See Page XX: Driven in a Fiat

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the powerful abilities of a roleplaying rules-set is to provide compromise without negotiation. The normal process of conversational give-and-take through which people normally resolve issues of mutual preference or gratification is inherently distorting.

Let’s say there are three of us – you, me, and Bernice – and we’re all trying to decide what movie to see together tonight. If we hash it out until we come to a conclusion, the chances of us arriving at the actual objective compromise between our preferences are lower than if we introduced a rules system to resolve the matter.

In a process of negotiation, a host of emotional and interpersonal factors come into play. You may be more skilled at arguing the merits of your choices than either of us. Bernice may be a pleaser, more anxious to seem accommodating than to express her true wishes. I may be a bit of an emotional blackmailer, ready to subtly sulk and moan if I don’t get my way. Our simple chat to decide what movie we want to see will likely favor you or me, leaving Bernice silently wishing she’d spoken up for herself.

If instead we all sit down separately to rank the movies we want to see in order, and then compare the lists to see which flick earns the best spot across all three lists, we’ve removed the interpersonal distortions. Assuming that we’ve created a good system that can’t be gamed by a clever player, we’ll have correctly ascertained our real collective desires.

Creating a game experience together requires a constant state of compromise, both among the players and between GM and players. The system serves as a traffic cop of our narrative desires. I want to hit the orc. You want to coax the monkey to shimmy across the beam and snag the amulet. Bernice wants to use her fireball spell. The GM wants the encounter to serve as a moderate threat that will cost us some resources without killing our characters. She hopes it will go fairly quickly, leaving time to hit the big climactic encounter in time to resolve it this evening.

We’ve all engaged the system to speak for us in this non-negotiated compromise. I’ve built a character designed for maximum smiting potential. You paid points for your useful pet monkey. Bernice has not only loaded up as many fireballs as a PC of her level can legally carry, but has committed the rules to memory and learned to thoroughly exploit their loopholes. The GM has used the rules’ challenge system to fit the threat, as best she can, to her time constraints and desired degree of lethality.

Highly defined, determined, and detailed systems tip the balance of power in favor of the players’ collective will. Here the GM is just one participant making requests of the system and hoping to get a desired result. Loose, diceless, or story-oriented systems give the GM more power and flexibility in determining outcomes. They give the GM many opportunities to decide outcomes by fiat, bending them toward her goals.

As rigorously determined systems distribute power evenly within a game group, they increase the unpredictability of results. The greater the number of rules components – character stats, spell effects, creature abilities, skills, and so on – involved in an outcome determination, the harder it becomes to predict or control the ultimate result. The end product of the system’s compromise between desires may be surprising, wonky, even arbitrary in its dishing out of rewards and punishments. Just like real life.

In a determined system, the GM has little leeway once an encounter begins. She’s set up half the dominoes. You and your fellow players have set up the other half, in a not particularly coordinated fashion. Once the dice start bouncing, the dominoes fall. Most likely, I’ll get to hack orcs, you’ll have a fair shot at the monkey trick, and Bernice will get off some fireballs. Possibly, though, the fireball will react unpredictably with a funky creature power, instantly killing everybody but the monkey.

Systems which leave precise determination in the GM’s hands allow her to impose her will on the group, if she is a selfish and inattentive GM. If she’s a sensitive, quick-thinking GM, though, she’ll be working to take the place of the compromise mechanism inherent in a highly determined system. She’ll be looking not only to make the encounter moderately challenging and fairly quick, but also to let me hack orcs, you attempt the monkey maneuver, and Bernice to singe some ass with her mighty fireballs.

Loosely determined systems permit the GM to weave a sense of order into the proceedings. Outcomes become reassuringly apt, as in a satisfying narrative, and less like the apparently random, undirected nature of real experience.

This leads to two questions, one philosophical, the other practical.

To tackle the practical one first, the outcomes of a loose system are only as good as the GM. The outcomes of a tight system are only as good as the collective work of its
designers. All else being equal, one might argue that the active, judicious intervention of a GM on the spot will always be better tailored to the group’s desires than the uncontrolled interaction of various separate rules bits.

This point sets aside the unfortunate reality that most GMs, whether using loose or determined systems, are not especially good. (Though I hasten to add that if you’re bothering to read this column, you yourself are surely a GM of surpassing taste, ability, and physical handsomeness.) From a player’s point of view, the non-negotiated compromise of a tight rules set protects you more from a weak GM than does a loose system in which your fun is dependent on the quality of her decision-making.

Even when playing with a GM you like and trust, her rulings by fiat will sometimes seem wrong to you. In that case, you’re left with no one to blame but the GM. More complex games allow you to vent your displeasure at the system – and afford the GM the privilege of riding to the rescue and overruling the obviously faulty bit of game text.

The philosophical question concerns your desire for narrative satisfaction. Do you want your characters to operate in the universe of storytelling cause and effect, or in one driven by the morally neutral interactions of various physical forces? For some players, it’s a question of taste: storytellers and butt-kickers may seek the guided cause-and-effect of a fictional world, where tacticians and immersive roleplayers will gravitate toward the interaction of neutral forces. In other cases, the source of preference may go deeper, speaking to your personal worldview.

That’s a preference that may be amenable neither to negotiation, or to compromise.

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