(This is the twelfth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
Last week I talked about the necessity of trust between player and GM. This week, I’d like to expand that outward and talk about the trust between players in a game.
A tabletop RPG campaign tends to be fairly small. In its minimalist incarnation, all you need is two people — one player and one GM — but more often I see three to five players. Enough to get some good interpersonal dynamics going, but not so many that it becomes too much for the GM to keep track of; once you get to six and above, keeping everybody involved at the same time gets difficult. The one time I attempted a campaign with six players, I recruited my husband to help me GM, which meant that we could run different plots simultaneously, with the characters briefing one another when they got back together.
That latter state of affairs is pretty much the default for LARPs. Because you’re expected to be acting out the story, it’s only natural that people move around a lot in a LARP; as a consequence, the story isn’t centralized. It exists in multiple strands at once, those two characters having a private conversation in the hallway while these three try to investigate a murder and that one went off on her own with the GM because she noticed something odd and is about to get herself in very deep trouble.
What does this have to do with trust? Story structure, is what. A tabletop campaign usually assumes that the PCs are all allies, working toward the same general goal, even if they may have disagreements or personal goals along the way. That works when the heroes are few in number, like three to five. But for a LARP to really work — at least, in the type of LARP I’m accustomed to — you need more people. Generally at least a dozen; I’ve been in games with eighty people or more. There’s no way for all those people to form a unified group . . . and no way for the GM (or even multiple GMs) to run all the plots necessary to keep them entertained. A LARP needs interpersonal plot, PC-vs-PC conflicts where the players are at the wheel, calling on a GM only when something happens (like a fight) that needs to be resolved under official aegis.
This is different from a GM playing the adversary in a tabletop game. As I’ve said before, I’m of the opinion that a good GM should not be trying to “beat” the players, but rather to provide a fun experience for them. I’m not a fan of truly adversarial relationships with my fellow players, either — that kind of thing stresses me out. Some of the best LARPers I know once pointed out that if we all go into game with the goal of entertaining ourselves, there’s one person working to make sure you have a good time, but if you go in with the goal of entertaining everybody else, then you’ve got a whole crowd of people trying to make your evening fun. But that excellent philosophy notwithstanding, if my PC comes into conflict with yours, then unless specific circumstances apply (e.g. I’m playing a deliberately villainous character, and I’m looking forward to my eventual defeat) . . . I’m going to try to “win.” Not the game as a whole, but that argument or contest or whatever.
So this is where the trust comes in. You have to trust your fellow player to be a good adversary, to pursue their own goals in a fashion that doesn’t mean robbing you of your own fun. At one point when my long-term PC in a LARP was in a really bad state and I was trying to find a way to pull her out of the slump, I actually approached another player and asked him, out of character, whether it would work for me to ask his PC for help. Metagaming, yes — but the benevolent kind, the sort where I was trying to build a safety net to make sure my game experience didn’t suddenly crash and burn such that I the player wound up miserable. (I can’t remember what he said in response to my question, but I know I didn’t wind up approaching him IC for help. Which was probably a good thing, since I later found out he’d been working all campaign long to more or less destroy the world.)
You also have to trust them with your performance. I suspect this is something actors have to learn, too: the ability to let go, to allow yourself to really experience the emotions of the story, without that little voice in your head worrying that somebody will laugh at you for it. I wound up more or less bawling in a tabletop game once, after my character’s fiance was brutally murdered in front of her. I’ve recited a story that was profoundly integral to a different character’s identity, and had to trust that the player of the PC listening to me would give that recitation the gravity it deserved. Playing somebody who’s angry, who’s in love, who’s in any kind of emotional extreme — that takes trust. And if you don’t have that trust, if you can’t let go, the game may end up feeling shallow as a result.
A lot of LARPs end each session with some kind of group wrap-up, wherein people are encouraged to praise each other’s roleplaying. I think that kind of thing plays a vital role in knitting up the fabric of this trust, repairing it where it may have become raveled; two players who were screaming bloody murder in one another’s faces an hour before are now grinning and giving one another a thumbs-up, talking about how awesome that scene was. Sometimes these nods get used as the basis for an actual reward — more experience points to spend on improving your character’s abilities — which has led to the joke phrase, “crying for XP”; emotional extremes are one of the things people are likely to single out as praiseworthy. But even when there’s no reward of that kind, the praise alone matters. It says, I know what you shared with me was valuable, and I appreciate it.