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When Should You Use GM Fiat?

GM fiat [1] gets a bad rap. It often carries connotations of “Because I said so,” which, while within your rights as the GM, is also generally a bad idea.

But in and of itself, there’s nothing at all wrong with GM fiat. It’s my favorite way to handle awarding experience [2]. It can be helpful in starting up a campaign — hell, it’s the cornerstone of the moldy-yet-still-useful “You all met in a tavern, but you trust each other with your lives” approach to party creation. Although that approach certainly has its problems, it remains popular despite the fiat.

But what about choosing the result of a critical NPC die roll — or even skipping the roll and just saying “X happens”? Having a monster abruptly break off combat with a near-dead PC, even if doesn’t make any sense? Saying “Alice, your character decides to get up and leave the bar”?

In those three situations, I’d say #1 is just fine, #2 is cheesy but usually considered acceptable and #3 is completely unacceptable. What do you think? And what role, if any, does GM fiat play in your campaigns?

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#1 Comment By Micah On July 3, 2007 @ 8:09 am

I do a lot of dice fudging (usually to the PCs advantage), but I haven’t done a lot of just making things happen by fiat.

However, during our last session, the PCs came upon a fight between NPC giants and goblins. One was a goblin riding a worg, and I wanted him to get knocked off and force the PCs to either rescue him or not. Rather than do a trip check by the giants and check damage and all that jazz, I just said, “The giant’s boulder hits him square in the shoulders, throwing him from the saddle.”

I was actually a little worried that the players would call foul and complain about the unfairness of a giant being able to knock someone off so easily. However, they seemed to be enjoying the story enough that no complaints were raised. I’ll probably try to use this type of GM fiat more often in the future, just to make combat a little more interesting.

Another aspect of this can be NPCs that accompany the party. If you don’t want to actively play them in combat, then just run their portion by fiat. 6 orcs attack. The accompanying NPC battles one by himself while the PCs handle the rest. He just so happens to dispatch his adversary just as the PCs manage to do the same. As long as the NPC’s actions stay in the background where they belong, this type of NPC play will prevent questions of “Well, what’s he doing while we’re getting our asses kicked?”

I also do a lot of the “break-off combat with near-dead PCs” and (almost) never have an enemy attack a PC who is in the negatives. I treat this as a reasonable NPC tactic, since a disabled enemy is no longer a threat (unless there is a cleric to heal them).

This worked well for a long time, but at higher levels, not so much. This is because the 10hp cushion below zero is much smaller when dealing with monsters that can deal 20-30 damage in a single hit. At low levels, being at 6hp means the next attack will disable you and the monster moves on. At higher levels, being at 6hp is, in many ways, worse than being at -6.

Eh, now I’m rambling 😉

#2 Comment By Frank Filz On July 3, 2007 @ 8:53 am

GM Fiat is one of those loaded terms. GMs have to make statements and give direction all the time. The trick is figuring out what is bad and what isn’t.

One thing to do is fine tune the definition of fiat. If fiat is “imposing a decision on a question and bypassing the normal resolution process” then we can more easily see what should fall under the umbrella of “GM fiat” and that it’s bad.

GM fiat then is when the GM imposes a decision to a question that the game intended to be resolved by a resolution process that includes player input.

The GM shortcutting the game’s resolution system is generally bad. By calling off the monster, the GM may be depriving the player of the satisfaction of turning around a bad situation. Or cheating the player of a good and honest loss. That isn’t to say that such is always bad, but as long as the player has (meaningfull) input to the decision, then the fiatness goes away. If the GM asks the player if he would like the monster to be called off, then the player has a chance to say “yes”, “no”, or even “I hate it when you ask that question, it makes me feel cheated.”

The GM stating that a character leaves the bar may or may not be GM fiat. Is it meaningfull for the player to have input to this decision? Did the player already make a statement that allowed the GM to narrate the PC leaving the bar. Perhaps Alice said “June will go to the bar for a few hours before turning in for the night to see if she can pick up any rumors.” In that case, the GM is perfectly justified in narrating “June hears no rumors and gets up to leave the bar to turn in for the night. As she gets up a figure in a dark cloak bursts through the front door.” Even if Alice was not explicit in stating that her character would leave the bar at some point, it’s reasonable to assume (without prior PC history or the character sheet indicating otherwise) that the character will not stay in the bar for eternity, and in fact, probably will turn in for the night. But if the player says “I will stay in the bar at a table in the back with by back to the wall facing the door and I won’t leave until Fred comes in.” then the GM stating that the character gets up to leave the bar is negating a player statement. Now the GM could ask “Are you not even going to use the loo?” or “What happens if Fred doesn’t come back that night?”

Negating a roll is GM fiat if the roll is part of the resolution system. Now an encounter table may or may not be part of the resolution system, but a to hit roll probably is. It has often been pointed out that ignoring results of advisory tables is not fudging.

So in the end, the question is whether the GM removes meaningfull choices from the players, negates their successess (and failures), tries to tell the player how his PC feels about something (without the system allowing for that), or even just insensitively tromps on the player’s concept of the character.


#3 Comment By brcarl On July 3, 2007 @ 10:07 am

Like Frank said, the term “GM fiat” is loaded, just like “meta-gaming.” In most contexts, the assumption is that the term refers to something undesirable.

Recently I’ve really been struggling with balancing fun for the group with the randomness of outcomes. I don’t know if it’s because I have so much less time to play nowadays then when I was younger, but I really don’t have the patience any more for slogging through bad-luck stretches that forces the group to completely alter their plans just to muddle through. …unheroically, at that. If the GM can make minor tweaks here and there to keep things from going completely off course — or over the waterfall — then I say “do it.”

Like many of these gray area topics, you want to make sure your whole group is on the same page (Social Contract). Some gamers live for the risk associated with random dice outcomes, and relish (as Frank offers) the opportunity to dig one out and really save everyone’s bacon. And I might be so bold as to suggest that people with the balls and talent to work through those situations may also have a slightly superior attitude toward more social gamers who don’t want such a cerebral exercise and would rather just bash and have fun. 😉

#4 Comment By Sarlax On July 3, 2007 @ 10:45 am

Since I began gaming I’ve usually sat in the GM’s chair and I’ve never liked to fiat. My distaste for it was reinforced in the most recent game I ran, in that I was using it in what seemed to be for the best purpose (to achieve an outcome in accordance with a player’s wishes) only to have misread the player’s desires.

It’s easy to feel that, as GMs, we know what’s best for the game, but the more I play the more I understand that the GM is just one other person at the table and they can’t be expected to accurately or fairly assess absolutely everything that bears on the enjoyment of the others. The game should always be flexible enough that everyone at the table has the opportunity to control what happens.

It might be argued that the default task resolution doesn’t actually do this (the player doesn’t control his katana hitting the titanspawn when he rolls Strength+Melee), but when you abandon the system for your own preferences, player expectations are dashed. The choices they have made (to use the katana, to charge the enemy, to joke in the face of the enemy) are trivialized.

Also: fudging is fiat without admission.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On July 3, 2007 @ 11:03 am

“However, they seemed to be enjoying the story enough that no complaints were raised.”- Micah

That, I think, is one of the key points to revving up the keys to the GM fiat. If it benefits the game and wouldn’t bring up complaints. I definitely don’t think GM fiat should be used to take control of someone’s character, but it is just fine to use it for something like “You travel for the next 3 days and reach the destination.” When I do that though, I usually follow up with “is there anything you guys wanted to accomplish during the downtime? Short form it.”

On a semi-related note my room-mate got a GM keychain, and keys to a fiat so that he could have the key to the GM Fiat.

#6 Comment By Mike Ski On July 3, 2007 @ 11:16 am

It’s always been my opinion that the GM can do anything he wants to the world; after all, he creates it-he IS the god of that world. Whichever way he resolves things that happen within the world is his choice, whether by rolls or by his own choices-unless it treads on the thoughts, feelings and actions of the character(s) the players play with.

If the DM is the god, then the players are the ‘souls’ of their characters and the god cannot and/or should not tread on the actions those souls undertake. If you want the PCs to take a certain action, change the environment around them in order to coerce them into that position, but don’t force your will on the characters themselves.

#7 Comment By Sarlax On July 3, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

“If you want the PCs to take a certain action, change the environment around them in order to coerce them into that position, but don’t force your will on the characters themselves.”

These, in my opinion, are identical. For a player, what difference is there between these two game narratives?

GM: The passage branches to the left and right.
Player: I go right.
GM: A stone block drops right in front of you! Only the left passage remains.

GM: The passage branches to the left and right. You go left.

#8 Comment By VV_GM On July 3, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

GM fiat is like fudging – if your group is cool with it then it is good. Whatever the group enjoys determines the tactics that the GM should use as well how and when the GM should use them.

I think taking control of a character is always a bad tactic. To me the GM has near absolute power, with the one exception being the PCs who may act indepedent of the GM’s will. Even if a PC has something like a mind control attack done against them I still devise a way for the player to roleplay the PC in some form or another.

Yeah I the GM might make the PC’s body attack the party, but I will have something in place for the player to fight that outside influence in the game. Combat might be a first phase “physical world” actions, and a second phase “psychic world” in the PC’s mind actions. To me that just seems fair. The players agree to give me ultimate power, and in exchange I agree to let them play their characters.

Still, GM fiat is something that your group should decide upon. No one else can give you the right answer as to whether or not you should or should not use it.

#9 Comment By Annoyed Discordian On July 4, 2007 @ 12:16 am

Hohumm.. And after the fudging fight you decide to do a bigger one: Fiat includes fudging as well.

To second the definition of fiat given previously: “bypassing a resolution mechanic and/or choice by other players”. This means to me, that thing like “You meet each other in a bar, trustingly” is not fiat. It becomes fiat when players don’t want their characters to meet like that, and GM overrules.

Thus, by my definition, fiat is not good. Like fudging. Here is a checklist for you, you overruled someone if:
1. Someone wanted something else to happen
2. You did not use the agreed upon mechanics to do this, aka. the rules.

Of course, you can just decide that it’s within the rules for GM to overrule anything, but why should GM be given this power with all the work and responsibility when players can just nod off? I say let anyone declare anything they like in their own parts of the story. GM is God attitude works only when the game is called Real-Life(tm). Otherwise the GM just ain’t.

If player says “I cut of the head of ogre. Like this! Whaaa!” and everyone is cool with that, then he does. If it is not cool, then there are two options. Roll the dice or at extreme circumstances, Veto. There is no convincing reason that GM should always be one to ask for dice or do the nasty vetoing. (Except for those GMs who still buy the “I’m smarter than those stoopid players and my story is more important than theirs” attitude)

Same way it is with gm having a giant bowl a goblin off the wolf. In that case you’re in clear waters as soon as everyone knows that they can make the GM roll dice for that. Because this knowledge comes with the fact, that players then also know that GM has to have something interesting in mind.

If you don’t agree, perhaps you should try a game of Dogs in the Vineyard. You know, D&D is not the only game out there and things you’ve learned with D&D/Gurps are not the only way do stuff.

And then to pick a bone:

GM: The passage branches to the left and right.
Player: I go right.
GM: A stone block drops right in front of you! Only the left passage remains.

GM: The passage branches to the left and right. You go left.

And altough I know this was meant as an example – both of these are just inane. Player has no choice to begin with. What difference does a left or right make by itself? It is a meaningless example.

— All tone carried in this post is purely coincidental and not intended.

#10 Comment By tezrak On July 4, 2007 @ 12:18 am

Quoting Sarlax: “the more I play the more I understand that the GM is just one other person at the table … The game should always be flexible enough that everyone at the table has the opportunity to control what happens”

I agree. I think the idea that “GM as god” is anachronistic; we need to start getting away from the notion that the GM holds the game in his hand like a spider dangling over a flame (a la Jonathan Edwards). Roleplaying is about collaborative storytelling, and while the story needs a moderator to give it direction and provide conflict, the GM shouldn’t have so much more power over the game than the players that the players feel as though they have no effect on the game environment. The formation of the story should be more of a group effort–the GM can’t run a game without players, and players can’t play characters in a game without a GM.

#11 Comment By Guido On July 4, 2007 @ 3:13 am

I think there’s really two fundamentally different kinds of GM fiat: The one that affects the environment, the setting, the NPCs, heck even the GM char if there is one (for example, my current GM at one time had his own char that he brought along wounded by a gunshot from a following helicopter while we were flying in a plane, just to make things more interesting). That kind of GM fiat doesn’t have to be obvious too, the GM can even roll a few dice beforehand, I’m not certain if that example was.

And then there’s the GM fiat that affects player characters. Like that one GM that I no longer play with. We were walking over land, there was this little inn along the way, we wanted to walk in and have a beer … and the GM was happily talking about the hut we just encountered near a forest after we had walked past the inn. Nobody of us even wanted to walk past the inn, the GM just assumed we did. Needless to say, I didn’t really feel like I was roleplaying at all there.

#12 Comment By Sarlax On July 4, 2007 @ 11:37 am

By remarking the fudge is fiat without admission, I meant to highlight the distinct connotations fudging possesses, not that the GM isn’t aware. It’s an attempt to keep the players ignorant of the fiat.

Suppose your story involves an NPC refusing to be convinced by the players’ wild tales, thereby requiring a battle when their deception is discovered. If a player makes a social roll to lie, you perform two kinds of fiat. The first is to simply say “The guard doesn’t believe you,” while the other is to roll a die, check the result, and modify it until you get what you want. The outcome is the same and negates the roleplaying and character design of the players. The variation is only that you’ve tried to conceal your fiat with the sound of dice rolling on wood.

#13 Comment By Telas On July 5, 2007 @ 8:57 am

Isn’t it GM fiat to start in media res? Is that somehow acceptable just because it’s a trendy technique?

Is all “hand-waving” GM fiat?

How about adjusting on the fly (for any reason)?

I really think it depends on how you define it. Like railroading, GM fiat means different things to different people.

I also think that GM fiat is just another tool. GMing is an art, not a science. There are excessive uses of GM fiat, but there are excessive uses of many of the tools in a GM’s kit. Shall we ban them all?

#14 Comment By Confused Discordian On July 6, 2007 @ 7:24 am

Telas: Isn’t it GM fiat to start in media res? Is that somehow acceptable just because it’s a trendy technique? Is all “hand-waving” GM fiat? How about adjusting on the fly (for any reason)?

Well, to answer any of those you need to have a definition of fiat. I think ones given here are good. According to them, the answer is easy.

Starting in media res, is a fiat(=not good) when one person overrules others, say starting them in middle of something their character concepts are opposed of. Good Policemen shooting unarmed bad guys etc.. Otherwise it is very good way to start.

Handwaving is not fiat, except if you handwave something that others have big interest on. And interestingly this links fiat to mechanics of handling disagreements. What if A is bored sick of something that B wants to go through in detail. This is where it gets interesting – but I trust 100% that even there fiat is the inferior solution.

Adjusting on the fly. Well, totally depends. You could call whole improvising style “adjusting on the fly” or you could call fudging that. Very different.

Martin: This isn’t a fight, it’s a discussion about a GMing topic, just like every other comments thread on TT.

Oh. sorry. I was using trying to use “fight” as equivalent of strong argument. Not my native language, this.

I really don’t see why this is actually public, but apart from the very end written hastily (for which I apologize to Sarlax), what is the thing here that you consider trolling?

Previous post was in angry tone, yes, but for reasons detailed there: I argue in forums, you close the thread because of me (without pointing out what I did wrong: I tried to be reasonably civil), and then the other person arguing makes a front-page post about his view. Would tick you off as well, I think.

Even then, angry tone is not trolling and I slightly resent the accusation, which you could just as well privately conveyed me.

Trolling; Deliberately posting false information in order to elicit responses from people who really want to help; Fishing while dragging artificial lures, live or dead baits behind a boat while in motion to entice game fish to strike.”

Was I really doing either of those?

#15 Comment By Martin On July 6, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

Discordian: Everything about your previous comment pointed towards you trying to start an argument, rather than engage in civil discussion. As I said, you made good points, you just needed to tone things down.

That, to me, is a form of trolling. The definition you provided doesn’t line up with the more commonly accepted online version, “Trying to piss people off.” That kind of behavior is best called out publicly, and I did so politely while making it clear what you needed to do to continue being able to post here.

You modified your tone for your follow-up comment, so I assume you understand what I was getting at — and I appreciate that.

#16 Comment By Telas On July 6, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

So would this be a good definition of GM fiat: Any GM decision or action, not based on the rules or conventions of the game, that a player disagrees with?


#17 Comment By Discordious Discordian On July 7, 2007 @ 3:56 am

Telas: So would this be a good definition of GM fiat: Any GM decision or action, not based on the rules or conventions of the game, that a player disagrees with?

Well yeah, seems like it, though the ‘conventions’ is bit wide.

But in general this would be good definition, since it defines the negative fiat well. Why is this good? Because you can’t really define fiat if you include the positive examples in it. And it wouldn’t even be necessary, since that kind of fiat is just playing the game.

This is also good for making clear my stance on fudging. Fiat = bad. Fudging is kind of Fiat. Why is fudging then bad? It goes against rules and ‘conventions’. Why is that bad? Because then the rules are not working as they ought.

And a thought for ye fudging/fiat is just a tool people: Perhaps you aren’t really using rules. Perhaps you are using the stuff in the rulebook as inspirational device to come up with stuff. I think having complex rules at all is just baggage for that (ther are better tools to get the inspiration!).

And I prefer volkswagen.

Martin: The definition you provided doesn’t line up with the more commonly accepted online version, “Trying to piss people off.”

I piss people off even without trying. I don’t think I’m the only one (see the last fudging discussion). And yes, my goal is to have people argue about certain topics. Because that is what is interesting about forums. You’re drawing the line too low.

#18 Comment By Frank Filz On July 9, 2007 @ 11:06 am

Telas, that’s a pretty good definition. Actually, all you need is:

GM fiat: Any GM decision or action, not based on the rules or conventions of the game.

Since, at least to me, “conventions” includes the consent of the players. In fact, it really only need be:

GM fiat: Any GM decision or action not based on the conventions of the game.

Since “conventions” include using the rules, but it’s handy to include explicit mention of the rules to highlight that the game does have a rules text that applies and isn’t just fuzzy conventions shared by the participants.

In a sense, this definition is saying GM fiat is anytime the GM imposes a decision without using the agreed upon system (per the Lumpley definition of system).


#19 Comment By Michael On July 18, 2007 @ 7:36 pm

So, my perspective is probably a bit different from most. I play Amber Diceless and utterly freeform games and the system I use with the most randomness is Everway, where the GM’s interpretation of a tarot-like card is used to shade the results of a player choice. I also have played a number of “indie games” from the game developers who used to talk theory on The Forge.

There are people who call ADRPG “the GM-fiat game”, because there’s no mechanism for randomly determining what happens. Some of those are really people assigning a label that means “it’s a bad thing” to something that they think sounds like something they wouldn’t like. GM fiat gets tossed into the mix by people who think the solution to every problem is “more rules” and who are perplexed by the idea that some of us think a problem is “too many rules”.

This leads me to take claims of “GM-fiat” with a grain of salt, but there are games that make it possible to minimize deprotagonization through GM-fiat which is the effect that it seems like you’re trying to avoid.

One class of games that avoids GM-fiat are games like Dogs in the Vinyard, which is really fascinating but I never made work for me. The DitV approach wants to take all decision making power from the GM completely (GM’s can have fun designing well-thought-out problems and playing the roles of NPCs–it’s not all bookkeeping). It’s a rebalancing of role-playing and gaming in the direction of gaming. If that’s your thing, then great.

Another class is Prime Time Adventures and similar games which gives narrative control to players in conflicts. The results have to match the stakes of the conflict, but sometimes the loser describes how he lost. PTA’s central conceit of “the campaign is a television show” lends itself to non-immersive gaming, and character scenes are based on what the other players want to see. It’s a difficult game to be deprotagonized even though there’s plenty of coercive elements. The remove of the PCs being characters made it seem like a non-problem (YMMV).