Saturday, July 21, 2012

On GM Fiat and the Do-Anything Rule

Hello once again!

To begin, an update on the public playtest: we will begin public playtesting between August 8th and August 15th.  Next week we're hoping to announce the venues for the first rounds of playtesting.

This week we were discussing modern movements in gaming, and our focus naturally fell on the various independent retro-clones and D&D Next.  Specifically, we were analyzing the sudden expansion of rules designed to be incomplete, thereby allowing (and forcing the presence of) increased GM fiat.

GM Fiat is, essentially, when the GM has to make up something because (1) there are no rules for it or (2) because a player or players have gone into territory the GM was not expecting and did not plan for or (3) just because the GM said so, dagnabbit.

And we love GM fiat!  GM fiat is great. . .when it comes to story development.

When it comes to the rules, though, we are much less highly enamored of GMs making up the rules as the game goes along.  My thought on the matter paraphrased Drew Carey's opening line to Whose Line Is It Anyway?:  "Welcome to [fiat-heavy game system], where we didn't bother to finish the rules and you're just going to have to make it all up anyway."

The point of game design is to develop a set of rules that are easy to use and fun to play, and which can be used to arbitrate conflict.  Making rulesets that are simple, or that specifically leave out aspects, may succeed at the first two, but they will fail completely at the arbitration of conflict, which is absolutely the most important reason you have a ruleset to begin with.

If you didn't need to arbitrate conflict, you could just play a game of pretend.  Like we did as kids.  You remember what that was like?  Here was our experience:
"BAM I shot you!"  

"No you didn't I dodged!"  

"Nuh-uh, you can't dodge a bullet!"  

"Yes I can I'm a ninja!"  

"You're not a ninja you. . ."
That kind of argument doesn't sound like a lot of fun to us.  And yet, that's the path that the current "fiat-centric" trend seems to inevitably lead, to our minds.

The problem with that kind of play is that the GM-Player relationship is ultimately all about trust.  Do the players trust the GM to have their best interests at heart, to collaborate with them to form a great story?  There are a lot of competitive GMs out there--GMs who think that it's a great kick to kill off player characters, GMs who think that if the players are winning, they're losing, and vice versa.

Some people approach this with the tack of "well, that's a bad GM, you should know not to play with that GM."  And, once a game is published, and in the hands of the players, that would be right.  But game designers have a different concern--should have a different concern--than to release a game with instructions to their community that "you should just shun that portion of the community, because they suck."

Trust is a very hard thing to establish.  Even if a GM is not having to make up rules to fill in the blanks of a ruleset, he is still crafting a collaborative story and trying to ensure fairness all around in a situation where players may have a very, very difficult time relaxing the distrust inherent in self-interest.  So the question we asked isn't "do we want to follow this trend?"

Instead, we asked, "do GMs really want a ruleset that increases the amount of fiat they must use?"

And our answer is no, we don't think that's what GMs want.  Not only are two of us highly-experienced GMs (Bryan Shipp and Ray Watters; Sarah Perry-Shipp is our Player's Advocate and "rule-breaker") who don't feel compelled to need more fiat, but the GMs we've spoken to have not indicated that they're particularly desperate for more fiat.

What GMs want is "increased simplicity."  They want to be able to easily make a ruling when a player does something that's not explicitly written into the book.  And they also want to be able to give ruling that don't amount to "you don't have that feat, so you can't do that."  Feat-based gaming, for a lot of people, has turned into a chain of negatives, which is exactly the opposite of its original design intent.

So our approach is this:  we're developing a complete set of rules.  Nothing left out.  We're going to try to minimize the amount of fiat the GM exercises, because increasing the amount of fiat a GM can use also increases the amount of fiat a GM must use, and GMs already have enough on their plate.

Included in that complete set of rules is one we call the "Do-Anything Rule."  Most of the feats (or talents, as we call them) in Infinite Earths will come with a rule that indicates that "players who have not taken this talent can still use it, but with a -5 penalty to the roll."  Bam, done.  That rewards players who have taken a talent, and that allows players who haven't taken the talent to still attempt it, though with guaranteed less skill than someone who has taken it.  The -5 itself is the equivalent of the difference between the three tiered role slots:  for instance, at level 20 a primary-role warrior has a +20 to Strike, and a secondary-role warrior has a +15 to Strike.

The Do-Anything Rule is inherent in our Skill system:  all characters can make rolls on all skills, but unless a character has focused on a skill, that character is going to have a difficult time in succeeding at anything other than a relatively simple skill check.  Skill checks in Infinite Earths are set by the difficulty of the task, not the skill level of the player, so most tasks actually fall into the "relatively doable" category.

We're very pleased with our Do-Anything Rule.  It provides flexibility and simplicity without needing to pile even more onto the GM.  Because every bit of power is another bit of work, and because the really great GMs, the ones we would want to play with, want to spend their time creating stories and telling stories and being interesting.  They don't want to spend their time trying to think of how to handle this special case and that special case.

And we look forward to testing the Do-Anything Rule come August.  See you next week!

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