Trust in Gaming, Part 2: Trust as a GM

Part One of the Trust in Gaming series can be found here.

As a GM, you have to trust your system, your players, and yourself, but if you can’t do that, you at least need to trust your players– and they need to be trustworthy. If they’re not, then you rely on the system and yourself.

Trusting your System

I’m going to start with the least important part of the game: the game itself. The GM has to trust the system they’ve chosen. They have to trust that the system will support the kind of game they and the players want to play. If you like to “tell a story” and lead the players through a campaign, then your system needs to support a more linear play style. If you like things to be open-ended and you want your players to surprise you, then you need  a system that gives narrative control to the players.

For me, there are a few things that I look for when I’m evaluating a system:

  • Fair. This doesn’t mean equal, however. If all the “characters” in the game– PCs, NPCs, monsters, etc., are all built using the same mechanics, then the game is both fair and equal. However, a game can also be fair if the monsters and NPCs have different “rules” than the PCs. For example 4th edition D&D is fair, even though the monsters and NPCs are built differently than PCs. It’s fair because the PCs have more people and therefore more actions per round, and they have a much higher pool of hit points to draw from (being able to heal). Dungeon World similarly gives the monsters different stats and moves than the PCs– in fact, Dungeon World monsters never roll dice on their own.
  • Shared Narrative Control. Still under the umbrella of “fair,” I look for systems that let the players tell me what happens when they do something cool or interesting. I want my players to be able to say “I think it’s cooler if the fire elemental follows me like a puppy– can that happen?” Yes. Yes, it can. Until that fire pet over-rides the “fair” part of the game, I’m happy to let the player change the way the story unfolds. GMs and players who want to make persistent changes to the world are looking for shared narrative control, too.
  • Respect for Diversity. This is a subtle one that not every grognard in the world cares about, but I do. Having had my share of bad GMing experiences, I won’t play a system that puts me at a cultural disadvantage at the table just because of what’s between my legs. If you have a “whoring” skill in your game, I’m not going to run it. Keep in mind, if the players push for a raunchy game (see my Space Race campaign), then that’s the players taking narrative control and pushing for what they want. That’s fine, although I am also a player and might reign it in if I’m feeling uncomfortable or disrespected.
  • Support for the Genre. Whatever genre or tone my players and I agree on, we need a system that supports it well. Some systems don’t support some genres all that well. Fate is quite poor at horror, because the large amount of shared narrative control means the system is very “meta” and therefore, there are no unpleasant surprises– only surprises that players have put into play. Similarly, D&D doesn’t support investigation stories well. There are a lot of GMs who have adapted it to do so, and who use different techniques to shoehorn a mystery story out of it. But at its core, the game isn’t about finding clues and solving a mystery.

Other GMs will have other criteria. One GM might really like the d20 statistical range, so having d20’s could be important. Another GM wants to have a lot of tactical combat rules to simulate conflict resolution. Every GM and every player will have different things that are important to them. Identify those, and view games through that lens when you’re deciding whether to play them or not.

When GMs don’t trust their system, one of two things happen. Either they abandon the system and find something different (leading players to create yet another round of PCs for a campaign they got to play twice). Or they house rule things until they think it fits.

Trusting your Players

This is perhaps the most important thing you need to trust as a GM. Your players will make or break your game– usually both. If you can’t trust them to tell a good story with you, then you look for a system that helps you all do that.

I’ve GMed a group with whom I lost trust. Several weeks of what can only be described as “rape jokes” at the table had left me exhausted, emotionally, and fed up. I finally sent them all an email detailing what was wrong, why I was having a hard time, and informing them that these jokes had to stop, or I would no longer be able to GM for them. Several of the players apologized, and one retired his character, as he really couldn’t find a way to make that PC less “rapey” and still be true to the character (the party burned him alive, as an evil NPC, in a later session). The apology and retirement restored my trust in those players, and it turned that campaign into something truly epic– we still tell stories about it.

I’ve also GMed groups where I didn’t lose trust, so much as I never had it. In those cases, I just lean on the system to help guide what’s going to happen, and I hope the players build trust and start to play the game I want to play. Some aren’t interested in that, so they leave after a while, presumably for other games. Some really are, and I consistently pull several players out of the woodwork when I need or want to.

GMs who don’t trust their players often resort to many of the “weak GM” problems, like:

  • Railroading the adventure – “I can’t trust these guys to go where I want them to!” No, of course not. Give them lots of places to go, and they will go where they want to– and that’s okay!
  • DMPCs - “They need the help!” Well, either you genuinely think the conflict is too hard– in which case you aren’t trusting the players to figure out new ways to get around the problems. Or you just want to play and be the hero because you don’t trust your players to be the heroes (or you really just want to hog the spotlight).
  • Bunnying the Players – “And then you’re taken captive.” “No, Hrothgar would go down fighting!” Don’t tell the players what they do. Tell them what happens and let them react. Ask them if they surrender. If you absolutely need to push a scene to get somewhere, tell them that– “Hey, guys. I know it’s a bit railroady, but I need to get us into the jail, and I’ve got two dozen guards who just showed up. Does anyone go peacefully, or would you all fight to the last man?” In this case, you have to trust your players to participate in the story, opening the meta-game up for them to participate in.

Trusting Yourself

It is very easy to second-guess yourself as a GM. Are the players having fun? is the most important, and most damaging question you can ask in a campaign. I have run sessions that seemed on the outside to be really un-fun– lots of players looking tense, me looking like I was really enjoying playing the death squad. I ran a TPK (total party kill) just last night where one of the players mucked around on his phone for 15 minutes after his character was the first to go.

I ask the players about it later, and they universally had fun and come back week after week for more. Part of that is because I asked them their post-death coda (everyone wants a legacy), but part of it is also that tension and “my character isn’t having fun” is not the same as “the player is not having fun.

You have to trust that, as the GM, your role is to enable the players to have fun, and having fun for them usually means being the main characters in an exciting adventure story with conflict and resolution.

In a cooperative game, you provide the conflict, which enables the resolution.

Conflict doesn’t have to be combat, of course. And it’s not always cooperative gaming– some of the conflict can come from other players. But the majority of the conflict will be driven by the GM, and that means you have to trust yourself to be hard sometimes, to give them obstacles and enemies that are worthy of their time and efforts. There’s a great deal of self-confidence that goes into GMing, so if you can’t trust yourself at all, you may want to do some affirmations before you GM to get there.

GMs who don’t trust themselves rely heavily on the system, which is fine when you’re learning a system, but experienced and confident GMs usually loosen up.

Players roll dice to see what happens. DMs roll dice to hear the sound. –Gary Gygax

GMs who don’t trust themselves often also don’t trust the players a great deal, something which isn’t always true in the opposite direction. A player who doesn’t trust themselves will rely more on the GM for help. A GM who doesn’t trust themselves will rely only on the system.

Side Note: Game system designers who don’t trust their own systems will usually rely on the GM to make it better, with things like “rule zero” and chapters on why GMs should modify the system. Game books that tell GMs how to modify the system (like the Fate Toolkit or the Timewatch chapter on setting tone) are usually better, since they give more concrete suggestions for “if you want your game to be more like this, do this.” Game designers need to design for mediocre GMs, not good ones.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Trust in Gaming blog posts. I’ll probably have more to say about this topic in the future, but for now, I hope this has been useful. Feel free to leave comments– all spam will be deleted, of course.