Many of my articles are inspired by moments I witness in games that I am running or playing in. Something about a situation catches in my mind and I start to extrapolate on the various reasons behind a player’s action or a Game Master’s way of handling things. This one is different. The idea behind this article came from reading a passage in a book, equating it to a roleplaying situation, and going “Pschawww. That would never happen. The players would be waaaaay too paranoid.”. This one is going to get a mite rambly, but stay with it cause it’s got some pretty good (imho) payoff.
The Very Quick Backstory
So I’m reading this nifty little steampunk novel*  and it feels very much like reading about a roleplaying game that the author played in. A situation occurs where the main characters gets captured/rescued by airship pirates and a very civil discourse occurs between the characters and the pirates, ending with the players accepting, without grudge, a very one-sided offer from the pirates. This occurs about halfway through the book at a point that I would consider, if it were a campaign, to be about 6 or 7 games in. Reading this made perfect sense in the context of the story, but my mind, being in deep game metaphor mode, latched onto the situation and started screaming “Wow. That is waaaay more trust than you usually see from players. I bet the GM wrote those pirate NPCs just to help the players get out of a tough spot and to move the story along, but players never trust NPCs introduced like that. Something is gonna happen any minute now on the players’ end…”. It didn’t. The situation proceeded along in a way that made sense for the book, but very little if it were a roleplaying game, at least that is what my brain kept saying. It just didn’t make sense to my GM mind that the players would be that trustworthy and not expect the Game Master to screw them over.
Ok, so that is somewhat of an extreme thought that the players never trust NPCs, but it is based in truth. Despite the fact that I’m a fairly lenient Game Master, my players still have this underlying sense that I, as a Game Master, am out to get them. They know that I am not and usually am working towards a shared story. They also know that my games rarely incorporate do or die elements. However, they feel that I, as a Game Master, might throw them a game ending curveball at any time.
This idea is a fairly ingrained stereotype in our hobby, and yes – Sometimes the Game Master is out to get the players. A sense of challenge or a feeling of danger can only come when the Game Master is willing to let characters die or face dire dire consequences. However, mistrust of story elements, NPCs, or even of the Game Master in general can cause some real havoc at the table. It might make games slow down because players are perpetually paranoid that one wrong move will be the end. It can kill a lot of great game moments or story elements that the Game Master planned.
The GM vs. Player feeling ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors:
- The Game System– Some games engender the GM vs player feel more than others. Many combat oriented games trend this way. Knowing that a game system or scenario (tomb of horrors , cough, cough) has rules for a spider crawling in your ear to kill you while you sleep, or similar dastardly traps, will push the paranoia level way up. Then there is the game paranoia , of course.
- Past History – Depending on the shared history between the GM and the players, the players may tend to be very mistrustful. If the Game Master has been known to use tricky NPCs, instant death traps, or other not-quite-what-they-seem methods, then the players are expecting those kinds of things even if the game system or mood changes.
- Player Personality – Sometimes players just like having the upper hand, even when there is no reason to. It can be fun to outwit the Game Master. It is also sometimes just a yearning on the players’ part to make their character feel as awesome as they want them to be.
- The Win Scenario – Depending on what the win scenario is for the game, separate from the game system, the players may feel very justified in being mistrustful of the Game Master. When the win scenario is to outwit the evil nobleman/politician/crime lord by intrigue, the players are going to be jumping at any potential threat.
Having identified a few reasons for the GM vs. Player attitude, what can be done as a Game Master to smooth out the player paranoia and make the game go smoother without giving up the ability to challenge the players.
- Be Explicit – As a Game Master, you can explicitly state that you aren’t out to screw the players over. Just knowing this, the players might not feel like they are in constant struggle with the Game Master. It helps to explicitly state that you won’t be afraid to challenge them and will keep the possibility of death on the table, but that you won’t do things that screw them over without them having a chance. Downside to this approach – Problem players might use this to their advantage, arguing against everything that they don’t like because they felt it went against your stating you weren’t out to scew the players over.
- Use rules that limit how and when death might occur – Tied into the Be Explicit point, you might actually work out the sorts of things that can cause death. You might opt for no instant death traps or no deaths from small time mook enemies. This approach works well for more narrative games that have some crunch element.
- Undo Tokens – You might let the players have a little control over their fate by giving them each one single “Undo” token that can trump a Game Master action. It might be used to undo a character death, act before the Mr. Johnson springs his trap, overcome the poison they just realized they drank, etc. Knowing they have once chance to overcome an unexpected circumstance can make the players less jumpy at every possible downfall. They know that if the door does happen to be trapped, they have at least once do-over. With this approach, the Game Master should clearly state what the undo token can actually undo up front.
- Surprise Tokens – A reverse of the Undo token idea, the Game Master could give themself 3 or 4 “surprise” tokens that they can use over the course of a campaign. This would, in effect, limit the number of surprises or curveballs that the Game Master can throw at the players (things like PC killing traps, NPCs who are close to PCs but really spies, etc.) Players know they won’t be thrown a curve at any time, but that the GM still can. This can really limit the Game Master’s options, but it will help build a feeling of trust. I’d recommended it not be used with the Undo tokens. I’d also note that it is a good idea to keep at least one until game end if you hope to have the BBEG throw a curveball at the players.
- Engender Soft Trust – You don’t have to be explicit about not screwing over the players or give out meta-mechanical benefits. You can always modify your style so that it makes the players feel more comfortable that they are going to get some kind of warning. Provide major clues when things could screw the characters over. Allow a roll to sense treachery or make a notice roll behind the screen for the players when there is a trap. You don’t have to always give it away, but providing a few mulligans  will help players overcome the Game Master vs. Player mentality.
Despite the fact that I’ve provided a few ideas on overcoming the GM vs player mentality for smoother games, I’m left with one major question. Should you? There are many instances where I can see a sense of challenge, despite challenge actually being there, creeping away from a trustworthy GM’s game. I can also see the instances where paranoid players drag down a game because they are worried about the boogie man around every corner. Which is worse? Which one do you see the most? And most importantly, how do you deal with it?