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

pemerton

Legend
When we are talking D&D-like RPG's there's a particular tenet that the players control their character and they the GM controls the world. If that premise is accepted as a requirement for the desired style of game then there's not much (any?) room left for anything other than linear or sandbox style play.
I think your posited tenet is contentious.

Rolemaster is a D&D-like RPG. I quoted extensively from its 1984 Campaign Law upthread. That envisages important degrees of player authority over backstory at the point of PC building.

AD&D OA is a D&D-like RPG. It is not as clear in its wording as RM, but it also envisages players getting involved in backstory authorship as part of the process of establishing their family, its relationships, who their PC's master is (if a martial artist), etc. Yakuza's in that game also have a "contact" ability which lets them establish, during play, that their PC knows someone useful.

Gygax, in his DMG, only provides one example of a player attempting exercise authority over backstory - in the context of a PC establishing a stronghold - and says that the GM should say "yes" given that what the player suggests is generally consistent with the established fiction concerning that particular bit of the setting.

But in any event, your conclusion wouldn't follow.

A sandbox is a game in which backstory is prior to, and yields, situation. The "bridge" from backstory to situation is player action declarations that "activate" latent situations (eg I go down the street to the temple. Who's there?). (I've explained this in more detail upthread so won't repeat myself here, but am happy to explain again if you would like.)

A "linear" adventure is a game in which backstory and situation are both pre-authored, and the "bridge" is simply GM fiat. Thus player action declarations make no difference to which situations are narrated.

"Node-based" design is a variation on linear design - backstory and situation are preauthored, but the players' choices affect the sequence of activation. Unlike a sandbox, though, there is an expectation that all the "nodes" will be "activated", and each "node" is designed (eg via the "3 clue rule") so as to lead the players to declare an action that will "activate" another node.

But in my view (I think @Ovinomancer disagrees at least a bit, and maybe a lot) there is nothing intrinsic to D&D that requires establishing backstory upfront like this. It is possible to GM D&D in a way that puts situation first. This does not require the GM relinquishing any significant control over backstory. It does require having ways to resolve action declarations without needing established backstory as "inputs" - that's easy most of the time but can be trickier for Perception and Knowledge-type checks. But as I already posted upthread, I don't think that's an insuperable problem. (Maybe Investigation skill really does get cast to the four winds on this approach, but that seems like a small sacrifice to make.)

And just to reiterate: this is not theorycraft. This is speaking from the experience of having run AD&D and RM in this way.

pemerton said:
I've run AD&D quite successfully using shared backstory authority (especially in PC build, but also the GM taking suggestions from players on the way through) and GM authority over situation/scene-framing.

I don't see why 5e D&D couldn't be run the same way if a group wanted to do so.
I only have the vaguest notion of what you mean here. Care to elaborate?
There's the elaboration above.

The AD&D play I'm thinking of is mostly 30-odd years ago, so my memory is not perfect. But the sorts of situations I used included opportunities for hijinks in the Keep on the Borderlands (an all-thieves game) that turned into a crusade against evil cultists - I established backstory as necessary to support framing and resolution (eg that the wife of the mayor of Critwall was a member of the cult).

In the OA game I remember encountering an Ogre castle high in the mountains, and having social interaction with them - to what ultimate end I can't remember anymore.

I also remember a game with characters doing stuff in the Gnarley forest - maybe dealing with bandits?

D&D makes improvising situation fairly easy, because it has many many books full of monsters, NPCs, maps, etc.

(I've also used the approach I describe playing 4e D&D, but because some people think it's not a D&D-like game I'm using AD&D and RM as my examples.)
 

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pemerton

Legend
there are games where the player controls some of the world and the GM might control a characters reaction to some particular fail result. There certainly are such games
Which ones do you have in mind?

I've put this in a separate post because I'm not sure there are many such RPGs, except in posts explaining that they are not relevant to discussing D&D.

I'm talking about RPGing where the GM controls the backstory, but approaches the relationship between backstory and situation differently from either a sandbox or a linear or node-based design. This can be done in D&D.
 

pemerton

Legend
So during play, as players are trying to achieve the goals of their characters (however those may have been determined), what do you guys think about rules/resources players can use to essentially declare success at a stated task?
What's the relationship between the task at hand, and the goal? And also, how long does it take for the player to deploy their resource?

Eg if the goal is rob a bank, and the task is break into the safe from underneath without being detected, and the resources are an extensive equipment list that includes shaped charges of all sorts, sonic dampeners, diamond-tipped drills, etc, and the deployment of those resources is two hours of planning and discussion about how the job can be pulled off, then maybe I've just described a successful session of play in a slightly futuristic (eg cyberpunkish) RPG.

If the goal is overthrow Lolth and the task is make Lolth cease to exist with a word and the resource is a Wish spell, then that probably seems like pretty boring play! (Hence why high level D&D has such a countermeasures/rock-paper-scissors feel to it.)

I hope that's the beginning of an answer to your question.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Well, here we disagree.

There is no continuum. There is on continuous sequence. There is no "ordered arrangement" by reference to a particular characteristic (eg the quality, such as colour, that I mentioned).

Suppose the question is: should we erect a statue of the Pied Piper in our town park? On that there can be a spectrum of opinion, from very strong yes through the dunno, don't cares to the ardent opposition.

Suppose the question is: who should be on the statue to be erected in our town park? If most people think either it should be the Pied Piper or it should be Little Bo Peep, then in a colloquial sense we might have a spectrum of opinion - and in characterising it as such we ignore the small minority who want Robin Hood.

But if there are significant blocs of opinion who want, respectively, the Pied Piper, Little Bo Peep, Robin Hood, and Daffy Duck, then what is the spectrum? All we have is variation. But there is no continuum on which all the relevant instances can be located.

As I've said, I don't regard this as a merely pedantic point because it occurs in nearly all discussions of the distribution of authority and is used as a premise in arguments that reach false conclusions, such as that the best or indeed only way to reduce GM authority over outcomes is to move to a sandbox: without considering that authority over outcomes is related to (i) authority over backstory and (ii) the role of backstory in adjudication and in framing, in ways that are different in various sorts of non-railroaded play - with a sandbox only being one of those ways.
I specified (multiple times) that the spectrum I'm referring to is measured in percentages, from 0 percent to 100 percent. Since we're dealing with rational numbers, that's a continuous, well-ordered domain. The particular characteristic used to place a campaign along this spectrum was specified as the percentage of strategic decisions made free of any table expectation to choose from among a DM-presented list of options.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like I have properly defined a spectrum for the campaigns that fit on it. I see no comparison between the spectrum I've specified and the histogram of statue preferences you discuss.

I don't mind if we disagree on the utility of that spectrum, but I object to your claim that the spectrum I've specified doesn't exist, and your implication that I'm misusing the word "spectrum".
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I specified (multiple times) that the spectrum I'm referring to is measured in percentages, from 0 percent to 100 percent. Since we're dealing with rational numbers, that's a continuous, well-ordered domain. The particular characteristic used to place a campaign along this spectrum was specified as the percentage of strategic decisions made free of any table expectation to choose from among a DM-presented list of options.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like I have properly defined a spectrum for the campaigns that fit on it. I see no comparison between the spectrum I've specified and the histogram of statue preferences you discuss.

I don't mind if we disagree on the utility of that spectrum, but I object to your claim that the spectrum I've specified doesn't exist, and your implication that I'm misusing the word "spectrum".
Except, a sandbox game is still choosing from GM-presented lists of options, yes? I can't pick places off of the offered map, or locations that the GM hasn't created or offered to create, yes? Sandboxes are still explorations of the GM's prep, unless I'm badly mistaken in which case how does a sandbox work without the GM prep?
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think if we want to talk about how play actually works we need to either be extremely precise that we are talking about the game's objectives or goals or use language which cannot be easily used to elide the real world causes for the fictional things.

What I like about win condition is that there is zero doubt we are talking about the player trying to achieve the game's objectives. I'm not entirely happy with it, but not sure what I would use in its place.

Aside : It would bring me immense pleasure if instead of PC people would start using player's character when they are talking about the character and player when talking about the player. This is another case where eliding happens for the purpose of getting players in the right mindset for play, but fails to do a good job of communicating what is actually going on when we sit down to play a roleplaying game.
Oh, wait, are you making a distinction between "player character" and "player's character"? I think I see your point, here, as the latter is more precise, but it never occurred to me that the former might be ambiguous.
 

Except, a sandbox game is still choosing from GM-presented lists of options, yes? I can't pick places off of the offered map, or locations that the GM hasn't created or offered to create, yes? Sandboxes are still explorations of the GM's prep, unless I'm badly mistaken in which case how does a sandbox work without the GM prep?
Random tables, or randomness in general? Does this town have a blacksmith, roll d6 to find out
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Random tables, or randomness in general? Does this town have a blacksmith, roll d6 to find out
I don't see how that's specifically unique to sandboxes -- I can see that being used as prep filler for a highly detailed plot-game as well as for a sandbox game.

I suppose, though, that you could procedurally generate all content on demand. Does something like this actually exist, though, or is it holding a place as pure sandbox in hypothetical sense only? And, then, wouldn't this spectrum be more accurately termed the use of random tables for content generate rather than sandbox? Because, there's still a difference to be noted between a plotted game and a sandbox game where plot points are not usually connected and up to the players to discover through action declaration.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Except, a sandbox game is still choosing from GM-presented lists of options, yes? I can't pick places off of the offered map, or locations that the GM hasn't created or offered to create, yes? Sandboxes are still explorations of the GM's prep, unless I'm badly mistaken in which case how does a sandbox work without the GM prep?
I addressed that earlier when I said:

In my original post where I specifically defined the spectrum, I'm using the phrase "options presented by the GM" to mean options laid out for the PCs at the time of the players' decision. The spectrum runs from campaigns where players are always expected to always choose from among the options laid out by the GM when making strategic choices, to campaigns where players are never expected to always choose from among those options and instead always face open-ended decisions.

I'm not using the phrase "options presented by the GM" to refer to who gets to author content about the game world. Sure, even the open-ended strategic decisions are constrained to be within the sandbox, and the sandbox is usually of finite size. But since strategic choices don't consist solely of where to go within the setting or what setting element to interact with, but also consist of how to interact with setting elements, even a finite sandbox can offer infinite strategic options all without the players authoring anything new about the setting.
To rephrase to more directly address your question: a strategic decision that would count as constrained by options presented by the DM would be one where the DM has laid out specific options for the players to select among for this particular decision, and the social contract of the table creates the expectation that the players choose one of those options rather than choosing to go elsewhere in the sandbox to do something else (of which there can be countless combinations, even in a bounded sandbox).

An analogy would be the difference between answering a multiple choice question vs a fill-in-the-blank question. In this analogy the particular characteristic that defines where a campaign is placed on the spectrum (if it can be at all) would be the percentage of questions that are fill-in-the-blank.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Here's a different take. Once you've hit the win condition, that challenge is over. In a sports game, a win condition might be, "tackle the guy with the ball." You do that, and the down is over. Then it might be, "make sure the opposing team cannot progress the ball 10 yards or more in 4 downs." Do this, and the possession is over. Then there's the "have more points than the opposing team when time expires." That ends the game. Then it might be, "have more winning games than other members of the conference when the season is complete." That gets you to the league finals. Then it might be, "do not lose during the league final tournament." That gets you to the Superbowl. Then we have the same win condition as a regular game, "have more points than the opposing team when time expires." That wins your the championship. Then things can go on.
All of those are temporary, or in-process, win conditions that reset for the next play or down or game or season. None of them say a team has "won football" outright.

Further, every one of them comes at the expense of a directly-offsetting loss by someone else - the running back, the defensive team, the opposing team, etc. depending on scale.
Win conditions aren't limited to how you win a game overall. They are rather independent packets where when complete you can say you achieved an objective or not. Did we rescue the princess? Yup! Win condition met. That there can be multiple win conditions active at the same time or that they can rotate or that you can keep adding more doesn't alter that they exist.
In D&D the biggest difference is that while you might have a temporary win condition that applies both in the fiction and at the table, the offsetting loss only occurs in the fiction unless a DM is very adversarial.

Another difference is - unlike gridiron football where a win for one member or part of a team is almost always a win for the whole team - while PC parties tend to co-operate most of the time there's no baked-in requirement that they must: they can and sometimes do operate toward conflicting goals, meaning a given event might represent a win condition for some players/PCs and a loss for others.

Conclusion: it's just as valid to say you can't "win football" as it is to say you can't "win D&D" in an overall sense; with the difference being that while D&D looks at the overall game and says you can't win it, football focuses on those more-granular situations in which a team actually does win or lose while ignoring the overall or "forever" picture.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So I think there’s something interesting in here other than the semantic debate about winning RPGs.

So during play, as players are trying to achieve the goals of their characters (however those may have been determined), what do you guys think about rules/resources players can use to essentially declare success at a stated task?

How do you feel about abilities that let the player essentially say “I succeed” rather than just giving like higher chances or a bonus or something?
I'm generally not much of a fan of such things, but I suspect you already knew that. ;)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It just occured to me why "win condition" grates on me as a term for an in-fiction success where "goal achievement" and other terms don't: maybe it's just me but "win condition" carries a strong air of finality to it due to the unspoken but very persistent idea that says when someone wins, the game is over. Finished. Completed. Everything is reset.

In an RPG this reset would be represented by rolling up an entirely new party for each discrete adventure; which I'm sure a few groups do but IME it ain't common practice.

Instead, most of the time in RPGs achieving a goal (e.g. finding the Soul Gem, or getting the three weapons out of White Plume) doesn't end the game. The characters go back to town, train up, divide their treasure, and head back into the field: the same game continues.

This makes achieving an in-fiction goal more akin to scoring a goal in hockey. The puck goes in the net, the players celebrate, the ref takes the puck to centre ice for a faceoff, and the same game continues.

The difference, of course, is that hockey has a clock that counts down (or up, in Europe) to the end of the period, and then the game; at which point a winner is declared. RPGs generally have no such clock, no such end point, and thus no opportunity to declare a winner.
 

this is from p5 of the call of Cthulhu QuickStart :
Winners and Losers
In Call of Cthulhu there are no winners and losers in the standard competitive sense. Play is usually cooperative. The participants work together to attain a common goal—usually to discover and foil a nefarious plot being perpetrated by the minions of some dark cult or secret society. The opposition that the investigators face will often be an alien or hostile situation controlled by an impartial Keeper, not another player.
Winning in such a situation depends on whether the investigators succeed in their goal, and losing is what happens if they fail to achieve it (they may be able to try again later). During the game investigators may become injured, suer sanity-shattering experiences, or even die! However, someone has to make a stand against the cosmic horrors of the universe, and the death of a single investigator matters little if it means repulsing Cthulhu’s master plan to enslave the Earth!

I find it notable in the context of this discussion that the authors here chose to include a section entitled "winning and losing" right after the section on playing an RPG for the first time. The term winning carries with it a lot of connotations and baggage. it gives new players the wrong expectations, even it, technically not all winning is zero-sum.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I addressed that earlier when I said:


To rephrase to more directly address your question: a strategic decision that would count as constrained by options presented by the DM would be one where the DM has laid out specific options for the players to select among for this particular decision, and the social contract of the table creates the expectation that the players choose one of those options rather than choosing to go elsewhere in the sandbox to do something else (of which there can be countless combinations, even in a bounded sandbox).

An analogy would be the difference between answering a multiple choice question vs a fill-in-the-blank question. In this analogy the particular characteristic that defines where a campaign is placed on the spectrum (if it can be at all) would be the percentage of questions that are fill-in-the-blank.
I must not be understanding the difference, except that one is explicitly laid out -- the GM tells you these things are available -- and the latter is just left unsaid -- you pick something, whatever.

Except, I've seen GMs claim even in plotted games that the players could just ignore the list and do whatever, and I don't know how that would be scored. There was a poster in this thread arguing that the WotC APs aren't railroads for precisely this reason -- the players could just abandon things and do something off script entirely. It would seem that this might be a hole in the conception?

Overall, I don't really see this construction as having a lot of merit outside of the endpoints -- the "spread" part of the spectrum seems very, very messy. The endpoints seems like not great fun either -- either CYOA book style play or complete lack of prompts at all. Most games I'm familiar with that are sandboxes still have hooks.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
All of those are temporary, or in-process, win conditions that reset for the next play or down or game or season. None of them say a team has "won football" outright.
Football as a category isn't a game, so win conditions are irrelevant. Football games and Football Seasons are competitions. Those are won and lost.
In D&D the biggest difference is that while you might have a temporary win condition that applies both in the fiction and at the table, the offsetting loss only occurs in the fiction unless a DM is very adversarial.
D&D is a competition, but not a traditional one so it doesn't have traditional win conditions like football games and seasons do.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
All of those are temporary, or in-process, win conditions that reset for the next play or down or game or season. None of them say a team has "won football" outright.
Okay. I don't disagree.
Further, every one of them comes at the expense of a directly-offsetting loss by someone else - the running back, the defensive team, the opposing team, etc. depending on scale.
Yes, this is true for football, but it's not a requirement. I could do Pandemic the boardgame in a similar level of breakdown.
In D&D the biggest difference is that while you might have a temporary win condition that applies both in the fiction and at the table, the offsetting loss only occurs in the fiction unless a DM is very adversarial.
I don't think an offsetting loss is at all necessary to begin with, as I just said, so...? I do think that win conditions can be failed in D&D.
Another difference is - unlike gridiron football where a win for one member or part of a team is almost always a win for the whole team - while PC parties tend to co-operate most of the time there's no baked-in requirement that they must: they can and sometimes do operate toward conflicting goals, meaning a given event might represent a win condition for some players/PCs and a loss for others.
Again, you seem to be on a kick I didn't intend, nor that I think is particularly useful. Non-zero-sum win conditions also exist.
Conclusion: it's just as valid to say you can't "win football" as it is to say you can't "win D&D" in an overall sense; with the difference being that while D&D looks at the overall game and says you can't win it, football focuses on those more-granular situations in which a team actually does win or lose while ignoring the overall or "forever" picture.
No, it's because both of these are abstract concepts that describe a game to be played, and not an actual game player. I can't win football, but I can win a game of football. I can't win D&D, but I can win a game of D&D (see Curse of Strahd, or one shots, or tournament modules, or even normal play games). The argument for an infinite series that never completes is one I've already addressed -- every game concludes at some point, and that's either be reaching the end of an agreed set of win conditions or because all currently active win conditions are abandoned.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
this is from p5 of the call of Cthulhu QuickStart :


I find it notable in the context of this discussion that the authors here chose to include a section entitled "winning and losing" right after the section on playing an RPG for the first time. The term winning carries with it a lot of connotations and baggage. it gives new players the wrong expectations, even it, technically not all winning is zero-sum.
Oh, so the point of playing a CoC game is not to thwart a nefarious plot or achieve some other goal? I don't follow your argument that this confuses people -- what are they supposed to understand? This, again, seems like a dogmatic argument and not one that's standing on principles. Plenty of people do just fine with CoC with this in the rulebook and I haven't heard of a single person "doing it wrong" because they think the point of playing CoC is to foil nefarious plots by alien and sinister beings.
 

Oh, so the point of playing a CoC game is not to thwart a nefarious plot or achieve some other goal? I don't follow your argument that this confuses people -- what are they supposed to understand? This, again, seems like a dogmatic argument and not one that's standing on principles. Plenty of people do just fine with CoC with this in the rulebook and I haven't heard of a single person "doing it wrong" because they think the point of playing CoC is to foil nefarious plots by alien and sinister beings.
My point is that the authors find it meaningful for to say to their audience of new rpgers that it is about having particular goals, but not about winning and losing
. It helps them orient new players to the specificity of playing an RPG as opposed to another kind of game
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't think an offsetting loss is at all necessary to begin with, as I just said, so...? I do think that win conditions can be failed in D&D.

Again, you seem to be on a kick I didn't intend, nor that I think is particularly useful. Non-zero-sum win conditions also exist.
I disagree. Non-zero-sum goal achievements certainly exist, but to call them "win conditions" runs aground on the concept (which IMO is true) that there cannot by definition be a winner without at least one loser.

If everybody wins, nobody does: it's a tie. Ditto if everybody loses.
No, it's because both of these are abstract concepts that describe a game to be played, and not an actual game player. I can't win football, but I can win a game of football. I can't win D&D, but I can win a game of D&D (see Curse of Strahd, or one shots, or tournament modules, or even normal play games).
You can't win - or lose - a game that has no definable end point, mostly because it's only at or after that end point when winners and-or losers can be declared.
The argument for an infinite series that never completes is one I've already addressed -- every game concludes at some point, and that's either be reaching the end of an agreed set of win conditions or because all currently active win conditions are abandoned.
Or because all active win conditions have been failed e.g. a game-ending TPK.

And if all active win conditions are abandoned e.g. the game simply runs out of steam or 3/4 of the players suddenly move out of town then that game has neither winners nor losers. An analogy here would be a baseball game that gets through 4 innings and then gets rained out - play occurred but no winner or loser could be declared because the game didn't reach a rules-definable end point.
 

S'mon

Legend
I feel that the 5e Backgrounds are set up to give PCs some mild narrative authority. My son plays an Acolyte Monk of St Sollars in Damara, and is always very insistent about the free food & shelter he's entitled to from all the local churches! Likewise the Noble Fighter PC, the player created three useful followers for him.

In the 4e game I'm playing, my PC is the son of a noble from SE of the Harkenwold, background approved by GM, and I occasionally 'assert narrative authority'. Eg on Tuesday playing Reavers of Harkenwold:

NPC: "Go to the Woodsinger Elves and ask for help."
Me: "Ah yes - it is time to renew the Old Alliance!"

I then explained to the GM that in the time of Nerath my family the Alturs fought alongside the Woodsinger Elves against the Goblins, and he told me I get +1 on interaction checks with the Elves. :D
 

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