January 21, 2014

System as Neutral Arbiter

By default, the DM is the neutral arbiter of an rpg game. They are there to represent the antagonists; to play them fairly and without bias. And with that neutrality comes a lot of power. And sometimes that neutrality can be broken with dire consequences.

In the early days of rpgs, the DM was King. They ran encounters as they wished and interpreted the rules in their own manner.  That worked great; games moved on and people had fun…until people didn’t have fun. Sometimes a DM would make a ruling that the players didn’t like and refused to budge on it. Sometimes a DM would be in a bad mood and unconsciously take it out on the player characters. Sometimes a player would run into a killer DM whose enjoyment came from destroying and frustrating characters and their players. Sometimes the DM became competitive with the players and their characters. Such bad DMs were bad because they abused the game system for their own advantage/enjoyment.

The usual solution to such DMs was to move on; find a new DM. Sometimes this wasn’t possible and players were stuck with who they had. Then the alternative was to simply stop playing. I suspect many former players stopped playing because of bad experiences with an awful DM.

So, the question of this article is…can a rules system be designed to act as neutral arbiter? Can a system be designed that will limit the power of the DM? Can a system be designed that is transparent enough that the players can see abuses of DM arbitration? Can a system be designed that equalizes the power (or game control) between DM and players? I would say yes, and that it has already been done.

In order for a system to act as neutral arbiter it must limit the powers of what a DM can do to the characters. The easiest way to do this is through limiting and codifying encounter design. If a DM is limited to certain types (levels) of creatures/traps that they can throw at the PCs then the DM is by default restricted form using inappropriate monsters. Thus the system is placing all encounters within the capabilities of the characters.

3E did this with their CR system. Depending on what levels the characters were, the DM had a certain range of monsters they can add into an encounter. In addition, monsters were based off of character design. Monsters had a base template and onto that was added the same classes as what the player characters had for abilities. If a DM wanted to customize a monster they would have to use prescribed abilities. In this way, monsters were limited to what the player characters could do.

4E took this concept of neutral system arbitration even further. Encounter design was even tighter. A DM was given points to build encounters with and then given a limited set of monsters/traps to buy with those points. XP and loot rewards were clearly defined and a reflection of the encounter design parameters. Basically the capabilities of the players and the DM were pre-defined.

However, the most pronounced example of system arbitration and rigid encounter design is the Rune rpg written by the talented Robin D Laws and released by Atlas Games. Rune is an rpg based on the computer game of the same name that focuses on brutal hack-and-slash. The focus is less on role-playing and more on straight up combat. Encounters are written by a strict point-based system that factors in the characters and even previous encounters. The DM is limited to specific things they can include in an encounter and they are even not allowed to reuse certain encounter elements within a string of encounters. However, in this game the DM is encouraged to push the capabilities of the characters and to design “killer” encounters…all within the limitations of the allowed design components. And those limitations kept everything equalized.

So, it is possible to design a system wherein the powers of the DM are reduced and the game is on a level playing field between player and DM.

Of course, the DM is still King. Even if a system sets up encounter design mechanics it is still possible for a DM to simply ignore them and still make things up as they see fit. However, if there is an implication between the players and DM that the DM will be following the design mechanics of a rule system then the DM will be stepping outside the bounds that the group has set in place by using that particular system. The players would then have the “right” to complain.

However, a follow-up question is…should a rules system be the neutral arbiter?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Ultimately, it always comes down to trust. Does the group trust their DM? If they do, then there is no real need for an arbiter system. Most well-established gaming groups trust their DMs through years of gaming together. However, many new groups would like a rules system that keeps things fair; at least at the start. A rigid system will show when a DM is breaking the rules for their own advantage; this is a sign for the players in that group to beware of.
Also, when playing in a neutral environment, such at a con, an arbiter system is good as well. How does the DM rule on topics that may not be covered by the rules. Let’s look at Falling. Without system rules on this the DM has the right to have it do little damage all the way up to killing a character. The trust between player and DM has not been built up. I’m sure most of us have heard horror stories of bad DMs at cons.

However, sometimes it’s not about trust. Sometimes it’s simply wanting the feeling that there is no question as to trust; that the system is keeping things fair and above board. Thus there is no need to question the integrity of the DM. It also means the players don’t have to question what is happening to their characters. They know what to expect system-wise. They know what Falling does before it happens. They know the consequences of their actions because the system is judging their actions, not the DM.

Of course, a system that does the work for the DM is not to everyone’s liking. Some DMs resent having their power to control the game minimized and is counter to why they play; some even consider it an insult. Some groups enjoy a more random system where not everything is balanced within the system. Of course all of these groups have that implicit trust of their DM; they trust their DM to be neutral. “Balance” is not an issue for them because they trust the DM to only present situations that they at least have a chance of surviving. And they do already know the consequences of their actions, because the DM’s reactions are a known commodity. In this case the consistency of a rules system has been replaced with the consistency of the DM.

Each gaming group is different. How much system arbitration does your group prefer?

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