Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Matter of Trust

All RPGs have one thing in common. To succeed, the players must trust the game master, the other players and the game system itself.

Trust is a complex, multi-faceted issue, but there are a few aspects that seem easy to identify. We expect the system will be well defined, commonly understood and fair. We expect the GM will take us somewhere interesting. And we expect the other players will positively contribute to the story.

The interesting thing is, in some ways, one type of trust can replace the others.

Players who don't trust the other participants will often want a system they can depend on. In many ways, explicit social contracts are just a method for building trusted systems.

Alternatively, if you just mistrust the GM, you may try to distribute much of his power to the other player, or eliminate the GM entirely. If you mistrust the other players, you may want a strong GM to keep them in line. Finally, if you don't trust the system, you may de-emphasize it, relying on the GM and other players to just "wing it."

Note: none of these compensations are inherently bad. But, they all have a degenerate form.

Trusting the system may lead to rules lawyering as each participant tries to use the system to defend their concept of their character, their story and even the flow of the game itself.

Social contracts, by definition, limit the type of stories that you can tell. If you sufficiently trust the other participants, they may be able to escort you outside your comfort zone. This can lead you to more powerful, more interesting stories than your explicit social contract would allow.

GM-less games tend to emphasize emergent stories. Unfortunately, it can be hard to maintain the story's structure or any real consistency. There's no guarantee that the gun I placed on the mantle piece in act 1 will actually be shot in act 3. Most likely, it will be forgotten, leading to an inconsistent and somewhat scattered story.

On the other hand, relying on a strong GM forces the GM into a dictatorial role. By definition, this limits the type of choices and the amount of influence you have as a player.

Finally, "winging it" makes it more likely that the participants will have inconsistent or incompatible views of the system. Even with a single, well-defined, hard-and-fast set of rules, each player will have his or her own interpretations. Add another layer of fuzziness, and the players' mental concepts begin to drift.

Clearly, this is not a clean or concise science. And, to make things worse, every gamer has a unique set of trust issues, with varying levels of tolerance.

By default, most players seem to trust the system over the other participants. In many ways, this is the most pragmatic choice. You can alway buy a good system--finding good players can be much harder task. By emphasizing the system over the other participants, you can play with the widest range of other gamers. Unfortunately, your games will become severely limited to those things that the system handles well. Typically, this means tactically heavy combat.

For myself, I want to play with a GM that I can trust. I need a GM to manage the structure and consistency, and to make me feel like the story is going somewhere interesting. This represents my own mistrust in emergent stories.

Not surprisingly, I have a lower bar for the other players, but I still demand a high level of trust there. The system is the least important to me. I want it to be fast and transparent--but I don't really need to trust it. Not if I trust the other participants.

Obviously, many sets of trust issues are incompatible. I should not play games with people who mistrust their fellow gamers. That's just going to end badly.

Additionally, I think we can get a feel for a game designer's personal trust issues by examining the type of games they build. A lot of indie game designs are reactionary, at least in part. This is particularly true for designers who grew up on mainstream games. We all carry the scars of bad experiences, and we design our games around them.

Personally, I want games that heavily focus on story. This means the rules I design tend to be a bit fuzzy--They need to be fast and they need to be flexible. I trust the GM and Players to keep things fair and consistent. I always want a role for the GM, but will strongly empower the players. I feel the best stories can be found in the chaotic borderland between purely emergent stories and heavily plotted ones. The GM still monitors and maintains the structure, but the players make real decisions that have real consequences. The story's not allowed to drift randomly, nor is it railroaded to a particular destination. The player's trust that it is going somewhere, but they also help define the final destination.

Now, not everything in that statement can be boiled down to an issue of trust--but I'm sure some of my own, personal trust issues definitely shine through.



Blogger KingSpoom said...

For me, "outside the comfort zone" and "interesting story" are mutually exclusive.

By emphasizing the system over the other participants, you can play with the widest range of other gamers. Unfortunately, your games will become severely limited to those things that the system handles well.

This seems a bit odd to me. Sticking to and emphasizing a system is a method of restricting the range of participants to me. The limiting of game-types/styles is more of a side-effect in my mind.

The rest is good.

5:43 PM  
Blogger ChattyDM said...

Very good post, even if I sit at the Crunch, trusted system side of the slide.

I might come back and visit it in my blog later (with proper credit of course)!

7:40 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thank you both for leaving comments! Let me address these one at a time...


Regarding comfort zones, well. I did say that we each had different tolerances.

Regarding emphasizing system--remember, I'm really talking about trusting the system more than the other players. Trust of the system can replace trust of the players. This means you will feel comfortable playing with a wider range of players, because you don't need to select just those players you trust.

I think this is one of the reasons behind the relative success of D&D, and the relative obscurity of most indie games.

If you don't need to trust the other players that much, it's easier to find players and more games get played.

On the other hand, sticking to a difficult set of rules, particularly one that rewards mastery of the rules, will cause many players to self-select out of the game.

Or maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment. Feel free to reply again.


I didn't mean to criticize crunchy games. They're not my cup of tea, but there's should be room enough for everyone in this hobby.

I actually think trust is the Achilles heel of the whole indie game movement. This post started because of the difficulties I have had convincing local players to try indie games. Several of them have explicitly stated that they don't trust the games. And that got me thinking.

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you come back. A lot of what I write is focused heavily on story-focused games, but I slip in some general information from time to time. My post on magic systems is probably one of the better, general essays.


10:35 PM  
Blogger ChattyDM said...

Rich: Oh I didn't see anything in your text as a critic. Even if it was I'm cool with that, the hobby is large enough as you say...

Story telling sits at the opposite of my natural style. However, the best games I've GMed these last 25 years were in fact heavily story-driven (be it with Gurps or D&D, 2 crunch heavy games). So I'm reading on them and try to find my point of balance.

Your 3 point trust model was interesting because of it's simplicity and the fact that I could relate to it in regards to my gaming group.

Great work... Definitively grounds for a follow up post soon!

2:32 AM  
Blogger KingSpoom said...

Okay, that sounds clear. This is the best post I've see on the topic of trust in RPGs. I can see what you mean by trust being a factor in the success of D&D as well.

10:50 AM  

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