Gm Ethics: Fairness

Last week I laid out some terminology and some ideas that I want to use to explore the kinds of ethical obligations we have to each other around the gaming table. Specifically the relation between the GM and the players, but a lot of this is also applicable to the relations between players as well. I established how the players are stakeholders, and why they have a larger stake in the actions of the GM, because the GM can affect their interests in a more powerful way. This week I want to expand on that and talk about fairness, specifically fairness in principle. Why is it important to be fair, and what does it mean to talk about fairness?

So what’s fairness? When I think of fairness, I think of three things: impartiality, consistency, and following the rules. If we think of the GM as a croupier at an honest craps table, we can see this. It’s not just the croupier’s job to make sure all of the players are rolling fairly, but also to ensure that they themselves aren’t influencing the results. If the croupier changes the results, we think of them as a cheater in the same way that we would a player using loaded dice. It’s the croupier’s job to be impartial not just between players, but between themselves and the players, because a table that openly favours the house isn’t a fair one. It’s a croupier’s job to be consistent in their decisions, for much the same reason. And croupiers don’t just enforce the rules, they obey them. In essence, they’re responsible for making sure that it’s a fair game.

That’s important in a casino setting, but whether it’s as important around the table is the real question. It seems like we could imagine games which don’t focus on fairness. My nieces play pretend like that sometimes, and disputes tend to go “I got you!” “You missed!” “It’s magic!” “I have a forcefield!”The rules fluctuate to benefit either of them based on what they can argue for. Even here though, fairness becomes a concern. Sooner or later, one of them wins out more than the other, and the words “No fair!” emerge. They think they have an even playing field, and when they find out that it isn’t, that the rules and expectations have changed from what they bought into. It could be argued that we might accept unfairness in a game if that were a condition we bought into at the outset, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If all other things were equal between two gaming tables, it seems as though we would always rather play at the one which was more fair.

It does raise an interesting question, though. There’s a difference in responsibility between the GM and the players, which we could look at as a power imbalance. It doesn’t seem to be the case that a power imbalance is the same as unfairness. For example, if you’re playing a video game and set the difficulty to very hard, that stacks the odds against you but we wouldn’t say that it’s being unfair. While there’s a power imbalance, the basic ideas of consistency, impartiality, and following the rules are all preserved, which means that difficult games can still be fair. Otherwise we could assume that any game with a GM is necessarily unfair, and that’s part of the buy in.

Now, I argue that fairness is an ethical obligation particularly of GMs in the same way that it’s an ethical obligation for judges. The suspect, lawyers, and everyone involved in the judicial process for a case have a stake not just in the judge’s actions, but in that they will do their best to apply the law consistently and impartially. Similarly, the players have a stake in their GM’s decisions not just in an abstract sense, but in that the GM will do their best to apply the rules consistently and impartially. This obligation becomes stronger in light of the fact that the GM is entrusted with the responsibility of doing so, in the same way that the croupier is. Fairness is a relevant consideration for a GM in any decision which affects the players’ interests.

I hope I’ve managed to argue why fairness as a principle ought to be endorsed by GM’s. Next week, I’m going to talk about fairness as a practice, and recommend some policies which can help ensure a more fair, and thus more fun game for everyone.

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