Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Avoiding the Avatar of GM Fiat

Running a roleplaying as the GM can be simultaneously invigorating, ego-destroying, fun, and make you hate yourself. If it wasn’t so fun I doubt people would do it. Running a game is like trying to fix the engine on your car while you’re driving it or laying down the tracks of a train while it’s in full motion. It’s a test of memory, competency, logic, your ability to act, your ability to tell a story, and your ability to make snap judgement calls by logic or intuition alone. In short, players, praise your GMs. You probably don’t do it enough.

Still, all of those downsides can lead to exasperation, anger, or burnout. It can destroy friendships, ruins tables, and give birth to the monstrous thing I call “the Avatar of GM Fiat.” So what is this Fell Beast That Slouches Toward Your Gaming Table? To put simply it’s the use of NPCs to negate the agency of your players in both subtle and non-subtle ways. An Avatar of GM Fiat is that innkeeper who only has one answer to give about what’s wrong with the village and refuses to speculate. Avatar of GM Fiat is the entrance to somewhere the players don’t want to be but the GM just smacked them with a Quantum Ogre. The Avatar of GM Fiat sees all and tells only one thing. But there is also a more sinister shape the Avatar of GM Fiat can take: the StoryTELLing GM. We’ve all had at least one GM like this. they are the one to describe your characters actions to you without actually letting you have any input. Such GMs are the bane of roleplayers everywhere. We don’t come together around the table to roleplay and then you tell us what you do. No. If you have this guy as a GM run far and run fast. STGMs are simply the worst.

So how do you avoid it? Well…you consistently give options. Now I’m not saying you need to give a dozen things the PCs can do, just a few. 2-4 is the magic number I’ve found. Enough to let your players truly feel like they are picking their own courses of action while allowing you to be prepared enough that you can run the session in the manner you find easiest.

Never describe character actions fully. For example, “Ok, you hit with a 10 with your sword. You were doing a feint so what you did was drop your guard slightly and then pommeled him before bringing the sword down cutting across his face.” is fine if the player didn’t want to describe the scene and you did. “You hit with your sword and do 11 damage” if the GM is dictating your action, rolling the dice, and dishing out damage is not.

Additionally, never speak for the character. Asking the player what they want to do in-game is totally fine! Some players need that extra push by their GMs. Roleplaying is collaborative. As the Great Poet Vanilla Ice said “Collaborate and Listen” because they will check out your hook while the GM revolves it.

Another big thing I feel (and I’m sure this is not the case with many GMs) is to a) not fudge your dice rolls and b) roll in the open. The GM and the players should accept what destiny is giving them and move on with the game. That’s not to say that the players (and GM) shouldn’t have some agency in the die rolls, but it should be character traits that decide if the roll stands or not, not the players or GMs. That is, “meta-currency.” I’ve had a few players in my time as a GM really dislike meta-currency of any sort because they viewed it as cheating the dice goddess. That is a valid opinion to have but if it’s not shared by everyone at the table (including the GM) it will become contentious. Eventually, you’re going to probably lose that player. And if it’s a good player it’s going to hurt.

The last bit – and I say this a lot when I talk about this stuff, I know – but be honest and communicative with your players, GMs. Tell them what you want to do. The game isn’t just about the players themselves. The GM has to have fun too and if no one is on the same wavelength your campaign will crash and burn if you’re lucky and your gaming group will disband if you’re not. If you are open with them they will be open with you. And if they’re not get them one on one and talk to them, not at them. Express your feelings. Tell them what you want. Then let them do the same. Make sure they know nothing they say will impact the game as long as it’s not something that should. Players have goals in mind when they make they sit at your table and make their characters. Know those goals. Use those goals to build a world everyone can be happy with.

Picking Over The Bones

Now, I do talk about things that maybe not everyone can agree on, but maybe we can all agree that dealing with the Avatar of GM Fiat is something to be avoided. Slay that sucker before it leaves the egg. If your a GM be aware of your feelings and how you’re being treated. Be aware of how you’re treating others. You might not even know you have a problem until you stop and think about it. You might be justifying your actions to yourself or worse, deluding yourself. To be a good GM is to be forthright, honest, diplomatic, and tactful. It means to do no malicious harm. It means to be worthy of the trust your players will show you. It means to listen when they speak and act when they tell you a problem. At least to me that’s what it means. I hope there are others out there who believe the same thing. I like to think they are.

Posted in Gamemaster's Guidepost and tagged , , .

One Comment

  1. While I agree in general, there is sine nuance to describing character actions as the GM and I’m a bit mystified to what your second example means (did the GM roll the damage for the player? did they make the character attack?). I have players which are generally bad at describing the results of their actions and narrating what happens in one second is generally not overstepping any boundaries.
    If it’s longer actions, the important part is to give the player a chance to interrupt a description at the logical points. But a good little narrative from someone who has an easier time picturing the scene is much better than “okay, that’s a good reaction, they tell you what you need to know”. That goes doubly for new players, convention games and people who struggle to find the right words. Agency is not fluency. Have them state their intentions and then narrate the consequences of their dice roll, but NOT their next action. Of course, this assumes your players don’t take great joy in doing it themselves. Your point about communication cannot be overstated.
    The cardinal sin is, I think, when you narrate reactions. Not the gut reaction of “you feel a chill in your heart, when he tells you that he killed your mentor” but what happens after. Of course, triggering self-control rolls is okay, but even then the GM should exercise caution, when narrating those consequences.
    On the whole, I think the GURPS 1-second round helps a lot with these pitfalls compared to the ampersand game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *