In keeping with my resolution to explore
some of the older ideas in RPG theory, I’m going to very briefly tackle GM
fiat. This term has had something of a
negative connotation since the IndieRPG movement began back in 2000, but it
didn’t always used to be that way.
Basically, GM fiat has come to mean
something like “any decision made by the Game Master (or similar authority
figure) that is final and cannot be appealed or changed by the other players
through the mechanics of the game.”
I’ve seen some people use it as a
synonym for “dictatorship” or “the GM is god” or “bad game design.” But it doesn’t mean any of those things. Sometimes, a decision has to be made and it
has to be final. In those cases, it’s
okay to have someone like a GM make a final call that ends any dispute so the
game can progress forward.
The problem with GM fiat is when it is
used too much by a designer. Modern RPG
design needs to involve the players more in the decision making process. Once upon a time, decades ago, the GM might have
been the only one in a playgroup with the time, inclination, and monetary
resources to collect all the tomes necessary for play, read them, and master
the content. The players had to trust
him or her because there just wasn’t a lot of information available to everyone
about the game. The Internet has changed
that dramatically. Players are well
informed now, not just about a game’s specific content, but also about play
styles, strategies, options, and techniques.
They are now fully capable of contributing to a game’s direction on a
plane level with a GM. Information has
become democratized in a sense.
As a result, a good game designer will
rely on GM fiat only as a last resort to settle a quandary that cannot be
settled through the game’s usual mechanics or a group’s usual social interactions. Contemporary players are not accustomed to
the 1990’s style of GMing. They want to express
their creativity through control of the world too. That’s not always going to be practical, but
more often than not, it is.