Overall SE Norms
So here's the deal - I think that this impression is caused by a mix of not really having visibility into what actually caused a given instance of moderator intervention (frequently it's flag driven, but there's no way for you to see that) and also a misunderstanding of what the limits of mod exception-handling should be.
Let me offer up a little anecdote. I thought that e.g. the idea of a moderator being able to cast a non-binding close vote was a good one, since it would let us not "unilaterally close" but still participate, and I went and duly championed it on meta.stackoverflow in this question.
The general response from the SO supermod community was very against this. Here's Jeff Atwood's answer:
The purpose of moderators is to moderate.
If they are afraid to do so, they should not be moderators in the
As for educating the community, leaving instructive, explanatory
comments is far more useful than casting a weak regular user vote in
So in summary: leave extensive comments, and learn to wield the big
vote stick responsibly.
I specifically objected to this answer and was told:
@mxy if you want to educate, leave comments explaining your actions. Good moderators should be doing this anyway. Pretending to hide in the cloak of "oh, I'm just a regular user like you good folks" is an abdication of responsibility as a moderator.
See also Shog9's comments on the various answers on that question to the same effect.
I definitely hear how some of you have an expectation that we as mods shouldn't take action on e.g. closes until the community has exhausted itself. The problem is, this is NOT the guidance we get from the larger SO mod community. Their guidance is often very much "you're a diamond mod, do the right thing, screw the whiners." Here's another example thereof. I've taken a variety of community concerns from here to Meta.SE and generally get shot down with the reasoning "people need to have a thicker skin about life," ironically usually over my objections.
So you might see how we are sometimes a little ambivalent about how to proceed. We get that some folks here who want us to "do less," take a step back, etc., but we get feedback from the "higher-ups" that is "abdication of responsibility." It's a hard balance to strike. I think that we end up being a lot more lenient and less harsh that the advice we're given recommends. But we do have a responsibility to the entire site to uphold, and I guarantee no one here knows more about building online communities that Jeff Atwood. SSD has talked about how his perspective changed a lot once he couldn't just spout about his thoughts but was actually responsible for the site - it changes how you handle things, and it needs to. So yes, sometimes we have to do things that make some people unhappy. But that's part of the job.
The RPG.SE Community
Obviously strictness varies amongst the "new SEs". Some of this is because of the kind of community that SE serves.
You have some that are much more strict because people just can't handle the format. Christianity.SE comes to mind - they basically ended up having to say "if it's not a written down doctrine of a specific denomination, don't talk about it". It's as if we said on RPG.SE "look - we're going to do RAW and only RAW because no one can keep it together once there's any opinion involved." Then you have other SEs that are much more lax, and their quality suffers. I'll be honest, I don't use some of the other new hobby SEs because their signal to noise approaches that of a forum.
I further think we can all acknowledge that the RPG/geek community is more argumentative and opinionated than some other communities that SE serves. Less so than those drawn to something like a religious SE, but a lot more than many. This does pose a challenge, especially while RPG.SE was growing (not enough high rep site users means hard to close, delete, etc, when needed), and also users can't delete comments - and running off at the mouth in comments is a beloved part of the RPG community's habits from forums et al. It results in needing slightly more stringent rules and enforcement thereof - hopefully not to the Christianity.SE degree, but I am sure, for example, that we have a stricter comment policy than some SEs mainly because we need it more.
While our current stance isn't perfect and we've made some mistakes over the years, I think that if you review RPG.SE alongside the other SEs, we are one of the absolute best run SEs in the entire portfolio. New people show up, they ask questions, they get them answered, long term community members grow in rep - I think the results here on RPG.SE speak for themselves. In a previous question someone made a comment about the "lower quality" content on RPG.SE and I think that's completely and patently untrue, and even a basic canvas of our front page vs the front page of most other SEs indicates a much greater number of well-reasoned, coherent questions and answers, accepted answers, etc. - all the measures of "is this site doing what it's supposed to do, which is provide the Internet with quality answers to its questions."
And this isn't a result of "draconian" moderation. We've never banned someone from RPG.SE IIRC (well, except for the 0-rep spam accounts that show up). We've handed out a small handful of short suspensions over the entire span of site operation. (Any of you that participate on any RPG forum can appreciate how different that is from what's required to keep order on the average RPG community- heck, even some of you are banned from rpg.net, ENworld, etc.) The vast majority of site operation is handled by the community and the mods chip in to a small degree. Heck, I have a job and a kid - I spend maybe 10 minutes on flags/alerts/etc in the AM before work and then 15m-1h in the evening to vote, write answers/questions/comments, close things, delete comments, etc. all told. We really don't do that much. Reviewing mod stats, looks like the entire mod team closes about one question a day on average total - and that's from all causes, including spam, flag response, etc. A lot of questions, answers, comments, etc. flow through here on any given day, we don't see them all let alone act on many. I don't even go into the review queues any more, when I bother to the stuff in there disappears as I watch as the community handles it - problem solved, believe it or not I'd rather spend less time moderating this site, not more. We mods talk with each other before taking any major action, we let community close votes pile up before acting ourselves on closes that aren't clearly for cause, etc. You have to realize that the restraint is invisible to you, because you only see the actions.
The SE format itself is more restrictive than many on the Internet, and as a custom sub-culture we have many years of guidance on meta etc. Especially new users (though in the game-rec case, we learned that "new" can mean years) don't have all that context and tend to complain when they bump into the walls, and it's easy to say it's "the mods" (since that's the case on most other sites) when really it's the way the entire community works. We can comment and help people through that, but we have to realize that's also inevitable to some degree. Be careful about using "the mods" as shorthand for any way the site works - it's often not the case.
Communication Issues and How You Can Help
We try to communicate. Frankly, I feel like it backfires on us more than half the time. I remember back years ago when aramis was taking me to task for being "the mod deleting comments" - I checked our mod stats, and I wasn't in the lead, Pat was deleting the same amount (today, SSD and I are basically tied in mod intervention stats too). However, I was more scrupulous about doing what people said they wanted us to do - leaving comments about "comments have been deleted and here's why," etc. But since me leaving that communication made my intervention more visible, he just replied "well I only see YOU doing it!." He refused to even believe that I was telling the truth that I wasn't the one doing all the deleting - and the difference was that I was bothering to communicate about it. That made a deep impression on me.
We mods (and high rep users) alter tags and edit tag wikis make synonyms and stuff all the time, without asking anyone (except in some cases an edit queue). But here recently (leading to the current kerfluffle) I said "here, let me post to meta about the RAW tag because I think there's an issue." The outflow of hate and yelling about how "we dare" to do so as a result was pretty daunting. We don't always communicate perfectly, but neither does anyone. This kind of feedback makes us draw back from communicating and incentivizes acting unilaterally "under the covers" instead.
I assume you all want us to be able to communicate openly with you. People are asking for that here in this question. Sure - but please honor that by not making it easier for us to not communicate. You can help that by tempering discussion and trying to stay rational about the issues at hand. Don't expect "perfect" communication, and we won't either. Interpret things generously and assume good intent. If someone's openly insulting that's one thing, if you are put off by their "aggressive use of quotation marks" you probably need to switch filters that you're using to read their words with. When there is a mistake, don't assume it's part of some evil-Illuminati agenda, and work towards improving next time, not "assigning blame" (I'd recommend some of you read this work on blameless postmortems to that end). Again, we'll do the same.
Sidebar - Mod collaboration as an example of different communication needs
As part of this discussion, we have had some folks recommend that a way to regain trust is for the mods to not discuss amongst themselves and come to a common stance on questions/issues before engaging with the community. We talked to the Puzzling mods who tried that on for size. So we've been trying that in this discussion, we haven't been talking much between us during these metas.
As you can see, this has led to multiple people, in this very question, demanding we "get our story straight" and are otherwise upset at me, SSD, and waxy for having and expressing different attitudes and approaches.
The thing is, both are right, in that they want different things out of communication. Some folks, generally high rep users, who want to really be part of the "action" want us to engage without common agreement. Others, and IMO this includes the 90% of site users who don't engage in meta etc., just want a consistent message. Different forms of communication are more useful to different people. Given limited time and channels, we as mods have to make a lot of judgement calls about how we communicate, and it's not always going to be the same way (it can't be), we'll choose based on our anticipation of the level of discussion needed. Please also keep this in mind. If the kind of communication in a given instance isn't "best for you" - maybe it's best for the balance of the site.
Communication to/about Mods
In the perfect world people could be grotesquely nonconstructive at us but quote "mods are supposed to be better!" at us and we'd just merrily take it. This isn't that world. We take way more abuse every week on this SE than any of you would take without (rightfully) generating hysterical pleas to meta and the community leads. Frankly I think that we've been too lenient about enforcing Be Nice! in chat especially when mods are the topic, since we don't want to be "those censoring guys," but this looks like it's had the opposite of the intended effect. So keep in mind that if you would reasonably expect to get your content deleted or get disciplined for saying something about another site user, it applies if you're talking to/about mods as well. You can talk about the issues and "use your words" without needing that. We're human, so at the very least we're going to disengage. Tuggy wrote a whole other meta about the evils of "writing off" people, but if people are hostile and declare their utter resistance to change and/or open communication - well, no one pays us, and we really have better things to do than expend effort on cases where it's unlikely to make a difference. Our job is not to be customer service agents running after everyone who's unsatisfied trying to satisfy them despite themselves, and we're not going to do that. We'd love to have polite and reasoned discussion, but for those not up for that, we're not really interested.
Other Ways To Help
Help moderate the site! You have the power. Vote to close, don't not do it because it might be "mean." Flag comments when they're not appropriate. Vote to delete. Improve tag wikis. Aside from comment deletion, power-closes, and really back end stuff like user warnings/suspensions, you can all do as much with the site as we can. Meta questions, even, don't need us every time - the community can discuss and conclude as much as anyone. In fact, you too can go chip in on meta.SE on network-wide functionality/policy suggestions, that's not just for moderators or anything.
Now of course keep in mind that us acting on a flag still "looks like" us acting unilaterally because that's not shown anywhere on the site. But you'll know you're contributing to it! And you'll know your fellow site members are too. (If you don't, then you tend to assume other people aren't.) And in the end, the right thing getting done is the right thing for the site, whoever initiates the action.
Run for mod! We just elected 2 new ones you know. And the fact that the brand new mods are generally upholding how the mods act should carry some weight with y'all - we've been through 3 mod regimes so far on the site, and moderation has pretty much been consistent through them - because mostly, the right things are getting done (IMO). Again, the other option is "Illuminati?" There's folks in this argument who I personally urged to run for mod last election. No harm that they couldn't/didn't, but again, this isn't some closed clique.
While we're open to discussion about how much intervention is required in certain things, none of the suggestions about "mods shouldn't close questions till X time has passed" or "mods should stay away from certain tags" or anything of that sort is going to happen. In the end we have a responsibility to the site, a responsibility that people up to Jeff Atwood clearly explain to us. We will continue to be the human exception handlers on the site in generally the same categories we do now (flag handling, closes, comment deletes, commenting to try to guide people, much-less-frequent everything else). We have to balance our community's perceived unique needs with the overall SE structure and best practices (it's not either-or).
The primary issue we have at the moment is trust, and that is largely based on a combination of communication problems and really attitude-about-communication problems. Really it's more the latter than the former IMO (on everyone's part - when everything gets heated up I and the other mods also start reacting back by reading people's words badly because we feel under attack all the time). The solution to that can start today by everyone cooling off and discussing issues and assuming good faith on everyone's part. Repeating that over time is really the only solution to the only major problem we have. The more everyone here participates in moderating the site and upholding the site norms - clear questions, quality answers, few comments, be nice, etc - the more this site becomes "your" site and not "their" site.