Principles: Like Friends

This is part 2 in a series of short posts on how I understand the principles behind Synthetic Dream Machine. They are thinkings-through, not pronouncements from on high. Here is part 1.

Game tables need trust and good faith. You and your players should behave like friends or people who could be friends.

There is some merit to the idea that approaches to roleplaying games can be graded from high-trust to low-trust. On one end of the scale, you might have the twenty-year game you’ve been playing with your best friends from middle school, on the other hand you might have a random drop-in game with strangers at a convention.

I have a definite preference for games with people I like and trust, so that’s the kind of game I write for.

However, I also know it’s hard to find and sustain that kind of game group. Between moving cities and countries, the demands of jobs and families, I’ve noticed it definitely gets much harder to sustain that Stranger Things nostalgic ideal of a group of friends that starts playing together at 12 and is still going strong at 42.

Living abroad as I do, I also find it frustrating that people come and go a lot in the migrant expatriate community.

Get a group working, get a time frame, game regularly for a season or two, and oh, suddenly someone’s moving cities or countries and you’re hunting for players again.

Not easy.

Friends or Could Be Friends

A principle I’ve developed to help me build the kind of high-trust game group I prefer is to treat everyone I play with like friends or people who could become friends.

As the host of a game, this is a vulnerable position to put myself in, which is why I try to communicate what I am doing up front and ask for reciprocity.

There are people for whom gaming is about the game first and the friendships second. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not an approach to roleplaying I enjoy.

Now, when I say that I am going to treat people I play with like friends, I don’t mean to suggest opening up and sharing all my deepest darkest secrets. Likewise, I don’t suggest acting like a pushover. It’s primarily about etiquette and behavior:

  • Respect. Friendships are built on an equality of mutual respect. I’ll respect your time, your space, your values, and I’ll expect the same. I won’t act like an asshole or try to score points, and I’ll expect the same.
  • Communication. Friendships require open and clear dialog. I’ll try to clear up misunderstandings and assume we’re communicating in good faith. When I like something, I’ll say so. When I don’t, the same (but politely – we’re probably not actually friends yet, just acquaintances).
  • Warmth. I’ll try to be encouraging, supportive, and helpful in the way I interact with you. And will expect the same.

This list is just a suggestion. Your precise definition of how a friend behaves will vary depending on your experiences, your class, and your culture.

When navigating these different definitions of friendship and friendly behavior, I try not to assume what my players mean to say. When I’m unsure of a context, I ask. Something along the lines of, “I think you mean X and Y. Is this correct?”

(Indeed, I recommend doing this a lot when refereeing a game, too.)

Trust and Good Faith

I see trust and good faith as resources that are built up by players acting like friends (or, at least, predictably and respectfully). Over repeated positive interactions, a history builds between the players and they can try more challenging roleplaying setups (a secret traitor, hierarchical party compositions, etc.).

Some players may also, in fact, become actual friends.

Indeed, I count former players among some of my best friends and roleplaying has been a wonderful source of community in my life.

Incompatible Players

This principle, of treating the other players like friends or people who could be friends does mean facing the question of compatibility.

Not everyone will get along.

Sometimes, a player is just an asshole. Frankly, no matter how you choose the people you play with, you don’t need to play with people like that.

Other times, the situation is more fraught.

A player might tick all the boxes on paper, but in practice they rub you or some other players the wrong way. Perhaps you can put your finger on the problem, perhaps you can’t and it’s just an inchoate feeling.

This is a topic to fill a regular agony aunt column for a year and more and I can’t hope to give a simple answer.

However, one thing to remember is that roleplaying is a voluntary social activity.

As a player, you don’t have to play with people you don’t get along with. As a host, you don’t have to accept people you don’t get along with in your house. And, as a referee, you don’t have to run games for people you don’t like.

I think honest communication is key here. If a player’s style doesn’t work with you (as host or referee), or if their behavior is off, try talking about it first. Be specific and clear about the problem and try to figure out possible solutions.

Still, at the end of the day, you may end up in the situation that you will have to part ways. It may well make you feel uncomfortable to tell a player, “I don’t think our play styles are compatible and it would be better if we didn’t play together.” After all, we all like to be liked.

However, the alternative is dragging out a social relationship you don’t enjoy—probably to the detriment of all involved.

The solution is simple: honest communication and respect. But sometimes it’s hard: parting ways, breaking up.

That’s just a rough truth of roleplaying games. They’re a social pursuit and, to quote Sartre, “l’enfer, c’est les autres“.

Post Script (Jul 15)

Of course a friend will summarize a whole blog post in a single line and say what I meant in a better way. Of course.

“I stand by my rule of trying to only game with people who I’d get a coffee with anyways if we all met up together and found out the game was suddenly cancelled.”

Well, yeah. Spot on. Thanks.

These principles are an excerpt from the referee section of Our Golden Age, a companion to the Ultraviolet Grasslands (back in stock!) that I’m currently assembling on my patreon from the SDM, the simplified shell of Uranium Butterflies, notes on the Rainbowlands and the Circle Sea, maps, and more. It brings more backgrounds, traits, equipment, and spells to the game, as well as some more setting stuff, like mechanics for sacrificing to the so-called gods, exploring the noösphere, and more.

2 replies on “Principles: Like Friends”

my similar but different take is that you should only play with people you already trust. so for example you could hang out, have them accompany you while you go buy stuff in town, stuff like that. if you like the vibes you get from hanging out with them, then formally invite them over for game night.

this works in tandem with another principle, which is that of starting play with just one player (i make a GMPC and adopt a proactive/reactive playstyle to complement the other player’s playstyle. proactive if they’re reactive and vice versa) then adding only one player at a time. i believe this is necessary to give time to the group to mesh into a new one (with the addition of the new player) and find a new balance. the corollary is that you should wait some time before adding another person, unless you get the vibe that the group is already done meshing (but honestly, i like playing with a low player count, so this rarely applies)

I definitely see the point of that.

As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time moving around, I’ve come to adopt a riskier stance: try and see if it works out.

However, it’s definitely an interesting hobby that moves quite beyond the “just a few of us randos hanging out together.”

Comments are closed.