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


Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
My players give me backgrounds, and when I play I do as well. It takes me all of 10-15 minutes usually to come up with something coherent, and looking at that list on Reddit, we have like 8-20 knives in a typical background. It doesn't take all that much effort of commitment to come up with a backstory that has them.
In contrast, I've gone down a very Old School / OSR path in recent years and moved away from detailed backstories for my own PCs.

I've gotten more interested in exploring fictional worlds and environments and solving problems and less in exploring my character and having plot elements or hooks written with him in mind.

That being said, the Knife Theory post I think usefully describes a good approach for games where players DO want the game to be more about their characters.

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Morkus from Orkus
In contrast, I've gone down a very Old School / OSR path in recent years and moved away from detailed backstories for my own PCs.

I've gotten more interested in exploring fictional worlds and environments and solving problems and less in exploring my character and having plot elements or hooks written with him in mind.

That being said, the Knife Theory post I think usefully describes a good approach for games where players DO want the game to be more about their characters.
Yeah. I had no idea what those knives were until I saw your post and immediately thought about my players pulling out knives the table(because that's how my mind works), then went to look it up. We don't play with it, but in terms of knives we all have a ton in our backgrounds.


Interesting scenario. I believe the GM forced their way here, too, rather than letting the story emerge. I can imagine how it likely happened: prep work involved the big conflict with the duke's men and the aftermath. Silly DM - your plans never survive first contact with the players! (And I say that having been there many times over).

Easy to play Monday morning quarterback here but I think a more palatable solution, rewarding the players for their creativity but still pushing the element of danger and possibly ending up in the conflict the DM had prepped, might have been a variation on the following:

1. Some of the duke's men come to the farmhouse early the next morning to warn the couple that some vagabonds (description matching the party) are about and ask that they report any sighting to the garrison at the Inn at once for a reward
2. Either the party overhears -or- the couple relays the message when the duke's men move on
3. The party is now faced with the challenge of getting away from this town, too, or risk being discovered by a more thorough search and likely putting the couple in danger for harboring fugitives
4. If there is some kind of magical tracking by the duke, the party should be given some (more) clue(s) so they can take action

Yes, this would have been a good way to proceed. Move things forward while including what's been established. I think somehow looping in the farmer and his wife being in potential danger for hiding us would have been an interesting angle to take, and it would have acknowledged the ability I'd used, and played to my character's stated Bond about being a hero of the downtrodden.

TL;DR: plan scenes not plot; telegraph dangers; root for the players

I dig it. It sounds like I've heard it somewhere else....

Late to this discussion, but I find this a very interesting situation.

First, the DM seems to have given you a benefit for your background. You got a long rest (presumably, not fully stated); and were thus able to engage the Duke's men fully healed, all spells ready to go etc. If you had confronted them at the inn you would have had to confront them after a long day of travel/adventure and likely a significantly depleted state (or maybe not maybe you guys were at full heading to the inn)? Anyway, while not ideal, that's something.

Yes! That's fair, there was at least something that we got from it, and this was a large part of his reasoning. He felt "okay, they got a rest, that ability worked well.....okay, on with the fight, but now at full strength!"

In his mind, he'd granted us a benefit from my use of the ability, and then proceeded as he had planned.

TL/ DR: Did the DM "abuse" his authority? No not really, it's well within DM purview to have a bottleneck fight. But could it have been handled better? Absolutely.

Yeah, that sums up my opinion. I didn't stand up and flip the table in a fit of rage.....and not just because we were playing over discord. It's nothing I was upset by, but I did talk with him about it after the fact, and we had a good discussion.

i would disagree-The DM unless an explanation was given railroaded the barn encounter with the dukes men. Have i been guilty of this in the past sure but different. dming an encounter you hadnt planned for can be tough especially if you mapped out several you expected the pcs to tackle . Waht should have happened is some of the dukes men show up at the barn and you see them asking the farmers maybe even harming the farmer . Give the pcs time to flee or ambush the dukes men etc

Would love the know what the dm said.

Ultimately, he was pretty much expecting us to have to fight and so he adjusted to the use of the Folk Hero ability within that framework of "there's gonna be a fight". When we hid in the barn, he said that he immediately thought of the climactic scene from the movie "Young Guns" (spolier alert for a 30 year old movie....Billy the Kid and his pals get caught in a farmhouse, surrounded by soldiers who then set the house on fire, and they have to fight their way out). He said that once that scene popped into his head, he thought it would be cool to play out something similar. So he decided that a neighbor had seen the PCs and went to the duke's soldiers. Never mind that the neighbor would have no idea the PCs were wanted, no rolls were made because this was decided retroactively, and so on.

So it really was a combination of his preconceived idea of what the challenge would be in the new town; not that "there are soldiers present who could be a threat", but rather something like "how will they beat these soldiers". He had established a challenge, and in doing so, had decided how that challenge needed to be overcome; through fighting. This combined with allowing us to get a rest and then picturing what he thought would be an evocative and exciting scene, and he made it happen.

And i think this is where the idea of being flexible comes into it. We all say at times, and hear others say, you have to adapt to what the players do. And this is certainly true! But how you adapt really matters. He adapted by allowing the Folk Hero ability to essentially do the bare minimum of what it says it does. He didn't adapt any further, and likely should have.

The PCs were down on resources after their exploits earlier in the day, and the crossing of the river (which he handled really well as a dynamic skill challenge type scene) and that left us not wanting to fight. But he was expecting another fight. He "adapted" in the sense that he let a player use a stated ability of his PC, and restructured the encounter accordingly.

Obviously, it's way too late for that. Just saying that the specific topic of how different people handle player narrative in 5e seemed interesting!

Feel free to jump in with thoughts you may have about the example from 5E play that I shared and which folks have been discussing. Or don't!

Now consider the typical "linear" adventure - in D&D terms there are many of these, but Speaker in Dreams (a 3E module) is as good an example as any. In these adventures the GM also exercises backstory authority. The GM also exercises situational authority. And - related to this - whereas the sandbox GM should be very permissive in adjudication of "situation activating" actions, the GM of the linear adventure wants to discourage any such actions which might activate situations that have not already been planned/prepared for - either by express metagame requests to the players, or by using in-fiction techniques to discourage them (eg lots of "There be dragons" signposting), or by using adjudication techniques to block them (such as fiat declarations of failure; stuff like anti-teleport zones is probably on the line between in-fiction and adjudication-based techniques). And in a linear adventure Let it Ride can't apply, because the GM is committed to presenting the upcoming situations whatever the PCs' actions (subject to extreme unavoidable changes in the fiction like detonating a bomb - those actions also risk detonating a metaphorical bomb at the gaming table!).

EDIT: I've just read @Composer99's post not too far upthread. I'm curious how much Composer99 thinks our descriptions of "linear adventure" differ - eg am I describing only a degenerate case? That wasn't my intention, and I don't think I am, but maybe I've missed something!

I'm not sure our descriptions differ that much? A linear adventure still requires the players agree to stay in their lanes to some extent, regardless of how emergent or unplanned smaller-scale outcomes can be.

But I'll elaborate/reiterate by considering Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which is quite linear.

If I wanted to sum up the whole adventure, its overall status quo is twofold:
(1) "The antagonists have a secure means of of transporting people and treasure around the Sword Coast in service of their ultimate goal";
(2) "Whatever other powers in the world know or don't know about the antagonists' plans, the ones the PCs interact with are not certain what exactly the antagonists are up to". (Confirming what the bad guys are doing is one of the PCs' goals.)

The PCs thoroughly demolish this status quo by the adventure's end.

Since the adventure is linear, it consists of a series of steps, each causally linked. But each step is, or can be adjusted to be, its own little "status quo situation" that the PCs disrupt, upend, or destroy, a disruption that in principle can be an emergent and unplanned outcome of the interaction between the existing situation at its outset, the actions of the PCs, and the dynamic world reacting to those actions, even if the outcome at each step is intended to encourage the PCs to follow the causal chain to the next step and its attendant status quo. What is more, this potential emergent and unplanned resolution of each step allows for downstream consequences that are themselves emergent and unplanned to come to pass, consequences that can change the status quo situation at the outset of the sequel adventure Rise of Tiamat or (if the DM is canny enough), change the status quo situation of subsequent steps in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, if not so much so as to break the causal chain of steps.

To be sure, as written I don't think Hoard of the Dragon Queen meets my ideal of a linear adventure, but it can be made into one, IMO.

A more fulsome breakdown isn't strictly necessary IMO, but if you want one...
Hoard of the Dragon Queen does consist of a series of situations that unfold one after the other. As it is written there's not a lot of opportunity given in the text for emergent and unplanned outcomes, except in a very vague sense (usually "Development" text at the end of each chapter). But I think with a bit of tinkering you can reach what I see as ideal: each step in the adventure following logically and causally from the previous, but with each step usually representing a status quo situation whose disruption by the PCs is emergent and unplanned in the details.

(1) The adventure starts with the PCs coming across the Cult of the Dragon attacking the town of Greenest. The status quo at hand, absent any action by the PCs, is "the Cult wins a complete victory, ransacking Greenest for everything it's worth and carrying away large numbers of prisoners, possibly including sacking the keep". The arrival and actions of the PCs therefore upend this status quo: the Cult will be walking away with something less than a complete victory, even if their assets on hand (large numbers and a dragon) prevent them from losing.

(2) The eventual withdrawal of the Cult with their spoils leads to the next situation, which follows causally from the opening - a desire by the leaders of Greenest (and presumably the PCs) to find out the whys and wherefores of the attack, to locate the Cult base of operations, and to possibly rescue such prisoners as were taken by the cult. Among these prisoners is a Harper spy who allowed himself to be captured in order to also gather information. The situation here is a status quo - "the Cult base is secure from its enemies" - that the PCs upend.

(3) The upending of the previous status quo spooks the local Cult leaders, who hurriedly evacuate with the spoils of their raids in Greenest and the surrounding areas, leaving a token defence to guard a clutch of dragon eggs that happen to be present. This section doesn't really present a new status quo IMO, but is rather a spun-out causal consequence of the disruption of the previous status quo, where the PCs reckon with the outcome of their previous victory (however non-violently it played out).

(4) The evacuation of Cult forces and their accumulated treasure naturally leads to the question - "where are they taking it and why?" The next chapter is a prolonged journey where the PCs insinuate themselves into a caravan that happens to include Cult agents escorting wagons of their stolen loot. Although IMO the main role of this chapter is to transition into the next two (and the status quo they present for the PCs to upend), it also contains a status quo of sorts - "the Cult manages to transport its Greenfields loot undetected" - that the PCs obviously upend.

(5 and 6) The next two chapters are so linked that they may as well be a single one. The Cult brings the wagons to a roadhouse that their agents control, where lizardfolk minions gather the treasure and haul it through a swamp to a castle built therein, a castle not built by the Cult but that they managed to appropriate for their purposes. In the caverns beneath is a teleportation circle that leads to a distant mountain range; again, not one that the Cult made but that they have taken control of. The PCs, still seeking to answer "where are they taking the treasure and why?", are logically going to press forward with their investigation. Taken together, these two chapters present a status quo - "the Cult has a secure base along the Sword Coast between Waterdeep and Neverwinter allowing them to monitor traffic along that road and secretly transport people and goods" - that the PCs once again disrupt to some lesser or greater extent.

(7) The fact that the Cult uses a teleportation circle to move people and treasure logically leads the PCs to follow their quarry through the circle, leading to a Cult base consisting of an old hunting lodge the Cult has repurposed. Interestingly, the existence of other teleportation circles leading to other Cult bases is implied, but not followed up on in the text (although it could be if the module were adapted to less linear gameplay). This chapter is again a bit more transitional in nature, and the status quo it presents - "the Cult has a secure base to manage the transition of people and goods" is basically the same as the last one.

(8) Finally, the PCs reach the final link in the Cult's chain loot transport - a floating ice castle controlled by a cloud giant who has allowed their stronghold to be used by the Cult for this purpose. The adventure ends when the PCs, through whatever combination of violence and diplomacy they choose (or are forced to employ, since Cult forces are quite reasonably disposed to be violently hostile towards them by this point), remove the Cult from the castle. The giant is not fanatically loyal to the Cult, and although he won't take up arms against the Cult, he isn't predisposed to stop the PCs, either. In fact, he's presented as having agreed to have the Cult onboard for the sake of figuring out what they're up to, with the eventual goal of using that information to mobilise the giants to action against the Cult. So fighting him is not necessary, although it's certainly possible. The act of clearing out the cult upends the final "status quo situation" of the adventure - "the Cult has a flying castle at their disposal which they are using to take the treasure to the Well of Dragons" and also gives the PCs the chance of discovering the full nature of the Cult's plan to summon Tiamat bodily into the world (if they haven't put things together based on hints laced throughout).


So, this thread is going swimmingly! :)

I am a firm believer that people in the thread can, and should, take the conversation wherever they want. I would like to mention a few things-

A. The purpose of this thread, and for placing it in "D&D 5e" specifically, was because I was hoping people would discuss 5e. I think a lot of the theory conversations we have are useful, but many can be alienating to the 5e players, so I was hoping to attract some 5e people to talk about their game.

B. The thread wasn't supposed to spark another long conversation about DM Authority (which is tired, boring, and somehow still contentious, IMO). I was hoping that people would talk more about player authority over narrative in 5e, and what that looks like for them.

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?

Obviously, it's way too late for that. Just saying that the specific topic of how different people handle player narrative in 5e seemed interesting!

Like @Maxperson I've occasionally tried to hand a bit of narrative control to players now and then. One simple example is that in my world there is not a set list of halfling gods, or at least it doesn't feel like that to most people. So a halfling may pray to Klim the goddess of cheese when making a new batch or Filch when they try to use sleight of hand. Has a player with a halfling ever taken advantage of this? Not really. One person made up Penny the god of luck years ago and that was it. The portfolio is really empty.

But I do think player narrative and DM authority go hand-in-hand. As much as I encourage people to be creative about backstory and downtime if I don't draw the line somewhere I've gotten things like that 3rd level cleric that "Popped up to Valhalla to have lunch with Odin". In a campaign world where some people don't think the gods are actual entities. I want the campaign world to make sense.

So if I put someone on the spot and asked them to describe the inn they stayed at last night I suspect I'd get either stammering an muttering or "Oh, yeah. The king decided that the luxury suite wasn't good enough so he had me stay in the royal chambers instead. He even let me sit in judgement on a few cases, it was quite fun."


I think my biggest problem with published adventures is that they make an effort to have, effectively, the last session planned in about the same detail as the first. As someone who (mostly) doesn't prep more than a session ahead, this seems somewhere in the vicinity of alien, impossible, implausible, and not to my taste. lol

My general issue with published adventures is that they presume player goals. What's most important to me as a player is the freedom to set my own agenda. I am flexible on how much say I have over my characters' thoughts and feelings, but the ability to decide how characters should interact with the scenarios the GM presents is integral. I am fine wit the expectation that players should be expected to interact with the scenario in some way, but I think players should have the freedom to choose their enemies and allies, what their goals are, and how to go about achieving those goals. Obviously there will be some constraints, but that freedom to set and pursue (a usually somewhat shared) agenda is integral to most of the RPG play I enjoy.

If the GM is transparent about it I can casually enjoy a game where this is not the case, but will not have nearly as much fun as one where it is.

So these two posts got me thinking about published scenarios. I've previously posted about how I tried to run Tomb of Annihilation as part of my group's longstanding campaign, and struggled with it at times. Afterwards, I decided that I was pretty much done with pre-published adventures. In my mind, the benefit is for them to do a lot of the prep work for the GM (given how prep intensive 5e can be)and I found that I had to rework them significantly to the point where it would be less work to wing it, or create my own stuff.

I haven't run a pre-written D&D scenario since. And my game is the better for it.

I have, however, benefited from some pre-written scenarios when running a brand new game besides D&D. I ran the "Destroyer of Worlds" scenario for the Alien RPG. It was my group's first online game post-pandemic, and I think having prepared maps and stats and situations to lean on was actually very helpful. The game went well enough and then I ran some more Alien stuff that was largely my own (although inspired heavily by the Alien: Isolation video game) and that went well, too. Having run the published stuff first was helpful to get my feet under me with the system and its play expectations.

I'm now currently running a campaign of Spire. The game is odd and definitely falls into the more narrative game category than D&D, and so I wanted to get a sense of what a scenario would look like. There are three "Campaign Frames" (which are actually available for free in pdf format on the publisher's site and on drivethru) so I picked them up.

They're very interesting, and definitely help you understand the way the game is meant to be played and GMed. They totally eschew a linear sequence, and they say this throughout. There is no final scene or final encounter or anything like that, as @prabe says the idea seems contradictory to letting the players do what they want throughout play. They each have an "Ending the Campaign" section where they make suggestions and offer advice, but that's about it.

The actual scenario is just that....a situation. Here are some factions, here's what they're up to, here's what may happen if they get what they want, here's some suggestions on how these factions interact with each other, here's how they may respond to the PCs sticking their noses into things. They consist of only about 8 to 12 pages, and then the rest of the book is pregenerated PCs.

What they do, though, is presume some goals of the PCs'. And although I can understand @Campbell 's criticism of that, in the game of Spire the PCs all play members of a revolutionary sect, so some assumption of motives seems appropriate.

The design and presentation of these "Campaign Frames" seem far more suited to players exercising authority over the game. Certainly more than a written scenario where it's spread across 20 or more sessions and then still winds up with the same climactic scene. And yet the Alien scenario was more traditional in its presentation and play.....but the duration of it is so much shorter that its compromises (maybe the right word, not sure?) of player agency are less severe or at the very least less obvious. I think it's the duration of the campaign books that D&D has put out for 5E that makes them so challenging if you're trying to allow more freedom to the players.


B/X Known World
Wow. The thread really moved overnight. Rather than quote and response to individual posters, here's some thoughts on the topics that have come up and/or still being discussed.

Backgrounds aren't magic and players shouldn't expect them to be. They have limits. Even if the wording of the background suggest it's an always on magical power that forces everyone of a particular social standing to do the thing, there will be exceptions, because...again...backgrounds are not magic. Yes, the text of noble seems to imply that every single commoner in the entire world will automatically and without question bow and scrape, but that's not how any reasonable person would expect it to actually function in game. The commoners from different kingdoms might not care about your noble status "back home". The local nobles may be tyrants and so the commoners hate the nobles...all nobles. You might be in disguise (whether intentionally or not). There's a lot of other fictional positioning that matters when it intersects with the fictional positioning granted by the background. So too with Folk Hero and all the rest of the backgrounds that provide fictional positioning.

I'm honestly sick to death of PC backstories. I don't remember the last one that was half-way interesting. Every one of them reads like the exploits of a 40th-level character with multiple reincarnations each of which running well beyond the level cap and solidly into epic level character...several times over. Like, if your character did the things listed in the first two paragraphs of your backstory you'd already be 5th level...and there's still 75 pages to go...just stop. And while I like the idea of knives, I'd rather the players just give me a bullet point list of quests and missions and goals they want to work towards in game. If they want to give any of them more detail than "kill a dragon for parts" they can once we all collectively know that's going to actually be a thing that happens in game.

Limits of DM authority and dice and fairness. Whether individual player like it or not and whether individual DMs use it or not, the books rather explicitly give carte blanche to the DM. But the rulebooks aren't the only thing that goes into a game of D&D. There's also the social contract. The social contract covers things like fudging die rolls, DM fairness, and letting results stand...the rulebooks don't. Any DM who uses that carte blanche to arbitrarily chance things willy-nilly would quickly find themselves in a room alone wondering where the players went. Rightfully so. Yes, the DM should let the dice fall where they may, but there's nothing in the book that says the DM must. This may seem like a semantic point, but words have meaning. There is a difference between should and must.

Railroading vs linear vs sandboxes. To me, railroading is the negation or elimination of player choice...or put another way the elimination of any possibility the DM doesn't expect. That's about the worst DM practice possible...it's barely a step up from "rocks fall, everyone dies". But linear adventures are not necessarily railroads. If the players choose to follow the linear adventure, it's not a railroad. It's only then the DM abuses their authority and prevents the PCs from turning left or right that it becomes a railroad. If the players think of a cool thing to try and for no other reason than to preserve the DM's precious story the DM refuses...that's railroading. To me, that's exactly why I run sandboxes. I absolutely hate railroading. I kinda hate linear adventures, too. But they're not as bad.

Plots vs situations. For what it's worth, and as mentioned, a plot is a predetermined sequence of events whereas a situation is a moment of tension, or potential for tension. A plot is: first the PCs will go here, next the PCs will do this, next the PCs will go there. It's a plot because you're assuming what the PCs will do. It becomes a railroad when the DM forces those predetermined choices on the players. A situation is: this interesting thing exists and the PCs know about. There's no presumed choices. It's a hook. The PCs are free to engage with it or not. The PCs are free to handle that hook in any manner they see fit.


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
But I do think player narrative and DM authority go hand-in-hand. As much as I encourage people to be creative about backstory and downtime if I don't draw the line somewhere I've gotten things like that 3rd level cleric that "Popped up to Valhalla to have lunch with Odin". In a campaign world where some people don't think the gods are actual entities. I want the campaign world to make sense.
I don't think players having authority over something more than their players automatically leads to the sort of thing you're describing, or the world not making sense--and I say that as someone who prefers to lay the game world's foundations and large-scale things solo, as GM, because I have things I want the game world to be and not to be.

I have had a player go a little overboard in writing his character's backstory, but A) it wasn't a tragedy, B) it didn't make the world not make sense, C) the player now realizes (without my explicit prompting, I think) he went well over the top and D) I have learned to ask players to keep backstories kinda short and to remind them their characters are closer to the beginning of their story than the middle, let alone the end. (And I think that last works, even if you expect the story to be understood mostly looking backward.
So if I put someone on the spot and asked them to describe the inn they stayed at last night I suspect I'd get either stammering an muttering or "Oh, yeah. The king decided that the luxury suite wasn't good enough so he had me stay in the royal chambers instead. He even let me sit in judgement on a few cases, it was quite fun."
I am familiar with the stammering and muttering, but I think some of that is about knowing your players. I have never seen a player who understood what they were being asked exceed the ambit of their authority, or try to.
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