Fiat Breaks Down

Daniel Dover wrote a long essay on what a decent RPG provides that can be boiled down to:

  • Clear and consistent premise, with traits and mechanics that do what they say they’re going to do
  • Optionally, provides inspiration to the player and GM
  • Optionally, provides interesting gameplay due to the in-game choices offered to the players

I enjoy reading and writing about RPG theory, even the controversial stuff, because I think (hope) it will improve the way I write and run games.

About 5 years ago there was a war. Like a lot of wars, it mattered to a small number of people and was ignored by the rest of us. I for one was completely oblivious.

I am referring to the Forge “Brain Damage” controversy and the resulting backlash. Threads of the argument and the ripples it caused can be found if you look hard enough–for example, two threads with Burning Wheel author Luke Crane from 2007 on theRPGsite, and a Theory From The Closet Interview with Edwards. Read (and listen) if you feel it’s worth your time.

Everything that marks the Forge/theRPGsite divide comes down to one idea: that it is possible to make a roleplaying game objectively better. Rightly or wrongly this was interpreted as the way you’re playing is wrong, we know how to play better than you.

I don’t believe the Forge-ites meant that. In fact in Edwards’ interview he criticises what he perceives as “monstrous head games” the Vampire GMs would play on their players to keep the group together, turning their game into a weird cult of personality1. If anything he’s anti-elitism, pro-openness. But by then the “story gamers” had painted themselves into a corner. They couldn’t engage with their critics because it only made things worse, and they weren’t going to concede they were wrong (and why should they?).

If we learn anything from that episode, it’s that reasonable people will tolerate a lot of diversity, but they won’t stand for evangelism.

The question is, is it possible to make a game objectively better? Yes, as long as you can measure and agree on better. I can’t write any game that will guarantee a better user experience. And if a designer responded to my criticism with “well, you’re just playing it wrong, it is objectively better” I’d laugh at them. What I can do is take a real-world skill I know something about, compare how different game systems model it, and declare which is the better model.

Even then, just because I say it’s a better model is no guarantee that someone will like it better. Also, I might be wrong.2

Customer Satisfaction and GM Personality

The primary motivator for playing a roleplaying game must be to play a role. To claim otherwise and maintain your game is a RPG is doublethink.

This is why the first of Dover’s bullet points is crucial–the game system must be able to translate the subjective view the individual player has of her PC to the objective (well, shared) world the group play in. Not only does the character need to be defined in whatever outline the system provides, the player then has to be able to test the limits of their PC against the world.

This is why designing games is not easy, because there’s more than one way to screw this up. For one, where there’s ambiguity in the system (a disconnect between players on what represents power) then someone can end up disappointed and not having fun. That’s compounded when the game gives poor guidance to GMs on how to challenge the PCs just enough to make it exciting and let them make transparent tactical decisions.

The Shortfall

When mechanics and written advice fall short, we have responses to correct the game and make it fun.

Vincent Baker’s approach is to make the rules follow the way we play as closely as possible, or “elimination of shortfall = fun”. It’s a laudible goal to make the system say what you mean and mean what you say, and it’s evidenced in games like Apocalypse World where character actions are system, i.e. there is no interpretive step to go through. The problem with that is the player has to go through an interpretive step to make their vision of their PC fit the playbook. Granted with the quality job Vincent has done on the playbooks actually making that transition isn’t hard, but its more of a constraining action; I may see my Brainer as a Tetsuo Shima-type character, but the playbook will not allow me to behave exactly as Tetsuo does.

D&D’s approach is to remove ambiguity in the system; yes, the game fails to simulate on many levels, and just doesn’t make sense, but everyone agrees what we mean by Armour Class. For the activities D&D is supposed to simulate–fighting, mainly–it has a common language of levels and to-hit numbers and saving throws; the player should be under no doubt what they can do under the scope of the system. In this case the system constrains identity rather than action (i.e. you are a 5th level thief), and identity constraint works only when the context of play is also constrained (i.e. we’re in a dungeon, check for traps).

Vampire‘s approach is to allow the utmost creative freedom (well, within reason) for a new PC, helping them to define what they see as the PC’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately it fails badly at translating that to the game world where those strengths and weaknesses can be tested with a predictable outcome–at least, not unless the character is min/maxed horribly. And woe betide a player who expects their sharp shooter to be using Dex+Firearms as their dice pool, when the ST rules that Perception is the operative stat.


p>For both D&D and Vampire the rules shortfall is covered by Rule Zero. While Crane, Edwards, Baker et. al. are quite right to say “if the system is so broken that it needs GM Fiat to enable play, better to design good rules that don’t need GM Fiat” it’s disingenuous to suggest that will fix certain problems without causing others.

Most of us overcome the rules shortfall and apply Rule Zero by force of personality and through knowing our players and being identified as the GM; we can manage any player expectations by picking up on social cues and adapting play to make it more or less challenging. We can even overcome initial objections to play by eclipsing the system to be used with the GM’s personality (“well, D&D isn’t really my thing, but since it’s you…”). Of course it’s much more likely the GM will pick a game she knows will appeal and sell it to players. But they are still selling not just the game but themselves as GM, and using this as a promise that they will make up the shortfall between the system’s shortcomings and the player’s expectation.

Ironically, just as Rule Zero is intrinsically linked to GM personality, the adoption of indie systems that eschew Rule Zero have also been in part due to force of personality. Both Baker and Crane have forums for their games where they imprint their personality, and I don’t think either game would be popular if they weren’t identifiable designers with a fanbase. That’s a good lesson in customer management.

I was going to talk about how Everway can achieve player expectation, but I got sidetracked. Everway is possibly the ultimate game for GM Fiat, with it’s Karma/Drama/Fortune giving the GM plenty of scope to give the PCs what they want. In fact so much scope that it might be difficult to challenge them.


1. I don’t know how Vampire was played in California back then, but he’s describing insecurity an order of magnitude greater than anything we felt here.

  1. In Luke Crane’s interview his scripted combat is discussed; he drops Jake Norwood’s name. Mr Norwood is a medieval martial artist with years of experience, and his own RPG The Riddle of Steel has an endorsement from John Clements (who is to The ARMA what Ron Edwards is to The Forge). With years of WMA experience myself I respectfully disagree with The ARMA’s approach to WMA and Norwood’s model. But also I just don’t like Crane’s scripted combat.

10 thoughts on “Fiat Breaks Down

  1. “Ironically, just as Rule Zero is intrinsically linked to GM personality, the adoption of indie systems that eschew Rule Zero have also been in part due to force of personality.”

    I think this pretty much sums up what bugs me about the Forgey-indie end of the RPG spectrum. It’s always felt like you’re replacing an authoritarian GM with an authoritarian game designer.

    I’m also not totally convinced that “Rule Zero” necessarily has to mean “GM Fiat” per se. It could just as easily mean “group consensus guided by the GM, who acts as a kind of chairperson” (exactly the same way the GM in – say – Dogs in the Vineyard can help the player determine the stakes for their actions).

    Rule Zero is one of those things I’m very torn on. On the one hand “you can just rule zero it” is an annoying, catch-all defence for all kinds of poor design decisions. On the other hand I can’t help but think that *some* form of Rule Zero is necessary for any game that wants to appeal to a broad player base, because it’s often what allows you to turn the game the designer wanted to create into the game you want to play.

    • Terminology is an awkward so-and-so. I was using GM Fiat as a common example of Rule Zero for convenience because it’s pretty easy to talk around–but I agree.

      Being a GM requires arbitration; decision-making is an art of GMing that is learned (whether supported by random dice rolls, or whatever), and like it or not GMing is a decision-making process. It’s a credible design goal to minimise arbitration and funnel the GM’s creativity into, say, deciding on the consequences of the PCs’ actions. But I don’t see a problem with games that force GMs to be good arbitrators (i.e. most of traditional design).

    • Terminology is an awkward so-and-so. I was using GM Fiat as a common example of Rule Zero for convenience because it’s pretty easy to talk around–but I agree.

      That makes sense – I think what I was partly reacting to here was my vague memories of how hostile the indie RPG community used to be to the whole idea of Rule Zero, GM arbitration of any kind, and the notion that the people you play with might be as important as the system you use.

      It’s been a long time since I paid attention to the indie community, but I seem to remember getting the impression that not only was reducing GM arbitration seen as a good way to free the GM up to do other things, but it was also seen as a sort of end in itself. Like the Ron Edwards quote about “cults of personality” you cite above.

      That said, one of the really strong things I think came out of the Forge was the fact that people started really *looking* at things like the role of the GM and thinking about how tasks and powers we routinely assume fall to the GM could be spread among the players to produce a different style of game.

      Sorry, my first comment on your blog appears to have turned into a rambly digression about the Forge.

  2. But they are still selling not just the game but themselves as GM, and using this as a promise that they will make up the shortfall between the system’s shortcomings and the player’s expectation.

    A lot of Forge-style games are GMless, though. There may be one player who leads interpretation of the rules because of greater familiarity, or a quasi-GM role may rotate scene by scene, but it’s still a much more consensual kind of thing than a GMed game.

    Now maybe it might be argued that in playing such games you’re subservient in a way to the designer’s mighty imprinted personality, but in practice a lot of people who play the game will never have heard of the designer of have any interest in their thoughts and doings.

    • By the above I mean that they mechanically exclude expression of character beyond a certain remit, and thus keep all character exposition game-relevant.

      Also, the social contract is different for GMless games. Players don’t (well, shouldn’t) come to a GMless game expecting more than a narrow set of defined actions through which to express character.

      Some would argue that these games aren’t RPGs at all. I’m not getting into that.

  3. I have myself argued that particular examples of play of them have turned out not to be RPGs.

    But others have: and in practice there has sometimes been “more than a narrow set of defined actions through which to express character”. But it’s not clear why the difference… I find it a vexed area, conceptually.

    • That quote was something I chucked out without much thought, and could be better. So let’s say the character can only act in a narrow range, although the player can say anything they like about their character, in almost any game–this is the “in practice” character exposition of GM-less games. Other players form the boundaries–and that’s a measure used in A Taste For Murder, don’t know if it’s used in Fiasco or others. I don’t think this changes my position re: the social contract and the way you enable PCs to be expressed.

      I did get into a (civil) argument with one chap about the definiton of metagaming–which I won’t go into–but the outcome was that for some people making a game decision that affects the character’s actions, but isn’t from the actual POV of the character, is not roleplaying. The context was Aspects in FATE, and I could build a case either way for Aspect use being an IC decision or an OOC metagame–leading to conclusions that FATE is and is not a traditional RPG.

      If you can argue either way then you can argue that at least the game could be an RPG to someone, but there’s probably just enough ambiguity to fight a war over.

    • Mm, I guess there is the evident sense that in eg. A Taste for Murder you can’t have your character wander away from the house and see what the wider world has to offer in the way of sheep-farming in New Zealand. But people don’t often do that sort of thing in GMed games either, and I don’t think it’s [fear of] GM fiat that’s stopping them.

      It’s certainly arguable that ‘sticking to the expected story shape’ is always a metagaming decision, in that it cuts to the heart of the social contract that you mention. I suppose the skill of the GM (or the designer, for GMless games) is in keeping the players’ need to actively think about that decision to a minimum.

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