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.
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.
- 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.