Let's first state for the record that I am well aware of Rule 0 and am in no way asking a practical question. The DM's job is to make the game fun for everyone and in this regard his power is truly absolute and, when the situation calls for it, he can and should break any rule.

That being said, another DM and I have been having a bit of a discussion concerning where the DM's power "officially" ends and the players power begins. We both DM D&D 5e games with moderate levels of success but handle this specific issue vastly differently. My opinion has long been that players are completely in charge of their characters; their actions as well as their emotions. In other-words the DM only has control over factors EXTERNAL to the characters. Consequently, I would (ideally) never presume to describe the emotion a character was feeling, for example "you feel a sense of dread come over you." I would describe the situation and leave it up to the players to decide how their characters would feel about it.

My friend, on the other hand, will often describe the emotions PCs are feeling. If its a situation he feels like the PCs would feel sad he describes them as such, even going so far as to say something along the lines of "you feel tears begin to well up in your eyes." To me this seems like he's overreaching his power, if a PC is an apathetic robot that should be up to the player.

Is there a RAW limitation to the DM's power over Player Characters, especially regarding their emotions, and if so what is it?

Edit: To clarify spells/potions/conditions/etc that explicitly and/or directly affect the PCs feelings/emotions would fall into the External category.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you need the 5th ed tag for this one \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I figure since I'm asking for RAW that i should specify which RAW would be most applicable. \$\endgroup\$
    – ArtaSoral
    May 14, 2018 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Missed the RAW tag. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 16:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ While this is not common in dungeon crawling games like D&D (exempting magical effects and other exceptions), this is a common narrative technique in [personal] horror games such as World of Darkness, or The Call of Cthulhu. While it may be presumptuous, the character's emotional state is often key to 'selling' the scene to the player in that genre. For example, if a mortal human PC watches a werewolf shift into Homid form for the first time, the player unlikely to blink, but their character should be absolutely terrified. Is it possible that the GM has experience with this genre? \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 17:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Skoddie it seems he has not actually played any RPG's besides DnD, but he is a long time player and thinks that maybe one of his earlier DM's played Call of Cthulhu as their first. \$\endgroup\$
    – ArtaSoral
    May 14, 2018 at 20:18

2 Answers 2


Mostly, DMs control everything except the player characters: there are exceptions

Overall, I'd agree with the OP's position that a good DM will describe situations purely "external to the characters." A player has control of one aspect of the game: their character. As much as possible, they should retain autonomy in this control, including the actions, motivations, and emotions of their character.

The most "RAW" support for this position is the PHB's descriptions of the roles of players and DMs on page 6.

  1. The DM describes the environment. The DM tells the players where their adventurers are and what’s around them, presenting the basic scope of options that present themselves (how many doors lead out of a room, what’s on a table, who’s in the tavern, and so on).

  2. The players describe what they want to do...

  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions. Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1.

A DM might use emotional language as a shorthand to describe an environment or creature (a creature might be "terrifyingly ugly", or a house "unsettlingly quiet"), but such a description is still a description of the environment (things external to the character): not a description of a character's reaction. Also, it is worth noting that emotions are inexorably tied up in sentient motivation and decisions: what you feel in large part informs what you want. If the DM were to define the emotions of the player characters, it could reduce the players' role in step #2 (debatably, their main role in the game): deciding and describing what they want to do.

There are exceptions

That being said, in D&D (and some other systems as well) a character's emotional state can be a measurable game mechanic, that has a tactical implication in play. Take, for example, the "Frightened" condition in the PHB (p. 290):

  • A frightened creature has disadvantage on ability checks and attack rolls while the source of its fear is within line of sight.
  • The creature can’t willingly move closer to the source of its fear.

Certain creatures in the game (like Ancient Dragons) can impose the Frightened condition on creatures that fail saving throws: their ability to do this is written into their stat-block, and this emotional reaction is not subject to player veto. A player cannot simply say "my character isn't Frightened of the Ancient Red Dragon because he's really brave." Being Frightened is a condition that confers specific game effects, is decided by dice rolls, and has starting and ending conditions that are well defined in RAW. As such, a DM can override a player's decision on whether or not their character is emotionally "Frightened". So RAW, DMs have some say in defining or setting the emotional state of player characters.

Similarly, the role of fear, madness, sorrow, or feelings of triumph may sometimes be up to DM discretion in specific situations where the rules define them, or in stories where these emotions will take center stage. The DMG gives rules (p. 266) for a "Fear" or "Horror" check, that applies to games where such emotions are a focus of the story (such as Ravenloft campaigns). And it's worth noting that even something as commonly used as Hit Points can be a measure of a character's mental state.

(PHB, p. 196) Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.


That said, in general, the division of labor is clear. In most cases, where RAW does not directly state otherwise (or the agreed upon nature of the story does not require otherwise), the players control the player characters, and the DM controls the rest of the world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate the answer (especially because you agree with me :P ) but do you perchance have text that supports it? \$\endgroup\$
    – ArtaSoral
    May 14, 2018 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd recommend adding the text surrounding how the game basically works from the PHB to support this answer. Specifically the flow of, "DM describes the encounter/environment, Player describes what they want to do, DM narrates the results." Player's have agency over their characters, but sometimes triggers will result in specific over-rides, like a fear effect from a Dragon which specifically states you are in a certain condition regardless of your personal desire. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @VoromirKadien See LinoFrank's comment, and PHB page 6. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I can see where you are trying to go with this, I would point out that there are rules in the DMG for Horror checks which might do a better job supporting your position. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    May 14, 2018 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I very much appreciate these notes. I was away from the site for a while, and am still looking further into sources for the best RAW support for this position. But these replies have definitely given me good places to start. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 18:04

No such rule appears to exist.

I can't personally track down any rule which covers this particular question - but then again, I would not expect to be able to. The extent to which the DM, and even the other players, can describe how the other characters feel is something that has to be agreed (implicitly or otherwise) by the group.

Personally, I do strongly prefer complete player autonomy as you do; I wouldn't presume to tell my players how their characters feel about a particular situation, except insofar as the game rules sometimes dictate that they are subject to certain emotional conditions, like an enraged barbarian, or a character with the Frightened condition. Likewise I would be a little affronted if my DM started telling me, as a player, how my character feels about something, as opposed to what my character knows and sees.

However, I have the impression it is somewhat more common with players who are used to roleplaying in play-by-post forum environments that, due to the nature of the medium they're used to (you can't expect real-time responses in play-by-post games), they tend to assume a bit more leeway in narrating how other characters might be responding to whatever they are doing.

Regardless of the source this could be a difficult habit to break; maybe it will help you if you consider your friend's narration as a suggestion, rather than a statement of fact, and respond as if so:

"You feel a tear beginning to well up in your eye as you consider this poor orphan's plight..."

"Nah, Urist Grimdark hates children. They're only good for fetching ale and mining in the smaller shafts."

If this dynamic works for you to preserve your character autonomy, then you've solved the problem, and you might find that your friend breaks himself of the habit of dictating how you feel if you routinely gently correct his presumptions.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just thought i should note that I am not actual a player for my friend, schedules just don't work out (although he is a player for me, go figure.) I also personally, on the very rare occasion that I am a player, feel it's improper to disagree with the DM (possibly because I am the DM so often.) Rule 0 is still rule 0 imho. \$\endgroup\$
    – ArtaSoral
    May 14, 2018 at 16:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ArtaSoral The GM is the final arbiter of the rules, but that doesn't mean everything they say is inviolable. It should be common in any game that the DM makes presumptions about what the characters are doing (so as not to waste time declaring actions that seem obvious) and the players correct them if necessary. e.g: the party declare they're going to a building, the DM could declare the party walks up to the door (presuming they will go inside) and then a player corrects: "actually, I'd like to sneak around and peek through a window". If that causes arguments, there are more serious problems. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    May 14, 2018 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to what Carcer said, that kind of interaction usually goes like this: DM - You feel sad at the tragic loss of the elven lives and take a moment to..... Player - interrupting Actually I don't care about elves at all. I'm going to move about unphased by the carnage and instead take notes on the enemy. DM - Very well, the party sees the Warlock unphased by the carnage studying the remains of the attacking force. DM makes mental note about Warlock's lack of empathy towards elves, plots many elf related plights in the near future. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2018 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ soo this is probably just me, I tend to try to really limit myself on both ends of the game, but I actually don't agree philosophically. When I'm a player I treat everything the DM says as fact, if he says I walked up to the door than that's what I did whether i like it or not. And as for when I DM, I (almost) never describe the characters doing anything until they tell me they do it. I'll sometimes ask if they want to do something specific (and obvious ala walking up to the door) but I ask first so they can change their action if they want, BEFORE I describe them doing it. \$\endgroup\$
    – ArtaSoral
    May 14, 2018 at 16:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ArtaSoral if you and your players are happy with the way you play then that's fine; personally, I would find it a very restrictive way to play, and I suspect your style is atypically strict compared to most groups. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    May 14, 2018 at 16:47

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