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

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
So, first: I didn't name names, because I am inclined to think people hanging out in GM-centric spaces online (and EN World is GM-centric) are more likely to think things through than people not doing so. Plausibly naive, but whatever.
Heh. I didn't take it personally or think you were talking about me. I just saw the comment and was curious as to the thought process. :)
I think it's possible to understand "responsive to player input" as "sharing authority." It's reasonable to think of reacting to a player's question about the environment (is there a chandelier here, is there a blacksmith in this town, can I find a corrupt official here) with "I hadn't thought about that ... why not?" as in a way sharing the authority to create the world. I do this explicitly when I ask for PC backstories (and I'm doing it differently in a real-world-adjacent game I'm hoping to start soon). A GM can do it explicitly by asking "How do you know this?" or some similar question.

That is of course leaving aside the questions related to Let it Ride and similar mechanics, which can plausibly be imported to D&D without rendering the game not-D&D. Arguably such importation would represent a DM ceding authority to the mechanics, not to the players.
I don't view being responsive to player input as shared authority. To me it's exercising my authority in a responsible and respectful way. Shared authority would involve giving the player the ability to author things in the game.

About 4-5 years ago I was starting up a brand new 3e campaign after a discussion about player authoring. I decided to do a little experiment and involve a bit of of it in my game. I decided to depart from my typical campaign power level and have a grand epic where the fate of the world was on the line. Instead of my usual method of campaign selection as I described I think earlier in this thread(it might have been another thread), I asked the players to trust me and go with my super secret campaign idea. They agreed and were very intrigued.

I set up a situation where a powerful artifact built by an ancient magic using peoples to cut the gods off from the world was found and used. The gods could not see it or interact with it any longer, so divine magic ceased to be usable beyond any spells already granted. The PCs were different, however. Unknown to them, they were the children of mortals and a god, and through that blood link, their divine parent could make a connection to them and them alone. That way those that chose divine classes wouldn't lose their abilities and I could reveal to them in a dream that they were demigods in the 5e sense.

During the dream it was revealed to them that they had power that resided within them that related to who their randomly determined by me parent was. So one of them who was the child of Talos the Destroyer had the power of entropy and destruction. I let them know that they could try anything at all related to their parent's portfolio, even if it wasn't a standard spell or ability that they knew. In a campaign that went from level 3 to 20ish, I can count on one hand the number of times they stepped outside of the box and tried something that wasn't a spell. :sigh:

Now, years later I decided to try again with this new campaign that I started. I had them vote on around 23 new house rules during session 0, including the use of plot points, which they approved. I let them know that they would get 1 per level, but that they would not stack, so they were use it or lose it. The campaign started at 7th level and after 7 or so sessions they made 8th level without a single plot point being spent. Doh!

You might have seen me talk about this in other threads, but I also have a fate deck for when 1s and sometimes 20s are rolled. It's a magic the gathering deck with cards that have names that can be easily interpreted in D&D games for positive or negative effect. So if the player is trying to attack an enemy and pulls a shatter card, the enemies sword might shatter. If they are trying to kick down a door and roll a 1, that shatter might shatter the PCs foot or the door(it can go either way. Fate is fickle).

The players love the fate deck, so this campaign I also decided to hand out cards for them to use and interpret as inspiration, since inspiration is so bland on its own. So far they've all gotten inspiration once, and one guy has had it twice, meaning that one of them used one card. That card was the first one I handed out and when I explained how I interpret them, giving examples, that player said, "I'd like to use that last example you gave." 🤦‍♂️

I'm hoping they start to use them more and maybe their plot points, but at this point I'm getting a bit discouraged.
 

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prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
There is no point in any WoTC adventure I have read that takes control out of the players' hands. It sometime makes assumptions about what the players will do: in a fight or die situation, it generally assumes they will fight. Books have limited number of pages, that's what the human DM is for, to deal with things the players think of that there wasn't room to put in the book.

And generally, if the players do one thing, then the NPCs will react to that. Adventures try to predict what the players are most likely to do and describe the reaction to that. But that doesn't mean the PCs can't do something else, in which case what the reaction is is beyond the the scope of the book. That's why you have a human running it instead of a computer.
Given the number of threads I've seen where DMs are trying to get their players back to the contents of the published adventure, typically after the PCs have done something the adventure's writers didn't consider ... I'm inclined to think the adventures have less slack or leeway than you do. The Paizo APs I played in all felt pretty railroady to me, as a player--and I think I broke at least one campaign by seeing plausible shortcuts. It is safe to say I am less a fan of published adventures than ... roughly anyone, I suspect. lol
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
It would, but we should also be capable of distinguishing between a Bad GM (as in unskilled, not good at the role, creating a generally less-than-fun play experience) and a Bad Person. I would certainly opine that most bad GMs are not bad people. They're just not good at it.

With respect, if you (directly or indirectly) say that someone is bad at their job/role, they will take that personally. Especially if they take that role seriously.

We should not say, "Well, they should know we don't mean they are a bad person," when we are not even showing the minimal amount of empathy to realize that the label "Bad GM" is gonna sting. Because, well, we aren't showing that we don't think they are a bad person.
 

pemerton

Legend
There is no point in any WoTC adventure I have read that takes control out of the players' hands.
I think Bastion of Broken Souls - a high level 3E D&D adventure - has a terrific backstory and situation that the module itself wrecks with an incredibly railroady presentation.

Eg, there are compelling NPCs - a banished god; an angel who is the living key to the banished god's prison (ie she has to be killed in order to unlock the prison); but the module explains why - for inane backstory reasons - these NPCs must be fought for the PCs (and thus the players) to get what they want.

There's also more standard stuff like suggestions for how to make sure everything stays on track if a key NPC is killed (by brining in second-string NPCs to play the same story function).

When I used this module I just ignored all that railroad-y nonsense. One of the players in our group had his PC make an impassioned speech that persuaded the angel-gate to let him kill her (we were playing Rolemaster at that time, and this was an influence check at the highest level of difficulty the system allows). And the PCs befriended the banished god, indeed allied with him, and this turned out to be key to resolving the problem posed by the module set-up. (I completely ignored the second-half of the module which is a bog-standard 3E-era dungeon crawl.)

This contrasts markedly with a module that establishes a situation but is open-ended in its own presentation. Like The Crimson Bull (which I think @Mannahnin is conflating with A Prodigal Son In Chains - the latter is the railroady Prince Valiant scenario that contrast with the Crimson Bull as an incredibly deftly executed, slow-but-effective framing over multiple "scenes" but with none of them forcing the stakes of the situation until its climax). Or, in my view, Maiden Voyage. Or another Penumbra module, which I've not run but which is also comparable in having a complex framing for a climactic resolution: Three Days to Kill.
 

Given the number of threads I've seen where DMs are trying to get their players back to the contents of the published adventure, typically after the PCs have done something the adventure's writers didn't consider ... I'm inclined to think the adventures have less slack or leeway than you do. The Paizo APs I played in all felt pretty railroady to me, as a player--and I think I broke at least one campaign by seeing plausible shortcuts. It is safe to say I am less a fan of published adventures than ... roughly anyone, I suspect. lol
I'm not sure why those DMs (what DMs? Where? I'm not seeing them) are so bothered about getting the players "back to the contents". The adventure is there for when the players don't know what to do. If they have some other idea, that's great, just run with it.

As for the adventures "feeling railroady to you" did you try and go off the rails? Did the DM say to you "no you can't do that because it's not in the adventure?"
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
As for the adventures "feeling railroady to you" did you try and go off the rails? Did the DM say to you "no you can't do that because it's not in the adventure?"
Yes, and yes (though it was more like the GM had a nervous breakdown, because we were skipping a level gate and headed toward a TPK because railroad. Also we were willing to write off a city, which didn't seem ... heroic.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
This contrasts markedly with a module that establishes a situation but is open-ended in its own presentation. Like The Crimson Bull (which I think @Mannahnin is conflating with A Prodigal Son In Chains - the latter is the railroady Prince Valiant scenario that contrast with the Crimson Bull as an incredibly deftly executed, slow-but-effective framing over multiple "scenes" but with none of them forcing the stakes of the situation until its climax). Or, in my view, Maiden Voyage. Or another Penumbra module, which I've not run but which is also comparable in having a complex framing for a climactic resolution: Three Days to Kill.
You're exactly correct that I was misremembering and actually meant A Prodigal Son in Chains. I had just gone digging back through the thread to link to your post for @Paul Farquhar and realized that.

pemerton said:
A Prodigal Son - in Chains, by Mark Rein-Hagen, has some interesting elements but, as presented, is a railroad in the sense I've tried to set out above. The tell-tale in the writing is stuff like this:

Mark Rein-Hagen said:
At this point the Adventurers’ actions can have a direct impact on the story. They can meet with the yeomen leaders of the peasant army, try to sneak into the castle, run to get help from nearby nobles, or attack or harass the peasant army. Bryce does what they ask, but strongly requests that they let him speak with the peasant army.

Whatever happened, you need to have things end up with Bryce’s father, the duke, dead. . . .

Just as things seem to be winding down (one way or another) Bryce steps out of the crowd . . .

At this point you need to have things wind up with someone trying to kill someone else as a result of the heated argument over what to do. It can be a peasant trying to kill a yeoman, Alia trying to kill Samson, Samson trying to kill an Adventurer; but no matter what happens, Bryce throws himself in the way . . .

In other words, there are moments of choice that are thematically weighty (how do the PCs deal with the politics and associated dynamics between the "prodigal son", his father the duke and his sister Alia) which have to come out a certain way for the scenario to play out as presented. When I used the scenario I picked up some of the key story elements but just ignored all of Rein-Hagen's sequencing and railroading.

 

Yes, and yes (though it was more like the GM had a nervous breakdown, because we were skipping a level gate and headed toward a TPK because railroad. Also we were willing to write off a city, which didn't seem ... heroic.
Struggling DM was struggling to cope. As I said, it's a tough, and often thankless, job, and I expect they where aware that they could have done better.

Coming up with new material can be difficult, but adventures are written with the built in assumption that the DM will do this if necessary. As I said, that's why you have a human to do the job.
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
Struggling DM was struggling to cope. As I said, it's a tough, and often thankless, job, and I expect they where aware that they could have done better.
Struggling GM has been doing this for longer than I have (was my first good GM, when we were in high school) and was working harder than I thought should have been necessary to make the AP work, before we accidentally tried to break it. The only way the campaign limped on a little bit was that we players explicitly got back on the rails.

It seems to be a common thing, and it seems to include the WotC hardcovers, and it seems as though lots of GMs when they start putting their own adventures together learn from the published stuff and end up with adventures that are relentlessly linear, if not absolute railroads (without wanting to argue about whether there's a difference).
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I'm personally not very fond of good or bad being used as a descriptor for GMs or players. I think it's more helpful to speak in terms of GM / player fit. There are a fair number of posters on this board who are obviously skilled GMs and players that I should not play with regardless of who is behind the screen. That does not mean I am bad or they are bad.
 

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