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Trust in Gaming, Part I: Trusting as a Player

About 2 years ago, I read a post or thread on the Internet (I can’t remember where anymore) about trust in RPGs, and it really struck a chord with me, so I want to talk about that today.

Role-playing games employ a lot of trust in order to work. Like a relationship, when the trust is there, they can work beautifully. When there’s no trust, you need a lot of overhead and rules to make them work.

This is Part I of this topic, covering how a player needs to trust. I have a lot to say on it, so I’m splitting this into multiple posts.

Trust in Players
Let’s start with human-to-human trust. As a player, I need to trust my fellow players, and my GM. Trusting the other players means I believe that they will work in the best interests of the story, whatever we’ve agreed that means. It also means I trust them as people to “not be a dick.” To not treat me badly or unsafely.

In a new gaming group, or a public game, or a convention game where we might not have any consequences, I don’t usually have a lot of trust with the other players. There are some folks who I meet at conventions over and over, or who I know through Google+, who have built trust, or in some cases, who have eroded it.

There are players who I see rarely with whom I have zero trust. Why? Because they’ve shown more than once that I can only trust them to behave like barely-trained children. Does this mean I won’t play with them? Some, yes. But most, it means I won’t play with them unless there’s a lot of control over the story, format, system, and table etiquette. I limit my risk. I don’t play adult-theme games like Apocalypse World (AW) with people I don’t trust.

And then there are players who I see rarely, but who I have a high level of trust.

For example, Matt Smith is a player in Los Angeles who I’ve played with at Strategicon a couple of times– and in each game, we’ve had very good gaming chemistry, our characters played off each other well, and we had a great time. We’ve circled each other on Google+ and share conversations there, which reinforces that trust. As a result, the AW game I was in with Matt at Orccon last month was the first time since reaching adulthood that I was comfortable with rape being something that could be used to threaten my character (in fact, I handed it to Matt in the Apocalypse World game as the thing my character fears the most).

And here’s why Matt is an awesome player worthy of that trust: even though he immediately thought about how his character might do that, he also knew there were easier ways to get what he wanted. So he stored the information away and hoped to never, ever need to use it. If we’d come down to a really intense, plot-driven moment where he needed it, I have no doubt he would have used it, and I’d have felt everything awful for my character, but as a player, I would have seen it as a shining triumph of storytelling.

Trust in the GM

The players have to trust the GM as well, and we have to trust them to be a fan of our characters. Yes, sometimes the GM wants to kill a few PCs to make a point, or to drive home part of the narrative. But GMs don’t kill PCs just because they can. What would be the point? The GM is all-powerful. Even in my game last week, the PC who died did so after I’d pulled punches for 4 rounds, only to ambush him later with tactics that, frankly, would be considered clumsy in Liching 101.

I was in a game about 2 years ago that utterly ended my trust in a GM. He was someone I’ve played with for a few years, and we were very close friends, but our friendship was on the rocks by this point, and we were nearing the end of a rather back-stabby campaign. I wasn’t handling the back-stabbery well as a result, and so I own my part in the erosion of trust.

And then, he did something that finished our gaming together forever. After my character was dead and done, he continued to privately message me with the ways in which her body was desecrated by the agents of the drow.

What’s the point? I argued. Why are you even telling me this?

The trust we’d built up for years was gone. It wasn’t just that moment, but that moment highlighted to me that I didn’t trust that he was treating me fairly (after talking to the player who had been plotting against me, the actions were driven by that player, filtered through the DM… but he still didn’t handle it correctly, in my opinion). I didn’t trust that he had any good reason to be adding the insult to my injury, and to this day, I don’t really know why he was doing so in a private chat message.

The campaign was over, and I was done with gaming with him. We haven’t played together since.

Trust in the System

This is less important for players than for the GM, but as a player, you have to either trust your GM or your system. If you don’t completely trust your GM, because maybe your GM is not very fair, then you have to trust the game system to be fair and support a fun experience. This is where you get players who go by the system, not the group or the story. It’s how you have “Pathfinder players” who don’t want to play any other system. And edition wars. And people pointing out (rightly) when a system is untrustworthy often get smashed by people who love and trust their system above all things (usually because they exploit their system to give them the story they want, since for whatever reason, the other players and GM won’t do so).

To trust the system… you have to have a robust system that gives the players enough control to act as effective checks against GMs who abuse their power or throw people on the rails or whatever. If you trust the system more than the GM, you might find yourself prone to rules-lawyering, which is pretty much the best and only defense against untrustworthy GMs. “Well, technically prone is a specific condition, and there’s a mathematical reason you shouldn’t do that… but you’re the GM, so your word goes.”

I do this a lot in public gaming, especially in D&D 4th edition. The system is rigid and robust. There is a lot of room for role-playing, but if someone just wants to take their dice for a stroll, they can do that, too. There are a lot of “checks and balances” between what the monsters can do and what the heroes can do. There are things the monsters can do that heroes never can– and while frustrating, that’s okay. Heroes, for example, have a nearly endless source of healing, which monsters really don’t.

Because I trust the system, I’m not afraid of min-maxing my characters, and I’m not afraid when players do so at my table, because I know that no amount of min-maxing will unbalance the game. If I keep the encounter design within a fairly broad scale for difficulty, I know the PCs will not be overwhelmed and will have opportunities for heroics– which is pretty much the “sweet spot” for my games.

When I’m playtesting a system, I have to trust it less– it’s an untried game, after all, and distrusting the system is exactly the purpose of the playtest.

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