Image by Michael Whelan
Trust and Authority in D&D
There is a process of deconstruction going on right now on Twitter. People are taking D&D and questioning every assumption of the game from the ground up.
To be 100% crystal clear, this is not a new thing. People have been deconstructing the game for decades, taking it apart and reassembling it in different ways is a time honored D&D tradition.
The makers of the game have been doing it in the form of different editions that stressed different takes on the game.
Independent game designers have been doing it for decades as well, creating so-called “retroclones” of D&D, over a hundred and counting so far, that tweak various parts of the game in different ways in order to produce a specific experience at the table.
And of course individual tables have been doing it for decades as well, home brewing and house ruling their campaigns into exactly what they want.
So I think this is a good thing.
In the past the point of deconstruction was to produce different varieties of gaming experience. Say you didn’t like how “high magic” D&D was, so you played a game where magic items were very rare. Or you didn’t like the traditional medieval setting for D&D so you added non-European tropes and classes. Or perhaps you were a fan of more “horror” themed D&D, so you dialed up the undead monsters and Cthulhu themed contributions, that sort of thing.
Today however, things are different.
ANYTHING that is deconstructed these days is going to be deconstructed through the lens of the current cultural conversation. Moreso in the US than anywhere else, but the point is general. Every decision about the game is going to be filtered through this lens.
And the current cultural conversation is centered on issues of identity and power.
A few weeks ago I tweeted that we were soon going to see a discussion of the inherent abusiveness of the DM in the game. It’s really inevitable, the DM is in a position of power, so the discussion of power and abuse of DM privilege is a natural fit for our current cultural moment.
And I saw the first shot across the bow this week. It starts off innocuously, with the claim that a DM who holds to their view when all the rest of the table is against it is in the wrong. It sounds reasonable, and it is for the most part. As a 3 decade + DM who has run more games than I can remember and played in quite a few, I would agree that a DM who insists on their way despite the repeated objections of their players is making a mistake.
And that is for the most part how people responded. Many said that the DM is the final arbiter, but if the whole group disagreed with them then a conversation would be in order, and if that didn’t resolve it then the group would be better off walking.
In short, if the DM insists on holding out against the whole table, even after everyone has made their feelings clear, then it’s probably best to walk from that DM’s game. So the DM’s authority may be final, but that can mean they have no one to play with.
I’m fairly certain that did not go the way the original poster intended. I’ll bet he expected a firestorm of angry grognards screaming about “elite level gaming” and saying that “The DM is GOD” and such, but instead what he got was a lot of people saying that in those circumstances you should just walk.
Trying to manufacture outrage with “hot takes” like this is the worst part of Twitter IMO, because it misrepresents the game, makes it look like no one considered these issues until now, much like people assume that only white people ever played D&D until the past few years, and it ignores real problems in the game.
What real problems? Well, gender inclusiveness is a widespread problem. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of games with both women and men playing, nor does it mean that women haven’t always been in the game.
Still, there is a distinct difference in these issues. The “DM as a god who insists on his rulings against the collective will of the table on a regular basis and people can’t leave the game” is a hypothetical construct. I’m not saying it never happens, but I don’t think it is a common thing.
However, I have seen MANY cases of women being told they “can’t game”, or “can’t game properly” both in person and on Twitter.
Oh but wait, someone says, your solution to this “problem”, leave the game and find another, reflects your privilege, you can find new players, or a new group, many people don’t have that option, so IF this sort of DM appears they can’t just pull up and leave, they will have to stop playing D&D altogether.
I have two objections to this response. First, I have been playing D&D for 3+ decades, but not continuously. I have gone stretches of anywhere from a year to 5 years without running games or playing them as I couldn’t find a group. So if someone has a bad DM, walks, and has to wait for a few years to find another, they aren’t any less privileged than me.
Second, what I have seen on hundreds of other threads over the last few years when someone posts that their DM is doing crappy things: advice to walk from the game. “My DM is making inappropriate comments at the table”, “My DM picks on my player and my role playing but not others”, “The DM ignores our character backgrounds and runs a hack and slash, no RP game despite our protests”, etc, etc. The advice is pretty much the same in every case: you should talk to the DM and the other players, and if things don’t change then leave that toxic table.
So leaving the table is a fair suggestion, with the understanding that not everyone will have that option.
This is all to say that I think this issue is a non-issue. I think the real issue isn’t the “DM as final arbiter”, but instead that modern players are unfamiliar with the concept of trusting someone who has authority.
They hear “DM as final arbiter” and they think “cop”, “teacher”, “political leader” etc, etc. They immediately break it down in terms of power dynamics, Foucault, the patriarchy, that sort of thing. And of course all of these approaches are valid. There are real power dynamics in the world, and they have real impacts on real people. We should always be vigilant about the abuse of power, and who it impacts the most. And let’s be honest, the DM has a remarkable amount of power over the game.
However, that doesn’t mean that the model of an impartial arbiter can’t work for a game. What it means is that there will be people who are good at it and people who are bad at it, and we should identify best practices for those who are given this sort of authority and power.
I am a “the DM is the final arbiter” DM, I’ve always played that way. I adopted this style of refereeing as D&D is an open ended game, has a lot of moving parts, and if there isn’t someone who can say, “Alright, we need to move forward on this, so we are going to do X”, then the game can become onerous and grind to a halt. That’s the concept of free “Kreigspeel” the idea that a DM has to actively shape the game with rulings to keep it moving and growing. This is what allows well run campaigns to work better than video games, it’s what makes RPGs so adaptive to player agency. The impartial ref making rulings is to my mind the heart of what makes D&D work so well, despite it’s imperfect mechanics. But if you are given this much power, it becomes crucial to think about how to use it responsibly.
One of the things I dislike the most about “GOTCHA” Twitter is precisely that it focuses on making a big deal of supposed “toxic” behavior but does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to suggest how to constrain or reduce it. It’s all about “LOOK AT ME, FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT AND CALLING OUT BAD BEHAVIOR”, but it gives you nothing to help deal with that supposed bad behavior.
Over the years I have done a few things to ensure that my authority as DM had constraints and limits, here are a few of those suggestions.
1. Transparency - I do my best to be clear about how I run the game before we start and while we are playing. So during session 0 I make it clear that I am the final arbiter of rules in the game, that if there is a disagreement between players or about the rules that my ruling stands. Everyone knows this and if they are not comfortable with it they can go elsewhere.
2. Ownership - I make it clear that I INTERPRET the rules as we play, I don’t just APPLY them, so that means that the buck stops here. If the ruling is not one that the player likes then it’s on ME, not the game, not their fellow players, me. If you want power, you get the responsibility. 3. Appeal - If I’m the final arbiter I have to provide a mechanism for fixing my mistakes. I will forget rules, I will interpret rules incorrectly, I will make decisions in game that I change my mind about after the game. So there needs to be a process for appeal. Saying the DM is the “final arbiter” of the rules means they are the final arbiter AT THE TABLE. After the game however we have had some cracking discussions about the rules, and many of them have had the players getting me to change my mind about something. I have altered both my house rules and published game rules on multi and dual classing, on legacy characters, on magic item creation, on playable races and on any number of other things because my players have indicated they didn’t like the way the game was at the table.
4. Debrief - After every session, either right afterwards or between sessions, I have a debrief with my players, sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long, but the point is to ensure that they let me know what is working and what isn’t working. You can’t know if your players are happy simply because they aren’t complaining. That’s “Authority 101”, being in a position of power means that some people won’t feel comfortable objecting to what you are doing. So you have to open up the lines of communication and be receptive to these sorts of discussions if you want to be fair and impartial.
5. Allowing Player Access to the Rule Books - As a DM I expect players to look at any rule book, including the DMG and monster books, while at the table. I want my players to learn about how the game works, and it also gives them something to do between turns. The only restriction I put on this is that they cannot read the monster entry for the monster they are fighting while they are fighting it. Other than that, go nuts. What this does is helps players to know when their DM is being excessively adversarial, and helps give back some of their agency. I don’t think this will work for every table, because sometimes having a bit of mystery is good for the game. But I do think it helps to deter DM shenanigans.
6. Rolling in the Open - For the last 35+ years I have rolled almost everything in the dice box in front of the players, exceptions being things like find remove traps, hide in shadows, etc. This allows everyone at the table to see that things are fair, and keeps the DM from manipulating things against the players. It also, quite frankly, is far more exciting for everyone.
7. Embracing Randomness - One of the most tempting abuses in the game is the power to play god. When you get to make almost every major decision in the game, it is easy for the game to become your own personal story that the players are watching happen around them, and to be either intentionally or unintentionally abusive. As a DM I roll for many things that are not specified in the manuals, to keep the game from being completely subject to my whims. Yes, I determine the odds for any rolls that are not specified in the rule books, but I tell the players the odds before they commit to the actions and I roll in the open so they can see the results.
8. Embrace DM Fallibility - Allow your DM to make mistakes, and if you are the DM allow yourself to make mistakes, don’t become adversarial with the DM when they mess up, and don’t spend your time being a “rules lawyer”, trying to trip them up at every juncture. There is no “one best way” to resolve every situation, so accept that the DM may rule other than you would, but that’s OK. When both the DM and players expect there to be mistakes and don’t get hostile about them, there is less of a tendency to try to control everything. If I had a dime for every DM that doubled down on their bad decisions because they were terrified of being seen as fallible, I wouldn’t need to work anymore. Accept criticism gracefully, don’t take it personally, and do your best to understand the player’s perspective.
As an example, I used to have a house rule that if you didn’t show up to the game then another player could run your PC, or I could, with the understanding that we work hard to get together, and the party shouldn’t have to play without your PC because you can’t make it. I ensured that the absent player’s PC would not die or have anything too significant happen to them while the player was absent, but the party comes to rely on every member to achieve their goals, so I felt this was fair. Then a few of my players told me they didn’t like the rule, as they weren’t always comfortable with other’s running their PCs, even me. At first I was a bit offended, didn’t they trust me to be fair? But after a conversation I saw that the issue wasn’t fairness, but the idea that someone else would get to run their character. It was a concern about agency and role-playing ownership, not trust. So we changed the rule, now if you aren’t there your PC is played by another player you designate, by me, or not at all, based on the player preference.
The game I run is still “the DM is final arbiter”, but that doesn’t mean that I never change my mind, or that I don’t seek out the counsel of my players.
9. Players should point out Patterns in DM Behavior. I’ll give an example for this one, BITD I had a DM who liked to “let every player shine”, so he would put in situations and things that fit with various character’s classes or abilities. However, he did not do so proportionately, he made sure there was something for everyone on a regular basis, but it was far more often for some than others. It became pretty clear to me and to a few of the other players, so we spoke to the DM about it (we were all good friends) and he had absolutely no idea he was favoring anyone. DMing is a big, complex THING, it is very easy to be doing things you aren’t aware of, so some player feedback is important.
10. Explain your rulings - I ALWAYS explain the reasoning behind my rulings and the assignment of odds to actions, so my players have a sense of why things are happening. Nothing is worse than having the majority of the rulings at the table being arbitrary. Some degree of arbitrariness is to be expected, but I find that being transparent about your rulings makes them easier to understand and accept.
I’m sure every DM has ways in which they “check” themselves to ensure fairness, this list is neither exhaustive nor prescriptive, you can do none of these things and still run a fair game, I’d be a bit surprised if you managed it without at least some of them, but the point isn’t to suggest that you have to do them all, it’s to suggest ways to run a DM as a final arbiter game well and fairly.
Trusting against Instinct
Having said all that, I want to finish up with a suggestion.
But first, let me make something clear, if your DM is being abusive, hurtful, cruel, unfair or generally crappy, then THIS ADVICE DOES NOT APPLY. I think most people are savvy enough to realize when someone is just being a dick. And it’s certainly obvious if everyone in the group agrees to it. Given that RPGS are such a visceral experience, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes you just have to walk.
Having said that, here’s an observation.
I run a game with described damage. So rather than telling the PCs how much damage they take in HP and them recording it, I record the HP damage done to them and I describe the damage they took. It’s an optional rule mentioned in 1st edition, so it’s entirely BTB.
But it’s unusual. And when I first introduced it the players DID NOT LIKE IT. They complained, audibly. They screamed about unfairness. They were not happy.
So we talked about it. I explained that, yes, it did take away information from the players, but that it also gave back information to them that they didn’t have before. So, for example, when a PC would do say 5 hp damage to a monster under the old system they wouldn’t know how many HP the monster had left. Under the new system, based on my description of the damage they would know how much juice the monster had left.
They were still unconvinced. So I said this, and I have said this a few times since then, but I haven’t had to say it again in years:
“Look, give it a shot for a few sessions, if everyone still dislikes it then we will drop the rule. Trust me.”
And that’s really it, unless they are very clearly an ass, trust your DM, even if sometimes they suggest something you aren’t keen on. I have introduced a ton of rules my players were not enthusiastic about at first:
- Described damage
- When a PC dies the new PC comes in at 1st level
- Rolling for treasure at the table
- Permanent damage rules, expanded critical hit rules and location of hit rules
- Rolling almost every roll in the open
- WvrsAC adjustments
In all of these cases the players have opted to keep these rules when I have asked about removing them later.
Another example, a year and a half ago one of my players wanted to play a bard, I offered him a custom class and the regular 1e version. The regular 1e version requires you to go through at least 5 levels of fighter, switch to thief, go up at least 5 levels as a thief, then you become a first level bard. It’s hard, it’s something that I haven’t seen anyone do in 3+ decades of gaming. So I told my player all of this, and I told him that if it were me, I’d try the 1e version, as it would be an achievement, and a cool “background” for a PC, warrior, thief, bard. His response?
“I trust you, I’ll try it”.
And he’s a year and a half in an just about to level up his last level before becoming a bard. He’s buzzing with excitement. It was a long slog, but it was worth it.
The DM is familiar with the rules and the game world in ways the players cannot be, that doesn’t mean they are always right, but it does mean they may make rulings with different information in front of them. So again, unless the DM has obvious issues, trusting your DM and rolling with things for a while to see how they work might not be a bad idea.
There is even a name for the tendency to overestimate the negative impacts of changes: affective forecasting errors. We tend to overestimate the negative consequences of changes to our lives. The DM makes a ruling and we don’t like it? Maybe trust that the DM has a purpose for that change, and live with it for a bit before deciding that it’s ruining your game