Friday, 26 March 2021

The Reasonable DM

The English common law relies to a surprisingly large extent on a single magical word: "reasonableness". It appears everywhere. Businesses must make "reasonable adjustments" so that employees with disabilities can work without being at a disadvantage in comparison to other colleagues. To be recoverable, damages in negligence must be "reasonably foreseeable". Contract damages can only be awarded for losses "reasonably in the contemplation" of the parties as a likely result of breach. Exclusion clauses must pass the "reasonableness test". A public authority must not make a decision "so unreasonable that no reasonable authority" would impose it. I could go on. 

The virtue of "reasonableness" is that while it sounds very definitive, what is "reasonable" of course varies according to the eye of the beholder. Once you get into the realm of what is "reasonable", you are basically in the zone of the judge's discretion (although, of course, previous cases will tend to influence his or her decision). But this isn't such a bad thing. HLA Hart, probably the most influential jurisprude of the 20th century, used "reasonableness" as his example of what he called a standard rather than a rule. Real life is too complicated and messy to make hard and fast rules that will apply in every case. That will rapidly result in injustice and contradiction. It's often better for judges to have some flexibility by applying a standard - like reasonableness - instead. Not always, because if everything came down to what was reasonable, judges would simply be deciding each case on its merits, and that would result in an unpredictable and arbitrary legal system. But there is space for a bit of vagueness. 

The important point about "reasonableness", of course, is that it's not a floating signifier - it can't just mean anything. Its meaning is socially constructed, like that of all words, but that doesn't mean it lacks all objectivity. As Stanley Fish would say, there are a potentially infinite number of ways in which anybody could interpret "reasonableness" in any given context, but the great majority of these will be "ruled out" by social and cultural expectation. You could interpret a decision by a public authority to ban the use of all languages except Klingon in public buildings as a reasonable one. But nobody realistically would, because that wouldn't accord with the way society constructs the meaning of "reasonableness" in the main. The way English judges used to refer to this phenomenon was by talking about somebody called "the man on the Clapham omnibus". What a judge determines to be reasonable is what this archetypal figure (basically, a lower-middle class employee on the bus on his way to work) would consider to be reasonable on the basis of the facts presented. So whether or not, for example, a business has made reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee is not a total crapshoot. The judge is deciding that question in reference to what an ordinary, sensible person in possession of the facts would consider to be reasonable. That is socially constructed, but social understanding of words has an objectivity to it all the same.

Making a game of D&D work has a lot to do with the DM making decisions about what would be reasonable. Can my character do [x], where [x] refers to persuading somebody of something, telling a convincing lie, pulling off a neat combat move, reacting suddenly to an unexpected event, ducking behind that pile of crates, tugging a potion out of his backpack while simultaneously backing away from the dragon, or any of the other infinite number of things that a player will want to do in-game which aren't covered explicitly by the rules? Well, would it be reasonable for him or her to be able to do it? That isn't the doorway to arbitrariness. It is an invitation for the DM to make a sensible decision on the basis of the social expectation of what reasonableness entails. Far better this than the alternative, which is to try to make a rule to cover every eventuality - and a 20,000 page long rulebook, and an unplayable game, as a consequence. 

16 comments:

  1. So a highly educated and presumably very smart member of the administrative/ruling class has to closely imagine what an average member of the low middle class thinks is reasonable and if they can explain, persuade and relate it to a bunch of other judges and the public without a revolt then thats acceptable.

    Interesting similarity to a potential method of training/taming/educating AI's (I *think* given in Nick Bostroms book), which from memory goes something like telling the A.I.; "Imagine me, and then think about what *I* think would be best for me, then institute a method or solution which is the best of the resulting options.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sort of. Although traditionally judges in lower courts would have been from the lower middle classes I think, because they would have come from the bar - which until the 70s was a rather lower middle class profession (and still is to a certain extent). Different in the very high echelons of the judiciary of course.

      Delete
    2. Which is another way of saying "reasonableness" is rooted in an actually existing social milieu.

      Delete
  2. Being a “reasonable” DM can break down when a player feels some actual rule in the (less than 20,000 page) rulebooks is UN-reasonable (for...reasons) and tries to argue the DM into permitting something based on the reasonableness of the argument put forward.

    When running a D&D game, I greatly prefer to rely on rules over my ability to be reasonable. It’s just easier on everyone.
    ; )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But rules can't possibly cover most of what happens in the game. Can they?

      Delete
    2. Mmm. "Most of what happens?" Yeah, I think so, if you're talking a well-designed game. It depends a bit on the focus of the GM.

      Back when I ran Vampire the Masquerade (which I did a LOT of for about 5 years in the early 90s) I don't ever remember needing something covered that wasn't in the rules. But we were running the game in the trad set-up of "new vamps learning the ropes and getting drawn into ancient Machiavellian plots." With rules light games I've run (Over the Edge) or played (FATE) I've found the abstraction provided (by necessity) by a "light system" can cover most eventualities of play...so long as all the players are invested in the particular theme/setting.

      These days, though, I'm only playing AD&D and, again, I'd say "yes," the rules cover almost all of what happens in the game. But then, I am running in a very traditional manner: these are adventurers looking for cash and glory, not political machinations or romantic fairy tales.

      I mean, what do you think a PC might try to do that isn't covered in the rules? Build a boat? Do they have "boat-building" as a secondary skill? No? Then they're probably going to have to pay someone to build it for them. Drive a wagon? I'll assume they're competent enough to figure it out, unless the animals being harnessed are some sort of strange magical beasts.

      Okay, wait: I see you listed some examples. Let me see...

      "Telling a convincing lie" is pretty well covered with reaction rules. "Neat combat maneuvers" don't mean much considering abstract combat (though AD&D covers pummeling, grappling, and overbearing), but would subsume it into a normal attack roll (possibly with a non-proficiency penalty, damage being determined by weapon used). "Ducking behind crates" is handled with the cover rules. "Pulling a potion out of a backpack while backing away from a dragon"...well, there are rules for withdrawing/retreating, and rules for consuming potions (time to take effect) which could certainly be interpreted as including the time to find, unstopper and quaff.

      Yeah, Gygax was fairly thorough within the scope of the game he wrote. I really haven't needed much more than the rules to run the game.

      Delete
  3. While in theory the role of GM is one of absolute power, I find that in practice many judgement calls that don't involve hidden information are determined collectively. A player asks a question or makes a suggestion, there's a bit of good faith back and forth with everyone getting their say until a consensus is formed and then the GM formalises the result.
    Crucially, there's often an element of compromise when the group disagrees ('Ok, you can try to hack through the chain, but even if you succeed it'll do some major damage to your sword. How does that sound?').

    Maybe I'm just a pushover. But my online group has been playing every week for going on twelve years now without a major falling-out that I remember, so I'm going to call that a win.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do exactly the same thing. I think that's good DMing.

      Delete
    2. This also happens to be a more or less informal version how it occurs (more formally) in court, with opposing counsel/advocates making arguments about what reasonableness means in a given context. (So, same principle: the judge/DM doesn't simply make the ruling based on their own understanding, but also take into account the input of others.)

      Seems like a combination of "common law standards" and casuistry pretty well encompasses the core tenets of old-school refereeing.

      Delete
  4. "Jurisprude" is a new one for me. Terrific.

    The reasonableness question as applied to game decisions feels a little problematic though? In law "the reasonable person" standard usually connotes sensible decisions, basic prudence, etc. In short, everything that adventurers are not!

    Maybe it's a series of reasonableness inquiries:

    Can a PC reasonably do X without significant chance of failure? DM allows.

    Can a PC reasonably try X and possibly, but not definitely, succeed? Dice decide.

    Is it not reasonably possible that PC would be able to do X at all under the current circumstances? DM disallows.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's sort of what I meant. You get concrete 'rules' about, for instance, whether you character hits the orc. But most stuff is: "Well, would it be reasonable for your PC to be able to do this? In that case he can do it." You systematised it in a more coherent way, but that's basically what I was driving at.

      Delete
  5. The other way to do this is to make the rules so abstract that all of these little details that the rules can't cover without ballooning out of all proportion get sandblasted away.

    It's not necessarily a good way of going about things but it can help in some areas where you just want to get the game moving and don't want to get bogged down in the details.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's definitely the approach needed with domain management and the like.

      Delete
  6. I wonder, somewhat irreverently, if the Roman-influenced Scots law has an equivalent to the Man on the Clapham Omnibus.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Attempt at contact totally unrelated to this post: David, can I talk to you about publishing one of your posts in KNOCK! Magazine? Please drop me a line (knockmag [hat] pm (d°t) me) and I'll explain everything. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Makes sense as a philosophy to me. There's always those little gray areas between the rules as written and the application that needs a little interpretation. It always feels judicial to me as well. And in the great common law tradition once a ruling is made in the game I try my best to follow precedent anytime something similar happens.

    ReplyDelete