Trust in Me

Saturday, February 09, 2013

This 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.

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Blogger Patrick Mallah says:  

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Blogger Marshall says:  

How can games build trust between players? Can we design games to reward validating each others' ideas and encourage a looser handhold on the reins?

Blogger John Powell says:  


Blogger Shervyn says:  

I have to say, I love letting go and losing control, giving people the space to go where they will. Some of the most memorable events I've ever roleplayed have grown out of those moments. Sure sometimes it takes you places you didn't expect and sometimes it's not quite what you were looking for, but man when it hits, when a new avenue or roleplaying possibility that you did not foresee opens up and catches fire...there is nothing in the world like it.

Blogger skalchemist says:  

Excellent post. The advice in the last paragraph is golden. In fact, it is almost a restatement of the Golden Rule in RPG terms.

In response to Marshall's comment, maybe different games have a different trust "baseline", regardless of the actual mechanics. A game with a low baseline is one where trust is a big issue that can cause the game to falter early. A game with a high baseline is one where trust is unlikely to be an issue.

In my experience Dungeons and Dragons has a very LOW trust baseline, even though it seemingly should be one of the easiest games to play with strangers, because in fact what people call "Dungeons and Dragons" is a whole of host of wildly different game experiences, and if you play a lot with strangers you probably have experience a group that is playing D&D very differently from what you expected, in ways you found not fun.

Alternatively, games like Fiasco and Dust Devils have a pretty high baseline because they have a very strong theme and some widely understood genre conventions that go with them.

Games with a deep and widely loved background (e.g. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) have a low trust baseline, because it's very likely at least some players will have a very definite vision of what is lawful within that background, and any violation of that will kill their fun.

All of this plays out particularly in the realm of convention games, where you are playing with a group of strangers once. There is no long term feedback, no pre-existing relationship. The only trust you have is what you innately bring to the table and what the game has as a baseline.

Anonymous Josh W says:  

There's something weird about trust, it's a wonderful emotion, but generally the outcome of other factors.

Like if I know that a certain person doesn't always think through practical details, that will likely lead to absurdities later on, but has a really vivid imagination, I don't really trust him not to make something that suits me without my help.

But I know how to help him without making a big deal of it. So in that context, I do trust him, totally.

Or an actual example, if I know a friend of mine has a tendency to totally sideline people's intentions if he has an amazing idea based off of theirs, I know that gently saying, "well actually, I was thinking something a bit more like this" will preserve that enthusiasm without him just running off with my ideas.

In this context, total trust, because I know his weaknesses.

So trust is funny, it's like "unity"; something that's really good, but I think it has to be aimed for indirectly.

Blogger Callan S. says:  

I don't think trust in itself resolves if you are fighting with your respected peers, as you put it.

Maybe a coin toss between respected peers, that works. Maybe some sort of compromise/bargaining system with respected peers.

But otherwise that fighting with respected peers isn't resolved.

Blogger seth blevins says:  

I love this post.

And I have to admit. I do not trust my GM, ever. It is not a matter of them ever losing my trust, or a judgement of their ability. I just do not trust them, and never will.

And on the other side, as a GM, I do not trust the players. They need to have something bad happen their character they will never do enough, and if it is something good they always take too much.

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Anonymous Josh W says:  

There's another thing here that doesn't really categorise as trust for me, but which I think is vital to what you’re talking about:

If people have differing ideas of where things should go next, as of course they will, then your first preference might be to have a certain sort of thing happen, but that doesn't include all of the games you'll actually enjoy.

"Doing it right" can be about meeting expectations, or about avoiding common flaws, but neither one is a guaranteed indicator of quality if you are open minded enough.

The basic key is to be easier on other players than you are on yourself, so that everyone tries to do something good, and then receives it in that spirit.

Of course, a "low trust" game can be more easy going, as there is less self-editing, because that same thought process (of developing towards something good and not just going with the first thing that is said) has been made public.

You might almost say that in this context honesty and trust are opposites, because when we talk about "honest communication", we mean that quality is coming from real discussions, which looks and when we talk about "trust", it's coming from internalised relationships and acceptance.

And in both of these situations, we say honesty, and trust, but it’s easy to see that there’s something underlying those. You can be honest with other players without tying everything to explicit communication of expectations or dissatisfaction. You can talk to your fellow players without “talking to your players”.

In the same way, you can trust your players without assuming first and foremost that everyone is speaking from internal creative visions that you want to try and bring out and accommodate wherever possible. Sometimes people are just trying things on for size, and would appreciate being told when you think something isn’t working.

If this model is true, then this suggests that even my first distinction, between internal or external development, is not strictly true, because you can have external development of ideas within this context, which is more about trying to help each other to develop your ideas, so that you can see what is cool about it.
There are ways to respond that send little plumblines into the depths of someone else’s idea, scouting it out to get the hang of it, and (so long as it’s based on real appreciation) probably encouraging them to flesh it out in response.

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And on the other side, as a GM, I do not trust the players. They need to have something bad happen their character they will never do enough, and if it is something good they always take too much.
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