Tuesday, June 5, 2012

GM Fiat

...sounds like a car.

Anyway. I hear this idea that in some games things are solved by "GM fiat".

It is a very vague term, which is the second worst thing a term can be. Anyway, there is a profound difference between:

"I wanna do this"
"You succeed"
"I wanna do this"
"Ok, we'll base whether you can do it on x y and z, so you'll need to roll this, does that sound fair?"
"It works like that all the time now, write it down if you think we'll forget"
The second one might be called "fiat", it also might be called "game design".

And the idea that the game designer is the game designer and the GM isn't is really at the crux of the issue. I personally can't see any reason to leave game design to the game designer. They don't know my group or what kind of game I'm running and what kind of subgenre-influenced physics we want or what the grit level is or what my players' fail/success tolerances are or how Weird I want the magic to be or...anything.

But what if my GM isn't good enough to design a fair rule?


  1. This lies at the heart of the difference between modern game philosophy and older game philosophy.

    What I mean when I say "player entitlement" is that at some point it feels as though players drafted a bill of rights detailing their grievances with "asshole GMs" and then started building systems to limit shitty GMs.

    The problem with those kinds of systems is that they also limit GOOD GMs, and the solution isn't to regulate GMs with rules but rather to seek out those that aren't shit.

    1. Be careful not to fall into cliche 6a there.

    2. True enough, but it is the regulation itself that rankles. It's a bizarre retelling of the frontier story.

      The American West of pnp is being populated with people that expect rule of law rather than enlightened despotism. But it is only the enlightened despot that can run a game well, because pen and paper games are too complex to be ruled by a lawbook.

    3. A despot you can vote out and replace is no kind of despot.

    4. A voluntary dictator then, a Cincinnatus.

    5. A president, no less: Voted in, voted out.

    6. A president with unbounded powers to make or unmake all decisions as he wills until the tide of the people turns against him.

      Unrestricted by precedent, uncurbed by laws designed to fetter his control and judgement not because he has taken that power but because he is entrusted with it. Not to act arbitrarily as he wills, but because the trust of the group sits with him and abides in him and all his decisions.

    7. A CEO, with the players being the customers, employees and the board. Theoretically a CEO has total decision making power (w/in the law etc.), but everyone else involved can leave at will or fire him.

    8. I can get behind that analogy.

    9. Technically maybe, but a CEO is hard to fire and people don't get how it works and don't really know the other constituents so it's rare. A GM has a tiny constituency and people know how to get rid of one.

    10. I've never understood the worry that seems to really overpower the minds of some players that they'll end up shackled to a "tyrannical DM". I guess when I think back on high school and my low self esteem years I can see that kind of dynamic appearing on occasion.

      But the other day after a particularly grueling event in my game, when I was worried that one of my rulings might have been a bit harsh, a 13-year old player that has been part of my group for a year or so said, "It's no big deal--in order to roleplay it's important to be able to trust that your DM's highest priority is to help everyone have fun. If that's not what he's doing, don't play with him."

      If a 13 year old can figure it out, I'm horrified that there are so many folks on the internet willfully remaining ignorant of that simple wisdom.

    11. A pirate captain, of the mythic "Greek democracy enlightened pirate" flavour, ie Black Bart.

      (the category of president is so polluted now by the vagaries of history, pirates offer a cleaner example ;) )

  2. Ignoring the reasonable argument that fiat by a designated referee is a resolution system and a potentially viable and reasonable resolution system that can be made transparent and logical (and has a long tradition in wargaming, including high level simulations used in military training, as well as in sports), it seems to me that it is a slippery slope of nonsense to argue that any mechanic held to at the table is a fiat any more than the selection of a rule system is a GM fiat. Particularly if there is transparency in what the system is, the results of resolution, an element of randomness, and consent by all participants, clear or tacit. That the GM is the on-the-fly game designer is a long-standing tradition in tabletop referee'd wargames, and this has carried on into RPGs, no matter how detailed the rule set.

  3. It's kinda weird that some people get upset about GM Fiat.

    "but that's not shown in the rules/not rigourously playtested/not something I've seen before".

    You're playing a game that is right at the start and from the core intrinsically based on human interaction and a continual consensus.
    And every game in the world is just all in our heads ultimately, there are no universal physical laws of how it has to be.

    Some people want systems and mechanics that remove any and all risk of bad players or GMs "ruining" the game.
    Which almost leads to saying why not play a boardgame or computer game.

    I guess they want the open ended flexibility and depth that only a RPG running on a human operating system (ouch, sorry can't think of a better phrase right now)can provide, but not the human-OS isks of dealing with , well, humans.

    1. It's a strangely endemic attitude. I've actually seen people claim that they have had good, fulfilling games under shitty GMs.

      I can't believe this (for many reasons) and I don't think this is even a desirable outcome. At that point, you're right: just play a video game.

  4. Sometimes tis better to rule wrongly than not to rule at all, to keep the game going. Stopping to consult voluminous rules tomes in mid-game can destroy the mood, especially in the middle of combat or some other time sensitive activity. But this also highlights the differences between a "good GM" and a "bad GM," the "good GM" will rule fairly and consistently, and the "bad GM" will continue to be a dick, regardless of what the players want.

  5. How dare you make an arbitrary decision! Well, other than all those other arbitrary decisions you have to make all the time as a GM.

    (My too-long-to-post-as-a-comment thoughts on this issue: https://plus.google.com/u/1/111922906987995001876/posts/egHgi3ukrrq -- now with bonus musings from Jenna Moran on her 4e game!)

  6. The only way DM Fiat has any meaning is to define it as narrowly as possible: a choice by the DM that circumvents the Rules as Written. Telling the player that, no, firing your mundane arrows at the tornado elemental is useless qualifies. This is the sort of thing that drives New Schooler's absolutely nuts (at least in forums, which is like hanging out with David Ickle and wondering why people are so obsessed with Lizard Gods eating the royal family).
    Ironically, if the apocryphal elemental has a blurb that says, "Immune to mundane missiles", then the accusation shifts to an entirely different level of ridiculousness.

  7. I guess it's obvious, but I hadn't thought of DM as game designer. I guess I can't conceive of an rpg that won't run into uncharted rule territory eventually. But I do really like trying to make the game better as we play-- that design aspect.

    And now I'm wondering if one part of gamer ADD is DMs feeling they've solved the easiest/most obvious design problems of a particular genre and move to a new one looking for more.

  8. Zak, the examples you're putting forth there are not at all what I think would trigger groans of "arrrgh GM fiat" among the folks with whom I play. I think those groans come from two very specific sources:

    1) A GM takes narrative authority and hoards it without consulting the players or explaining their process. Your example is the opposite: the GM makes a judgment call, explains their thought process, checks with the players to make sure it makes sense to everyone, and establishes a precedent for consistency's sake.

    2) A game provides insufficient guidance to help the players and the GM make productive judgment calls. Lots of games call for personal judgment to deal with edge cases or weirdness; but many of them have explicit mechanics which the players can easily cross-apply to unexpected situations—roll a d20 and compare to a DC, roll a pool of d6 and compare to an obstacle, choose a move from a list of common situations and actions, etc. When I GM—and I'm pretty creative, but not nearly as good at improvising fun and effective solutions as you are—I find it annoying when I come upon an unfamiliar situation, I compare it to better-established and familiar mechanics, and I still don't feel any indication that what I'm doing makes sense in the game as I know it as opposed to being a random guess. So I'm forced to use what feels to me like GM fiat when I do it, and it makes me less confident in my GMing and understanding of the game.

  9. If an action is not specifically covered by some kind of game mechanic, I generally call for a check of the relevant ability score, assuming a check is needed. I decide whether or not a check is needed by contemplating whether or not a reasonably normal dude could perform the action in question under present conditions.

    Hopping over an overturned table, no check. Hopping over an overturned table in combat, dex check please.

    Sometimes an attack roll would be needed, if the action to be attempted is reasonably similar to an attack.

    Also, if your DM is being a dickhole, walk out of his game.

  10. At the end of the day, the practical question is: "Do I want to play with a GM I don't trust to run an entertaining game?" For me, the answer is "No, I don't want to do that."

    On the other hand, I don't really have to make decisions like that very often since most people around me are just fine. Not that my selection criteria are very exclusive - I play games with people I'd be comfortable to have a beer with.

    Maybe other people have worse experiences with their peers, and with GM judgement calls. But I also suspect a lot of gamer horror stories are either reflections on past newbie mistakes and the screwed up things teenagers do, or theoretical thought exercises that emerge on the Internet, and convince people they may not be getting their (theoretically) optimal amount of (theoretical) fun.

  11. The GM is a player at the table, just like the guys with the PCs.

    The system itself is like a player, too (you've made this observation before, Zak).

    A badly designed system is like a disruptive player. You wouldn't want a disruptive player at your table, you don't want to play a badly designed system. Playing a system is a part of roleplaying (not the only part and of varying degrees of importance).

    There is no excuse for bad design. None. A game designer gets paid to make a system that plays smoothly, helps the GM do his thing, helps the players play their characters well and is socially decent (no sexism, no racism, no porn on the cover, etc.). If the game design fails in this task, he should not expect to get paid, assuming he's not designing the system as art or for fun.

    1. While all of that seems true (aside from the lack of porn on the cover) I don't see how any of that is relevant to the discussion at hand.

    2. "I personally can't see any reason to leave game design to the game designer. They don't know my group or what kind of game I'm running and what kind of subgenre-influenced physics we want or what the grit level is or what my players' fail/success tolerances are or how Weird I want the magic to be or...anything."

      This is the part I disagree with, see?
      You seem to be saying, "bad design does matter, because good GMing".
      But bad design usually sabotages good GMing, to some degree. Good design encourages it by having design goals (what kind of genre and playstyle, for instance) and making sure the mechanics support those goals (gothic horror requires rules for madness and romance, for instance).

      That is why we PAY game designers, and why we value good design. Bad design in some areas does not always encourage bad GMing. Good design can't prevent a bad GM determined to be a bad GM. But good design eases the burden on good GMing. Note that few, if any, games are mostly good design or bad design.

      The Porno on the cover thing? Well, I reckon that pandering to sexuality at the wrong time and place reveals a poor attitude towards the hobby is all.

    3. @ajardoor

      That is like saying a suit is poorly made because it doesn't precisely fit a given customer. Every single game potentially needs to be custom-fitted because every group is different.

      As for the porn thing: I have never seen porn on the cover of an RPG so I don't know what you're on about and our frames of reference may be different. This:
      including what I say in the comments to "creses" pretty much says what needs to be said on the subject, I think.

    4. If I was going to say we should wholly trust game designers to design games that are exactly what I need with no tweaking from me then I'd have to say every single game product ever made was a massive failure except the one I wrote.

      And that's no way to live.

  12. I would argue that GM fiat gets in trouble when the GM has a radically different view of how the world works than the players do - when "That's what would happen!" hits "But that would never happen." But that usually becomes a known issue pretty quickly - "Remember, don't try to break a bottle on a table in Bob's game, 'cause he thinks that's impossible."

    Also: rotating GMs is a good cure for tyranny. Kinda like with presidents.

    Also also: I've noticed that I add disclaimers on fiats I am not confidant about. "OK, I'm not setting a precedent until I think about this more, but in the meantime I'll allow it. Roll." Then maybe I come back next session to say, "I now realize that it would totally break the game if you did that every time, so here's how it will work in the future." That works. The main thing is not to hold up play while you think about it.

    1. If you have a radically different idea of how the world works than your players then the players have not communicated properly (bad players!) or the GM has not (bad GM!)

      In either case it is the fault of the humans involved and they should get better at communication.

    2. Oh, I agree. But there are two people in my group who ALWAYS miscommunicate - it's comical to the point of archetype and it shows up especially in moments of fiat. When one of them is GMing, we work around it, and try to laugh it off. It doesn't break the game, is what I'm saying.

  13. There is indeed a profound difference.
    Personally, I do A all the time, in games where it's on me to make that decision.
    I don't generally like doing B much, because it's not that easy, but if I agreed to play a game which was all about doing B I'd do B (I hear OSR play can be like that… Sounds interesting to me, as long as the stakes are not too high). Early playtest sessions of my own games, or games by other people I'm playing with in person, are also a matter of doing B all the time.
    On the other hand, should I go into a game with no expectation of doing B and then suddenly discover I have to do B to make it work, I'd be pissed at the designer! Lazy designer!

    I also agree it's an exceedingly vague term which should be avoided. To be fair, "GM" is also an exceedingly vague term which should be avoided - in conversations with random people on the Internet and not much context to back it, at least.

  14. I agree with Zak.
    Maybe it's because I'm an old video game designer that I value at-the-table, in-the-moment design so much. That's exactly what you can't do with a stupid machine and pre-set instructions sitting between you and the players. Actually being there, actually able to assess the situation and find out what corner of "tactical infinity" is being explored today, actually being able to say "well that breaks my game but it looks fun, so OK and we'll figure out the implications together"... that's gold catnip beautiful freedom right there. That's why I play RPGs and no longer bother with video games.

  15. The trick is not to slip into DM fiat, which can be hard to do sometimes in a fast paced encounter. Should I have ruled that there was an X percent chance that the shrieking eel might go after the PC who decided to swim under the boat as it passed over the Eel Hatching Ground (having seen the eels act aggressively at the boat), or was I right to roll my eyes and roll initiative... That's a different level of fiat to 'Well, there's no rule for this, but let's duct tape somethign together, huh?' for an on-the-fly ruling fiat

  16. The way I've heard it described is "mother may I" syndrome, which has as it's platonic ideal a game with no fixed rules at all: simply describe your actions to the GM, they give you a set of odds which you then roll. Obviously such a system is unsatisfactory for the same reason continually fudging dice rolls is unsatisfactory. But the other end of the spectrum is a videogame you calculate by hand

    The main complaint is at games which make the fighter mostly rely on ad-hoc rulings and the magic-user on written rules, no? So something about the contrast breaks the illusion. They're fine with "how does the mayor react to your plan" being up to the GM to sort out, but if one player gets a list of possible actions and their rules, and the other player gets "tell me what you want to do and I'll tell you how to do it" the arbitrariness gets highlighted. Like how crushing genres together tends to highlight the artificialities of both.

    Talking about bad and good DMs is a no-brainer, if there's a problem it's not the potential for abuse but the change in relationship between the player, DM and rule-set created by reliance on rulings. The more of the "what are the odds" questions that get outsourced to the ruleset, the less reminders you have that this is ultimately all just make believe, the more the game feels like something like something people are playing, with the GM as intermediary, than something they are creating, with GM as deciding vote.

    All obvious enough I guess but I really do think the contrast bit is the key. Lots of people who dislike the fighter/wizard contrast in pre-4e D&D like games like storyteller which are equally reliant on DM judgement calls. The "problem" is the contrast, and I suspect it's more a feeling of awkwardness than a practical issue.

  17. Either you trust your GM or you don't. I have always found wizard spells as subject to interpretation as anything else. But whether or not they are: You either trust your GM or you don't.

    If you don't, there are systems for that and you can play them.

    The phrase "mother may I" seems like a disturbing attempt to distort and belittle what is known in government as Common Law by somehow feminizing people's conception of the idea. Which is creepy. (In addition to de-emphasizing all the checks and balances built into the system, highlighted in the post above)

    Common Law is a thing, countries run on it. Judges make rulings. You trust them or you don't. If you don't, there are things you can do about it.

    1. This may be the right metaphor, so I want to get on board it:

      There are vast gulfs of difference between Common Law and arbitrary despotism. The former is as valid an approach as any other legal system, while the latter is... exactly what it says on the tin.
      Usually, on the Internet, people arguing against "GM fiat" are arguing against arbitrary despotism, while people defending "GM fiat" are defending Common Law. Thus, the only disagreement they have is actually about the meaning of the word. That's the Internet for you!

  18. Yes exactly! Fiat is game design!

    People worry about their GM coming up with a crappy game on the fly.

    It's the sort of thing that makes people go "why the hell did we buy all those books then?"

    But if you didn't buy any, if you just sat down with something you got free off the internet, or maybe the GM bought a load of books for his own amusement, it's a totally different ballgame.

    Some guy has said to you (literally in my case) "ok I'm going to pull a game out of my arse, who wants to play it?"

    And if you know that that guy's arse, hygiene notwithstanding, is a surprisingly good source of game material, then you might actually be up for it!

    The two main traits of arsepulled games I've seen people complain about are:

    "whether something is possible or not is based on what the result is (and whether the GM likes it) rather than how you got there"

    "there's no way to learn how things work, and plan ahead, because everything keeps changing"

    but those can happen in games someone designed ahead of time and sold you, with the potential of the extra problem "we had to rummage in a book every few minutes" too.

  19. I don't understand this:
    ""whether something is possible or not is based on what the result is (and whether the GM likes it) rather than how you got there"

    Whereas this:
    ""there's no way to learn how things work, and plan ahead, because everything keeps changing"
    Seems insane to me:
    once a ruling is made, you don't change it. AND the players can ask what the mechanic would be for a given task in advance of actually doing a thing.

    1. That's a good rule!
      I have seen people just go "say what you do and I'll tell you want happens", with no assumption that players will be able to ask what mechanics are going to be in play when they do, but your way's better.

      And the other side of it is when people just play really fast and loose, making new rulings up on the spot, changing mechanics randomly. Sounds weird, but a friend of mine with an army background thinks it's amazing, because it's realistically disorientating or something. It basically ends up that the whole world is one of those gonzo dungeons.

      About the first thing, it's when things are more "GM as editor" rather than "GM as physics engine". I've seen it in friends who are arty but don't have a big background in science or tabletop games:

      They go "if it's cool and fits your character's style, it's an easy roll, if not, roll a high difficulty or not at all".

      It basically means that sometimes you just can't do something obvious, because it's not trope-y enough for them.

    2. """""if it's cool and fits your character's style, it's an easy roll, if not, roll a high difficulty or not at all".

      It basically means that sometimes you just can't do something obvious, because it's not trope-y enough for them."""

      Presumably even the GM who does this is taking into account class, race, ability scores, and level, though maybe in a vague way.

      However: this either bothers the players and interferes with their ability to feel like they can think in interesting ways about their PC's actions or does not.
      IF it bothers the players--they should talk to the GM or leave.
      IF it doesn't, no foul.

    3. Zactly. It was fun for a bit but got a little samey, he stopped running games and started writing amateur plays, success all round!

      Oh and obviously, as well as my friends doing this intentionally, I often do this by accident, like forgetting what ruling I made last week because I didn't write it down or just editing stuff if it sounds like a headache to work out and I'm tired or whatever. Normal stuff.

  20. Well we're all kind of guessing here I think, but the common law thing is kind of unhelpful because every game has that to some extent. Hence why I think it's the thing where the wizard has a list of things the rules say they can do and the fighter has, for any given sitaution, a bunch of things they can hash out with the GM. The fighters-are-boring crowd aren't worried that the hashing out process won't work in their game. It just feels wrong to them, or inelegant - like either having a set of powers is a good way to play or "common law" is a good way to play and the game should pick one and stick to it. I can sympathise, though I don't feel it myself, it's about as silly as any "real D&D" feeling people drone on about.

    1. 1. I dunno about them but I love that different classes work in different ways--they are for different kinds of players at the same table. I understand hardcore Forgites don't think different kind of players can play at the same table but that's silly.

      2. Magic is a tool, too. Just saying "I unleash my fireball again" is as boring as saying "i roll to hit again". The wizard still has the same onus to be more interesting than what it says on the box as everyone else.

      3. Point 1 being built into the game is incompatible with 4e-style effectiveness balance. It may "feel funny" for that reason. But if you don't play a game with that kind of the-only-resources-available-during-an-encounter-are-the-ones-on-the-monster-or-character-sheet game then you wouldn't care about that.

    2. 3. ...or at least not nearly as much

  21. So this week I tried 4e Encounters for the first time. Incidentally, I recently tried out the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. It was amazing how similar the two experiences were. And the board game even managed to succeed were 4e (which I currently DM)only partially managed: there is no DM. Monster run by what amounts to if-then statements, and you can only do what is on the sheet in front of you. Without a DM, fiat or rulings aren't even possible, which has been much of my experience with 4e. In fact, it felt like a video game, although that comparison tends to give 4e fans conniptions.

    And it was generally pretty fun, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, D&D.

    Just discovered the blog, btw, by way of I Hit it With My Axe, and have already ordered Vornheim. Love the stuff you write.

    1. thanks!

      Note: it is D&D. It's just a different one.