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RPG Theory - Restrictions and Authority

Sure, that's true!



I'm thinking here of a comparison using two games I'm currently playing. Let's say my character is in a situation where something has been revealed, and there's a chance my character knows something about it.

In my 5e D&D game, I would ask the GM if I know anything about X. The GM would consider what if anything it is even possible for me to know about X, and then would set a DC for that knowledge. He'd then call for a roll, indicating the Ability and any applicable Skill. He may or may not share the DC with me. I'd roll and share the results. The GM would then determine what I know based on the result of the roll. This process is chock full of GM authority.

In my Stonetop game, I would declare that I was attempting to draw on my accumulated knowledge which would trigger the Know Things move. The GM would tell me to roll, and I'd roll 2d6 and add my INT modifier (or perhaps another modifier if I have certain playbook abilities). The results are set. On a 10+ the GM is obliged to offer me something both interesting and useful. On a 7-9 the GM must tell me something interesting, and then it's up to me to make it useful. On a 6 or less, the GM will make a move of some sort in response.On either a 10+ or a 7-9, the GM may ask me to explain how I know this.

In the Stonetop example, there's far less GM authority. However, there's not a huge increase in player authority, either. I think the player is a bit more informed in that he knows his chances for success, and knows what he will get based on the results of the roll. But is the player's authority really increased? If it is, I'd only say that it is such that deciding to make such a roll carries a risk, and so the player has introduced this risk to the game; he's made this thing that has been introduced more focal to play, and play will now depend on this thing in some way. But I don't know if this is the kind of authority you are thinking of, @FrogReaver . Certainly the player doesn't get to dictate what the information he gains from the roll may be, or anything along those lines.

In each case, the authority comes from the rules of the game. The constraint on the participants is according to the rules. In D&D 5e, this type of action requires a lot of input from the GM, with minimal direction other than whether a roll succeeds or fails to hit the DC. It's hard to even pinpoint the constraints in this set up. In Stonetop, the GM is still the one that comes up with the information that results from a success, but he is obligated to make it interesting and possibly also useful, depending on the result. He's also obligated to make a responding Move in the case of a failure. The constraints are more specific.
It seems to me that in Stonetop (which is identical to the Spout Lore move in Dungeon World) the key thing that the player has is the ability to induce the GM to talk about a specific topic. The GM might say almost anything (though he may be constrained to make it useful) but he isn't picking the topic. Beyond that the player has a chance to explain how he knows the information, which gives him authority to create some fiction (and that could be a pretty significant thing). Certainly I would say that the GM retains MOST of the usual kind of authority over fiction here, but of course they are also bound by the general strictures on GMs that arise from agenda and techniques.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Just to throw another pebble in the pond here...

While I realize you're specifically trying to talk about authority over the fiction, there's a second type/degree of authority which can't be ignored: authority over the table.

By this I mean things like: who sets the non-game house rules (e.g. no alcohol), who schedules the sessions, who hosts, who decides which potential players are to be invited in, who decides the rules system to be used, who decides on meta-level game houserules (e.g. all PCs will be Dwarves, or players may play up to three PCs simultaneously), and so forth.

The reason I bring this up is that whoever holds (most of) the non-game authority is in many cases going to tend to default to being the one who also holds the fiction-related authority, if only because that authority structure is in place (be it intentional or not) before the game even starts.
 

Just to throw another pebble in the pond here...

While I realize you're specifically trying to talk about authority over the fiction, there's a second type/degree of authority which can't be ignored: authority over the table.

By this I mean things like: who sets the non-game house rules (e.g. no alcohol), who schedules the sessions, who hosts, who decides which potential players are to be invited in, who decides the rules system to be used, who decides on meta-level game houserules (e.g. all PCs will be Dwarves, or players may play up to three PCs simultaneously), and so forth.

The reason I bring this up is that whoever holds (most of) the non-game authority is in many cases going to tend to default to being the one who also holds the fiction-related authority, if only because that authority structure is in place (be it intentional or not) before the game even starts.
Sure seems widely varying, and not necessarily closely tied to what is being played. I mean, I used to run, around 10 years ago, a 4e campaign. All the sessions took place at one of my friend's houses. So, all I was in charge of was GMing. They pretty much invited whomever they wanted, and decided the schedule, etc. I certainly could have (at least tried to) set some house rules related to the actual playing (what classes to use, etc.). Now, we never really discussed fiction authority in that game. It was mostly Zero Prep, but did take place in my established campaign world, so there were some things that were 'canonical fiction'. Its hard to say what the dividing line was there, as those people I have played with for so long that I pretty much know what to feed them before they ask, lol. It was a fun game because it just ticked along, like "Oh, of course those people are actually Jackalweres!" lol.
 

In most RPGs such as D&D, the GM has Absolute Power and has no restrictions. The rules are utterly meaningless to a GM as they can do anything. A GM can make a spell up and have it do anything, the same way they can have a creature live and survive zero hit points.

And the rest of the list is meaningless as what is a "principle" or "expectation" or anything else?

Worse, few people will agree. You can have five players that say "Fantasy" is only things in the Super Cool Video Game Ninja Zoom Six....and most GMs will just laugh and say nope. Some people don't think Alien(s) is Sci Fi, the same way some say Star Wars is Fantasy, but not sci-fi.

So, how do you even start?
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
In most RPGs such as D&D, the GM has Absolute Power and has no restrictions. The rules are utterly meaningless to a GM as they can do anything. A GM can make a spell up and have it do anything, the same way they can have a creature live and survive zero hit points.

And the rest of the list is meaningless as what is a "principle" or "expectation" or anything else?

Worse, few people will agree. You can have five players that say "Fantasy" is only things in the Super Cool Video Game Ninja Zoom Six....and most GMs will just laugh and say nope. Some people don't think Alien(s) is Sci Fi, the same way some say Star Wars is Fantasy, but not sci-fi.

So, how do you even start?

What about games where that’s not the case? Ever played one of those?
 

In most RPGs such as D&D, the GM has Absolute Power and has no restrictions. The rules are utterly meaningless to a GM as they can do anything. A GM can make a spell up and have it do anything, the same way they can have a creature live and survive zero hit points.

And the rest of the list is meaningless as what is a "principle" or "expectation" or anything else?

Worse, few people will agree. You can have five players that say "Fantasy" is only things in the Super Cool Video Game Ninja Zoom Six....and most GMs will just laugh and say nope. Some people don't think Alien(s) is Sci Fi, the same way some say Star Wars is Fantasy, but not sci-fi.

So, how do you even start?
I think the OP was written in view of how what your saying is true for SOME RPGs, and entirely not true for others. There are many RPGs which eschew something like 'rule 0', and many do not assign exactly the same role to a GM which D&D does (and there are a small minority which don't even have roles like 'GM', though we don't tend to wander that far afield most of the time).

Beyond that, games like Apocalypse World or Dungeon World actually do EXPLICITLY state an agenda, principles, and even 'moves' which the GM is intended to abide by, though in AW and Powered by the Apocalypse type games generally the GM is usually still given a huge amount of leeway.

So, you CAN start, you can talk about the differences in authority between, say 5e D&D and Dungeon World (which is built to replicate basically the D&D genre with Tolkienesque races and D&D-esque classes and levels). For instance Dungeon World tells the GM that their job is to Describe the situation, Follow the rules, Make moves, and Exploit your prep (which is supposed to be more 'loose' than it would be in classic D&D). The GM is further told they have an agenda; Portray a fantastic world, Fill the character's lives with adventure, and Play to find out what happens. I won't list all the principles, but there's about a dozen of those too, which are said to be 'guides'.

So, DW has a pretty interesting sort of relationship of players to authority. The rules tell the GM to make moves (this is a rule). The GM must make a soft move whenever the players say basically 'what next'? (it could be a hard move, like an attack, also in some specific cases). Generally the GM Describes a situation. In accordance with the principles and such, it must fill the PCs lives with adventure, portray a fantastic world, etc. The PCs have what are called 'bonds', statements that relate them to other characters (usually the other PCs). The GM can make moves based on these, or the PCs alignments, or any other part of their backstory, etc. She can also introduce some of her prep.

The interesting part is, while the GM's prep can provide story elements, it is not supposed to BE a story, the game is 'Play to find out what happens', not 'go through the adventure module'. So, the GM can make up a lot of stuff, but one of the principles is 'ask questions, use the answers', so you're supposed to ask the PLAYERS things, 'what do you think is over that next hill?'. The players also can make moves (as their characters, they are always in character, technically). Those could be things like 'Spout Lore', the GM must tell the player something about the topic named, and depending on how the dice come up it may need to be useful, and/or interesting. So, while fictionally said lore could be most anything, the GM has to abide by interesting/useful, as well as the agenda, principles, and other rules!

The upshot is, Dungeon World DOES actually effectively give the GM a bit less total authority over the fiction than in D&D. The game also plays rather differently, the focus is on the characters, not on pre-written or GM authored material nearly so much.
 

pemerton

Legend
In the Stonetop example, there's far less GM authority. However, there's not a huge increase in player authority, either. I think the player is a bit more informed in that he knows his chances for success, and knows what he will get based on the results of the roll. But is the player's authority really increased?
Right. You've probably seen me post this particular rant before: there is a recurring assumption on these boards that player-driven RPGing means player "narrative authority" - whereas, as per your post, the key is actually restricting what the GM can say, especially by restricting when the GM is allowed to make hard moves.

An example might be in a D&D sandbox where the DM introduces a dangerous dungeon that the players actively use their play to avoid. The DM is faced with a choice. Honor that play or force the players to interact with that dungeon. Here you can see player authority along with an unspoken principle restricting the DM from putting the players through that dungeon.
It seems to me that there are two relevant restrictions here:

* By convention, in a sandbox pre-planned challenges are located at particular places in the imagined world (so no "wandering dungeons"); maybe this can be pushed against in various principled ways, like a die roll to work out where the jabberwocky is today, but it can't just be GM whim;

* The GM is obliged to honour the fiction, including the fiction about where the PCs are and where they go; again this can be pushed against in limited ways, like teleport traps, but the GM can't just decide that the gods teleport the PCs into the dungeon - even if it's allowed that the gods are NPCs whom the GM controls, that sort of GM whim about what the gods do wouldn't be consistent with a sandbox ethos.

I think story now games probably have better restriction examples but I’m not as familiar.
I don't know if they're better, but they're different. Restrictions on hard moves, whether as seen in AW, or in the principle "say 'yes' or roll the dice", are key.

Basically anytime the player has authority over something in a scene and the dm authority over the scene there must be some navigation to determine which authority is going to restrict the other.
Hence why Vincent Baker said this:

Roleplaying is negotiated imagination. In order for any thing to be true in game, all the participants in the game (players and GMs, if you've even got such things) have to understand and assent to it. When you're roleplaying, what you're doing is a) suggesting things that might be true in the game and then b) negotiating with the other participants to determine whether they're actually true or not. . . .

So look, you! Mechanics might model the stuff of the game world, that's another topic, but they don't exist to do so. They exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table. That's their sole and crucial function​
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
There's a goodly amount of meat to talk about in considering what authority is given, by whom, and what are the limits of that authority.

But there's another thing that, eventually, probably ought to be discussed - what are the responsibilities that come with the authority?

I know we like to think of the situation in which we have been given power of some scope, and within that scope, we get to do whatever we want. But as a practical matter, is that the way things function? If you aren't fulfilling your responsibilities, your freedom to act in whatever way you choose is pretty much inconsequential, isn't it?
 

Right. You've probably seen me post this particular rant before: there is a recurring assumption on these boards that player-driven RPGing means player "narrative authority" - whereas, as per your post, the key is actually restricting what the GM can say, especially by restricting when the GM is allowed to make hard moves.
I guess I would argue that this, at least in the case of common PbtAs like AW, DW, and Stonetop, kind of indirectly increases player authority since the player is given a number of mechanisms by which they can assert what the fiction is about. So in Dungeon World the GM is required to ask questions and use the answers. The players are not really constrained in how they answer (although one assumes genre and such are applicable, the table can always discuss any issues, which the rules do point out). The moves and bonds at various points also effectively represent players pointing at something in the game and saying "tell us about that thing!" which is certainly a level of authority that is not clearly allocated to them in more traditional games (but might be present).
Hence why Vincent Baker said this:

Roleplaying is negotiated imagination. In order for any thing to be true in game, all the participants in the game (players and GMs, if you've even got such things) have to understand and assent to it. When you're roleplaying, what you're doing is a) suggesting things that might be true in the game and then b) negotiating with the other participants to determine whether they're actually true or not. . . .​
So look, you! Mechanics might model the stuff of the game world, that's another topic, but they don't exist to do so. They exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table. That's their sole and crucial function​
Aye, and ALL ELSE that Vince ever says (and I would basically say that RE must fundamentally agree with this) follows FROM THIS STATEMENT. RPGs are fundamentally, at the core of it, a group of people sitting at a table communicating and negotiating about a shared imaginary experience. This is fundamentally why there is a difference in character between GDS, for example, as I understand it, and GNS. GDS is addressing the 'stuff at the table' and classifying what is there based on certain traits, but GNS is about the PROCESS, entirely. Indie game theory in general is not really about the attributes of the game, it is only about the attributes of a group of people sitting at the table engaged in the activity of gaming. It may, from that perspective, derive ideas about game mechanics and whatever, but that is all secondary, that's process and technique which is employed. This is why you cannot, if you are being a purist at least, say that an RPG is 'Gamist' in the GNS sense of that term!

But more to the point of this thread, the GM/player authority parsing is one of the more interesting characteristics of a given table which is playing. The written RPG itself can only ever really SUGGEST how things work, but suggestions are powerful. Honestly I think the biggest two sources of conception at the table about authority are related to history, and to the overall tone and voice of the RPG. How RP relates to certain genre expectations may also be fairly important, depending on the genre (IE there's a strong notion in the super hero genre that 'what is in the characters head' will be significant).
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
D&D authority is fairly traditional. DM's have authority over most fictional content and all resolutions - however there are restrictions (Spells work as listed, enemies die in combat at 0 hp, etc).
If by "traditional" you mean "historical", then I agree. If you mean "traditional" as in "what we carry forward from the past", then I have to disagree.

But the state of the industry has moved on, and while this is kept in some of the best-selling games, it is no longer the norm in the what is getting published today by quantity. With indie press out there, there's been a significant shift in the state of games and "GM's have authority over most fictional content and all resolutions" is just incorrect.

Now, the older games, of edition X, Y and Z have a much bigger play base -- but we all know that a fantasy heartbreaker that comes out at the same time as the new edition of D&D isn't on an even footing. The long established brands carries it's own weight in fans, mind share, and recognition. Pathfinder only got as big as it did by being "more D&D than D&D" at a time when there was a schism in players where some felt that D&D wasn't as D&D-like as they wanted.

But when it comes to numbers of RPGs coming out, we can see that the historic role of the GM is no longer the norm. That GMs have more limited power, have specific rules they must follow.

A rough litmus - ask if a GM can cheat. In the games where this is an obvious affirmative answer, the role of the GM is does not match that of the historical role established in the early days of RPGs.

This makes this feel weighted, almost biased though if so I'm sure unintentionally - that we are assuming a solid baseline where none exists in the current state of how RPGs work, and then trying to describe things in difference to that supposed baseline. Yes, we can instead say "D&D does it this way", but then we also need to add as well, not just restrict, because how other RPGs change the role of the moderator can do both.
 
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