Good Faith and RPGs

Spent the past couple weeks poking at the idea of good faith in roleplaying. I have a couple other pieces I’m working on, more technical, but I wanted to start somewhere. It’s a big sprawling topic, and it touches more stuff than I realized.

Wikipedia has this interesting entry defining good faith: A sincere intention to be fair, open, and honest, regardless of the outcome of the interaction. It’s also a legal term with interesting implications: the implied covenant of good faith is a general presumption that the parties to a contract will deal with each other honestly and fairly, so as not to destroy the right of the other party or parties to receive the benefits of the contract.

I’m going to ramble a bit about both the intentional part and the implied covenant.

Fair. Open. Honest.

I’ve been playing games, well, a long time. It’s kind of astonishing, looking back over my roleplaying (1980 to present), at how much of it I did in bad faith. Some combination of unfair, sneaky, or dishonest. When I wrote for ’90s-era game lines, bad faith gaming was everyone’s default assumption. The players are always gonna try to win so you need to balance the rules and close off loopholes. Someone’s always gonna try and beat the GM, or the GM’s gonna try to beat the players. It’s a zero-sum game. The results were obvious on several fronts, looking back on it. We frequently wrote rules with mechanical balance front-and-center. Everyone entered play confrontationally, GM versus unruly players. The whole enterprise was, looking back on it, pretty unpleasant. Worse, we gave very little effort to actually making the rules good, when all we had to do was make them balanced. Those aren’t the same thing. Frequently they’re mutually exclusive.

These days, I do my level best to engage in good faith gaming. That means radical transparency, for starters: not just about what I intend as a GM, but also understanding my players’ intentions. That transparency comes with some costs. The big one is the loss of the Big Reveal. I’m sure there are methods for doing a Big Reveal in good faith, but I haven’t solved that yet. Pulling off a Big Reveal is always a risk in good faith play, because everyone has to trust that you’re all playing in good faith, right? If you’ve got one distrustful player, they’re gonna dig in and try to defend themselves against something they fear is coming their way.

Bad faith comes from fear, competitiveness, and distrust.

Good faith gaming is pretty prevalent at convention events I go to, and the exceptions always stand out like sore thumbs. You know: the trad player who scoffs at storygame rules because there’s literally nothing stopping them from running roughshod over the whole game. Thanks for the heads-up! It’s also no surprise that preregistered events in the main gaming hall come with tons of bad-faith red flags for me. I go in assuming my GM and fellow players are going to play in bad faith: everyone’s on probation and I’m old enough now that I give no fucks about ghosting a toxic table. But that’s on me! That last sentence? Totally written in bad faith. I try to keep my eyes open for good-faith play. Storygame-oriented spaces like Games on Demand or the Indie Arcade coming up at RinCon in a few weeks, those kinds of arrangements typically draw good-faith players and, just as important, repel bad-faith players.

At home, we’ve spent years building good faith (after many years of bad faith). Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we get worn out. Sometimes a player gets so wrapped up in what they want for their character that they fight over rules so they can get what they want. Or they’ll carry out the rules in bad faith, hewing close to the letter but not the spirit of the intended outcomes. Or play gotcha with my imperfect rules memory.

Faith and the Rules

The biggest difference between roleplaying games and boardgames is that you must engage an RPG in good faith at every level: that the players will want to achieve what the game (and its designer(s)) want it to achieve, that the GM wants the same things the players want, that the rules don’t have to be written in such a constrained way that nobody can “cheat.”

There was, for a time, a desire in the indie scene to stridently insist that roleplaying games are “just like” any and all other games. The good-faith requirement, to my mind, says that just isn’t so.

Side trip: My spouse worked for many years in companies with incentive plans for their sales teams. There was a constant struggle to ensure that nobody was abusing the plans or exploiting loopholes. Whenever they wrote a plan that couldn’t be abused, though, overall engagement fell off. They’d go back and rejigger, and keep an eye open for abusers. The lesson, she said, was that you can’t write a plan so tight that nobody uses it. Write rules for the good-faith players, not the abusers. I think about that all the time.

Boardgames are faith-agnostic, which to my mind is the single biggest difference between them and RPGs. I don’t really buy the usual “humans can interpret the game more freely than procedures” bit, since you can have humans evaluate freeform descriptions from players: that’s Braunsteins. In a boardgame, there are the rules, and there is the objective. You operate within the rules to achieve the objective. Obviously there are boardgames that rely on negotiating, deal-making, deal-breaking, reading people, straight up lying. You should negotiate with open eyes, but to my mind it’s not bad-faith deal-making if the game is premised on somebody at some point breaking a deal. But the rules themselves? They’re just the rules. You don’t have to overlook occasional edge cases or play to the spirit of the thing. You just have to use what you’ve got to win.

Designing and playing games with an eye toward good faith play opens up so many possibilities. Stating play goals up front? Marvelous, let’s all get behind those. Throwing “balance” out the door in favor of more evocative procedures, fucking great. Let’s share our understanding of what we’re playing toward. Let’s be radically open, radically fair, radically honest. Funny how it’s “radical” when you’ve got decades of training that say otherwise.

The thing is, right? You can nitpick literally any RPG you can think of. Even in a relatively airtight transaction like you see in, say, Burning Wheel, if you play to the letter but not the spirit of every step, the game will be unfun and will quickly fall apart. If you have a tightly designed tactical game like most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, there’s not much breathing room left for the other stuff.

There have been some RPGs that have tried to straddle that line, to feature boardgame-like qualities while still being an RPG. We’re currently playing one: Band of Blades. It’s a game you can lose, and it’s a game you can try and earn a good score at. Consequently, I have found my players in a head space where they’re thinking boardgame thoughts and not roleplaying thoughts. It’s such a delicate balance, making sure the fiction matters, that consequences play out, that everyone try to embody their characters as much as possible. Burning Empires tried a similar thing a decade ago, and while I absolutely adore the game, you needed to bring so much good faith to playing it that you can’t really treat the win/lose aspect of the campaign the same as you would a boardgame.

Bad Faith is Misery

This past summer, a dear college friend got a chance to join us for a big stretch of Godbound. He’s dropped in and out of my Tuesday regulars for quite a while now, mostly because he’s a teacher and lives on the other side of this vast megalopolis. Godbound, being in the OSR camp, relies on rulings-not-rules. I was skeptical about that, but I was super open, honest and fair with everyone all the time. My stated goal was that I’d engage with my players and the game itself in good faith.

My sometimes-drop-in player? Quite dubious that good faith was even a thing. I was mildly aggravated feeling the subsonics of his distrust thrumming through me and the table every step of the way. “Oh, shh, you can’t make plans in front of the GM!” but not in a joking way. Over time he saw that, yeah, I’m totally on board with hearing his plan and seeing it work rather than scheming to beat him. The underlying structure in Godbound supports good-faith play as well, providing lots of guidance on how to deliver rulings (per OSR doctrine) and not just a mandate that rulings must happen because the rules can’t cover every contingency. The gaps left in the rules seemed more purposeful than “well, we can’t put a thousand page book out, so make it up if you need to.”

True story: I had a player who couldn’t write Beliefs in Burning Wheel because then the GM would try and stop them!

I still deal with players who aren’t exactly bad-faith players, more…faith-agnostic. Sometimes they don’t want to have to be fair, open and honest but also doesn’t go out of their way to be unfair, secretive or dishonest. They don’t want fairness, openness or honesty to be required. But they are. And the table is better for it. Interesting when they can’t see that.

Whenever I read a new rulebook, my good-faith radar is turned way up. Sometimes a game is so loosely written and poorly playtested that it relies on good faith to not break them. That feels like an abuse of my trust, you know? I’ll happily engage with a game in good faith if I can trust the rules to do their thing. I know other folks have different thresholds. Like, there are loose bits in Band of Blades, but that looseness isn’t a show-stopper for me while it definitely is for others. I get how the underlying game works and we’re all eager for the experience. But lordy, going into it with a table full of players eager to exploit every inelegant or incomplete rule? I’d rather play a boardgame.

And that’s exactly what we do from time to time, when we find we’ve exhausted our reserves of good faith. Those reserves replenish over time, but enough moments of dishonestly, opacity, or indefensible pique is enough to wear anyone out.

Good Faith is a Prescription

I know efforts to define what a roleplaying game “is” are terribly fraught and gatekeeper-y. That’s not where I’m coming from. My conclusion here is that players and designers need to be aware of the role of good faith when roleplaying takes place. And how the absence of good faith makes all this so much harder.

If you play with intentional good faith, you’re reinforcing good social habits. You just have to trust me that whatever trade-offs you think you need to make by being transparent and honest are more than made up by the other good stuff: greater clarity, fewer misunderstandings, everyone headed the same direction down the same road. Good faith is how you build your magic circle.

If you design with the assumption of good faith, you’re free to put your creative efforts into evocative, exciting procedures. It doesn’t let you off the hook for a game that can’t deliver an intentional experience to players engaging it in good faith, though. I think we can design looser than we think, is all I’m really saying.

Finally: across this spectrum, from player to facilitator to designer, good faith is also key to establishing credibility. I’ll write about that next.

7 thoughts on “Good Faith and RPGs”

  1. Great article!
    Over the past year, I’ve had the interesting experience of running several games at a conference (not related to gaming) for groups composed of players who mostly have never played an RPG before and each game has had at most two veteran players. Now, it’s been D&D because that’s what these newbie players have been curious about because of Stranger Things or the cultural moment that D&D is having, so that skews toward “bad faith” play as you note.
    But what I’ve seen based on this anecdotal experience is this: completely new player embrace good-faith play, perhaps default to it, and veteran [D&D] players totally suck at it and default to bad-faith play. The simple explanation is that they’ve been actively conditioned to do that through their experiences in games, or that they’ve passively absorbed bad-faith gaming culture. The newbies look to me as the GM to instruct them on ways to play that make the game fun and smoothly functional.
    So, hypothesis: maybe the most good-faith play is seen in those who haven’t yet had the gaming experiences that acculturate them to bad-faith play, or in those who have enough perspective (through exposure to different styles and systems of play) to reject bad-faith play?

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