One of the debates I've seen around several systems - particularly ones that are geared for cooperative play between GM and PCs - is that certain mechanics make it so the GM can just make you fail at whim. The complaint, effectively, is that the rules are set up to make you dance to the GM's tune if that is what the GM wants, and there is nothing you can do about that. This is said to be a bad thing, and presented as if other systems prevent it from happening. The thing is, if the GM wants you to fail, you're going to fail. Systems that can 'force' that easily just make it more obvious. Today I want to talk about the GM forcing failure, and what you can do about it.
Ultimately, It's About Power
While a lot of people don't think about it this way, human interaction is all about power and the exchange of power. This is true for RPGs as well. Now, a professor of mine defined power as "the ability for A to get what it wants from B without B being able to do anything about it." With that definition in mind, who is able to get what they want from B with little B can do or say about it? Is it the GM or the Player?
That's right it's the GM. With one caveat. Once the player chooses to play the game, they enter a world where the GM has the vast majority of the power. As such, in game, you are at the GM's whim to get along. Your only choice really is to not play (or to bring the in world altercation into a real world one.)
The Social Contract
This power relationship is why the Social Contract of gaming is so important. When you choose to play a game you agree to play in a world of the GM's creation (or a world run by the GM if a prebuilt world) as arbitrated by the system you choose to play with. All systems give the GM final power though, and that is to protect the fun of the game, but it still creates certain expectations. You should expect a natural 20 in D&D to be a success - and a good one at that. You can expect that you can always choose to bow out of a fight, but live, in a FATE game. You can generally expect the rules of the game to hold true - unless the GM is specificall changing them, and those changes should be to the agreement of the whole group and known ahead of time.
This social contract - for some games at least - also specifies that the GM isn't against the players, but is there to help tell a story in the world that is focused around the PCs. I say for some games because some GMs and gamers prefer a more adversarial relationship. Some prefer the story to not be about the PCs but the PCs to be there as witnesses/helpers. There is nothing wrong with either of these, they're just not games I want to be a part of really.
Making Failure Happen
Back to the beginning of this post, how does a GM make failure happen? The situation in question was sneaking in to steal something from a manor. In the system being discussed the player makes a roll which gives them points to spend to overcome obstacles along the way. The argument was that the GM could just make up more obstacles than the player had points to thwart the attempt. However, this isn't exclusive to that system. In any other system the GM could do the same thing, requiring different checks at every step along the way until the PC failed. Alternatively, the GM could just flat out state that the PC failed, or set the difficulty for the roll out of reach of the player's skill.
All of this isn't even an abuse of power on the GMs part, but part of their job. The GM decides how many obstacles, how many checks, or how hard the difficulty is for actions as part of their job. Which means, bottom line, if the GM wants something to fail - or to happen - it's going to happen.
So What Do You Do?
So how do you handle this as a player? Well, first off, failure should happen some of the time. You can't have good RP without bad rolls, and as a player you shouldn't fear failure. However, "just suck it up" isn't a solution so much as a caveat. Expect to fail sometimes. Just because you failed doesn't mean the GM screwed you over or made it happen. However, if you're encountering failure after failure from difficulties you can't hope to achieve despite your character being built or maxed out in that area? You have two recourses, and I recommend taking them in this order:
First, talk to the GM out of game. Explain what you are noticing, and bring up your fears and concerns. Charitably, I'd like to think the GM has just run into the problem of wanting to challenge you in your area and fumbled the execution, but it could be something else. The point is, if you don't talk to the GM about it you can't find out what they're trying to do, or present the fact that your character is built to succeed in that area, not fail repeatedly.
Second, you can leave the game. I don't mean this to be dramatic, but if you're not having fun then it isn't worth your time to play the game. This is also why I recommend talking to the GM first. Work out how you can have fun, and the GM can also have fun. Explain that - while it's not an ultimatum - if you can't work out both of you having fun, you'll have to drop the game. This is the power that you have in the game, so use it.
Try to be cordial. Try to keep it polite. You don't want to hurt feelings, and it's a discussion that may need to happen with several day long breaks in the middle, but have the conversation. Because, honestly, if you're not having fun, what is the point?