GM Fiat, Rules Lawyers and Infinite Earths

By | October 6, 2012

Good morning!

This week we’ve spent a fair bit of time migrating the website into this exciting new format.  We now have a forum (lightly populated, right now, but we hope it will grow), as well as the ability to host our own files.  That will become especially important in the coming months, when we begin the open playtest and start hosting the beta-test rules where you can get them.

Sarah has pointed out to me that I’ve already written about GM Fiat, back on July 21, 2012.  And I’ll continue my thoughts on it and its role in Infinite Earths, after the break:

After one of our playtests, it was suggested to us that instead of trying to develop the social rulesystem we were trying to develop, we scrap it entirely and use something along these lines:  the players each make a suggestion on what they would like the next step in the story to be, or how they would like to see the current conflict resolved.  The players then each roll percentile dice, and the higher each player rolls, the more their suggestion “counts” as the GM decides what happens.

And that’s certainly an interesting mechanic, if it resembled in any way, shape or form the Open Gaming License and games derived from it (which it doesn’t), and if the players in the game didn’t actually want to play.

I remember doing something similar to this in about 1999 – 2000, when I was running a Play-By-Email roleplaying game.  In this, I would gather player suggestions about what they would like to happen next, and then over the weekend I would write “what happens next.”  The result of this was not actually a game, but rather a series of interactions akin to reading through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.  The players felt no ownership of the game or the story, because ultimately I as the GM was deciding everything.

The GM decides what happens.  This and the famous “Rule Zero,” the GM is always right, are two of the reasons I think card games, board games and other “referee-less” games have overtaken roleplaying despite the relative age and entrenchment of roleplaying games.  By needing to place yourself in the hands of a GM, you cease having control of your own fate.  Some people are quite comfortable with that.

Most others, not so much.

Because players enjoy playing games because it gives them a measure of control, and because it provides them with a sense of “badass-ness.”  They want to be AWESOME, and they want to have some say in how awesome they are.  Through character-building, through roleplay, through combat, players can achieve the awesomeness they want.

But GM Fiat, and Rule Zero, threaten that.  By making the GM “always right,” and “the decider,” players lose that desired control.  Systems such as Pathfinder allow them to gain some of it back through character creation–the idea being that if you stack enough numbers up, the GM can’t take success away from you!  Except that, as we have seen, that’s not the case:  it only leads to Difficulty escalation, where the DCs required to achieve something creep ever-higher until by level 12 your average Stealth DC is in the 30s or 40s, “so the players are challenged.”

And Rules Lawyering is a direct reaction to GM Fiat and Rule Zero.  A player who wants that control, and who feels he is being robbed of it by a GM who in his assessment (be that assessment fair or unfair) is playing fast and loose with the rules the player has to follow, is going to suddenly grasp onto that rulebook and hold onto it like a life preserver.  Yes, he may be a pain in the behind about it, but who is going to handle things well when they’re about to lose their goal not because of something wrong they did, but because they have given themselves over to a referee who is not properly minding the store?

Touchdown Seahawks.  And by the way, the barkeep turns into a dragon and eats you.

So we aim to combat these notions with Infinite Earths.  First and foremost, of course, we will not be using the suggestion that the players get to suggest and the GM will craft their story for them.  Die rolls in OGL-based systems need to have singular, discrete effects–that’s the nature of its design.  And the GM doesn’t decide things for the players, the players decide things for themselves–that’s the nature of our design.

Second, we’re removing the Game Master, Dungeon Master, and any other kind of Master from the game.  “Master” implies a ruler, someone who makes decisions and forces others to abide by them.  It also implies superiority, which is antithetical to the notion of a collaborative storytelling engine.

We will, instead, have the Adventure Guide.  The Guide’s responsibility is to provide NPCs, activities and story to the group.  The Guide is not a God, and his word is not Law.  A Guide works for the group he is guiding, they do not work for him, and consequently his chief responsibility is to be entertaining (and thus be entertained).

And, finally, the Guide is not the final word of rules adjudication, but the first.  He generally acts as referee but, being human, is fallible.  So if the Guide makes a ruling in error, and one or more players feel the ruling is in error, they can call for an Adjudication Vote.  Each side has a minute or three to explain why they think their interpretation of the rule is correct.  A general vote is then called around the table.  If the majority of players feel the ruling is in error, the initial ruling of the Guide is vetoed in favor of the winning interpretation.  That interpretation will hold until the conclusion of the session, at which time the rule can be researched or posted to our shiny new forum, where you will be able to get an official ruling straight from the designers of the system!

This is a tool that will of course need to be used with responsibility and maturity, and it will require an understanding on the part of everyone involved that an over-ruling is neither a mutiny of the players against the Guide, nor a betrayal of players against another player.  Differences of interpretation will happen and are a fact of life.  Instead of leaving interpersonal dispute resolution “up in the air,” this takes the burden of responsibility for knowing absolutely everything about the rules off the Guide’s shoulders and divides it across the entire group.  It also allows players and Guides to have “their say,” and by leaving the final decision in the hands of the group as a whole, true collaboration can shine through.

And while our intent is that this be used for rules adjudication and not story, there’s potentially a role for it in story as well.  Let me share an anecdote:

A few weeks ago I was a player in a Castles & Crusades game with one of the finest GMs I’ve played under, Eric Townsend.  Some part of the backstory to the game was explained in such a way that it led nearly every player to believe that A was true, when in fact it was not.  This led to some very heated discussion and, thanks to Rule Zero being in effect, players (and yes, I was one) became very aggressive in trying to convince Eric that A should, in fact, either be true or we should get a do-over because obviously we as a group didn’t understand things in the same way our characters would have, and as a result behaved in a fashion contrary to common sense.  The end result was that A became true, but only after what was effectively a near-mutiny on the part of the table.

I cannot help but think that could have gone more smoothly, and that the “players vs. the GM” mentality that Rule Zero can invoke can be mitigated by proper use of the Adjudication Vote.  But we’re going to need to be very, very careful in definitng the situations in which an Adjudication Vote is allowed–because it should not be an “I win” button for a savvy, legalistic group of players, either.

So ultimately, what we are aiming to develop is not just a set of rules, but a conceptual framework for experiencing interactive fiction.  One which roots the emotions in the story presented, rather than in rules decisions.

So, what do you think?  Is this too ambitious, or just stupid?  Is it what you’ve been looking for, or how you already play?  Let us know in the comments or on the forum!