Creating Trust at the Table
Relationships, along with a variety of other things, are an important tool for the GM. The ability to gain the trust of those around your table will help you create more impactful stories, increase tension and become a better GM. Which is great and all, but how do you create that trust at the table?
Like all things in life, being a GM involves a lot of work and effort. Being able to sit down at a table and look a player in the eye and tell them that their character’s beloved family was kidnapped by the BBEG, and that player not getting angry or resentful is what you should strive for. Players are scared of experiencing emotional turmoil, and will do what they can to prevent that. Why do you think so many players are edgelords? Their parents are already dead, they have no friends and no one that they like. They are devoid of story hooks except about how cool and powerful they are.
And that’s what we in the biz like to call boring.
Those type of players have no trust in their GM. They are scared of what might happen to them or of being in pain. Unfortunately, that means getting those players to experience emotional turmoil is going to be far harder. But I suppose we should first answer, how and why do we want emotional turmoil in our game in the first place, and what does that have to do with trust?
The idea behind building trust is that the players understand that what they are about to experience may not be awesome or ideal, but that the pay-off at the end of it all will be worth it. As the arbiter of a game, you know what is going to happen. You know that your BBEG isn’t going to murder someone’s family, but the players don’t know that. They have to trust that you aren’t being an asshole and have a reason to do that, but it’s going to be a long time before they see that pay-off. And so we must start off small.
When a player creates a character, they need something to tie them into the story, I’m going to call them “Hooks”. Each time a player creates a Hook, they are creating a tiny tool for you to use, and each subsequent Hook gives you more and more to work with. Hooks can be anything, from a beloved family member to a small trinket they found as a child. A Hook is what drives the Story, and, by its name, is designed to catch players and pull them in to the story.
We want that. We need that. Because GMs can’t survive without engaged players at the table that care about our stories. At least, I can’t survive without constant adoration and approval from my table.
Creating trust is a long process, and it involves using a player’s Hook. Now, don’t immediately choose the biggest Hook lying around. We need to start small to build that trust. Once you find that item or person, you then have to create the tension. The first time you do this, especially with new players, don’t expect them to be excited by this turn of events. They may even get a bit resentful, as it will feel like you are picking on their character. During this first event, be nice and encouraging. Agree with them that it sucks that their favorite sword or trinket was taken, but show them how they can get that back. Ideally, this first exercise will happen inside of a session.
Here is the basic layout:
1) A character’s Hook goes missing
2) The character wants to get it back
3) The character struggles, but ultimately succeeds
4) They are rewarded with that original Hook PLUS something more
That “something more” is the most important part of all of this. The player trusted in you that there was going to be a pay-off, and you prove that by giving them something more. It can be anything from finding the bandit captain’s treasure hoard, to getting a new magic item, or maybe finding a deed to an old tavern. Something that shows your appreciation for them trusting in you, plus you can create even more Hooks out of that original Hook.
And that’s what these games are all about, players being put in crazy situations and the GM giving them a big pay-off at the end of it all. Players should be able to trust that their GM has the best intentions, and is creating a worthwhile story that they will remember. They will remember not just the good moments, but the tension building up to those moments.