I recently got into a disagreement with my DM for a DND 5E game regarding a use of Prestidigitation.

The argument was that since it could create a Non-Magical Trinket, and Music Boxes are specifically listed in the Trinket section of the book, I should be able to make one, even if it is only temporary.

Her argument was that a music box did not fall under her definition of a trinket.

I've asked about the D&D 5e rules for that situation already, but now I'm asking whether the DM has the authority to change that rule in our game if she wants.

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    This question about Rule 0 discusses the general case of GM authority over the text, but I suspect it's good to have a specific question about GM authority in D&D 5e. – BESW Jul 31 '15 at 23:20
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    Being a potentially contentious issue, users beware that comments will be removed at the first hint of conflict or noisiness. So keep it constructive and friendly in the comments! – SevenSidedDie Aug 1 '15 at 17:37
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    And as usual, answers in comments will be deleted without hesitation. Please put your answers in an answer, though you might first check that it's not just repeating one of the many existing answers. Thanks! – SevenSidedDie Aug 5 '15 at 3:57

11 Answers 11

up vote 80 down vote accepted

The DM is charged with making rulings on a huge variety of things that go on in the course of playing the game. You can make your case for why you think it should be a given way, and then await a ruling.

Once the ruling has been made at the table, the DM is right1.

During play, accept that and then press on as the other players wish to play for fun and are probably not there to watch an argument.

Once play is done for that session, you have reached a potential decision point.

Is this particular decision a deal breaker for you? Do you want to revisit it outside the time constraints of a gaming session, in a non-confrontational manner? If not, if mostly you are having fun, then roll with it.

In this case, you picked that cantrip with the expectation that you could do certain things, and have just found out that you can't. In a non-game time environment (or in a friendly email) present the PoV that your expectations were not met (by accident) and ask for another cantrip. Or, ask that she reconsider the ruling once you've explained your position. Your request must be unemotional and non-confrontational.

DMs do this for fun, not for pay.

Once you've re-stated your case, accept any follow-on ruling with good grace, pro or con. She does a lot of work to run this game for your group.

Peace between you two will benefit the whole table.

If this ruling is a deal breaker ... if this is a decision in a pattern of rulings that you find are consistently dashing your expectations against the rocks ... then you need to have a different (unemotional) dialogue with the DM:

Are you two playing the same game with the same expectations?

If you can't reconcile that, this table may not be a good fit for you.

Even if you don't always see eye-to-eye, there are some things that you can do. You can contribute some good faith effort to future decision points.

Without going through the eye-watering detail of the Same Page Tool, it's worth your while to look at spells that you are interested in adding to your spell book before you get to them. Likewise the spells you already have.

Do some homework, and a little forecasting. Try out some practice scenarios yourself. What would I do in X case? In Y case?

In an email or a conversation outside of a game session, present some of your ideas on how a spell might work beyond its obvious uses. A lot of DMs appreciate ideas raised and resolved before or after the gaming session where a non time-critical decision is achievable. (I sure did when I was running games).

You may be able to get her to "see it your way" a few more times when she's not under time pressure. Or not. However this dialogue plays out will inform your decision on whether this is a good table for you, or not.

Insofar as the interpersonal skills: the more non-confrontational you make your approach to her, the more likely you are to get her to see it your way on some issues, but you won't always get your way.

Why?

At the end of the day, the DM's rulings are the rule. She's got more than your fun to consider, she has the whole table's fun in her hands as DM.

Best wishes for continued fun at this table, or any other.


1 (PHB, p 6)

Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.

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    -1: The DM being the authority at the table does not make the DM right. It's up to the player to decide whether they're willing to play under a DM they don't agree with. – T.J.L. Aug 10 at 19:55
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    @T.J.L. Look at the context of the question. The asker isn't inquiring about the players going on strike, or leaving the table. I think you might want to re read the question again. If all of the players leave, the entire point moot, since there isn't a right or wrong to even ask about. – KorvinStarmast Aug 10 at 19:59
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    Justice Jackson said of the Supreme Court "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final." Essentially, the DM is in a similar situation, though with lower stakes. – TimothyAWiseman Aug 10 at 21:31

Yes, the DM is always right.

The DM by definition has the authority to change or interpret the rules of the game in any way that he or she sees fit. The Player's Handbook even says so on page 6.

Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.

With great power comes great responsibility.

If a DM wants to continue to attract players to their games, then it behooves them to make sure players are aware of their changes and interpretations prior to the beginning of play (or at least before a player chooses such an option for his or her PC). If you no longer want this spell due to your DM's restrictions, talk to her about it. Perhaps something along the lines of:

Look, I picked this spell because I was really intrigued by the possibility of creating these trinkets, which the spell explicitly says that it does. Since you've changed the fundamental way this spell works, I feel it is only fair to let me swap it out for a different spell of the same level.

While I personally would consider your DM's actions here sort of a jerk move, it's important if you share that feeling not to voice it, especially not in such abrasive terms. After all, you don't want to burn bridges. However, if this continues to become a pattern where her rulings directly contradict the text, then you may want to consider finding another group. A DM that makes up the rules as he or she goes is not a fun DM to play with. Everyone should be operating from a level playing field with the same set of rules known ahead of time. In fact, if it were me, I would challenge her to give you a complete list of all of her house-rules, where in this case house-rule is defined as any point on which she and the Player's Handbook disagree. If she can't or won't produce such a list, that's a pretty good indication that more of these "Oops! Sorry! That spell/class feature/feat doesn't work that way in my game!" situations are going to occur.

Ultimately, the DM's role is to make sure everyone has fun. If someone is not having fun because the DM is abusing his or her authority, the natural consequences are that the players not having fun will not return to play in future games. So the question you need to ask yourself as play continues is are you having fun or not? If you are, you can probably overlook minor annoyances like rules changes. If not, you should get out before you become overly invested in your character.

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    +1 for actually quoting the D&D 5e books in the subject as opposed to only stating your opinion. – mxyzplk Aug 1 '15 at 17:16

There's two ways to look at this, and they are very different.

The Traditional Outlook

Traditionally, the DM can change the rules. The DM can make rulings, and that's what stands at the table. The DM can decide some rules don't apply, some of the time, or all of the time, etc.

The benefit to this is when you have games that have few rules, you simply fall back on the DM to make rulings, and you don't need to have a billion exception-case rules to argue over. The other benefit is that if your DM has a good vision of the genre/game you're trying to play, and everyone at the table is also into it, the rules never get in the way of that, as the DM is selectively applying to rules only to reinforce that.

However, the drawback is that if the way the rules will be used is not well communicated, or not everyone is in agreement, you end up with trouble in predicting how play will work for you as a player, and frustrated. This is even worse if the DM is using this power to force you to make certain choices or railroad you.

The Broader Outlook

You play as a group - as a group, you agree to play a certain game together. Part of that is communication and agreement. If you're not clear on how the game works, or what the game is supposed to be like, you have problems, and maybe, you find out you don't really like this game after all, and people wasted time doing this.

Under this view, it's not that the DM can change the rules - it's that the group has to collectively agree to the rules changing or being applied in a certain way.

The benefit here is that the group, assuming everyone is there for the same kind of game, is actually now going to get that, and that there is clarity about it. The drawback is that it takes more time, and communication, and, if you didn't do a good job coordinating before you started playing, you may find out you don't have much in common as a goal after all.

What's this mean for you?

Ultimately you have to be honest with yourself about what you want from play, and then you have to talk to your group about it, and see if that is a space you can meet, or not.

It may turn out the other players ALSO want a collaborative ruling and not the DM making choices here and there. It may turn out you're the only one.

And then you have to decide if you want to continue playing if your desires aren't being met. Both ways are valid ways to play - if that's what you want to do. Both ways could be wrong for you - if that's NOT what you want to do.

Regardless of what you may find on page X of the book, it doesn't matter if the game you get of it isn't the game you want.

I've been on both sides of this question.

As a GM, sometimes you have to make decisions that don't fit the rules, to maintain the "feel" of the game. Likewise, sometimes you have to throw out the rules entirely to maintain peace - for instance if a guest player is a jerk and decides to betray and kill the party intentionally (in an otherwise friendly game).

If you find a need to break the rules, it's best to do so upfront - and explain why you did it. Even better is to give some choice to your players - explain what you want to happen, and make sure everybody agrees that it's reasonable under the current circumstance.

On the other side, as a player, sometimes GMs need to understand that this is a collaborative game. Yes, without the GM, there is no game. But the players have a vote too. If the GM abuses ANY of his powers (many of which have nothing to do with the rules), the players can always vote with their feet.

There are more games out there than players. If you feel like you're being mistreated, there are too many fish in the sea. I know that the friendly thing to do is to finish out the session. Even so, I once stood up and walked out of a game right in the middle under extenuating circumstances. Downside - I never played with that group again. Upside - At that point, I didn't care.

RPGs are social games, and the DM/GM is only as right as his players let him be. If he abuses his "power" or arbitration duties too much, his players will make sure he is no longer the GM.

Being a player in an RPG game is perhaps like being an employee. You might not have the fine grained decision making that you would like, but you certainly have the choice to walk.

A good GM will monitor the temperament of his players and provide challenge appropriate to their mood. Sometimes players just want to kill stuff, and other times they want nuanced story with lots of dialogue.

For individual rulings, it is only fair that a GM solicit some feedback and advice from his players, but a responsible GM will make a ruling quickly, fairly, and consistently.

Yes, No, and But:

  • Yes: The GM is the ultimate authority in a game. That is his or her job-- to determine and interpret the rules, to change the rules when necessary, to make new rules where there are non existing applicable rules, to determine the setting and how everything in it acts. This applies at every level: I have run straight D&D games where I said, "There are only humans and elves in this game world, because that is the aesthetic I'm going for," and the players had to accept that. If I can do that, I can make a lesser change like, "Music boxes aren't trinkets."

  • No: That does not apply to the inner workings of the player characters' minds. The job of the players is to work within the constraints of the game world, as determined by the GM, and determine the (intended) actions of their characters. Hopefully, this interaction between the world/GM and the PC actions/players results in a good story.

    And of course, the GM authority only extends to the game world. The GM can't strap the players into chairs and force them to play. The players maintain an ultimate veto by virtue of being able to walk out of the game, individually or en masse. This leads to a balance of power and authority that works best with understood and acknowledge by all and rarely or never spoken of aloud.

  • But: There are exceptions. There are some games that try to put some of the GM authority over rules or settings into the players hands. And there are some situations where the GM may be tempted to dictate character actions. Specifically in game genres with mind control effects, or games whose character design mechanics allow (or require) players to build character flaws into their characters, which are mechanically enforceable, in exchange for other benefits. (Those last can be both delicate and explosive if the player and GM do not see eye to eye regarding the severity and handling of those mechanics.)

In this case: What constitutes a trinket is a GM call. Yes, over and above the stated, printed rules. This seems like an odd issue for either the GM or the player to take a stand about, but, ultimately, it is a question of the rules, and the rules are up to the GM to determine. The mostly rhetorical (as in, it is a real question, but not one I expect you to answer in this venue) question is: Is this of such paramount importance to you as a player that you would exercise your right to quit the game over.

The DM certainly does have the authority to change the rules. That is not to say the DM has the right to be a jerk, but at the DM's table the game tends to run a lot more smoothly when it is agreed that the DM is the final arbiter of all disputes and rules. As Gary Gygax said about the DM he is "the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game"(Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide page 7).

The DM has the right to change any and all rules, but s/he has the responsibility to keep the players' worldviews appropriately up to date. For example, if she makes the decision that all gnolls are female, that may not be common knowledge for the PCs' races , and she doesn't have to tell you, the players, anything. If she decides that dispel magic only works on nights of the full moon and doesn't tell the spellcasting players that, then she's not playing fair.

Generally, if I overrule anything in the PHB, I think the players should usually be told. The DMG and monster books are more or less to be regarded as consisting entirely of suggestions to the DM to be ignored without warning (but consistently, if possible).

In this case I think the DM should have said something if she anticipated that it would matter that music boxes are not, to her (or me), "trinkets" but perhaps she just didn't expect it - maybe she never even noticed they were on the list until you mentioned it. The way to look at it is that your character just learnt that some "common knowledge" is wrong. That happens in the real world too; shrug and move on.

I believe this depends on what you mean by "right".

There are multiple ways in which the DM can be right, but only one way in which the DM is almost always right.

  1. The DM is the final arbiter of the rules. (DMG page 5, Part 3: Master of the Rules) In this way, the DM is always right as long as there is an acceptable amount of consistency.(DMG page 4, Part1: Master of the Worlds) The DM is the final authority on rules as their role as the referee. (DMG page 4, The Dungeon Master)

  2. The DM may not always make the right choices. Whether your idea of a good game is Acting, Exploring, Instigating, Fighting, Optimizing, Problem Solving, or Storytelling,(DMG page 6, Know Your Players) the most important part of the game is that it is entertaining, and that everyone is having a "good time", and more specifically,the DM is charged with making sure the players wish to "come back for more". (DMG page 4, The Dungeon Master). If the DM acts in such a way that players are not having a good time, or that they are not "coming back for more", then in those cases the DM is not right.

In this case, the spell does not specify that a trinket is one of the items on the trinkets table, and it's reasonable for a DM to assume that since a music box has complicated moving parts, that it doesn't count as a trinket for the purpose of this spell. However, if you are a Problem Solving player, it might make sense for the DM to allow you to make the most of your spells, if that is what is required for you to have a good time.

DMG page 6: Problem Solving
Engage players who like to solve problems by -
* occasionally allowing a smart plan to grant an easy win for the players.

Role-playing is not supposed to be an adversarial game, so the question of right is not about rules. Nor is fighting about rules good for the game.

The GM is the facilitator of a story. The story is told by everyone next to the table, but the GM has a special role. It is the GM's job to make the world work and keep it in balance. It is also the GM's job to keep the suspension of disbelief going.

As such, arguing about what fits where breaks the idea and is bad for the game. Hence, it should be within the GM's power to alter the game (and it is to a degree). Also, to expedite the game and keep the disbelief suspended, it is prudent not to argue about the rules in-game.

Remember, you're playing a character; as such, the character does not know the rules, nor the lists in the rulebooks. So arguing about this is not fruitful; it takes the surprise of the game out. I suggest you go along for this reason.

On the other hand, the GM is not really free to do what he wants: the players have free will in-game and outside of it. It's also not prudent for the GM to do whatever he wants. Believe me, if he did, the game would quite quickly collapse on its own.

Game rule inventories are more than problematic in-game in general. The inventories in the rules are overly complete. Take the weapons section; it's inconceivable that all the weapons would be available at all times. Even a big city would not have access to all of them, due to geographic and cultural differences in manufacturing.

Music boxes certainly fit this area. A music box might be a good trinket in a closer to Renaissance kind of setting than a more medieval (say, Arthurian legend) story. As such, it's also a good idea to consider that a music box might be good to be off limits in your universe.

This is more of a social engineering question than anything a game should really cover.

No, the DM is not always right...

The PHB says...

Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.

...and that's 100% true. However, being the authority does mean the DM is always correct. Don't fall into the trap of "might makes right".

Everybody at the table is charged with making sure the game is a good experience for the rest of the table. Every player has a tolerance or a preference for every aspect of the game - some of them are significant enough to discuss, others just fade into the background noise. Whether or not any particular conflict is worth making an issue of remains a question each person has to answer on an individual basis.

...but you'll have to live with the DM's calls.

How does this relate? Well, sometimes, that means you'll be playing in a game where the DM has made a decision you think is wrong. If you can't sway the DM's position with polite argument, you have two choices:

  1. deal with it internally
  2. leave the table.

Just keep in mind that there is a point where any argument ceases to be polite. If you take it that far, you've put the DM in a position where he has to make a choice:

  1. cave to one player's preference over the DM's own
  2. remove one player from the table

Option 1 merely pushes a point of conflict further into the future. There is nothing a player can do if the DM elects option 2.

protected by SevenSidedDie Mar 6 '17 at 16:30

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