This is a more advanced theory topic than I usually deal with on Socratic Design, but in light of me coming to a deeper understanding about RPG play and RPG design, I feel I need to share this with my audience.
Within the last twelve months I have written articles about GM Fiat and The GoldenRule (aka Rule Zero). I’m here, today, in this article to state that neither of these things actually exists. GM Fiat and The Golden Rule (“the GM is always right”) exist only as a means to describe a phenomenon at only the most surface level. The truth is, the GM cannot assert anything in any game without the group’s consent.
Now, that may sound absurd to some, heretical to others, but it is the truth. Consider this: the GM in whatever FRPG you’re playing says, “Okay guys, you walk into the nearest tavern and a sorcerer kills all of you.” That’s an excellent example of Fiat and/or The Golden Rule. The GM made a decision and enacted it. So what happens next?
Do the players go along with it? Do they rebel and leave? It doesn’t matter. Either way, what the GM said doesn’t happen until the group agrees to it. If they don’t say anything and start rolling up new characters, it means the group assented. If they argue, “Hey, I never said I even went into town!” then the situation will not be resolved until the entire group-including the GM-agrees to what happened or the players get up and leave. And if the players get up and leave, the situation is still up in the air because play ended.
See, the players and GM have a co-authorial relationship when play is happening. Nothing the GM says becomes true until everyone agrees- either explicitly by saying “ok” or implicitly by not raising an objection. Likewise, nothing a single player says becomes true unless the rest of the group (including the GM) agrees to it implicitly or explicitly.
GMs who think they have all the power in a game are sorely mistaken. They must still get approval from the players at every step of the way in order for play to continue. If they don’t, play stops until group consensus is reached or everyone quits. The players, therefore, have just as much control over what happens as the GM.
Now, it may not always appear that way. It may appear that the players are allowing the GM to railroad them into whatever direction the GM wants. Or the GM may be using subtle social manipulation to nullify the choices made by the players. But those are just illusions. Nothing happens during play unless the whole group agrees to it or, at the very least, fails to object (implicit agreement).
So what does this have to do with design? Well, if a designer understands that this dynamic is already in play, then he or she can take advantage of it rather than fight against it. Instead of trying to create rules that help a GM keep the players “on track,” the designer can create rules that aid and facilitate group consensus. This way, play moves along at an orderly pace, there are fewer arguments and hurt feelings. I.E. you avoid making a game where the 20:4 ratio is the default mode of play.