I’ll be the first one to rail against notions of GM authority, but there’s a difference between having authority and acknowledging a power differential. Players place trust in the GM to respect their decisions and give them legitimate consequences. The GM is empowered by that trust to challenge players, tempt them into traps, and even outright lie to them. But we’ll get to that in time. For now, I want to talk about how GMs can build trust, in three key ways.
Playing any game is about making choices, whether you’re playing checkers or Warhammer Fantasy, and making choices is about autonomy. There’s a lot of complicated literature on it, but for right now we’ll define autonomy the ability to act according to one’s will, which is roughly in line with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition, and will suffice. Expecting a player to go along with things for the sake of going along with things necessarily involves disrespecting their autonomy in some way. So does co-opting control of their character, or painting them into a corner with situations. Players want to know that the choices they’re making are real choices, and you’re in a position to ensure that. One of the ways you can respect autonomy is by working to create choices that encourage creativity and lateral thinking rather than pushing a specific outcome. You can even turn this to your advantage by nodding knowingly whatever the outcome, and being prepared. Cultivate your poker face, or better yet, your evil grin. Another way is to let things resolve at the character level. If the party’s paladin is being a jerk and you’re asked to mediate, you should chat player to player, but also make sure that people know they can react to that in character. It creates an opportunity for their characters to grow, and doesn’t involve telling someone how they should be playing.
Transparency is part of being open, and I’ve talked about that in terms of fairness, but there are other ways to be open. Be open about how you want the game to go in terms of behaviour; involvement; and structure, and encourage the other players to share their vision. Understanding the kind of game they want and working to make that happen will help them trust you, because it shows that you’re not out to enforce your vision. Another thing you should be open to is discussion, and you should focus on having meaningful ones. Listen actively to players, and discuss concerns with them. Being open in these ways helps build trust because it acknowledges that you respect the kind of stake they have in the game.
Finally, be consistent. This is part of fairness, but it also means not having expectations of the players that you don’t share for yourself. Being consistent means following the rules, even in a rule-hacked game, and it means applying rulings consistently. This goes hand in hand with being open to discussion, because it will normally be the players who spot your inconsistencies. If they can’t be resolved quickly, then make sure to follow up on them after the session. Consistency is a good way of building trust because it helps people understand and make inferences about your behaviour by knowing that in situation X you did Y, and if situation Z is like X, you can be trusted to do Y.
These are just some of the ways you can build trust with players, and I hope that you’ll share some of the things you do to accomplish this. Next week we’ll talk about what you can use that trust for, and how to leverage it to make the game more interesting. Trust in the context of rpgs is a really interesting topic, and I can’t wait to dig into it. Thanks for reading!