image Many of my articles are inspired by moments I witness in games that I am running or playing in. Something about a situation catches in my mind and I start to extrapolate on the various reasons behind a player’s action or a Game Master’s way of handling things. This one is different. The idea behind this article came from reading a passage in a book, equating it to a roleplaying situation, and going “Pschawww. That would never happen. The players would be waaaaay too paranoid.”. This one is going to get a mite rambly, but stay with it cause it’s got some pretty good (imho) payoff.

The Very Quick Backstory
So I’m reading this nifty little steampunk novel* and it feels very much like reading about a roleplaying game that the author played in. A situation occurs where the main characters gets captured/rescued by airship pirates and a very civil discourse occurs between the characters and the pirates, ending with the players accepting, without grudge, a very one-sided offer from the pirates. This occurs about halfway through the book at a point that I would consider, if it were a campaign, to be about 6 or 7 games in. Reading this made perfect sense in the context of the story, but my mind, being in deep game metaphor mode, latched onto the situation and started screaming “Wow. That is waaaay more trust than you usually see from players. I bet the GM wrote those pirate NPCs just to help the players get out of a tough spot and to move the story along, but players never trust NPCs introduced like that. Something is gonna happen any minute now on the players’ end…”. It didn’t. The situation proceeded along in a way that made sense for the book, but very little if it were a roleplaying game, at least that is what my brain kept saying. It just didn’t make sense to my GM mind that the players would be that trustworthy and not expect the Game Master to screw them over.

Ok, so that is somewhat of an extreme thought that the players never trust NPCs, but it is based in truth. Despite the fact that I’m a fairly lenient Game Master, my players still have this underlying sense that I, as a Game Master, am out to get them. They know that I am not and usually am working towards a shared story. They also know that my games rarely incorporate do or die elements. However, they feel that I, as a Game Master, might throw them a game ending curveball at any time.

This idea is a fairly ingrained stereotype in our hobby, and yes – Sometimes the Game Master is out to get the players. A sense of challenge or a feeling of danger can only come when the Game Master is willing to let characters die or face dire dire consequences. However, mistrust of story elements, NPCs, or even of the Game Master in general can cause some real havoc at the table. It might make games slow down because players are perpetually paranoid that one wrong move will be the end. It can kill a lot of great game moments or story elements that the Game Master planned.

The GM vs. Player feeling ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors:

  • The Game System– Some games engender the GM vs player feel more than others. Many combat oriented games trend this way. Knowing that a game system or scenario (tomb of horrors, cough, cough) has rules for a spider crawling in your ear to kill you while you sleep, or similar dastardly traps, will push the paranoia level way up. Then there is the game paranoia, of course.
  • Past History – Depending on the shared history between the GM and the players, the players may tend to be very mistrustful. If the Game Master has been known to use tricky NPCs, instant death traps, or other not-quite-what-they-seem methods, then the players are expecting those kinds of things even if the game system or mood changes.
  • Player Personality – Sometimes players just like having the upper hand, even when there is no reason to. It can be fun to outwit the Game Master. It is also sometimes just a yearning on the players’ part to make their character feel as awesome as they want them to be.
  • The Win Scenario – Depending on what the win scenario is for the game, separate from the game system, the players may feel very justified in being mistrustful of the Game Master. When the win scenario is to outwit the evil nobleman/politician/crime lord by intrigue, the players are going to be jumping at any potential threat.

Having identified a few reasons for the GM vs. Player attitude, what can be done as a Game Master to smooth out the player paranoia and make the game go smoother without giving up the ability to challenge the players. 

  • Be Explicit – As a Game Master, you can explicitly state that you aren’t out to screw the players over. Just knowing this, the players might not feel like they are in constant struggle with the Game Master. It helps to explicitly state that you won’t be afraid to challenge them and will keep the possibility of death on the table, but that you won’t do things that screw them over without them having a chance. Downside to this approach – Problem players might use this to their advantage, arguing against everything that they don’t like because they felt it went against your stating you weren’t out to scew the players over.
  • Use rules that limit how and when death might occur – Tied into the Be Explicit point, you might actually work out the sorts of things that can cause death. You might opt for no instant death traps or no deaths from small time mook enemies. This approach works well for more narrative games that have some crunch element.
  • Undo Tokens – You might let the players have a little control over their fate by giving them each one single “Undo” token that can trump a Game Master action. It might be used to undo a character death, act before the Mr. Johnson springs his trap, overcome the poison they just realized they drank, etc. Knowing they have once chance to overcome an unexpected circumstance can make the players less jumpy at every possible downfall. They know that if the door does happen to be trapped, they have at least once do-over. With this approach, the Game Master should clearly state what the undo token can actually undo up front.
  • Surprise Tokens – A reverse of the Undo token idea, the Game Master could give themself  3 or 4 “surprise” tokens that they can use over the course of a campaign. This would, in effect, limit the number of surprises or curveballs that the Game Master can throw at the players (things like PC killing traps, NPCs who are close to PCs but really spies, etc.) Players know they won’t be thrown a curve at any time, but that the GM still can. This can really limit the Game Master’s options, but it will help build a feeling of trust. I’d recommended it not be used with the Undo tokens. I’d also note that it is a good idea to keep at least one until game end if you hope to have the BBEG throw a curveball at the players.
  • Engender Soft Trust – You don’t have to be explicit about not screwing over the players or give out meta-mechanical benefits. You can always modify your style so that it makes the players feel more comfortable that they are going to get some kind of warning. Provide major clues when things could screw the characters over. Allow a roll to sense treachery or make a notice roll behind the screen for the players when there is a trap. You don’t have to always give it away, but providing a few mulligans will help players overcome the Game Master vs. Player mentality.

Despite the fact that I’ve provided a few ideas on overcoming the GM vs player mentality for smoother games, I’m left with one major question. Should you? There are many instances where I can see a sense of challenge, despite challenge actually being there, creeping away from a trustworthy GM’s game. I can also see the instances where paranoid players drag down a game because they are worried about the boogie man around every corner. Which is worse? Which one do you see the most? And most importantly, how do you deal with it?

 *The name of the book isn’t really important, but I liked it and thought I would share a link to it. It is called Thomas Riley and was quite a good read by a very small press author.

Img Here | CC 2.0

8 replies
  1. Clawfoot
    Clawfoot says:

    I actually just had this conversation with my players last week, oddly enough. I chose the explicit route, because I wanted to know what would be FUN for them.

    We’re playing through all the official modules for D&D 4e (H1 Keep on the Shadowfell through to E3 Prince of Undeath). We’re currently in the Paragon tier (P1 King of the Trollhaunt Warrens) and I’m already sowing the seeds for the next couple modules, which includes indicating that the Raise Dead ritual is no longer reliable — there’s a new power claiming souls.

    Up until then, PC death had been on the table, mostly because I knew that they at least had access to the Raise Dead ritual, and that any PC death would be temporary at best (costly, but temporary). Now that I was introducing the idea that Raise Dead was no longer a reliable resource, it meant that any PC death would mean the character would be out of the game until the end of P3: Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, which in real time would be a couple of months at least. I have two players, each playing two PCs, so this wouldn’t exclude a player from the game, just that particular PC.

    I asked them both explicitly if this would be something they would find fun, or frustrating, because the last thing I wanted to do was ruin the fun — that’s the whole point of the game. I told them that although I wouldn’t go out of my way or fudge anything to kill anyone, I would keep PC death on the table as a possibility if that’s the way the dice rolled. I’m glad I did ask, because although one player was all for the idea, the other did confess that she wouldn’t enjoy it at all. And that’s perfectly okay — the other player and I will have just as much fun without PC death being a possibility.

    It really depends on the players, I think. My one player LOVES surprises, and adores it when I really apply the thumbscrews to her PC. She wants me to dig the knife in deep and twist it. I would not choose to try to build up a lot of GM/player trust with her (well, I would, but only so that I could break it in a spectacularly dramatic fashion). I know her well enough that if I were just running for her, I wouldn’t have asked and just allowed someone to die.

    On the other hand, the other player, although she enjoys it when I torture her characters, doesn’t want me to BREAK them. She’s fine with temporary character death and the consequences thereof, but she knows what she finds fun and (I’m very glad) she’s not afraid to voice it. She does need the happily-ever-after ending much more than my other player, and I’m happy to provide.

    An enjoyable experience all around is my main goal, after all.

  2. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Great article, Arcadian! I’ve been bubbling around the idea of a “trust your GM” article for a while, and you did it for me.

    @Clawfoot – I’m glad you talked (and listened) to your players about the game. For some reason, many gamers have an ingrained resistance to actually talking about the game. Which is like being in a relationship and never talking about expectations with your partner; it will end in tears.

  3. E-l337
    E-l337 says:

    I am lucky, in that my players always know that I will not be out to get them, but that I will not hesitate to place them into very dangerous situations in which they could possibly write themselves into a no-win scenario. I try to avoid this, when possible, but if a player is going to be so dumb as to put themselves into a no-win scenario, by golly they’ve probably deserved it.

    As a bit of a side note, I’ve recently developed a new system of dealing with these sorts of things with my players: Bonus points. I recently overhauled the d20 Modern/Future system to be more along the lines of Pathfinder. It also involved removing the Action Points which made it so the PCs could avoid certain death, activate special abilities, so on and so forth. Despite them never really using them, I still recieved complaints regarding it, and so I decided that since I was having so much trouble getting my players to show up on time, I started handing out what I called Bonus Points. For every player who showed up, on time, I would roll a d4. Whatever the result was, the players got that many BP to add to their pool.

    I mention this here because the BP are like “super” action points. Save them up, you can get things like permanent stat increases, temporary bonuses for a session, or even the oft-coveted ‘cheat death’ card, which has worked extremely well. The first session I implemented it, two of my PCs were facing a creature that was by and large, under normal circumstances, too difficult for them to defeat normally. One of the NPCs (quite liked by the group as a whole, really) pretty much bought the farm after being hit with pretty much all of the creature’s attacks, the last of which was a critical strike.

    One of my PCs asks, “Can I use my BP to keep him from dying?”

    Sure. That’s what they’re for.

    Suddenly, the whole group was happy. They now had a way to help influence the game just that little bit more, and I think it’s helped me to engender that trust which is so necessary for the group to work together so well.

    I guess this is just an example of taking extra steps to help ensure that you are running the sort of game that your players will enjoy most. I’m still not making it easy for them, and they’ll still be able to die if they run out of BP and get really unlucky. But that’s just how the game is, right?

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Clawfoot – “the last thing I wanted to do was ruin the fun — that’s the whole point of the game.” You’ve definitely got the right idea there. Like Kurt says, communication and being on the same page is key to having a great experience. Knowing your players, as you definitely seem to, is another key to a great gaming experience.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Thanks Kurt. It’s been an idea bubbling around in my head for a while too. Reading the story in the book popped it forefront. I’d love to see your take on GM trust.

    @E-l337 – Hmm. The bonus points idea is kind of nifty as a reward for getting the players to show up on time. We had that problem in a previous game, but that was mostly due to unavoidable circumstances. If it becomes a problem with my new game I might implement something like that. It works better than awarding experience points for out of game behavior.

  5. Katana_Geldar
    Katana_Geldar says:

    It’s actually rather strange when you do this the other way around, my players were so used to trusting me and knowing the way I GMed that when we played Paranoia for the first time it took AGES for them to get the fact that they could try and kill each other and I was doing my darndest to kill them.

  6. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I think you provide an answer to this in your “Enemies are always better with a backstory” article (though again, it would be vulnerable to overuse).

    Just tell them “You meet a trustworthy member of the trustworthy clan, known for their trustworthiness.”

  7. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    Actually, the players might still be paranoid, come to think of it.

    “Hmm. Sounds a bit TOO trustworthy. I don’t trust ’em! Must be an UNtrustworthy in disguise.”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Safe in the Game Master’s Hands? discusses the issue of trust between players and DMs that I mentioned in regards to the contract between them. It focuses more on mechanics — trusting that the DM won’t kill you outright — but it can easily be applied beyond that. A transmedia property needs to show the audience that it can be trusted to show them a greater world, to present a story without forcing people into it, that we Know What We’re Doing. […]

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