Leveraging Trust

Last week I discussed how to build trust, but I think it’s wroth talking about how to leverage it ethically before digging into the different ways a GM can leverage trust. I briefly mentioned that it allows GMs to challenge and even outright lie to players, but didn’t expand on that, and it’s worth talking about. I think there are good reasons to believe this, and that it can be done ethically, though ought to be done with care. 

The GM is unique in that they’re empowered by players to leverage the players’ trust in the service of a better game. In a sense, it’s a part of their mandate to take advantage of their players’ trust. This is permissible for the GM because it’s a part of the game. A large part of the GM’s role is to challenge the player characters, and one of the ways to do that is by using their trust against them. Dramatic in character betrayals are one example of this, where the GM convinces the players someone is on their side when they’re actually not. One of the ways to do this is not simply to demonstrate it in character, but out of character. Such moments are better for everyone when they’re a genuine surprise. A lot of other surprise occurrences fit under this umbrella, and involve not only misleading the characters, but the players.

These kinds of things seem unfair, and certainly would be in real life, where there’s a general expectation of honest dealing. But in the context of the game, these kinds of actions respect the stake of the players because they make the game more interesting and fun. It’s a lot like in poker or Risk, where misleading your opponent in order to gain an advantage isn’t cheating, rather it’s the strategy of a cunning player. Roleplaying games are a little different, because the GM has more of a responsibility to be honest, but that in itself is part of what helps the GM pull it off. There’s not only no reason for the GM to lie to you all the time, there’s strong motivations for them to tell the truth. So when they don’t, it comes as a bit of a shock. Even knowing that they can lie to you in the service of the game doesn’t help, because players have limited information about the game, and aren’t in a position to fact check everything.

I wanted to bring this up because I think these kinds of occasions are a major source of tension between GMs and players. Sometimes things like a twist ending can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, because they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of, and rightly so. Sometimes these things aren’t in the service of the game, which can turn them into plain old lying. The important question to ask as the GM is “How does leveraging this trust make the game more fun for them?” There are short term and long term answers to that, but it’s almost important to consider how the player might feel when they find out that you’ve used their trust to your advantage. And they should find out. Part of the sentiment that you’re seeking with this is that surprise of finding out that things aren’t the way that they seemed. If that isn’t part of the plan, then it’s hard to see how you’d be justified in using their trust like that.

Doing this too often erodes the trust that players have in you, and doing it too little can mean having a fairly predictable game. The unexpected is definitely part of what makes any game interesting, but it’s important to be aware of your own ethical obligations while arranging for it. Spreading falsehoods isn’t the only way to leverage trust though, and next week I’ll go into a bit more depth about how you can do so. Thanks for reading.

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