I've had a bit of a back and forth on Oddbit's blog lately on the subject of secondary skills and just how far they go. The subject matter was subjectivity - the difficulties of perspectives, the player's vs. the DM's, and how the overall matter is generally a pain in the ass in role-playing games. On Oddbit's post this naturally moved towards a discussion of how one adjudicated the matter of player skills ... which is how the secondary skills discussion in the comments section started.
Subjectivity is unavoidable from the moment a world steps beyond the video game simplification of the game, and yes, it is a pain in the ass. However, I feel I must address the point of conflicts as they arise in my game between how the players interpret what they can and can't do, and how I interpret what they can and can't do.
As a DM, I am open to debate on many subjects ... and I have backed down from positions on many occasions when a strong and rational argument was offered. I'm not a huge fan of players who will try to argue everything, but I'm open to questioning my judgement on certain things.
What things? Simple. Things which have not been previously established.
I treat my world like a Judge treating the Law. Every decision I make, no matter how minor, no matter how immaterial it may seem at the time, establishes a precedent. Whenever possible, I try to record these precedents in some form - though admittedly a lot of them are accepted generally among my players and me. If I have declared the precedent in the past, the present argument must address that precedent ... and so must I. The player's best argument will always begin with, "You said this on this day when we were doing this" ... thus reminding me of the rule I made and giving me the information that lets me remember having made the rule.
Having been reminded of it, 19 times out of 20 I will back down and let things continue as they have been. 1 time out of 20 I won't, because I've come to believe the previous judgement wasn't helping the game.
If I did this all the time, switched positions again and again, I'd be a lousy DM. I must admit that my memory isn't what it was, and I am making errors about my past rulings because I'm getting old and that IS bothering my players. A nice thing about having an online campaign is that EVERYTHING gets written down and that should help my consistency in my offline games as well.
Putting myself on the shelf for the time being, however, Oddbit's position is fair ... and without question the vast majority of rule changes that have been implemented - like skills sets, for instance - probably have been because the majority of DM's are incapable of consistency and therefore have to be managed. In other words, we keep changing the game, edition to edition, because DMs are in general pretty crappy judges.
But rules make crappy judges too, because rules are not flexible. Oddbit makes this point on his post with the example of John Doe and Orc McGee (go read it). The reason the LAW depends on Judges is because the Law is a very crappy way to run a society ... unless you accept precedents, which throw out the law given the situation. Just as life is far more complicated than any law could be governing it, rules in a roleplaying game are thoroughly inadequate for play. You can dumb down the world to make the rule system fit, but then your players can't do anything they want. And if the world is complicated, the rule system will fail again and again. If you play 'by the rules' you have either a straightjacket or a complete mess.
The only possible solution is the DM ... and that brings us back to the subjectivity of one person's opinion vs. another's. How many times have you had an argument about what an 10 intelligence lets you 'know?'
To me the answer is simple. It is the DM's world. It is the DM's rule. If the DM thinks you can't do that with an 8 strength, then you CAN'T. Period. And the longer the DM has been running, and establishing precedents for his or her world in his or her own head, the less likely the chance is the DM will ever have a change of mind. And if you don't like it, there's not much you can do about it.
Naturally, a lot of people resent that. Rules lawyers resent that. In an egalitarian society, there are to be restrictions on the DM's power to make ad hoc decisions about the game, blah blah blah ... a positively ridiculous position when you think about it. You're going to try and force a person to run a world the way you think it should be run, from an argument you've read in a book written by a person who isn't even present? Good luck. You might as well argue your friend Jeremy read an article in a magazine that says the Judge has rocks in his head ... hoping the Judge will agree with you.
Subjective it may be, but there is an absolute in the maelstrom - that's the DM's role. To cut through the subjectivity and say, "here, that's the stop." And playing in that DM's world means playing within the boundaries the DM sets for that world.
Naturally, you'll want to play with a DM that's more open minded and less interested in pushing around the players. In the meantime you can call the DM subjective - but that's really just tough shit.
Ah, a metaphor about subjectivity. I remember being invited to 'stir up' an English Class taught by a friend of mine, Paul, who was having trouble getting his students into discussions. I was long out of university by then, and way past having much concern for willful ignorance, and Paul knew it.
The book being taught was Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, which is a tale about a depressed, numb fellow who, apart from his other failings, is engaged to be married to a girl named Betty, described by the author of the book as having a personality like a kitten mewling annoying in a drawer. Throughout the book Betty is an awful, annoying person one wouldn't like to know ... but several of the girls in Paul's class had somehow decided that Betty was in fact a strong willed person doing in her best in a bad situation. Without a doubt, completely ignoring the text in order to apply their own subjective opinion about the character ... which, I am sorry to say, is not the point of reading literature. The idea is to understand the author's perception of a given character and LEARN from it. If you graft your own opinion onto everything you read, you might as well not bother reading at all. My friend Paul knew this, but being a gentle-minded Britisher he did not have in him to slap his students around. Being a vicious, cold hearted Russian, I did it gladly, quoting again and again from the text and winning no friends that day. However, Paul gratefully told me a week later that his class was now alive with real, meaningful debate. His class, of course, never knew their professor and I were friends. They never had any idea why I was there.
Forgive me for digressing. I haven't told that story in awhile. My excuse for doing so is to point out that having an absolute standard imposed by a human person is more important than having a wishy-washy standard. I wasn't being a prick to Paul's class that day by imposing my standard - I was being a prick by imposing Nathanael West's standard. You know, the author. Without whom the book would not exist.
As a DM of my world, without whom it would not exist, I don't generally have to be a prick. I do, however, have to have a rigorous standard that I myself must adhere to, running after running. I cannot allow myself to shift and change capriciously. If this is true today, it must be true ten years from now. I must accept it as law just as my players must. That is enormously difficult. But my world is a pile of incomprehensible shit if that's not what I do.
Perhaps you've run in a world like that?
As usual, none of this makes me look good. My saving grace can only be that the world itself is an enormous pleasure to run in ... which I think it is because my players know what to expect from me. True, I am an asshole. But I'm a predictable asshole, and one that listens and considers first and foremost how my judgment will affect the world's playability. I'm an asshole that isn't thinking of myself first.
I only think of myself first when I write.