(Unrelated to anything in today’s post, I encourage you to go check out the Sight for Sore Eyes Benefit Bundle, a benefit for a single mother who is losing her vision. At $10, it’s a steal. We may not have yet figured out how to save the world with our games, but I have never been disappointed in how hard we are willing to try.)
Yesterday’s post stayed with me longer than usual, and some very thoughtful comments really left things rattling around in my head. The issue that I think I accidentally tripped over in my consideration of choice is that of fairness. After some thought, I think this may be something of a keystone that really determines what shape a game will take.
I kicked it around for a while and came down to a pretty simple question: Do you trust your GM to be unfair?
Like most such questions, the simplicity is deceptive. The idea that you might want your GM to be unfair is a pretty crazy proposition – GM unfairness is, after all, one of the things we spend a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to fix. Most of the worst kinds of abuses take the form of GM unfairness, after all, and a lot of games have been very heavily designed to minimize the GM’s opportunities to be unfair in the first place.
What’s more, fairness has a critical role in the flow of information, because fairness marches hand in hand in hand with predictability. That may sound dull, but it’s a critical part of getting invested in a fiction. Players depend upon having a reasonable understanding of the likely outcome of their actions. No one wants to make stupid mistakes because of a misunderstanding about the physics of the world.
But, of course, there’s a but.
When a GM is good enough that they’re not going to screw the players, and the players have reciprocal level of trust, new options appear. It becomes possible for the game to be unfair in a manner that is neither punitive nor grating. Instead, it can feel more like life, with tragedies and triumphs that don’t always line up with how you expect them. Victories and losses carry weight, but they may not bring closure. Tomorrow, you still need to get up and face the day.
I have no idea about other people’s experiences, but for me, that is something of an exalted level of play. When things get that good and bad, that’s when it really comes to life. It creates the kind of games that I chase like a junkie. The games I’ve seen in that place are what make me so passionate about this hobby, because the prospect of managing to capture that lighting in a bottle is my holy grail.
Sadly, I suspect my story is more Lancelot than Percival (who I always liked better than Galahad). I’m not sure I’ll ever find it because for all the love I have for systems and the good things they can bring, I don’t think this is something they can achieve. It’s a human thing. A good system can help, but it’s ultimately built on talent and trust. I like to think I can help someone find the tools to get there themselves, but it’s ultimately up to that GM.
So, do you trust your GM to be unfair? Do you want to? I know my answers, but I’m curious about yours.