Trust issues

Would you trust this GM? Over the years I have talked with a lot of roleplaying game players about rules-light games. The older I get the more I gravitate towards rules-light systems, because I feel they suit my style of playing and running games more than the more crunchy rulesets. One of the arguments I heard against these systems was that in rules-light systems a lot relies on GM fiat. When you have a game like D&D 4th Edition for example where almost every situation is covered by rules, GM fiat plays only a minor role. This is definitely an advantage when you deal with an inexperienced DM or if the players have some trust issues when it comes to the GM.

What I want to muse about today is trust. I don’t think that anyone should play roleplaying games with someone who they don’t trust. If you think your GM is screwing with your character at any given opportunity you should perhaps look for another gaming group. Even the most rock-solid ruleset will not help you defend such a GM. Relying on the rules to solve conflicts caused by the lack of trust only lead to rules lawyerism and frustration all around.

I doubt I have to tell anyone why trust is important. Even if most of us don’t actually sign a piece of paper titled “social contract”, we all usually accept a certain set of rules when we sit down at the game table. When you play in someone’s home there are the common rules and privileges of host and guest that apply. Aside from that there are certain special rules that apply when you start gaming. One of the most basic rule that anyone agrees on that everyone at the table should have fun. The players also agree that they trust the GMs rulings if needed and the GM pledges to be fair and unbiased. Alas more often these basic rules are ignored.

As a GM one of the first things I try to do is build trust with the players. This actually starts at the moment the player sits down at the game table, possibly even earlier than that. In most cases I am although the host so I do what every good host would do. Make the players feel comfortable, offer them something to drink, be polite and friendly. When you introduce new players to the game inform them about house rules, the groups’ gaming style, and let them know if there are certain rules in your group that go beyond the game itself (like no snacks during play etc.).

During play there are also various things to consider. When you allow a player character a certain class, skill, power, magic item etc. don’t take it away casually. Don’t kill characters because of a simple botched roll or because you just thought it would be a funny idea. Be open to your players’ ideas and wishes. When you show them that they can trust you and that you’re working with them and not against them, they’ll surely come back for more. A little trust goes a long way.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

15 thoughts on “Trust issues”

  1. I’ve always felt strongly about this particular topic. As a GM, I have better things to do with my gaming hours than to kill off the player characters.

    With a little trust from both sides, one can end up with games with more depth and a broader spectrum of interesting situations.

    1. My thoughts exactly. And I think a lot of long rules discussions are mainly a trust issue. Players don’t trust the GM to make a fair and unbiased decision.

  2. This is something I very much agree with and have included the following section in one of my more rules-lite games to try and encourage a trusting atmosphere.

    The Principles of G&T.
    In this case G&T is Generosity and Trust. The GM gets the final say on disputed matters, but when in doubt should be generous to the players. Players should be having more fun than your villains and henchmen. Likewise, the players should trust that when the GM is holding back on generosity they are doing it for a reason. Without this trust the game cannot be at its best.

  3. I love this. I know that I moved away towards lighter rules games, when I play and when I write, because I feel that GM Fiat and trust are easier to be built in a situation that allows them to grow.

  4. I was with you up till this:

    “Don’t kill characters because of a simple botched roll…”

    I cannot express how much my players trust me BECAUSE I follow the dice, for good or ill. They understand this is a game, that the dice could be against them as well as for them and that I don’t fudge, I roll in front of them AND I respect the dice. If a player “botches” a save vs. death, they die. If a player scores a massive 30 hp of damage on the d30 roll, they cleave the monster in half. It works both ways.

      1. Invalidates, no? Recognizes that there are many paths to trust, especially through some of the typical “old school games are bad” tropes like that one, yes. Players will respect DMs who are consistent and honest, even with “bad” dice rolls. Remove a dice roll for a player and it’s a slippery slope that removes trust, in my experience.

  5. One of the important things I learned is to be conistent. If you roll in the open and do not fudge, always do that. Do not switch the method around. Players should also be able to judge how you will rule in certain situatons. If you change your decisions from session to session no one will be able to follow you and suddenly every situation has become unpredictable.

  6. We have all done this. I have been on both sides of the “death by botched roll” scenrio. I have a friend that STILL gives me crap cuz I killed his 2nd edition ranger (by kobolds).

    I agree that trust is important. Which is why it is hard to bring new people into your group at times. I have gamed with my group for years now and we definately trust each other. when we do bring a new gamer into the group, we do a lot of the things you mentioned. We will meet for drinks beforehand and try to ease them in.

  7. I’ve had this conversation with my wife a few times now. Apparently when I GM I have the tendency to weigh the severity of the roll. Particularly things like knowledge rolls where I’m trying to decide how much information to give the players. Her take on it is that it gives the impression that I’m making it up as I go along. I think that the players just feel safer knowing that the world exists beyond just the GMs head even if that isn’t the case.

  8. I agree that trust is important in role-playing, whether it’s using complicated systems or rules-light ones. It’s also a two-way street: Just as I rarely kill off Player Characters, so too do I hope that gamers will cooperate rather than compete for power or attention, allowing me and one another the courtesy of time to develop characters, setting, and story. I’ve spent years building campaign worlds, but I try to leave individual events to a mix of player determination and chance.

  9. I am going to have to play devil’s advocate here:

    What about ease on the GM? GM’s often like to provide a consistent experience so they don’t accidentally create a feeling of favouritism amongst the players. “Why did I get 30 points of damage while Suzie got to make a saving throw?”. The reason isn’t because Suzie is the GM’s spouse (even if she also is), its simply the GM forgot he had used a different ruling previously and he is new to GMing so he hasn’t committed his own library of GM “Common Law” to memory through regular use.

    Rules used as suggestions offer a common structure. Can you imagine how much extra work would lie on the GM’s shoulders if there were no combat rules and the GM had to create a custom scenario for each attack? “Ok you have a sword, but he’s in plate mail, but you are a higher level so..12+ and he dies? 14+?”.

    Rules also allow for players to plan future actions without taking up the game masters time going through 40 hypothetical situations each. They can each plan in their head and know what the chances of success of each plan, as well as the likely pitfalls are. There may be some differences from plan to paper, but in the end the thief knows he’ll need to make roll X to sneak up on someone, and if he does his pick pocket chances are about Y to take the key.

    One of the universal rules I use to this end is that a specific rule only comes into play if someone involved in the action knows it off hand. At that point the way the rules work were obviously part of their choice in action. If they don’t its GM winging it (fiat), no looking stuff up.

  10. This is definitely a discussion worth having. I have to agree with Zzarchov’s devil’s-advocacy here. I’ve often put forward that the RAW are there to provide a common structure or language we can use to talk about the games. Furthermore, people will have “discussions” about anything, especially in the internet age, so the fact that you can find gamers hammering on each other about rules says nothing about the idea of rules themselves.

    I agree with the ultimate point that trust is vital. Until I feel I can trust a GM and my fellow players, I don’t really get the full gaming experience. It can still be fun, but I feel a certain reticence. Once I know I can trust the others with me at the table, it gets a lot better.

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