Thursday, November 15, 2012

What is GM Fiat?


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.