What is GM Fiat?

edited October 2006 in Story Games
Inspired by a pointer to an ENWorld discussion here, and also a recent thread here--what is it that people mean by Fiat? I'm not a big fan of the term myself. I've used it in the (distant) past, but now I think I see implications that wouldn't have occurred to me.

Possibilities (probably not exhaustive):

--Fudging or overruling dicerolls when they produce an unwanted effect
--Overruling rules when they yield a nonsensical effect
--Making on the spot rulings to bridge holes in the rules (like, how long does it take to get across the lake in a rowboat, assuming that matters)
--Making on the spot rulings to bridge holes in preparation (like, is there a doctor in town?)
--Judging whether a particular rule applies to a given situation
--Judging which factors apply to a given situation

And does it matter what the GM's motive or criterion is for doing any of these things? E.g., is it "GM Fiat" to rule that a struggle for possession of a gun will be governed by a straight comparison of two characters' Strength? Or is it only "Fiat" if the GM would choose Dexterity if it led to what was, in the GM's judgment, a more satisfying direction for play?

Does it matter if the GM's ruling has only a partial effect on whatever the player/group cares about? E.g., the GM states that characters who fall off a cliffside during a fight will die, automatically. But players can still influence whether their characters die--by avoiding falling offf the cliff.

Does it matter if the GM's ruling comes before or after the execution of a resolution mechanic? I.e., in the previous example, is it Fiat if the first time a character falls off the cliff, the GM goes "He's dead, dude", when the players hadn't been told explicitly that it was a 1000 foot drop, with no handholds, onto sharp rocks?

Obviously I'd like to hear what people think, but my feeling at the moment is that "GM Fiat" is one of those terms whose flexibility of meaning hinders communication rather than easing it. In my opinion it'd be far better for people to be explicit in their discussion of a variety of game mechanics and gaming styles instead of classing them all under "GM Fiat".


  • For my purposes, GM Fiat is when any game-altering decision is made by the GM without any explicit procedures -- it's using the GM as a black box, and it's bad design in my world. I do distinguish, though, between GM Fiat (unprincipled decisions made by the GM) and GM Discretion (principled decisions made by the GM). If there is some guidance for the GM, and more importantly, guidance for the players as to what they should expect from the GM, then I find the rules much more tenable. If it's just "the GM should have some sort of mystical gut feeling for what to do right here," then the game designer didn't earn his paycheck.
  • I think it's a term that falls right beside railroading; rather useless, unless it's defined more carefully. Joshua makes a good distinction between GM Fiat and GM Discretion, though we might have very different views on what the discretion is. Perhaps GM Fiat, in bad light, could be thought as GM using his power against the rules (written or unwritten ones). Because if the rules that everyone has agreed upon state that the GM controls everything that characters do not control based on what ever procedures, information or instinct he has, it should be cool. Wheter that's intresting, is a matter of preference.
  • My rough-and-ready understanding of the phrase is : resolution of important changes to the fiction by arbitrarily changeable procedures or procedures that are not known and understood by all participants. There are an immense number of edge cases, and much like 'Force' there is a huge 'it depends' component which is focused on whether the decision that is being made non-transparently and/or arbitrarily is seen as important. Many things that are 'GM Fiat' in one instance are just 'Scene Framing' in another one.
  • Yeah, the problem with "Fiat" is the GM deciding that he has some "golden rule" authority to void the rules of the game. Even in a game where that authority is given by the rules it's bad.

    If the rules don't work, play by other rules. But that's not the same as temporarily sidestepping the rules in the middle of the game to get an effect you want. If that's allowed, then the game is entirely GM Fiat, no matter how much you roll the dice.

  • Merten, just to be clear, I'm not saying that GM Fiat results in bad play. In fact, given a talented GM, GM Fiat can produce some fabulous play. My contention is that it's bad design -- it's relying on the GM's own talents rather than providing the GM with useful tools. To my mind, if you're not providing the players with tools, then why are you designing a game? So GM Fiat as breaking the rules misses the point of how I construct it -- GM Fiat is an absence of rules or absence of guidance.
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyMerten, just to be clear, I'm not saying that GM Fiat results in bad play. In fact, given a talented GM, GM Fiat can produce some fabulous play. My contention is that it's baddesign-- it's relying on the GM's own talents rather than providing the GM with useful tools. To my mind, if you're not providing the players with tools, then why are you designing a game? So GM Fiat as breaking the rules misses the point of how I construct it -- GM Fiat is anabsence of rulesor absence of guidance.
    I don't see anything inheritly bad on roleplaying relying on GM's own talents, rather than tools or procedures that guide GM'ing - like you said, it can produce fabulous play (or it can provide absolutely horrid play, or probably something in between). I don't see the relevance of designing a game here; a (well or not well) designed game is in no way fundamental for roleplaying; there's plenty of freeform out there. "Game", in this context, representing a written text describing the procedures and structure of play.

    Guidance is important, yes; this guidance can come from social contract, written or unwritten, from the skill of players, or somewhere else. As long as there is mutual understanding of how things work out in the diegesis (*, and this understanding is not broken with or without other participants noticing it, I don't GM Fiat happens in the ugly sense of the word.

    This wanders a bit from the topic of the thread, so we might want to start another one, if needed.

    *) Imagined space, SIS, etc. I just happen to like "Diegesis".
  • I think we're in screaming agreement, Merten. ;)
  • I hate me too's, but: Me too.
  • So, there seem to be three types of GM Fiat, here.

    -When the rules dictate that something must happen, but the GM decides something else happens instead.
    -When the rules dictate that the GM must make up something, and the GM does so.
    -When the rules are silent about something, and the GM makes up something to fill the void.

    The first has the best chance of leading to dysfunctional play, but it is by no means a given that it will. The second is the most common, and would include (in my mind) things like the GM making up NPCs or, you know, the adventure. The third puts the most strain on the GM, and is what Joshua is calling 'bad game design'. However, I'd say that while a low-crunch game might be able to anticipate all situations by having simple mechanics and catch-all rules, in a high-crunch game this is nearly impossible. One of the hallmarks of a good GM for a high-crunch system is that they can decide quickly what rules to use when, and can make up rules that appeal to the group when they need to.
  • I don't know if "high-crunch" games really require that sort of GM Fiat, Lucian. In my experience, most high-crunch games are high-crunch in specific, highlighted areas (usually combat, sometimes vehicle design, sometimes setting-construction) and are relatively low-crunch for everything else, but still have some mechanical support for things that fall outside of the focused material. Of course, my reference points for this are GURPS (rule for everything) and World of Darkness (high-crunch supernatural, low-crunch day-to-day).

    Can you give me a specific example / AP to help me understand what you're getting at, Lucian?
  • And then there's ADRP... which makes GM Fiat a pillar of the system.
  • Fred, ADRP makes Drama Resolution the pillar of the system, not Fiat. In practice, it often ends up being fiat, because there's so little guidance for making the decisions principled and transparent. But happy ADRP players have got enough of a shared culture of play that decisionmaking is, in effect, sufficiently transparent not to be "fiat". (As I understand fiat).
  • (Is there any benefit to be had in a definition like 'GM Discretion used within the GM's role as referee, to unfairly benefit the GM's role as opposition'?)
  • Mike, that would narrow the definition, certainly. I don't know if it would narrow it constructively. In common parlance, "GM Fiat" usually just means "the GM pulls it out of his ass." Whether he does that to the benefit of the orc horde or not is not a strong part of how people use it, in my experience.
  • edited October 2006
    Lucian, thank you for that breakdown. But it overlooks another dimension which I pointed to (and I think Joshua sees it, too). Let's look at the second case--"the rules dictate that the GM must make up something, and the GM does so."

    As a side point, this is often implied rather than explicit, or it's a consequence of the basic paradigm of "who controls what". In other words, when a player says "My character peers across the valley, what does he see?" or "I yell at the perp to drop his weapon and put his hands in the air", RPGs typically don't formalize the shift over to the GM. It's implied that the players now look to the GM to say what happens, and often what the GM says will be made up on the fly. Then there's the case of players who get off their leash, narrating one action after another until somebody--usually the GM--steps in and says, "Hang on, before you can do all that..." The converse is also notable: the GM who says all kinds of stuff happen before the players can react. I suppose you could say that whole business falls under "the rules are silent and void is filled by the authority vested in the GM to use discretion".

    But moving on, even when it's clear that it's the GM's "turn" to come up with something, I don't think there's broad agreement that this is always "Fiat". When the GM is filling the need for an unanticipated detail, but does so in a way that flows naturally from the situation and player input, is that "Fiat"? Like if I walk up to a guy standing at the bar wearing a black hat and throw a glass of whisky in his face, is it "Fiat" for the GM to say the guy takes a swing at me? If he draws his gun and starts shooting? Licks his lips, laughs heartily, and claps me over the shoulder? Hard to say, although the perception of "Fiat" may be related to whether the player has a specific "narrative intent" that he wants to achieve through his action. The player who's trying to create a fight scene is more likely to see "Fiat" (especially in the negative sense) if the GM comes back with option 3, than the player who's only interested in "playing his character".
  • edited October 2006
    JBR: Well, it makes the distinction between "the GM pulls it out of his ass" versus "the GM pulls it out of his ass and it's unfair." I guess GM Discretion might adequately cover the former. (Yeah, I know you can't wave a magic wand and change common usage.)
  • I don't know if player intent really feeds into what is and is not GM Fiat, Eliot. Certainly player intent and especially stymied player intent will feed into players complaining about fiat, but that's not the same thing.

    And Mike, "the GM pulls it out of his ass and it's unfair" sounds a lot like railroading. ;)
  • Railroading is a superset of GM fiat, I would think. Or one possible use to which to put it.
  • Related, surely.

    Is it possible to railroad without Fiating?
  • Thanks, Mark. You see what I'm getting at. Fred, "Amber relies on GM Fiat" begs the question of "what is GM Fiat?" and whether the term is even useful in the first place.

    Misuba (Mike?) I don't see a huge benefit to trying to narrow the definition down. Certainly it's too early at this point, and frankly I'm against jargonizing commonly-used terms. If there are a variety of meanings in common use, and those meanings cause problems in serious discussion, the solution in my opinion is to use different words--either more precise, concrete words (and probably more of them) or carefully defined new terms.
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyFor my purposes, GM Fiat is when any game-altering decision is made by the GM without any explicit procedures -- it's using the GM as a black box, and it's bad design in my world. I do distinguish, though, between GM Fiat (unprincipled decisions made by the GM) and GM Discretion (principled decisions made by the GM). If there is some guidance for the GM, and more importantly, guidance for the players as to what they should expect from the GM, then I find the rules much more tenable. If it's just "the GM should have some sort of mystical gut feeling for what to do right here," then the game designer didn't earn his paycheck.
    How do you feel about frei kriegspiel?
  • Sorry, I don't get the reference and Google is failing me. What's Frei Kriegspiel?
  • Clarified:

    GM Fiat, away from resolution, is just authority. Every game's got some distribution of authority, and when you use it, you're saying what happens. You can argue over whether a given game's distribution of authority is a happy and functional one, but as long as authority is being used in such a way that there is no meaningful disagreement over what happens, you're just playing an RPG. Fiat as a resolution tool is where badness potentially happens.

    When you need resolution is when the outcome of some event in the fiction is (a) uncertain to at least one player who has a stake in that outcome and (b) more than one outcome is reasonable within the known/agreed context of principled decisions possible in this game. One way to get resolution is Drama - someone decides based on some agreed standard "what should happen." Functional Drama resolution uses principled decisions - decisions driven by some known model of "what should happen", such that if all participants in the resolution had "all the facts" there would be general agreement about the outcome. Bad Drama resolution uses inconsistent decisions, such that the actual decision model being used is not the one which would be agreed to by all participants if they "had all the facts."

    It's this case when you have the bad kind of fiat: when the rules that are actually being used to make decisions about outcomes are not the same as the rules people think are being used, and the actual rules would not be agreed to if known.
  • Kriegspiel was the old German training excersises that were _a_precursor to miniature wargames played by the public. In Kriegspiel, players and referees regularly referred to some "highly scientific" formulas covering just about anything that thre cadets came up with: Average enemy casualties at range X, under conditions Y, and so on.

    Then, somebody decided to try a variant: Frei (Free War-Play) Kriegspiel, which relied vastly less upon said books of formula, and vastly more on the experiences of the refs on the actual battlefield. All decisions ( since there were no die throws or what-not) were made essentially by the cadets doing their best, based on what they'd learned in the classroom ( including the aforementioned "formulas") and the refs deciding and out-come based on that plus their own experience.

    Essentially, that _was_ the system.

    The thing is, at the time, it was considered a radical change, and (later) a vast improvement over the earlier form of Kreigspiel.
  • edited October 2006
    Frei Kriegspiel or Free Kriegspiel is a kind of wargaming that was used by the 19th century German army and others. What distinguished it from Rigid Kriegspiel was that the latter would use a set of prescribed rules and formulae for determining the outcome of engagements which arose from maneuvers. Free Kriegspiel instead depended on a judge, preferably an officer with battlefield experience, to determine the result based on an impartial evaluation. Rules vs. free could also extend to areas like movement over terrain, transmission of orders, etc.

    Edited to add (to disagree slightly with bob), there were actually some fierce arguments over whether free Kriegspiel was better or not, and I don't think they've settled down to this day. The modern US military and foreign policy establishments use both.
  • Mark W shoots and scores.
  • edited October 2006
    Posted By: Elliot WilenEdited to add (to disagree slightly with bob), there were actually some fierce arguments over whether free Kriegspiel was better or not, and I don't think they've settled down to this day. The modern US military and foreign policy establishments use both.
    True enough.

    Here's page that talks about it:
    http://www.wargamedevelopments.org/Wargame Developments Handbook.pdf
    Check page 5 of the pdf.
  • Problem with Mark's post: I disagree that it's bad for "one person decides" to be based on a principle "everyone would agree with the decision if they had all the facts".

    First of all, I have to cut Mark some slack by assuming that part of the "the facts" is the motivation behind the decision. If everyone agrees that the motivation is simply to say what should "naturally" happen, that may produce a different outcome from what would happen if everyone agreed that the motivation should be to have the most entertaining thing possible happen.

    More important, at a given "atomic" moment of resolution, I don't see a broad agreement that functional "Drama" requires everyone to be happy with the decision. On some social level, they have to respect the decision, but beyond that, all bets are off. At least that's how I read a lot of what TonyLB writes here and elsewhere.
  • GM Fiat is a merger between two automobile companies.

    Sorry, as you were.
  • edited October 2006
    Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyI don't know if player intent really feeds into what is and is not GM Fiat, Eliot. Certainly player intent and especially stymied player intent will feed into playerscomplaining aboutfiat, but that's not the same thing.
    Let me see if I can come up with an example. Okay, you're fighting a bunch of dudes riding on, oh, woolly rhinoceroses in the dead of winter. So you come up with a plan to lure them across a frozen river so that the rhinos will break through the ice. Maybe you roll dice at some point to see if you can avoid the riders' arrows long enough, or you use some kind of pursuit/positioning subsystem to see if you reach the river before they catch you. You make it across.

    But then when the rhinos hit the river, nothing happens. GM: "The ice is extremely thick here." You: "No way can a frozen river support a rhino." Fiat?

    But suppose the GM says, "The rhinos seem unwilling to cross the flat surface of the river, but their riders goad them on. As you watch them from the far side, they get halfway across. Suddenly a terrible cracking sound is followed by the roar of collapsing ice and the screams of the beasts as they plunge into the freezing waters." Fiat?

    Edit: not sure that's the greatest example for my purposes (although it's a scenario I'd like to play, cos, you know, woolly war rhinoceroses). What I'm trying to say is, is it GM Fiat if the GM is just ruling something that would proceed naturally from the situation, even though it's not covered explicitly by the rules?

    I think Mark would say it's "Functional Fiat".
  • You got me right, Elliot. Fiat isn't automatically bad, so your example looks to me like the functional kind - the GM makes a decision that is de novo (not based on some established precedent or agreed standard), but is accepted as consistent with expectations and the extent of the GM's authority. That decision now becomes part of the established body of game experience against which future decisions will be judged for consistency.

    Right in the middle there, though, you've got the seeds of bad fiat. There's a challenge posed as to whether this decision is, in fact, going by the expected rules: "No way can a frozen river support a rhino!" At that point, the GM's got two (legit, functional) choices - they can either justify the decision (and sometimes, that justification will be indefinitely deferred, but eventually enough unjustified decisions hanging out there and the game breaks), or they can reconsider. They've also got a crap choice. They can rationalize (including by introducing "new factors" to alter the situation), make excuses, lie, or just plain shut down the objection because it's not what they want to have happen. Why is this a crap choice? Because it makes it impossible for the players to understand the real rules in play, and thus degrades their ability to make their input meaningful and effective.

    In this example, though, the GM is justifying the hell out of their decision, in my own personal book. Massive rhino drowning is very much cooler than thwarted rhinos OR featherweight rhinos. If your game, however, is not run on the Principle of Maximum Awesome but rather on the What Would Really Happen Rule, the GM just boned you.
  • Mark's making sense to me.

    I've been saying lately that GM Fiat is a thing. It's not a scourge upon all things role-playing. It's a thing. There are, also, other things.

    I just don't happen to LIKE that thing, personally. But, you know, it works when it does. (shrug)
  • Posted By: Joshua BishopRobyIs it possible to railroad without Fiating?
    Sure, though depending on how we want to define railroading. You create a scenario which, in a way that makes sense, enforces the characters to do something or not to do something. You create a situtation/scenario with constraints that characters cannot overcome. Then, as the GM, you stick within these constraints.

    For example: You create a scenario where characters are in a large passanger ship, which is middle of a sea, in cold winter climate. You have decided that the ship will sink at 12.00 pm and you have sketched a plausible reason for this, a reason that's not apparent to the players and one that they probably won't be noticing until the ship sinks.

    You have now a situation in which characters have to live inside the constraints the GM created and in which GM can base his decisions on his discretion (he knows what will happen to the ship and why, he roughly knows how passanger ships are operated and what's usually happening in a routine passanger ship cruise).

    As for the GM Fiat itself, I think Mark, Matt and Elliot are certainly on the right path. Wheter working GM Fiat/Discretion is a good thing, is a matter of preference. I like it, both as a player and GM and see it as a vital component for freeform/immersive playing (until someone comes up with a mechanic that doesen't actively hinder it).
  • GM Fiat is when you do what I say. End of story!!!
  • edited November 2006
    In Paranoia XP, GM Fiat is listed in the "armour" section, as the most powerful sort of armour you can get.

    It's available only for NPCs who are integral to the plot. Perhaps they have a force field. Perhaps they're just miraculously lucky. But they're impossible to kill.

    In my opinion, that's how you use Fiat: with the players' full knowledge of what you're doing. It's participationism, in other words:

    Player: I shoot him.
    GM: Well, what do you know? Your laser's not working. That's unfortunate.
    Player: OK, I hit the guy.
    GM: Right. Even with the CCTV cameras watching you? With their automatic violence-defusing stun lasers?
    Player: Yes.
    GM: [Rolls dice secretly] Oooh, you missed. Unlucky today.
    Player: I'll do something else, shall I?
    GM: Probably best.

    It's still fun, because the players know what the deal is. It works in D&D too:

    Player: I'm going to kill the oracle.
    GM: Right. Well, you know, sensing your movement, the bodyguards interpose themselves between you and him.
    Player: I can't kill the oracle, can I?
    GM: No, I'm going to use him in a moment.
    Player: Fair enough.

    It might not be the sort of game you like, but it's not a bad tactic. Everyone knows what's going on.

    I realise I'm saying nothing new here, but the whole negative tone around GM Fiat and Railroading bothers me. There's no sense of "the GM boned you". Provided everyone knows what's going on, it's perfectly functional play..

  • edited November 2006
    Far as I'm concerned, GM fiat is just a slightly loaded term for GM's discretion, or any point where the GM has to make a decision that isn't interpretation of the system. It's where the GM has The Say in play. Or to reduce it even further, it's the GM's point of contribution to the game.

    I don't agree that it's bad desgn though. It seems that it can be used for good or for evil - all games with GMs require it at some point after all otherwise they wouldn't require a GM. And there's a big difference between letting the Gm contribute to the game at all, and making the GM carry the game with their decisions. But it seems that they're the same thing to me and the difference is just a matter of degree.

    Defining fiat as discretion sans guidance doesn't seem terribly useful to me. It's like "Y is the bad kind of X, and Z is the good kind", where it's X that's the important definition and Y and Z are all too context-relative to be terribly important.

    Still - I reckon it's very important to recignise Gm fiat, and especially where it butts up against the authority of the system. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the "used for evil" aspect comes from badly defining its role, or mechanics that awkwardly overlap it .
  • Literally, GM Fiat would be when something happens "because the GM says so". I think the functional definitions people have going here are pretty good, although ultimately you're always going to get into a situation where one person's "Fiat" is another person's "logical extrapolation of events."

    I'd also agree with those who are saying that Fiat is not *necessarily* bad - there will always be situations where nobody's sure what should happen, and in some systems it falls to the GM to decide.
  • edited November 2006
    I think the term refers to any decision the GM makes that is completely arbitrary and does not fit into a logical framework or a dramatic sense. Like railroading, I think it refers to a kind of dysfunction.

    Here is why: If it refers to simple decisions within a logical framework then Town Creation in DitV is GM fiat. Yes, there are strong constraints--but determining what the sin is and who the principals are is an arbitrary GM decision. If it refers to things that fall into a logical framework (albeit outside the rules) then Sorcerer is a game laden with GM Fiat when the GM determines what's behind the player's Kickers.

    Even MLWM will have GM Fiat when the Master determines a mission or the NPCs say lines ("What does the NPC say?" It's determined by GM Fiat!).

    The term isn't used that way. It's often code for railroading. We see here it's "that thing you like but I don't."

    So I think it's when the GM is making completely arbitrary decisions that serve an undisclosed GM agenda (simply "raising the stakes" in a way that makes sense to the players but does not disempower them significantly is not, IMO, GM Fiat).

    (The GM's)

  • edited November 2006
    GM Fiat is, I believe its proponents will argue, necessary to RPGs, as sort of a "court of last authority." If something needs to happen to make the game move forward in an enjoyable fashion, it falls to the GM to judge and execute that task. This avoids both bickering and drifts into pointless, unenjoyable play. (Somebody correct me if I'm totally setting up a strawman here.)

    The reason I think GM Fiat is looked upon negatively in this here neck of the woods has nothing to do with system, it's the social problem. Once everyone has bought into the notion that the GM's word is final and that's that, there's these huge horrible potential for the thing to start getting mixed up in the GM's ego. If players lose sight of the boundary between system and social contract, which is often the case, then they've bought into a situation where it's not okay to complain if they're unhappy or not having fun, because the GM is the lord of the game, right? Enter a whole lot of "If you don't like it, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!" talk instead of constructive dialog. If the players stand up for themselves, the GM takes it as a personal slight, because "the rules" say he's in the right. There's like this mental cudgel that enforces this screwed-up social situation, and games that become some sick duty instead of mutual fun.

    If you doubt it, take a look at some of those ENWorld posts. Whole lotta defensiveness goin' on.

    From a design point of view, the issue becomes Why would I want to include this element in my game that facilitates such dysfunction, when it is possible to design around it? GM-tasks can be broken up in more egalitarian fashion. The rules can provide less subjective means of rules disputes by actually presenting coherent rules. In many ways, GM Fiat is the antithesis of good game Design, with GM Fiat being a necessary evil ("my GM Herbie") that has had to exist to make "broken" designs function.

    And how come nobody ever coined the term "player fiat"?
  • edited November 2006
    Posted By: Marco
    I think the term refers to any decision the GM makes that is completely arbitrary and does not fit into a logical framework or a dramatic sense. Like railroading, I think it refers to a kind of dysfunction.

    So I think it's when the GM is making completely arbitrary decisions that serve an undisclosed GM agenda (simply "raising the stakes" in a way that makes sense to the players but does not disempower them significantly is not, IMO, GM Fiat).
    The above is the sense I get from most discussions about GM Fiat. It is always dysfunctional. That's why I can't decipher most of that sort of comment. It's too vague.

    My own assumptions about Fiat are more what Mark W is talking about. Every game has distribution of authority (especially for gloss). GM Fiat can't be dysfunctional if it is transparent within the system and the group.

    Most games would rather include Fiat than have rules for "thickness of ice hit points" and "weight of charging wooly rhinos translated to d20 damage".
  • edited November 2006
    Posted By: LarryAnd how come nobody ever coined the term "player fiat"?
    Funny that, I though about the same thing yesterday. If player is entitled to make decisions solely based on his own judgement (not a stat or some other element and not based on some procedure), I'd argue that it's a Player Fiat. With pretty much same notes that GM Fiat has. They can co-exist (and pretty often do, especially in freeform), though there's a potential hassle if they clash and no one has defined which one prevails.
  • I'm with Larry. Methinks GM fiat is the gateway to illusionism.
    With fiat, you get good play with a good GM, bad play with a bad GM - which leads us back to...
    System dosen't matter, all that matters is the will of the GM.

    It's a bit like "say yes or roll the dice" except the GM can always say yes to himself!

    The only way to eliminate GM fiat is by mechanics. Either do away with the GM role completely or curtail the GM's fiat by limiting his resources the same way player resources are limited.

    IMHO GM fiatless play is more fun as the quality of the game dosen't hinge entirely on one participant.
  • Posted By: LarryAnd how come nobody ever coined the term "player fiat"?
    Because the games in which the players are given the kind of authority that would lead to such a term being coined either a) don't exist, or 2) are games in which everyone has "fiat", i.e., GM-less games. IMO.

    Since I was flailing around in the ENWorld thread, lemme jump in with a question or two.

    How do games like HERO or GURPS fit into this discussion? Both of these games are incredibly deep and rules-robust, yet both explicitly give blanket power to the GM to ignore any of their comprehensive rulesets at will, with no more than "tough shit" as a justification to players. "Do what's good for the story."

    In contrast, you've got more recent systems like BW/BE that don't give anywhere near this kind of explicit authority to the GM.

    In the middle (at least, as-written, IMO), you've got D&D, which goes to great lengths to let DMs know that, despite having vast authority, they need to act fairly and responsibly, and should generally stick to the rules when at all possible. Seriously, the 3.5 DMG and DMG2 say this explicitly.

    Where does this continuum of GM-power fit into this discussion? Are HERO and GURPS essentially a cop-out, hedging bets against their massive crunch providing "fun" by telling the GM he can push the game wherever it needs to go? Is BW/BE an inherently better design because it's on the other end, distributing authority, supposedly eliminating the needs for much, if any, GM intervention? Are "lite" systems that amount to little more than "die mechanic + GM fills in everything else" a bunch of crap?

    I find I'm re-examining my whole outlook on this stuff as a result of that ENWorld thread.
  • edited November 2006
    I think there's an unclosed <i> tag somewhere around Arref's post.
  • Marco points out the important thing, which is that, once again, we have this undefined term. So we have two choices, either we can define it for purposes of discussion, or we can look at all the myriad things that people use the term for.

    Bowing to local pressure here not to make up Jargon, let's look at the uses. I think those have been covered generally by saying it's GM authority to create used when the rules do not constrain him. That takes several sub-forms, listed above. The use is, I agree with Marco, often meant to be negative, because otherwise people don't pay attention to it - GM authority is just an accepted part of RPGs (along with player authority where it exists). So, sure, you can say that any GM use of Authority is Fiat, but that only equates the two.

    Which is not to say that people don't use the term in a way that means something non-problematic. Simply that it's a common use that makes it a subset of authority when it's used in this negative fashion.

    It seems to me that the important thing to do, as I tried above, is to ignore these definitions, and to look at the underlying phenomena. And that basic split has been caught above - either the GM is using his authority in a way that's acceptable, or he isn't (the proposed Discretion/Fiat split).

    If he's using it acceptably, then this is just "what GMs do" or authority, to use the Forge Jargon for it. This is non-problematic, and I don't think it's worth worrying about.

    If it's being used unacceptably, now we have something to discuss, because now we can look at the reasons why it's not acceptable. I somewhat agree that it's related to "railroading" under two conditions. First, as I've said previously, that's an ill defined term under most circumstances. But if we define railroading locally and broadly as taking away player ability to add to the game creatively, then this is, indeed, pretty clearly one of the big problems with "Fiat" taken in it's negative connotation. Marco is correctly identifying it in this role above.

    But I'd also posit that this is not the only case where negative use of authority can occur. For example, a GM can use his authority to make a player - not the character, but the player - look bad. To use the instantly classice Rhino's on Ice example, the GM might say, "Ah, too bad, the river is frozen solid to the bottom. The rhinos charge you unabated. That was a silly plan." Yes, actually by the Big Model, this means that the player is also being denied the ability to be creative, but that's a subset of the social level problem that's going on in this case.

    But I think that the larger problem is when the GM overextends his authority beyond the expected limits. As has been stated above, when the GM voids rules that the players want upheld. I think we can all agree that this is a violation of the social contract that agrees as to what the rules of play are. Technically a form of cheating (if that can be applied to non-competitive situations). This is non-controversial, everyone agrees this is bad.

    The "hazy" area here is when the rules explicitly give the GM the authority to change the rules. Seen most typically in the "Golden Rule" stated something like, "If the GM thinks the rules aren't working, discard them, and rule by fiat." Now, in theory, a GM can improve the game by voiding the rules if/when they don't work. The problem with this is that, in fact, the games that have this "meta-rule" (if you will), rarely, if ever, give any but the most vague guidance on using it. Meaning that, as said above as well, players may not have a good idea of when the rules will be voided, or why. Essentially, if the GM does this quite a bit, then the player's understanding of the rules will be that "It's all GM fiat." Even if the rules are followed in, say 80% of situations that seem to demand them, 20% voidance puts enough uncertainty into the picture that players cannot rely on the rules, and will, instead, be trying to determine what the GM will do with their input.

    Now, even this can be functional - after all, "Freeform" play is, in fact, all GM authority being used sans guidelines, all the time. But the point is that this is only good if the players want a freeform game, or something akin to it. The trouble is that the game presents all of these rules as though they're good for play, but then the feeling is that they're not really being used.

    I'm speaking from experience here, experience with Storyteller System, in fact. Where I, at times, would wonder why I even had a character sheet. In part because of the railroading, but also because the rules would be tossed out or ignored quite frequently. And the Storyteller, when I questioned him about it, would point to the Golden Rule.

    There might be some rate at which one can feel that small, judicious uses of the Golden Rule aren't making all of the other rules moot. But for me, and for many others, I suspect, even small amounts of use seem detrimental to the agreement to play by some set of rules. In fact, I prefer playing freeform than to pretending to be using a set of rules, when in fact we're playing by "GM Fiat."

    To be clear, what the golden rule does is make all rules like this:

    1. Roll to hit (unless the GM thinks that he knows better, and just decides what happens).
    2. Roll for damage (unless the GM just decides what happens).
    3. Apply damage (unless the GM just decides what happens).

    Even if the GM doesn't decide this, if he has unlimited power to do so, and does it even once, it all feels like freeform. The rules cease to be concretely informative of play.

    In Universalis, we realized that sometimes people will want to change the rules of a game. I'm not against that, contrary to what it might seem. To that extent, we put in a rule that limits how the player can change the rules in terms of currency, and put in a method for the players to discuss the change, and impose their own wills about it. This throws the decision back to the social level of play, allowing everyone to ratify any changes made to the rules.

    This is very different than not changing the rules, but temporarily voiding them whenever one likes. Its the difference between a paricipatory democracy, and a dictatorship. Sure there were laws in Stalinist Russia, but did Stalin have to follow them? OK, that's slanted. But even in the most enlightened dictatorship the rule of law is damaged by having somebody who can void it at will. To say nothing of the potential of power to corrupt.

    Yes, RPGs aren't governments, and there are differences in how this applies. But I think that when people are talking about "GM Fiat" as a problem, they are often talking about this particular sort of problem.

    That said, I'm sure there are other forms of abuse and misuse of authority that can occur. But I think that these are the most common.

    (cont below)

  • (cont. from above)

    On the subject of design, if a rule granting fiat powers is put in because the designer knows that the system has big problems in execution, and "GM just decides" is thrown in to fix the problem, that's bad design. All RPGs have GM authority to make certain decisions (in fact, I've contended that this is what makes them separate from CRPGs), and setting those levels of authority by rule where they work is good design. It's only when you cover for bad design with GM authority that it's bad.

    Of course, what "works" or doesn't work is subjective, so you can't say definitively when authority is being used to cover. But, of course, people will have their opinions on the subject, and rightly so, I think. It might be better to say in a particular case something like, "The design should have been like X here so that it didn't have to rely on GM authority in this case."

  • edited November 2006
    Posted By: buzzI think there's an unclosed italics tag somewhere around Arref's post.
    Turns out that Vanilla is a little wonky when it comes to HTML tag closing. There was a word in Marco's post that looked like:


    So that didn't cause weirdness until the next person a few posts down posted italics.

    Hmmmm. Must think more on this. Either I'm going to have to create a tiger team of folks to edit other folks' HTML, or gradually phase out HTML and roll with BBCode and Markdown. Neither option is all that sweet. More in another post, back to the discussion.
  • edited November 2006
    Now, even this can be functional - after all, "Freeform" play is, in fact, all GM authority being used sans guidelines, all the time.
    What do we call it when it's GM authority being used with guidelines? Are there any examples of this in modern design?
  • edited November 2006
    Well, as I tried to indicate, this is actually quite common, and just "What the GM does" in many games.

    Take for example the question of when to invoke a resolution system as the classic example. Often there's a guideline that says, "Don't do it for minor stuff like crossing streets, or tying shoes. Only for when it seems like it'd be interesting to have a possible failure." That's a classic place where the GM is given authority without any hard rule, but where it's informed at least to some extent by the text at hand.

    Don't get me wrong, too, by "sans guidelines" I was saying without any textual "rules" that amount to guidance. Instead in freeform, these "rules" of guidance are negotiated constantly between the participants. This is why Ron says that it's the form of play with the most "points of contact." Meaning you're always figuring out how to do things with every action, instead of having some more stable guidelines in place, or mechanical structures related to the decisions to inform the decisions.

    With a mechanical resolution system, for instance, you have an idea of the sorts of things that can be resolved by the system, and this informs you about when it can be used. In early D&D, the only resolution systems were for combat, so if you wanted to resolve a question of whether or not somebody got lost on the way to the dungeon, you had to use GM authority - the resolution system available wouldn't help in this case. So from examples of use, the nature of the mechanics, etc, you get guidance on how to use the discretion given to you as a GM.

    Other classic cases of GM discretion to add to resolution use determination:
    - Scene framing - that is, what shows up where and when. In D&D, actually, the "wandering monster" rules made this mechanical. But in most RPGs today (even recent D&D versions), who shows up and when is entirely at GM discretion. This is, perhaps, the most important case of GM authority, as it can be used to over-ride anything else when done right. Want to kill the party? Have a huge fast monster show up. Then the combat system won't save them. Often times the system gives the least amount of guidance on this, with only some vague advice about making it fun and exciting. Though with My Life With Master, there are some very strict guidelines for how to set up scenes (which give much of this power to the players, in fact).
    - Modifier Use - is the character uphil from another? Again, with a system that has miniatures, these things are likely taken out of the hands of the GM. But in many systems whether or not a character is possessed of an advantage or disadvantage is a matter of GM discretion. Put "skill availability" under here, with the notion that a -100% modifier to using a particuar skill is the same in many systems as simply saying "no, you can't use that here." There's often quite a lot of mechanical and informal guidance on how to do this, but it remains a judgment call.
    - NPC actions - simply "role-playing" the NPCs, the GM usually uses his authority to decide what would be interesting for them to do. Yet again, in some early RPGs, this was taken out of the GM's hands with "reaction rolls" and such. More recent systems have all sorts of potential mechanical guidance on how discretion is to be used in these cases.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. The GM has tons of discretion in almost any TT RPG. As Marco says, however, it's a question of when it's informed by the logic of the game that's been agreed to be played, or if the GM is simply trying to figure it out from first principles based on nothing but his own whim.

  • GM Fiat is not the GM being the GM. If we go down that route, the very term GM Fiat is useless. GM Fiat means a specific subset of actions taken by GMs which is worthy of comment and giving a name. So GM Fiat is not the GM exercising his duly recognized authority. That's called Being the GM. GM Fiat is something that GMs do that maybe supports and maybe detracts from Being the GM. Throwing our hands up and saying, "Man, everything the GM does is GM Fiat!" is pointless.
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