Friday, January 16, 2015

A Game of Trust

Trust. Perhaps the single biggest, most important resource at a table for running a roleplaying game. All RPGs are built on trust. Creativity may be the fuel that powers an RPG, but trust are the wheels...such a simple thing, and yet without them, you're going nowhere.

One thing that bothers me often about the newer crop of RPGs these days is that I feel they're often trying to work around trust, as if they're trying to minimize its importance. They spend paragraphs talking about how important it is to have "table consensus" and the need to have everyone in agreement about how something is going to happen before it happens. More often than not, these read to me as assurances to skeptical players that "hey, don't worry, the GM can't be a dick because everything here is decided by the group, not just him."

I think that's all a waste of time. If you don't trust your GM, there's no RPG out there that's going to fix that. Likewise; if you're a GM and you don't trust your players, then you're not going to have much fun since you'll be questioning their every move, planning against their inevitable attempts to "cheat" the system. Trust is a very important part of roleplaying gaming, and no RPG can mitigate that importance.

This topic is more or less always on my mind, but I read about two incidents lately that made me think even harder about it. They both involve Fate Core, perhaps the single hottest new RPG out today. In one incident, a GM was having a hard time in his game because his players kept exploiting their Aspects to overcome challenges and bypass most of an adventure's situations. In the other, a Dresden Files GM was upset that Fate Core stripped most of its more traditional conventions out and instead emphasized too much on collaboration and table consensus, making for what he thought would be an uncomfortable game.

In both situations, the problem to me is obvious: the GMs and their players don't trust each other. In the former case, the players are actively trying to exploit their way through an adventure, based on what they know of the rules; in the latter, the GM is actively afraid the same thing will happen. So it's not a game issue, to me. It's a trust issue.

But Fate Core isn't completely blame-free here, either. Trust is an important part of every tabletop game that's ever been created. So why does Fate Core try so hard to remind us that trust is important? Of course it is! By over-emphasizing it, Fate ends up planting these seeds of doubt, the same way someone who's lying can give themselves away by overemphasizing how they're not lying. In that first situation, maybe the players aren't a bunch of scoundrels at all...maybe they just got the idea that they can do this because Fate Core so readily reminds them that table consensus rules the day, so they can get away with anything as long as the table as a whole agrees it could/should happen.

Older RPGs (and older RPG gamers) don't seem to suffer from this problem as much. Why is that? It's for a few reasons, I think. For one thing, RPGs have a much wider player base than they ever did back in the 80s or even the 90s. The rise of "virtual tabletops" and gaming across the internet has created a pool of players so vast that there are bound to be a few bad apples in there, spoiling the bunch.

Another reason is the D20 Dynasty. Yes, I love to blame everything bad about RPGs on the D20 System, but here me out, here. That system, to me, represented old-school gaming to its most excessive extreme; sourcebooks for everything, optional rules so pervasive they might as well have been written on stone tablets; books for every genre and setting under the sun. As is always the case when a dominant force rocks popular culture, there was a backlash. And a principle that guided the D20 backlash was "Stuff that happens at the table should be dictated by the players at the table, not by the books on the shelf." A fine notion, of course...but that was always the case. It just got buried under all the D20 stuff. So now we have a new crop of RPGs, over-compensating.

I wonder where the hobby will be four, five, or six years from now. Will there be a Fate Core backlash? Will gamers everywhere be demanding hard and fast rules for every situation? It's hard to believe that the excessiveness of the D20 System will ever be back in style, but hey, anything's possible.

Judge Judy would probably make a hell of a GM...


  1. This is one of the many reasons why I love Cortex so much - its that nearly perfect balance between crunch and story-games that lets me run exactly the game I want to run, while allowing the players to make exactly the character they want to. Not as crunchy as GURPS, nor as freeform as Fate, but a nice blend of the two.

    1. I agree. Of all the popular story games out right now, my favorite is definitely Cortex Plus. It just allows me and the players to do so much, but doesn't take away my authority or agency as the GM. I'm not a fan of Fate Core at all, as it just feels like a simple storytelling toolkit more than a stable roleplaying game. Right now I'm running Dungeon World and I keep going back and forth on some of the mechanics. It feels like the rules don't trust me to do my job. It does have some incredible mechanics though. Cortex Plus just seems to find the perfect balance between crunch and storytelling, at least if it's run properly.