Saturday, March 5, 2016

Fall Back, I've Got You

The always amazing Play On Target Podcast did an episode about 'Building Trust'.

It's premise focused mainly on creating a feeling of trust between the players and each other,  and between the players, and the GM in a role-playing game situation. They discuss the development of the social contract we all need to have in this hobby to make it work. They address communal, collaborative development of the setting, the characters, the elements, and style of play everyone wants to focus on.

It is an excellent analysis of the subject, and as with all of the Play On Target episodes, well worth your time to listen to.
My initial gut reaction to this podcast was to write a frustration venting, snarky post full of shouting with capital letters, bold faced type, and to generally come off as a complete , and total a-hole.
Why you may ask?
Because without thinking about it more deeply, I felt a lot of what they were saying wasn't about trust, it was about coddling. It was about concessions, and the negative aspects of compromise.
Keep that word compromise in the forefront of your thoughts. It'll come up later in the post.
I have decided instead to try and convey my feelings on the subject in a way that won't hurt the feelings of any particular players out there reading this, especially if said players should be, ya'know, mine.
That said, I intend to be completely honest about my feelings on the subject, and to make clear my disappointment in the way it is generally perceived by most gamers these days.
My players need to hear (OK, read) this, but moreover that need to understand it.
Here goes nothing...

What made my best games great was very often my getting some kind of crazy idea, telling my group I wanted to run that idea, everyone saying, "AWESOME!", and then we would have a great game.

What some of my worst games have in common is catering far too much to too many voices.

There are those who said they wanted one thing when they really wanted (or where thinking of) another thing. There are those who were interested in the game idea in their head, and not the one the group was participating in as a group. Sometimes there is a great deal of meta-thinking going on, trying to rationalize how the player can best help the GM make a good game, without knowing exactly what the GM is going for, or planning on.

In the end, all this boils down to a group that simply does not trust that the GM (in this case me) is going to run a great game.

The Play On Target podcast does an excellent job, as I noted in the introduction, of setting up ways in which to build player trust. They detail what aspects and approaches help, and hinder, player trust in a GM.

However...Why do you simply not go in trusting the GM? How does innate player paranoia assist the endeavor of running a good game in any way, shape, or form? Why do I have to build your trust as a GM? Have I burned you in the past? Have I run a ton of rotten games? No.

Are GM's assumed to be guilty? Do we need to prove ourselves innocent first?

As an example...

When the podcast begins, the guys mention the dynamic of starting a game one way, and then revealing it is in truth something very different, and how that can ruin  trust, and really break up a game.

This is one way to view trust.

Another way, the way my old groups all worked for many years, was that the players were my friends who trusted that I was going somewhere with the twist. The trust, the pretty much automatic, deep buy-in, was so strong, I could've pulled off turning a D&D game into a Star Frontiers game, and have everyone freaking thank me at the end.

Other examples of why I felt the podcast's approach to the subject painted a somewhat inaccurate picture of the way trust in gaming should work:

I think it's Andrew who mentions you should make characters together, as a group. A decent idea, but one I rarely find necessary. It can certainly help create a more balanced, and compatible team, but his reasoning is...

"So some guy doesn't show up with three 18s."

WTF?! Why are you even playing with that guy?! If that's a concern, you have bigger issues. That guy isn't playing the game you want to be playing. Dump him.

Lowell complains that sometimes he'll work out a great background for his character, but the GM didn't bring in his back story.

Maybe he wants to, but it's tricky. You're not the only player at the table. I desperately want to add elements of the PCs back stories into the campaign, as that is honestly how I develop a good portion of the game.

However, I'm used to having 6-8 players on average. Each back story can't be too complex, or involved initially, or it becomes very difficult to fit into the game, and harder to merge with other characters' stories. It's also really tedious to read through.

Be concise people. Keep it concise. Movie pitch here.

Now I'm not saying Lowell does this, but maybe if you want the GM to use your back story, don't write a character background whose page count rivals ROOTS! Your GM is running a game, not applying for a job as a library archivist.

Do you know how long it took me to read the first three books in the Dune series, by Frank Herbert? I was 14. I had ample free time, and I was an avid reader. It still took forever. Now, I run a business, I teach on the weekends, I'm trying to date, and I have at times two games to put together. I don't have that kind of time anymore.

DON'T MAKE YOUR BACKSTORY A DUNE BOOK, because with an average group size of 5 players, you're asking your GM to read FIVE DUNE BOOKS before he runs the first adventure! That's not including him/her reading the rules, making any modifications, creating the adventure, designing NPCs, getting artwork, or maps, etc.. DON'T DO THAT!

Lowell makes a point of backing up another player's action, in the hopes that the same player will back up your actions later.

If you don't know that player, and his/her character isn't a close friend of your character...dude...don't do that. Don't back someone up expecting them to return the favor. Do it because it's what you want to do. Do it because that's your character.

Sure, be a team player. Don't be a dick. It would be super awesome if everyone was that person, and in some groups everyone is. Just don't expect everyone at the table is seeing the same dynamic you're seeing for the same reasons. It's unrealistic.

Sam talks about secrets...and I've heard opinions of the subject of PC secrets before, recently from a good friend of mine. I couldn't disagree more.

If a player's PC has a secret, and you don't know about, that's because it's not your character. Sorry. If you notice them acting strangely, maybe have your character go ask the other player's character what's up. Organic baby. It's really inorganic to know everyone's deal when you shouldn't, or wouldn't. That doesn't work. Very few people, IN THE ENTIRE HOBBY, do a decent job of separating player knowledge, and character knowledge.

Add to this the amount of meta-thinking the millennial gamers do. It's all Google the info, read the sourcebook, get the video game strategy guide, read the spoilers for the movie. No one knows how to handle not knowing things any more.

Why? Because not knowing means you have to find something out. Finding things out is just too much effort I guess.

It's a freaking mystery! FIGURE IT THE *BLEEP* OUT! Investigate, ask questions, watch, learn, and do in IN GAME. Have your characters interact with each other. Stop playing table-top RPGs like single player video games, or MMOs where you level solo on Player vs. Environment servers. STOP! By Highfather's Beard I'm so sick of that.

Counting to ten...happy place...OK. Where was I? Ah yes, next...

On Player Versus Player

One of the other things the guys mention is the idea that some campaigns are run 'Playing to see what happens'.

Yes. THIS! All my campaigns are played 'Playing to see what happens'. They may be trying to emulate a comic book, or an episode of Star Trek, or the feel of an Anime/Manga romantic comedy, but they are all being played to see where things go. I have no idea how it'll end. I've made no plans to do anything in particular to anyone. The outcome of the game is as big a mystery to me, the GM, as it is to you the player.

So if trust is an issue, who exactly do you lack trust in? Me to make the game satisfying, or yourself to have the curiosity to see where it goes, and the patience to wait for the pay off?

In conclusion, I think everything the Play On Target guys said in their podcast was right on the money. It's a collection of great ideas, and logical approaches to the situation of trust between gamers on both sides of the table.

It is also all wholly unnecessary if you trust in one another going in, until there is a reason to feel other wise.

Each GM is different, each players is different, each game is different. If you go into any game, with anyone, without belief in the idea that everyone there is trying to make sure everyone else is having fun, then go home. You are likely the cause of the issue. You are likely the person who doesn't understand what I just wrote.

Have a little faith.

Barking Alien

I almost forgot - for another interesting take on the subject, check out this entry from the blog Improved Initiative.

Interesting stuff.


  1. Well, my most memorable moment ever in a roleplaying game was discovering that one of the PCs was, not only a traitor from the start, but also a former character surgically disguised* and, therefore, packing a lot of extra px. So, secret background? Check. Player versus player? Check. Cheating? Check. I was thrilled, I was terrified and I f****ng loved it!

    Give me surprises like that and I'll be yours forever. That is trust.

    *In fact, Vicissitude-altered

  2. Oh man...

    I could not agree with you more, sir. Anymore, I get players who either try to "game the system/background" to make themselves omniscient, if not omnipotent, or those who a mini-novel for character background, and then whine when I deviate from it to fit the game better. If they wanted that, they should go write a book and stay out of a collective story experience...