RPG Theory - Restrictions and Authority

Yora

Legend
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?
At the end of the day, a GM is always an entertainer, and the players are the people being entertained. Though unlike other media, the players are not only audience but active participants.

A GM does have power, but the purpose of the power is the enjoyment of the players. GMs who want players to dance to their tune to act out some kind of play that they want to see of course exist, but that's universally considered "doing it wrong" by anyone discussing this subject. Even GMs defending such behavior excuse it as being necessary to create more fun for the players.

GMs have a "natural authority" simply by the functions they perform that players don't even have to consciously give to them. GMs generally organize the game, prepare the game, and usually provide most of the game material. This automatically or instinctively establishes that the GM is in charge. Even in games played at the place of one of the players, or when a player is put in charge of the scheduling, the game is not "on" unless the GM says so. Players can be late, excuse themselves from the play space, or tell the others to start playing without them while they'll finish up their character sheet. When the GM stops, the game stops. Players can discuss among themselves what they want to do next, but those are discussions about what they will do once the game resumes. If the GM doesn't hear it, it wasn't played.
And this holds true for all RPGs that have a GM.

The questions which moves/actions/declarations can be made by either the GM or the players is subject to the rules of the specific game system. There can be a great range of authorizations that the rules grant to GMs and players. But the metagame authority described above exist outside the game system and simply follow from natural human group dynamics.

I think the most extreme form of maximum player autonomy and minimal GM authority would be found in player versus player wargames with a neutral referee. A term that can be found in various retroclones and presumably some really old D&D editions, even though it is no longer appropriate. The referee in a wargame can simply stand aside and let the players play by themselves, only making judgement calls about the implementation of the rules when the players are in disagreement, but not deciding a single thing of what happens in the game.
 

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pemerton

Legend
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).
Not disagreeing, just elaborating:

The ability of the player to shape what the fiction is about follows from the rules/principles that restrict hard moves. That is to say, if the player asserts "I look for X" or "I wonder about X" or "I do X", then provided that X is (in some loose sense) viable within the scope of the genre, the already established shared fiction, etc, the GM can't just say "sorry, no X today".

Vaguely related: I did a search for old posts and discovered that my earliest post on these boards setting out a "no failure offscreen" approach - which is to say, no hard moves in virtue of the GM making decisions about the fiction purely in their own imagination - were made a little over 10 years ago:

I'm happy for time to be a factor in the fiction ("If we don't rescue the prisoners in time, they'll all be sacrificed!"). But if it's going to be a factor in resolution, I want that to play out onstage ("Oh know - the gnoll demon priest is about to sacrifice those prisoners, and there's a demon and an ogre in the way - do you think you can get through there to rescue them?" - as it happens, the players in my game adopted defensive tactics at the start of the encounter and lost one of the prisoners).
you asserted that "no failure off-screen suggests no choice ever has a long term significance."

<snip>

This is a non-sequitur. That is, it does not follow from using no-failure-off-screen as the controlling basis for encounter design and the like that no choice ever has a long term significance. There is no reason in the abstract to think that it would follow (because operational planning is not the only dimension of significance). And I gave several examples from my campaign which illustrate, concretely, some events having long term significance despite being grounded in an "only on screen" approach.
Back in that discussion, the poster to whomI made that second reply seemed to find it hard to imagine certain possibilities in RPGing: they repeatedly used notions like "significant to the plot of the campaign" (referring to locations and to events); and they repeatedly assumed that the play of the game must generate information relating to time and distance/geography/situation which would then, of necessity, interact with the GM's secret offscreen knowledge to dictate events (eg that one of the planned, plot-significant events had occurred while the PCs were somewhere else doing something else).

The same poster was also producing "quantum ogres" (or, in their case, a "quantum trap") as if pointing to degenerate examples of Gygaxian play is a knock-down counterexample to the possibility of "story now" play.

I think many of these conversations have not changed much in the intervening 10 years! It can still sometimes seem quite hard to have discussions in which certain premises are recognised as contingent, as relevant to some approaches to RPGing (obviously Gygaxian play depends on the GM holding fast to prior prep) but not others.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Fundamentally authority has to be in service to something. Not just for GMs. For players as well. I don't think it's fair to treat our responsibilities to one another as restrictions. I think it's most helpful to think the following terms:

Duties: Our responsibilities to one another.
Permissions: What we are expressly allowed to do in service to our duties.
Restrictions: What we are expressly not supposed to do even in service to our duties.
 

aramis erak

Legend
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?
The responsibilities can come from outside the group as well as inside. For example, I'm supposed to discourage R or stronger language choices, I'm required to have everyone mask if one or more players ask for it, and I can't leave until everyone else is out of the building... because I'm required to do so by the venue owner. And I do so, within reason. If I finish, but another group is in, I need to chase them out unless I know one of them is authorized to close up. I'm also expected to make reasonable efforts to prevent players from shoplifting. THis is all because we're in the back room of the FLGS. Tonight, the manager left before we finished. By about 10 minutes. Last week, she left an hour before us. 2 weeks ago, we left before she did, so she locked up (but I checked out with her before I left.)

I'm responsible just by the social contract of being the GM to try to present an engaging experience. We're doing a half-silly, half serious star wars, and my online group is doing a REALLY silly Talisman game.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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).
There are no such restrictions in D&D. The DM has authority to alter any and all of those things on the fly if he wants. They don't restrict him. The true restriction is the social contract in which the expectation is that the rules will control unless the DM has good reason to change things. That way the players can rely on those rules to make decisions, since they will only rarely change without advance notice.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.
The DM does have absolute power and therefore no restrictions, but that does not mean that the rules are meaningless, let alone utterly meaningless. The rules do in fact have great meaning. They provide a strong backbone off of which the DM and players play the game.

The rules only become utterly meaningless if the DM is changing them constantly, such that there really are no rules providing any structure at all. At that point, though, you are no longer playing a game. It's just a fancy version of cops and robbers with one guy making up everything.
 

aia_2

Custom title
Very interesting discussion! I'd add a level of complexity though: the authority can derive from the willingness of the persons around the table, from the social framework or even from the game they play... If i have understood correctly, it is not only a question in the hands of the DM (for a great part of the cases and from time to time up to a player). Some other constraints should be considered: the society, the relationships of the attendees, even (it is a rare case) the game itself...
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Fundamentally authority has to be in service to something. Not just for GMs. For players as well. I don't think it's fair to treat our responsibilities to one another as restrictions. I think it's most helpful to think the following terms:

Duties: Our responsibilities to one another.
Permissions: What we are expressly allowed to do in service to our duties.
Restrictions: What we are expressly not supposed to do even in service to our duties.
I’d say responsibilities are a type of restriction. But not only that.
 
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FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
There are no such restrictions in D&D. The DM has authority to alter any and all of those things on the fly if he wants. They don't restrict him. The true restriction is the social contract in which the expectation is that the rules will control unless the DM has good reason to change things. That way the players can rely on those rules to make decisions, since they will only rarely change without advance notice.
The underlying source of all restrictions is the social contract. That isn’t a very interesting statement though.

Consider this thought experiment. D&D1 has spell X do Y. Now consider there’s a D&D’ that comes out that’s the same as D&D in all respects except that spell X now does Y’.

Ultimately the Players of D&D and D&D’ have the spell be different because the spell rules of their games are different.

I think it’s important to call out actual rules restrictions vs using the social contract to alter the rules and then having those altered rules serve as restrictions.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I think it's a mistake of some order to claim that the DM in D&D has the power to change whatever he likes at a whim. That be notionally true, but what @Maxperson is describing as the social contract at the table restricts what the DM can actually do a fair bit. If anyone thinks that a DM can, say , unilaterally change the effects of the spell on a whim, or muck about other rules in the same way, then I would contend that first they are suffering from a very narrow reading of the rulebook, and second that their opinion doesn't actually match the way that many people not only play the game, but expect it to be played.

The kind of RAW reading needed to support the above idea just doesn't carry water outside of the white room. 🤷‍♂️
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The underlying source of all restrictions is the social contract. That isn’t a very interesting statement though.

Consider this thought experiment. D&D1 has spell X do Y. Now consider there’s a D&D’ that comes out that’s the same as D&D in all respects except that spell X now does Y’.

Ultimately the Players of D&D and D&D’ have the spell be different because the spell rules of their games are different.

I think it’s important to call out actual rules restrictions vs using the social contract to alter the rules and then having those altered rules serve as restrictions.
If you remove the social contract, then there are no restrictions at all for the DM. None.

That the players of D&D and D&D' have made the spell different because the spell rules are different doesn't change that. There's a different framework for each game that alters how other things fit into it, but the DM can change that framework easily. He's not restricted by it in the same way that the other players are. It's not a rules restriction for him.

Perhaps instead of calling them rules restrictions, we just refer to it as rules framework since none of it restricts the DM.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I think it's a mistake of some order to claim that the DM in D&D has the power to change whatever he likes at a whim. That be notionally true, but what @Maxperson is describing as the social contract at the table restricts what the DM can actually do a fair bit. If anyone thinks that a DM can, say , unilaterally change the effects of the spell on a whim, or muck about other rules in the same way, then I would contend that first they are suffering from a very narrow reading of the rulebook, and second that their opinion doesn't actually match the way that many people not only play the game, but expect it to be played.

The kind of RAW reading needed to support the above idea just doesn't carry water outside of the white room. 🤷‍♂️
It's not a narrow reading of the rulebook at all. At least a half dozen times throughout the 5e rulebook it says that the rules serve the DM, not the other way around. In the PHB it directs the players to ask the DM what rules changes he has made. It says umpteen million times in the DMG that it's the DMs world and provides suggestions for ways that the DM can change the framework(rules) to suit what he wants to build.

As you say, the social contract can do a fair bit. More than that, really. It does pretty much everything when it comes to restrictions. The DM doesn't change rules at a whim, but only because of that social contract. The DM needs to have reasons for changing things, but only because of that social contract. A game where rules change on a whim wouldn't match how the vast majority of people play or expect the game to be played, but only because of the social contract.

If the RAW reading doesn't carry water in the real world, it's ONLY because of the social contract and not the rules. ;)
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
It's not a narrow reading of the rulebook at all. At least a half dozen times throughout the 5e rulebook it says that the rules serve the DM, not the other way around. In the PHB it directs the players to ask the DM what rules changes he has made. It says umpteen million times in the DMG that it's the DMs world and provides suggestions for ways that the DM can change the framework(rules) to suit what he wants to build.

As you say, the social contract can do a fair bit. More than that, really. It does pretty much everything when it comes to restrictions. The DM doesn't change rules at a whim, but only because of that social contract. The DM needs to have reasons for changing things, but only because of that social contract. A game where rules change on a whim wouldn't match how the vast majority of people play or expect the game to be played, but only because of the social contract.

If the RAW reading doesn't carry water in the real world, it's ONLY because of the social contract and not the rules. ;)
That's actually the narrow reading I was talking about. Yes, the rules do serve the DM, but that's not quite the same thing as giving the DM carte blanche to muck about at a whim either. That caveat is generally followed by a statement something like "don't let the rules get in the way". So while, yes, if you read that one statement by itself then I can see where someone might get to ultimate cosmic power, but that's not actually what is meant by that statement. The freedom that rule gives is a freedom from restriction that negatively impacts play (or desired play state, or whatever), something that is made explicit in the rules to some degree or another.. On a related note there's a significant difference between DM selection of DM facing rules prior to play, and DMs changing player facing rules on the fly and on a whim. The DM is, for example, free to chose whatever encumbrance system they want, or restrict lineages or spells available to players, or even (why not) make changes to spells. That's not at all the same as changing the effect of a cast fireball in play. The second example is where we start talking more firmly about the social contract IMO.

I agree about the reasoning behind the RAW thing too, the reason it comes up is because some people give the idea of the social contract at the table no consideration when they read the rules. That's unfortunate because it actually underpins the whole endeavor rather than being an add-on or afterthought.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
If you remove the social contract, then there are no restrictions at all for the DM. None.

That the players of D&D and D&D' have made the spell different because the spell rules are different doesn't change that. There's a different framework for each game that alters how other things fit into it, but the DM can change that framework easily. He's not restricted by it in the same way that the other players are. It's not a rules restriction for him.

Perhaps instead of calling them rules restrictions, we just refer to it as rules framework since none of it restricts the DM.
without the social contract the dm has no power over anything regardless of what the rules say.

It’s only through the social contract that any authority is ultimately established.

But that’s not interesting in itself. That’s how literally everything functions. What is interesting is when you get into the nuances of how this functions.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
One interesting example of authority and social contract interactions is in player vs player scenarios.

Sometimes the rules outright ban. Sometimes they outright allow. Often they are silent and the table has to decide how to handle. Sometimes that’s via democracy. Sometimes that’s via ‘elected official- dm’.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
That's actually the narrow reading I was talking about. Yes, the rules do serve the DM, but that's not quite the same thing as giving the DM carte blanche to muck about at a whim either.
My reading doesn't require a whim. Whim is your word, not mine. My reading only requires that the rules not be a restriction upon the DM, and they aren't. He can change any or all of them when he has reason(not whim) to change them. The rules provide ZERO restriction.
That caveat is generally followed by a statement something like "don't let the rules get in the way". So while, yes, if you read that one statement by itself then I can see where someone might get to ultimate cosmic power, but that's not actually what is meant by that statement. The freedom that rule gives is a freedom from restriction that negatively impacts play (or desired play state, or whatever), something that is made explicit in the rules to some degree or another..
No. It is not only "don't let the rules get in the way." The DMG provides the DM the power and authority to completely design his world and the rules of the game. If he wants to design it so that the 3e gestalt rules are in effect for his new campaign, they are in effect. If he wants to make it so that magic is very rare for his new campaign and only there is only a 10% chance that a PC can learn to cast spells, that's what happens. He has the "cosmic power" to reshape, add or remove any rule, because the game gives him that authority.

So yes, while "don't let the rules get in the way" is also in effect, so is the authority to change any rule he wants if he has reason to change it. And again, I'm not talking about changing anything on a whim.
On a related note there's a significant difference between DM selection of DM facing rules prior to play, and DMs changing player facing rules on the fly and on a whim. The DM is, for example, free to chose whatever encumbrance system they want, or restrict lineages or spells available to players, or even (why not) make changes to spells. That's not at all the same as changing the effect of a cast fireball in play. The second example is where we start talking more firmly about the social contract IMO.
If I want fireball to start at 5d6 and gain 3d6 per level instead of 2d6, then I can in fact change the effect fireball has in play. I'm not going to do something like that in mid-campaign, but if I felt it was a better version of fireball, I would let the players know that the change was coming down the pike for the next campaign and my reasoning for the change.
I agree about the reasoning behind the RAW thing too, the reason it comes up is because some people give the idea of the social contract at the table no consideration when they read the rules. That's unfortunate because it actually underpins the whole endeavor rather than being an add-on or afterthought.
I'm not sure they really need to consider the social contract. Whether people think about it consciously or not, it's still present and nearly everyone understands the contract at some instinctive level. We are social animals. A few oddballs won't understand it, but those are the fairly rare bad DM or problem player. The rest may have issues now and then, but those issues tend to go away when a discussion is had.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
My reading doesn't require a whim. Whim is your word, not mine. My reading only requires that the rules not be a restriction upon the DM, and they aren't. He can change any or all of them when he has reason(not whim) to change them. The rules provide ZERO restriction.

No. It is not only "don't let the rules get in the way." The DMG provides the DM the power and authority to completely design his world and the rules of the game. If he wants to design it so that the 3e gestalt rules are in effect for his new campaign, they are in effect. If he wants to make it so that magic is very rare for his new campaign and only there is only a 10% chance that a PC can learn to cast spells, that's what happens. He has the "cosmic power" to reshape, add or remove any rule, because the game gives him that authority.

So yes, while "don't let the rules get in the way" is also in effect, so is the authority to change any rule he wants if he has reason to change it. And again, I'm not talking about changing anything on a whim.

If I want fireball to start at 5d6 and gain 3d6 per level instead of 2d6, then I can in fact change the effect fireball has in play. I'm not going to do something like that in mid-campaign, but if I felt it was a better version of fireball, I would let the players know that the change was coming down the pike for the next campaign and my reasoning for the change.

I'm not sure they really need to consider the social contract. Whether people think about it consciously or not, it's still present and nearly everyone understands the contract at some instinctive level. We are social animals. A few oddballs won't understand it, but those are the fairly rare bad DM or problem player. The rest may have issues now and then, but those issues tend to go away when a discussion is had.
So, in your opinion, What prevents or restricts the dm from having carte Blanche to muck about on a whim?
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I think you missed my rather important distinction between prior to play and during play. The first is given by the rules, while the second is far more practically constrained.

Also, and probably importantly, under section 3 Master of Rules (p 5) the DMG says this: As a referee, the DM acts as a mediator between the rules and the players. The 'rules' there, which I happily grant are whatever the DM decides to use for that campaign or game, quite obviously have weight and function outside the whim of the DM once they hit the table. (Yes, I'll keep using whim because it directly indexes what I'm talking about here). That quote is closely followed by this one: The rules don't account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session. [...] How you determine the outcome of this action is up to you. It's quite clear that rules are there to be followed (read adjudicated if you like) except when they don't cover something or cause problems. That is the basic expectation of play.

What I'm getting at is that the agency the DM has to change rules is specifically given when it's service to the game, rather than their own whim. The contract and expectations that come along with mediation and the stated goal of create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, would suggest that the wiggle room for DM authoritarianism over previously agreed-upon rules at the table is enormously more constrained than you seem to want it to be. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about what parts of the rules the DM decides to use prior to play, only DM agency once play has begun and (mostly for what I'm talking about) currently in progress. Once play begins the rules (whatever set is being used) in and of themselves are a significant part of the 'contract' at the table - they are then a set of mutually agreed upon guidelines for the mechanical adjudication of actions.

This whole issue is made somewhat fuzzy here because the 'rules' are not all created equal. Entirely DM facing stuff has far less constraints on change than player facing stuff, and that really describes a spectrum rather than a binary.

As for the last bit, with no social contract you don't have a game, so yeah, the rules need to consider it. How explicitly they do so, or how well or usefully they do so, is an entirely different problem. Personally, I think the D&D rules are crap there, but that's just my opinion.
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
So, in your opinion, What prevents or restricts the dm from having carte Blanche to muck about on a whim?
Only the social contract. The rules don't differentiate between whim and planned out changes. They just give the DM the authority to make any change. That's why, even if it's not interesting, you can't really take the social contract out of a discussion on restrictions on the DM.

Without the existence of the social contract, the DM could and would change things on a whim. There would literally be nothing stopping him and the players wouldn't leave the game if he did. The offense taken by players at playing in a game where the DM changes things on whims is rooted in the social contract and the expectations it provides.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I think you missed my rather important distinction between prior to play and during play. The first is given by the rules, while the second is far more practically constrained.

Also, and probably importantly, under section 3 Master of Rules (p 5) the DMG says this: As a referee, the DM acts as a mediator between the rules and the players. The 'rules' there, which I happily grant are whatever the DM decides to use for that campaign or game, quite obviously have weight and function outside the whim of the DM once they hit the table. (Yes, I'll keep using whim because it directly indexes what I'm talking about here). That quote is closely followed by this one: The rules don't account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session. [...] How you determine the outcome of this action is up to you. It's quite clear that rules are there to be followed (read adjudicated if you like) except when they don't cover something or cause problems. That is the basic expectation of play.

What I'm getting at is that the agency the DM has to change rules is specifically given when it's service to the game, rather than their own whim. The contract and expectations that come along with mediation and the stated goal of create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, would suggest that the wiggle room for DM authoritarianism over previously agreed-upon rules at the table is enormously more constrained than you seem to want it to be. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about what parts of the rules the DM decides to use prior to play, only DM agency once play has begun and (mostly for what I'm talking about) currently in progress. Once play begins the rules (whatever set is being used) in and of themselves are a significant part of the 'contract' at the table - they are then a set of mutually agreed upon guidelines for the mechanical adjudication of actions.

This whole issue is made somewhat fuzzy here because the 'rules' are not all created equal. Entirely DM facing stuff has far less constraints on change than player facing stuff, and that really describes a spectrum rather than a binary.

As for the last bit, with no social contract you don't have a game, so yeah, the rules need to consider it. How explicitly they do so, or how well or usefully they do so, is an entirely different problem. Personally, I think the D&D rules are crap there, but that's just my opinion.
I think we are closer in position than it might seem.

Most of the changes I make are in-between campaigns. Most of those changes are talked over with my players and if a majority don't agree, the change typically doesn't happen. Sometimes if I feel strongly enough about it, it will happen anyway.

I agree with you that once the campaign begins, the DM is much more constrained with regard to changes. That constraint, though, is entirely from the social contract, not the rules. There have been rare times when during game play something breaks the campaign in some way, or some combo that I've never seen is so unbalancing that it becomes disruptive and I announce a change in the rules mid campaign. It's not a whim, because I don't change things on a whim, but it is a mid campaign unilateral change by me. I can do that because the rules not only don't stop me, but actually empower me with the authority to do so.
 

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