So over the past few weeks I’ve addressed why I think fairness is an ethical concern for GMs in terms of the decisions they make, and given a few examples of how you can make the game more fair. Today I want to talk a bit more about fairness as an idea, and about what you can do when questions of fairness arise.
Something I should have noted in the first fairness post is that fairness is a continuum. It’s not the case that you’re either acting fairly or not acting fairly, but that you’re acting more or less fairly in terms of the circumstances. It’s a line which your decision sits on somewhere, rather than a binary thing. Thinking about it this way let’s you use the principle of best practice. If you endorse that fairness is part of your best practice, then you can ask the question “How could I be more fair?” It puts the decision in a different perspective, and asks you to justify why you’re doing what you’re doing in terms of fairness. Again, our fairness watchwords are impartiality, consistency, and following the rules. If you, or your players, can think of better ways to do those, then do them!
Justifying your best practice also helps you address claims of unfairness. And they are going to happen now and again. It’s perfectly normal, especially in a game where hidden information is so important. The best way I’ve found to resolve these is to treat them like rule calls. Make the call, promise to follow up on it later, continue with the game, and then follow through on the promise. Fairness makes a game more fun. Spending hours arguing about whether or not something is fair does not. If you’re following along, then you’ll have already thought of a good reason why the decision is fair, and you can cite that.
But sometimes you don’t. I can think of lots of times where I’m just going with the flow, pushing a result because it’ll make things cooler, or tinkering behind the scenes. Everyone does this, and sometimes you get called on it and caught with your pants down. When it happens, I cannot stress this enough. Swallow your “GM is always right” pride and ‘fess up. The urge to double down and get defensive can be pretty strong, but just owning it is going to be better for you and for the game. We all make mistakes, and acknowledging those and being willing to correct them helps build trust with your players. We’ve all heard about the GM who insists not just that it’s their way or the highway, but that their way is the best way, and you don’t want to be that GM, not even for a minute. Owning up when you’re caught also let’s you lay things out a bit for the players, and can open up a negotiation of outcomes. Maybe you spent four days designing the Dragon King’s dungeon, and really want them to take a look at it. Being honest about that, and the cool swag which awaits them down there, can help them find motivations to go. If you’re caught in a rule violation, admit it, and find the players agreeing that your way is a better way to go, then you’ve got some good grounds for introducing a houserule. In short, you can look at getting caught as an awful thing, or as an opportunity to be held accountable by your players.
So, three weeks of fairness. Wow. I’d expected it to take one post, and that I could spend a whole month talking about different points of GM ethics. I think I’m going to move on to some lighter fare for the next few weeks, but I want to come back to ethics. There’s a lot to talk about here, and I wonder if we’re always talking about it in the right way. Tell me, what do you think about being fair?
Also, another way I think I want to lighten this place up a bit is by posting my weekly wiki update for my setting, perhaps on Thursdays. It’d be great to get some feedback on the creative side of things, not to mention it’ll make sure that I’m actually doing the updates. Look for that in the new year!