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December 6, 2006 / jadettman

High 'Trust' RPGs

When it comes to roleplaying, I have faced the facts: I prefer a good high ‘trust’ game.

Examples of high trust RPGs would be Amber Diceless and Everway. In both cases, the PCs are expected to be competant and superior to average people. In both cases, the GM is given a great deal of latitude when it comes to interpreting how the game works (Amber more than Everway, in this area).

Now in most discussions of high trust games, and these two in particular, something called GM Fiat is rolled out as the main drawback in play.

What most folks mean when they say ‘GM fiat’ is that the person running (i.e. doing the majority of the prep work and facilitating play through the creation/emulation of a coherent, joint reality) has complete authority to screw over the player-characters. The GM can drop planets on their heads, create invincible villains, and just basically make the PCs wish that they had never agreed to play.

Here’s the kicker: those folks are right. The GM can do all of those things, but why would they? And, agreeing that this is true, what is it about dice, in particular, that make this untrue for all of the other games, the ones that use dice (or some other randomizer)?

Setting aside the latter question because, quite frankly, there is no satisfactory answer, to me, other than the obvious (i.e. there is nothing that prevents the same behavior in games with dice), let’s instead concentrate on the former: Why would a GM do those things?

There is no good answer, though inexperience, stupidity, and spite leap to mind. ‘GM fiat,’ if one is using the definition given above, is bad and should never be countenanced. If you are ever in a game where your GM sincerely does something so egregious, you should pack up your belongings and, ever so politely, tell them that you will no longer be playing in their game right before leaving (or in the case that the game is at your place, booting the GM out).

This is, of course, an extreme reaction and one might be better served having a frank discussion with said GM before taking it. It is possible that the GM was suffering from one of the states mentioned above (or one of many states unmentioned) and can be persuaded that it was a bad idea. In which case, you can continue on with the game, problem solved.

Now, a more appropriate definition of ‘GM fiat,’ to my mind, is: the GM chooses. In any given situation in a RPG session where there is some doubt to the outcome of an action, or set of actions, the gamemaster chooses what will happen. Ideally, this will be a thoughtful and informed choice on the part of the GM but, regardless, it is his/her choice. No randomizers are involved. The players trust the gamemaster to make a good choice for the game.

That is what a high ‘trust’ rpg is about.  I like it.


Leave a Comment
  1. JP / Dec 11 2006 11:08 am

    Reading this post, I am reminded of two games I own copies of.

    The first is the Fuzion system version of Champions. It was a greatly flawed system. However, one of the nice non-system things they did was give an example of how to run a comic-book-style game (which was their aim.) They did this by creating a comic book scene and annotating it with notes on when to apply different game mechanics. They even presented an example of GM fiat, which was used when dramatically appropriate. It was ten years ago so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but essentially when Doctor Destroyer was ready to make his escape he activated a weapon that stunned all the superheroes, causing them to lose an action and allowing him to get away. There was no game mechanic to it, no dice, that’s just way the genre worked. Of course, in that version of the game Doctor Destroyer was an immortal ultra-powered bad guy. It probably would not have been appropriate for “Masked Robber” to do that. And it was only appropriate to end the scene.

    The second game is one I recently purchased. I haven’t fully read the game, or actually played it. It’s called Burning Empires. It uses the Burning Wheel system, which haven’t played either. I largely bought the game because I was curious and I liked the form-factor of the book. Anyway, the thing I think is relevant to this conversation is that it systemically incorporates players into elements of world building before character generation. Essentially the players and the GM build the world and, even though it specifies that the players and GM are each trying to “win” (i.e. the story is about a struggle between the two sides), there is strong feeling of collaborative world-building. This strikes me as being a “high-trust” system where trust must go both ways.

  2. J.A. Dettman / Dec 11 2006 12:06 pm

    Doesn’t Burning Empires just look fantastic? I own a copy and I love it just because of its physical design. Fuzion I am much less familair with.

    I agree, though, that games require a two-way street of trust or, in general, they won’t work. Whether you’re playing/running Burning Empires, Amber, or any other game if one ‘side’ (not the best characterization) doesn’t trust the other for some reason, the game is going to be in trouble.

    That is twice as true for ‘High Trust’ games.

  3. Arref / Dec 11 2006 11:52 pm

    Nice post. I enjoyed the sentiment very much.

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