reality is that the GM has to be obvious about using Force if they are disallowing spells to function. I'm on record that Force isn't inherently bad, and good play most certainly exists alongside it (else all published adventures would fail), I'm just being explicit about the fact the any ruling disallowing or altering spell resolutions is obvious GM Force. Doesn't mean it's bad.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
When I run D&D players seizing narrative control drives me up the wall. I'm perfectly fine with players adding details or assuming details in a space...if it's reasonable. Like a candle merchant in a bazaar. Or tables and chairs in a bar. I don't want to have to describe in perfect detail every bit of detritus in a ruin...just go ahead and assume there are pebbles of various sizes. But that example of adding in family members who know the guard...nope.
Is this because you think it's impossible that they might have family members that know the guard, or, if possible, just too convenient, or is it a matter that is sidesteps a planned obstacle?
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
Good example.

To me, it shows the difference in focus people have. Is it a ROLEPLAYING game or a roleplaying GAME. The people who want to run through their character searching this cupboard or that tend to focus on the roleplaying aspect, whereas the people who want to throw dice and have the document appear where they happen to be looking tend to focus on the game aspect. Neither is wrong, of course, but it is a divide that explains a lot of things gamers butt heads about.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
I agree and disagree. I'm all for players having control of their characters...to the point where I refuse to use "miss a turn" style mechanics or "DM takes control of the PC" style mechanics while running D&D...unless it's the signature move of a creature, like a mind flayer. The only thing players get to control is their character, I think it's a jerk move to take that away. Unless it really, really matters...like with mind flayers. A mind flayer without mind control isn't a mind flayer, but the NPC wizard can pick a different spell without running counter to its core concept.

But I hard pass on players deciding things like their characters having perfect knowledge of the game world, i.e. no your 1st-level character who's been cloistered away in a monastery for the first 18 years of their life would not know the precise weaknesses of all the monsters in the world. Basically trying to declare metagaming is okay. Nope. Super common things, sure. Anything outside that is a roll or an auto failure. But I also run lots of or mostly homebrew monsters and change up existing monsters to keep them interesting.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Good example.

To me, it shows the difference in focus people have. Is it a ROLEPLAYING game or a roleplaying GAME. The people who want to run through their character searching this cupboard or that tend to focus on the roleplaying aspect, whereas the people who want to throw dice and have the document appear where they happen to be looking tend to focus on the game aspect. Neither is wrong, of course, but it is a divide that explains a lot of things gamers butt heads about.
This is.... not a good take. It's putting your preferences in place of what roleplaying means. Games that feature the latter example of rolls determining success rather than prep notes and rolls are not abandoning roelplaying -- they're putting a different focus on what matters in the game.
 

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.
It can be blatant and obvious, or it can be subtle and misdirecting, but it's still up to the dm to adjudicate and narrate the result of the PC declaration. Which is fine, because whether the player says "I try to stab the guard in the throat" or "I cast eldritch blast at the guard," there are helpful and extensive rules to guide the dm towards adjudicating the result, including telling them which dice to roll and how to interpret those die rolls. Let's say the whole group went to an off-the-grid cabin to play dnd, but forgot their books at home, and completely blanked on how much damage eldritch blast was supposed to do. It would be up to the dm to tell the player what to roll, and the game would proceed as usual.

Those rules are most concrete and most detailed to do with combat situations. Out of combat, it's more fuzzy. To what extent does a minor illusion or silent image actually affect the reality of the game world? What does a successful insight check get the player? There's a lot of dm interpretation there, and the players have to trust that the dm will be fair to their declarations of intent.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
It can be blatant and obvious, or it can be subtle and misdirecting, but it's still up to the dm to adjudicate and narrate the result of the PC declaration. Which is fine, because whether the player says "I try to stab the guard in the throat" or "I cast eldritch blast at the guard," there are helpful and extensive rules to guide the dm towards adjudicating the result, including telling them which dice to roll and how to interpret those die rolls. Let's say the whole group went to an off-the-grid cabin to play dnd, but forgot their books at home, and completely blanked on how much damage eldritch blast was supposed to do. It would be up to the dm to tell the player what to roll, and the game would proceed as usual.

Those rules are most concrete and most detailed to do with combat situations. Out of combat, it's more fuzzy. To what extent does a minor illusion or silent image actually affect the reality of the game world? What does a successful insight check get the player? There's a lot of dm interpretation there, and the players have to trust that the dm will be fair to their declarations of intent.
I find this confusing. Why cannot the damage of eldritch blast be settled by consensus? What is there fuzzy about what an illusion spell does? The nature of this argument seems to be that since the GM is granted the ability to change rules, that therefore the GM should be deferred to at all times and that the best resolution method is just to trust the GM in this. The problem is that this doesn't follow -- the GM is granted leave to alter rules, but only in pursuit of a better game for the table; a conversation that should include the table if it's going to be in good faith. When the rules of the game are unavailable, so to is the rule that the GM is in charge. You cannot logically state that missing rules means that the GM position -- defined by rules -- deserves full deference and trust. Why cannot the GM trust the player instead?

When I play 5e, it do it from the textbook position -- the GM has almost all of the authority in the game. I do this because the game is designed to work under this assumption, and I've found that at my table this works out. I also very rarely make changes to the rules of the game as written, and then I am 100% transparent about the change and 99% of the time seek consensus on the change. That's me, and I mention it because I have no problem with GM authority as presented in 5e. I am not challenging your post on the basis that I disagree with, or dislike strong GM authority. I am challenging your post because I find the reasoning provided for why GMs must have deference to not hold up very well. Essentially, I see it as trying to justify out of game responses (you must trust the GM to use their authority wisely) with in game reasons (because the GM is granted authority to change rules). The former does not follow from the latter. I also do not think that this creates a better game -- as I note, I tend to seek table consensus for any changes because I view my authority to change rules in 5e to be entirely based on making the game work better at the table, for the table, and me being the GM doesn't provide any extra or special insight to that process over a player. Just because I've agreed to be the GM doesn't mean I'm wiser, more knowledgeable, or am better able to make choices to the point that player input is unnecessary.
 

payn

Hero
Yeap, im a consensus GM on rules and some settings and narrative stuff. However, I reserve the right to drop my authoritah any time I feel necessary to break ties or get past obstacles and keep the game going. Folks have to live with my iron fist in a velvet glove style I guess.
 

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.
This.

As a relevant topic related to this, there are (assumed) limits on the DM's authority within D&D. In every group I've played with, it is a big no-no for the DM to usurp player character agency outside of defined effects (typically supernatural or spell) that have rules governing their usage and resistance. The DM is not allowed to dictate what player characters think, feel, or do outside of these special circumstances.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Yeap, im a consensus GM on rules and some settings and narrative stuff. However, I reserve the right to drop my authoritah any time I feel necessary to break ties or get past obstacles and keep the game going. Folks have to live with my iron fist in a velvet glove style I guess.
I've no problems with a GM as tiebreaker situation -- I've sat there many a time, even when the tie being broken is between me and a player. At some point, if conflict has to be resolved. What I'm questioning is moving this into just never starting a conversation at all, at any time, because players should just trust the GM. I say, "DO NOT TRUST ME!" I am human so I make mistakes and/or I am biased, and sometimes I'm on the wrong page entirely (not even wrong!). At no point should you trust me just because I'm the GM. The title of GM, or DM, or MC, or referee, or storyteller, or anything else, does not magically transform me (or you). If trust is present, it's because it's earned by me, as a person, doing the work. I will provisionally lend out trust to others, like we do in so many social situations, when I sit down to play a game with them and they are a stranger. But this is provisional, and not based on them being a player or GM. I don't give extra trust to people just because they're running a game.
 

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