Trust in Me
Saturday, February 09, 2013This is an old post. I didn't publish it way back when, because the situation was still very charged, and I didn't want to make it all about that one specific interaction. But, we've moved on now and I think there are some general points here worth sharing and discussing. So here it is.
A few interactions in one of the weekly games I'm in has highlighted some issues of trust in roleplaying so I figured I'd say a few words on the subject.
"As the GM, I describe the failure."
"Right. But you can't just say anything, right? It has to suit the character and not violate the player's vision, and it has to make sense with what has come before and..."
"Uh, that's not what the rule says. It says the GM describes the failure. Here's the actual text: 'Every so often, you’re going to lose control of your character for a moment. When you attempt to do something and fail your test, the GM gets to take over and describe something that went wrong. He can tell everyone about something you did that was misguided or even bad. Or, he can describe an unforeseen effect that your actions caused. He gets to stick it to you for a moment.'"
"Well, sure, that's what the book says, but you still have to make sure it's okay with the player and doesn't mess up their idea of the character..."
And that's when I realized that the player -- on some deep level -- just didn't trust me, as GM, to "do it right" when it came time to take control of their character on a failure. And not just their own character, but any PC.
And it turns out that the trust issue encompasses not just PC agency, but "the story" as well. Here's another exchange between two players:
"Yeah, I could have my character really go down this dark path..."
"But that's not great for the story, though. It's one dimensional to have a character that just spirals down like that."
"Yeah, well, that's where I see this going."
"I know, but it makes a weaker story that way. One-dimensional characters are boring..."
Again, the trust just isn't there. The PC going down this dark path is "doing the story wrong" (as if that was possible) or at the very least, making the story somehow worse. The objecting player has certain standards that must be honored, or his enjoyment of the game will suffer -- which is perfectly normal, of course -- but he doesn't trust the rest of us not to mess it all up for him.
As a result, we often end up debating the merits of player decisions, story points, NPC behaviors, and rules applications whenever any of them begin to diverge from the standards and preferences of this player. He's worried that we're going to weaken the story, make a critical error, do something that doesn't "make sense," or otherwise disrupt the fictional space inside his head. On some level, He just doesn't trust us to get it right.
When the trust is there, there's no need for lots of front-loaded debate and discussion before establishing the action. A fellow player does something that seems odd or the story takes a bizarre turn or a rule is applied in an unexpected way and it's okay. If you trust everyone sitting around the table, you can take a wait-and-see approach. Maybe it seems a little odd or unexpected now, but you trust that it will all work out. You give the benefit of the doubt.
When the trust is there, everyone is free to play hard, be bold, and put their stamp on the game. Their vision might be different from your vision, and that's okay. Playing with trust means coming to the table excited to hear what the other players are going to say -- whatever it may be. That's why we play these games with particular people, right? That's why we stay in groups with creative, interesting, engaging players and leave the groups that don't click for us.
Sure, sometimes you need to be firm and hold your ground. Sometimes you fight for your specific vision of the game. But when it comes from a place of trust, you're fighting with your respected peers. You're advocating for your ideas, not shooting theirs down. When it's not based in trust, you're trying to shepherd the other players -- steer them, guide them, show them the right way. You're fighting to protect yourself from their "bad ideas."
I'll say that again: You're fighting to protect yourself from the so-called bad ideas of your fellow players. If you're in this place, it's time to reassess. Do you really want to be playing with these people? Maybe play with people you trust more. Do you really want to trust this group, but find it hard to? Maybe press on and try to release the iron grip of control.
Also, consider this question: What did these people do to lose your trust? Often, the answer is "nothing." The lack of trust may be coming from past experiences or other issues. Try to give your fellow players the benefit of the doubt. Relax, and fly casual. The thing that seems so wrong or strange to you right now may turn out to be really cool if you allow your fellow players to take risks and be spontaneous.