Thursday, February 11, 2016

Trust Issues: GMs and Players

Trust? When did become a thing? I remember high school games filled with betrayal, paranoids hiding their character sheets from one another, notes darkening the air, GMs using our plans against us. I also remember those campaigns inevitably crashing and burning. As we got older, games with "secret squirrel" bs became tiring. Some players stayed in that mode. I remember a post-college superhero game where one player triumphantly revealed he'd been a villain all along and had sold the group out. Followed by another player revealing they'd known and had already stopped their plans. Followed by the first player holding back tears of fury before taking his ball and going home. Ugh. 

But that's "gross" scale weirdness and betrayal at the table. In this episode of the Play on Target podcast, we set our sights a little narrower. We consider about how to keep trust and why that's important at the table. Not "X was the traitor" or Paranoia RPG mistrust, but players being uncertain you're going to let them have any impact. Take a listen and tell us what you think. Off base? On target? Below you'll find more (of course) I didn't say in the episode. 


Here are twelve thoughts, epiphanies, and tips I didn’t get to in the episode:
  1. Play Fair. We take that as obvious in the episode, so we’re less explicit about it. Recognize burning a player’s trust has long-term consequences. I’ve watched a couple of excited and interested players curl up and go cold after a GM’s betrayal. In one case I caused it. On the other hand, I lost trust in my late friend Barry. We never believed him fully when it came to mysteries and he found it frustrating. He’d burned us with a nasty set of multi-session red herrings in a superhero campaign. (“Yeah, the murderer in the apartment building was here for someone else but accidentally entered a Viper Agent’s place and killed him. And then stumbled across the agent’s super-hidden stash of weapons and tech. But it all It had nothing to do with Viper.”).
  2. Don't Undercut Success. If a player has done something and done it well, be careful of immediately dismissing or throw shade on what they did. Like “Well, anyone could’ve done that” or “It wasn’t that big a foe because I reduced his levels.” I played a campaign where my character sacrificed himself bravely in a final scene. It was a good death for a Martyr archetype in a Hunter game. As we wrapped the GM said, “Yeah, you didn’t need to do that. (My Mary Sue NPC) had wings and could’ve done it easily without dying. But he said whatever when you made the choice.”
  3. Demonstrate Results. If I don’t trust my action have an impact, why should I bother? And I don’t mean always winning, but actually getting some kind of feedback for success or failure. Over the years I’ve been in countless games where players do actions with a secondary skill, only to get a “yeah, you succeed” response. Most often information gathering, building contacts, and the like are given no weight.
  4. Talking. We mention talking to the GM as an option and a good one. I will point out an example where that didn’t work. I joined a Cyberpunk game and asked if they needed a Netrunner. The GM said they did and that I’d have stuff to do. Cut to several sessions of sitting on my hand or attempts which achieved the equivalent of unlocking someone’s car door. I spoke to the GM about that, said that I’d really like to see more options and opportunities for my character. The GM affirmed he would and understood my feelings. Cut to several sessions of nothing, punctuated by an operation where my isolated character rolled dice three times and had two minutes of play time.
  5. Genre Pickiness. If a GM runs a solid and awesome game for you, give them the benefit of the doubt when they suggest a campaign premise or system you’re not as into. Especially if they’re enthusiastic- they’re spending their social capital after all.
  6. Iron Face. I’ve run for players who will never trust me (or any GM). You have to recognize that and not take their distrust personally. It means they’re going to treat everything as a trap, in game or out. Just be consistent and accept they don’t want curveballs. Sometimes these players have a history of violence done to their characters by bad GMs. Sometimes they’re just that way. However, be prepared to cut them loose if their prickly, distrustful mode is a strategy to get concessions.
  7. Ask. If it fits with your style, consider ending answers and declarations with an invitation to respond. What do you think? Seem fair? Is that cool? Does that sound OK? That seem like enough? That leaves the door open in case a player feels they aren’t getting a fair shake.
  8. Demonstrate Evenhandedness. In an Exalted game, it became clear the GM continually centered things around one player-- that player got more opportunities and bigger breaks in combat. This wasn't any fault of that player-- instead it was a particular GM tic. The most egregious example came when the GM essentially shut down his wife’s character’s action despite extraordinary successes because it didn’t fit his focus. Give everyone equal opportunity to shine.
  9. Humanity. We've done a bunch of episodes on the difficulty of “subjective punishments,” like alignment penalties, humanity losses, paragon/renegade meters, clarity. If your game includes those mechanisms make it a priority to discuss those before you get to play.
  10. Through Your Paces. Let me supply a super-concrete example of what I want out of trust at the table. I want players to trust that I’m going to get to them, not going to forget them, and give them their chance to act (or decline acting). If players trust you on that, they’ll patiently wait while you’re dealing with other people. They’ll get less antsy when one player drags things out a little. They know you’ll finish and their day will come. Do that by being hyper aware of who has gone and not gone. In early sessions ride the clutch a little. Players will sometimes finish a question declaration and then launch into another. “Let me put a pin in that and I’ll come back to you, but let me hear from X first.” Get moving. Show the players their time is of value. I appreciate Andrew in our 13th Age game. He keeps things moving forward and keep me honest about making their time count.
  11. Give Them a Puppy. Let the players be trailblazers and owners of some things. If they’re an Elf, let them supply some of what Elves are about. If they’re from X place, they’re the expert on that. Support that and bring it into play. Even if you’re not a collaborative GM, try some of this. If you give them something they have ownership over and you blow it up, have a damn good reason.
  12. Take Them at Their Word. Show trust to get trust. 
Play on Target: Building Trust

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.