Without trust ... it's just scary

Trust is the basis of human relationships. Loss of trust ends partnerships and employment contracts. Gain of trust lets you make friends and win at court.

It is often implied all players in a roleplaying game would trust each other. But that's not only untrue at conventions. There are also slight differences between friends, even within the same group. Much worse are roleplaying games in a work environment or for educational purposes because they even lack the expectation of fun that would otherwise bind participants. That's when roleplaying becomes agony.

Lack of trust creates insecurities and this often leads to tension and many kinds of defensive reactions. The source is always related to a sense of security. We are distrustful if we don't know our fellow players or the gamemaster. If we do know them, but we already experienced them as untrustworthy. If the circumstances make us wary, like when the location of play does not inspire confidence or we do not know what is expected of us.

A gamemaster who did prepare badly or not at all is especially undependable. An unprepared player, on the other hand, doesn't disrupt that much. Every group looks for guidance and the role of leadership is originally assigned to gamemasters. They organize the game and thereby potentially social interactions at the table. If they only take care of the game and not the social environment, the group is unstable until somebody else takes over social leadership. And unless an environment is stable, it cannot be trustworthy. The worst case scenario is a collection of complete strangers all hoping for the gamemaster to magically create a pleasant and casual game session.

How to build trust?

Trust cannot be prescribed. It takes time. The gamemaster, or another player who leads the group, can build the foundation. The leader may bring order to the group, and order brings security. The gamemaster may create an environment that enables players to relax and open up. Everyone will do a small leap of faith if expecting not to get harmed.

Its the leader's job to project this sense of security. Quite often this happens implicitly because we already know the gamemaster or his demeanour radiates reliability. But the more strangers participate in a game or the more controversial the topic of a game, the more important is active reinsurance by gamemasters. If they present the basic rules of the gathering, they allow everyone to agree to this set of rules. This can cover anything from setting a timeframe to how to discuss rules.

If you are playing very conflict-laden or other intense games you might take some inspiration from the experienced BDSM community: agree on an emergency stop sign. Anybody can use the emergency stop to interrupt the game if they deem it necessary. The signal should be clear and distinctive. It's probably enough to leave the table and declare "Stop!". Accompany it with a pause to calm down and then clarify what happened.

As long as the foundation of cooperation is clear, everyone is considered trustworthy until proven otherwise

Trust grows on experience. We need to experience a person's trustworthiness. By implication, this means: be reliable and consistent. For a while, everybody will observe each other and test their behaviour. This phase is import and should not be skipped even if the game does not progress much. The gamemaster should offer comparatively harmless topics, like introducing the character, offering a quest, scout the base camp.

When the foundation is strong enough, somebody will test if their leap of faith was justified. Any relationship that hasn't overcome a conflict yet is not considered reliable. It is not enough to believe we can trust someone - we want to know.

Additionally, conflicts are a tool to intensify the gaming experience. No roleplaying game will continue without conflict forever. Sometimes conflict stays within the narrative, sometimes it reaches the players. The gamemasters may offer conflicts and wait for the group to act or ignore it. They should not suppress conflicts, not in the narrative nor real. A conflict that is suppressed, appeased or swept under the carpet will continue to smoulder under the surface. This already undermines any existing trust and the leader of the group will seem unreliable. Order and security will primarily develop themselves by resolving the conflict.

But it is not the gamemaster's responsibility to resolve the conflict by themselves. They need to ensure the environment in which the group resolve the conflict themselves. They watch over keeping the narrative consistent as well as keeping interaction between players fair. Gamemasters offer coherent consequences within the narrative and ensure that interaction between players stays acceptable. This might include supporting a player who comes under stress and creating an opportunity for them to calm down and phrase their position.

Never should gamemasters decide on a conflict between players. If they do, they weaken the group. Only when the group resolves the conflict by fair means, will trust arise. There is no trust without conflict resolution.

Afterwards, it is important to reassure a sense of security. Gamemasters make sure everybody understands the situation. Whatever basic rules of cooperation or of the game was discussed should be confirmed or adjusted. Everyone must get an opportunity to open up again, to test the new state and experience it. The level of trust to fellow players and the gamemaster will rise by doing so. Relationships grow stronger and people will be willing to risk more than before.

Trust cannot be prescribed. It takes time. You will need to rinse and repeat the following steps:

  • Open up
  • Test and experience
  • Develop conflict
  • Resolve conflict
  • Open up ...


Originally published August 26th 2012

Photo credits: Christian Collins - Some rights reserved

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