Respect My (GM) Authoritah

This title blatantly stolen from a thread filled with contentious commentary on this issue. What are my thoughts on the matter (as it pertains within the context of D&D or other traditional roleplaying games)? Glad you asked! Helpful NPC Thom enjoys sharing his Thompinions.

The Authoritarian (GM) Personality

...was the alternative title for this blogpost, but fewer people would get the reference. Alas. My perspective is that GM authority is vital, necessary, and good. Prove me wrong, change my view, whatever.

In the days of modernity, the concept of authority gets a bad rap unless we're deferring it to credentialed "experts," or at least the people who describe themselves experts.


Where are the GM experts? While you were out partying, I studied the DMG. I hold a PhD in dungeon mastering. I'm the expert here, and I'm weighing in to say: someone has to herd the cats, and that someone is the GM.

That's the short version. The longer version:

At the gaming table, everyone is a player, but for the purposes of this discourse, I'll be describing the two roles: the players (subordinate role that controls player characters) and the GM (superior role that handles rules adjudication, non-player characters, and other aspects of the game). Some of you balk at the notion that players are subordinate to the GM, but they are.

Leadership requires authority, and the GM is the leader of the gaming table. It is contradictory to demand a leader while denying his authority. It is unjust to nominate someone as leader and then insist he yield his authority or resent that he wields more power than others. If a leader is to lead, he requires trust, cooperation, and deference...and thus the GM, as leader of the gaming table, requires this of his players.

D&D is neither democratic nor egalitarian. There are roleplaying games that place limits on the GM's power, and there are roleplaying games that do away with the GM role entirely. D&D is not one of them. In D&D, the GM interprets and adjudicates rules, he makes judgment calls, he controls the world in which the players explore. Most importantly, he is the most important individual at the table: the game can function if a player begs off, but the game stops the moment the GM begs off.

The Abusive GM

Gasp! The abusive GM. It's a bit histrionic sounding, isn't it? As if the GM is screaming at his players and knocking heads. Nonetheless, it is an apt term.

The GM's position in D&D empowers him to abuse his authority in ways that he cannot in other games. For example, take Burning Wheel, a GM-led game with safeguards in place to "solve" abusive GMing and "dysfunctional" games (I believe these are the author's own words) with rules requiring the GM to state beforehand the consequences of a failure roll and denying his ability to alter dice rolls ex post facto.

Interestingly, there is one single area in which implied limits on GM authority exist within D&D. There isn't one rule that calls this out, but in every group I've played with, it is a big no-no for the DM to usurp player character agency outside of defined effects (typically supernatural or spell) that have rules governing their usage and resistance. The GM may never dictate what player characters think, feel, or do outside of these special circumstances.

GMs who overstep these bounds are likely to suffer at the hands of a player-led exodus into the wilderness because forty years in the desert sound more appealing than Pharaoh's GMing style.

Good GMing is a Skill

D&D's history is rife with poor GMing advice. If you haven't heard of the bolt from the blue in the AD&D DMG, here's a little history lesson on how not to do things:

Strong steps short of expulsion can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender.

Obviously, a good GM does not attempt to solve problems outside the game with punitive effects like 20d6 lightning bolts (no save). In that same way, the railroad adventure paths in D&D's history encourage poor GM practices. Fortunately, the Internet is rife with a hundred billion articles on how to get gooder at GMing because good GMing is a skill.

Honing the skills required to GM effectively and fairly requires effort, patience, practice, and mistakes made along the way. Learning to wield properly the authority provided by the GM role is part of that skill. There are times to exercise that authority, and there are times to relax it. Good GMs know when to utilize a democratic table consensus, they know when to consult the rulebook, they know when to defer to others' judgment, and they know when to take charge and assert their authority.

In the same way that the GM has to trust the players not to cheat, the players have to trust the GM not to abuse his authority. I am certainly an authoritarian GM, but I strive never to abuse the authority vested in me by the DMG.

How I Roll (Best Practices)

This is a big, fat, "my personal style, do what you want" section. You might loathe my methods, swear a blue streak that you'll never play in one of my games, and curse mother for ever birthing the wretched monstrosity that I am.

Nonetheless, here are my best practices. I am open and upfront about all of this.

  1. Refereeing, not storytelling. I'm not at the table to tell a story with the players as participants. The players are here to direct the game. My duty is to arbitrate the game based on what seems reasonable and fair within the fiction--and the fiction's assumptions are somewhere between average humans with real life physics to heroic fantasy that stretches (but doesn't snap) the suspension of disbelief.

  2. Telegraph danger and potential consequences upfront. Players need to know what they're risking before the dice hit the table. They aren't stupid. If a player takes an "obviously" foolhardy course of action, it's probably not so obviously foolhardy to him. Coupled with this...

  3. Communicate relative difficulty. Tell them if something is easy or hard. That way they know what they're risking and how likely success/failure is. (Easy vs. hard is subjective, but give them a notion. If they have a 10% chance of success, let them know it's nigh-impossible.)

  4. Call for skill checks sparingly. Assume competence on behalf of the player characters. No rolling for nonsense or non-consequential actions.

  5. 1s and 20s. I don't think they're special, but players generally want them to be something special, so I let them be something special, but no bullshit like "you rolled a 1 on your attack roll, you stab yourself in the foot, teehee."

  6. Narrate what happens after a skill check. No interruptions are allowed when I (the GM) am narrating after the dice hit the table.

That last one is a big one. When the dice are resolved, there's not an opportunity for another character to step in and do XYZ before the outcome of the roll comes into play. That's a pet peeve of mine, just like it's a pet peeve of mine when the DM makes the player character seem like bungling idiots out of Home Alone rather than competent adventurers in a fantasy world.

I will let you in on a secret: I violate that unspoken rule above about character agency.

Outside of strict combat rules, failed skill checks allow me (the GM) to take control of the scene and describe something that the character (not necessarily player) won't like. If there's a roll involved, your character's agency is on the line. On a failure, your character will not die, he will not be imperiled beyond survival, and he won't be made to look like a fool, but those are the limits. Your character might be beguiled, charmed, impassioned, or otherwise briefly rendered out of your control, but (a) you'll regain control soon enough, and (b) trust me, I'm not here to screw ya. We're all here to play a game and have fun, so chill.

I am unapologetically authoritarian as GM. That doesn't mean I'm a powertripping doodie head who disregards concepts like player agency or table consensus. Sometimes, I defer narrative authority to the players, especially on natural 1s and 20s. (Players love to describe their own fumbles almost as much as they love to describe their exceptional successes.)

There a lot more mental overhead for me as GM than the players. There's a lot more work involved on my side of the screen, so while I'm omnibenevolent when I'm playing D&D God, I'm also omnipotent. (Still working on omniscience, haven't mastered that trick yet.)