Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fairness and Trust

(Unrelated to anything in today's post, I encourage you to go check out the Sight for Sore Eyes Benefit Bundle, a benefit for a single mother who is losing her vision. At $10, it's a steal. We may not have yet figured out how to save the world with our games, but I have never been disappointed in how hard we are willing to try.)

Yesterday's post stayed with me longer than usual, and some very thoughtful comments really left things rattling around in my head. The issue that I think I accidentally tripped over in my consideration of choice is that of fairness. After some thought, I think this may be something of a keystone that really determines what shape a game will take.

I kicked it around for a while and came down to a pretty simple question: Do you trust your GM to be unfair?

Like most such questions, the simplicity is deceptive. The idea that you might want your GM to be unfair is a pretty crazy proposition - GM unfairness is, after all, one of the things we spend a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to fix. Most of the worst kinds of abuses take the form of GM unfairness, after all, and a lot of games have been very heavily designed to minimize the GM's opportunities to be unfair in the first place.

What's more, fairness has a critical role in the flow of information, because fairness marches hand in hand in hand with predictability. That may sound dull, but it's a critical part of getting invested in a fiction. Players depend upon having a reasonable understanding of the likely outcome of their actions. No one wants to make stupid mistakes because of a misunderstanding about the physics of the world.

But, of course, there's a but.

When a GM is good enough that they're not going to screw the players, and the players have reciprocal level of trust, new options appear. It becomes possible for the game to be unfair in a manner that is neither punitive nor grating. Instead, it can feel more like life, with tragedies and triumphs that don't always line up with how you expect them. Victories and losses carry weight, but they may not bring closure. Tomorrow, you still need to get up and face the day.

I have no idea about other people's experiences, but for me, that is something of an exalted level of play. When things get that good and bad, that's when it really comes to life. It creates the kind of games that I chase like a junkie. The games I've seen in that place are what make me so passionate about this hobby, because the prospect of managing to capture that lighting in a bottle is my holy grail.

Sadly, I suspect my story is more Lancelot than Percival (who I always liked better than Galahad). I'm not sure I'll ever find it because for all the love I have for systems and the good things they can bring, I don't think this is something they can achieve. It's a human thing. A good system can help, but it's ultimately built on talent and trust. I like to think I can help someone find the tools to get there themselves, but it's ultimately up to that GM.

So, do you trust your GM to be unfair? Do you want to? I know my answers, but I'm curious about yours.


  1. Not really? I haven't been a PC in long enough that I, the few times I've done it in the last several years, have built up the trust that the pay off for the story is going to be worth the inequitable consequences.

    I'd like to think my players trust me, as a GM, but the counterpoint is that I don't try to test that trust often. And the ways that I do are fairly "standard" ways for me, rarely are they more then momentarily surprised by it..

  2. Let's consider two movies where the character lives in a world controlled one or more "gods".

    Clash of the Titans (especially the remake)

    The Truman Show

    In the Clash of the Titans the characters exist within a world created by the gods, but that world follows established rules. The gods are capricious and vindictive but the world itself is "fair" and the protagonists can work towards whatever goals they set for themselves, even opposing the gods.

    In The Truman Show the main character exists within a world that's also created by a defacto "god" who isn't trying to be capricious or vindictive. He likes Truman and wants him to have a happy, interesting life (it makes for a good story / ratings). However the world itself is "unfair" and things move around behind the scenes at the whim of the "god". The only real goal the protagonist can have in this movie is escape from this artificial world he has no real control over.

    So when people talk about the GM being "Fair", it depends on what they mean, what sort of game world they want their character to inhabit, and really, what sort of game they want to play.

  3. I've grown to like the notion of trusting that everybody else at the table - GM and players both - wants to sell each other's successes and celebrate the consequences of often difficult choices. I think games that either turn the GM into a ruthless antagonist or a toothless facilitator are missing that awesome in the middle.

  4. I've been thinking about this since yesterday, and I think I'd be much more demanding of fairness in a CRPG than I would from a GM. I've been struggling to put my finger on exactly why, though.

    In a table-top game, I'd have no problem playing a character weaker than another character, but as soon as I start a computer RPG I've away to gamefaqs to make sure I don't make some bad choices and end up having to struggle through the game. Maybe it's related to this?

    Or it could possibly be related to the idea of quicksaves; in games such as Fallout I'd frequently reload until I got the best possible solution for a quest, something obviously not possible when you're playing opposite a human GM.I'm working towards a GOAL in my CRPG and want the most effective way to get there; all the PnP games I've played in have been indefinite campaigns.

    As an afterthought, maybe the question you asked at the end of your post is 'do you trust that your GM WILL be unfair'.

  5. When you come right down to it, gaming is all about trust. Everyone agrees what the rules are up front (D&D v4 with house rule mods, or even unwritten table rules like don't touch dice that aren't yours), and everyone sticks by them or risks being labelled "rude" or even ostracism. Players don't know how the game will run until the game starts, but they trust that their characters will be able to use their abilities to shine at some point during play.

    The one thing I've always tried to do as a GM is give a reason for everything that happens in game, especially when one of the bad guys seems to break the rules. Maybe that reason isn't immediately apparent, but it's there if the players want to dig for it.

    In my mind, fairness is far more fatalistic: all dice must be in plain view, etc. In that case, you don't need to trust the GM, you need to trust the dice. I think that's fine for board games or any situation where everyone operates at the same power level, but I don't think that works as well for a game with a super-player like tabletop RPGs. I would much rather place my trust in my group (GM and players) than be fair and let the dice fall where they may.

    Since the GM gates your experience with the world, you already need to trust that your GM is giving you honest feedback about the results of your actions. Extending that trust to the story seems like a short hop to me.

    Great topic, and wonderful food for thought.

  6. I tend to GM, so I have to flip your question back and say that I know the players in my regular game trust me to be unfair- this often means giving the bad guys abilities not on paper or fudging things a bit to produce a more interesting outcome. They might not know the extent this happens, but they know it does and are good with it.

    The main downside of such a situation is that there is a metagame situation where they know that I am unlikely to get particularly brutal towards a single player. However, that just makes me want to push them to their limits even more.

  7. I agree with you on trust deepening a game. The more trust you have built up, the cooler of a game you can run/play.

    I think the standard view of a GM is the director of the game, but I tend to think of the GM as "master of surprise", or at least "VP of twists". Everyone is playing, everyone is telling the story, but it's one guy's job to bring delightful surprises and challenges that engage the other players where they want to be engaged while also introducing things that weren't planned.

    So I'll see your trust and raise you a certain level of dramatic sensitivity for "exalted" gaming.e

  8. @Cam,

    Having finally played Leverage, I really appreciated the subsection on "Collaboration and Responsibility"—after the game. We're a pretty well-functioning group, but this game brought out a great kind of collaboration in us, where not only were we all trying to find roles for each of us in the heist/con, but we were also helping the Fixer come up with good and interesting complications, readily.

    All of this is to say that the middle ground you talk about can be encouraged by a game, even if it can't be handed to you, the player.

  9. I just finished writing something like this in regards to Fiasco; essentially the fact that the game is cooperative (you're all trying to tell a good story) rather than competitive (my character vs. your challenges) actually frees the participants up to be bastards and push each other harder. If you trust your friends, you know they're aren't just being dicks by putting you in a tough spot. In fact you want them to, because it gives you more to work with, and a better story!

  10. Rob, would you give some examples of what you mean by "unfair"? DaveTheGame sort of did, but I'm not sure I understand.

    Do you mean something like a GM deciding that, no matter how the dice roll, the (e.g.) dragon is going to win, because that would be really cool?

  11. Could you give me an example of the GM being "unfair" from your own play experience?

    I really don't know what you mean by that word.

  12. GM Trust has been a huge issue in my mind lately, as I've come at it from both the GM and the player perspective. There are some times when the GM has made things suck for your character that it's hard to remember that all of this is for a purpose and you need to be patient. It's frustrating as a GM when your carefully-crafted challenge for the players, be it combat or puzzles or whatever, leads to complaints from the players that you aren't being fair. It's even worse when a few incidences of your villains doing something clever that you can justify (but don't want to explain to them how you can justify) leads to complaints that you're screwing them over.

    So when I'm playing a game, I have a hard time showing the trust that I would pay cash money to get from players when I'm GMing. Gah.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.