How to Build Trust at the Table

If you’re just not feeling it with your gaming group, or you’re finding pick up games just aren’t as awesome as you want, it’s probably not the game. The game is just the engine. It needs premium fuel to kick ass. If you want it supercharged pour in some trust.

Trust Supercharger

That’s a really bad car metaphor, isn’t it? Don’t look at me like that, cars really aren’t my thing.

Trust building is a process and not one that can be cut short. There isn’t a single surefire process for doing it, and all parties have to be involved. It requires paying attention to others and being willing to take little risks yourself.

Building trust is not an inevitability of spending time with a group. Each choice you make is either building or destroying confidence and sense of safety. Relationships with a great deal of trust are resilient and can hold up under explorations of intense themes, and through individuals having cranky days. A new relationship can be broken by a single judgemental raised eyebrow.

The See-saw: Mythic and Deadly

Dangerous old see-saw

Slivers and broken tailbones… ah childhood.

Imagine a see-saw,  a teeter-totter. They aren’t allowed on playgrounds anymore because too many children have gotten injured on them.

They are a good metaphor for building trust in roleplaying games. First, the only reason to use them is to have fun. If you’re getting on a see-saw for some other reason you’re missing the point. Second, they are social: they require more than one person. A child alone on a see-saw is a sad picture. Third, they have an element of risk. Just as you give your whole table a chance to judge you when you introduce your new character, you are always giving the other person on the seesaw the chance to jump off and leave you with a broken tailbone.

Before you get on the see-saw with a new person you ask yourself “Do I want to risk playing with this person? Will they be careful? Wild? Considerate? Will they hurt me?” You don’t have answers to those questions yet, at least not that you’re confident in.

First Leaps

To start playing someone has to make the first jump, the first offer. You bend your knees, introduce your character and leap up into the air.

That’s vulnerability. Right there. You have given over control of your body to the other person. They hold you up in the air, and you have to wait and find out what they’re going to do. They might monologue for the next hour and keep you stuck up there not getting to play. They might make a really wild jump, something that is scary and uncomfortable. They might be cruel and drop you. You’re in an exposed position.

But if the other person is kind and wants to play along, wants for you both to have fun, they’ll absorb your jump and return it with one of their own. One that you can handle. You’ll land back on your feet, absorb the impact of their offer, and now you have the power. They’ve given you a little hint of trust by being vulnerable to you, and perhaps earned a titch of trust by their consideration when you made yourself a little vulnerable to them.

Building Trust (and Resiliency)

This gentle play is a way to get to know each other but isn’t the end of the trust-building journey. It’s an early building block. When you’re on the see-saw with someone you deeply trust it can be a lot more exciting than gentle respectful play. You can leap and wiggle, jerk the seat and even stand up on it. You can take daring risks that are exciting to play because you’ve built trust and know the other person has your back.

Dr. Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher talks about a trust jar. People in a relationship add jelly beans to the jar by considerate actions and remove jelly beans from the jar by selfish, scary or cruel actions. A “full trust jar” relationship has a lot of resilience and an “empty trust jar” relationship is fragile.

You must build the intensity of your play in steps. When the jar is empty you can scare someone off the see-saw with a surprising dynamic action. In roleplay challenging a player who is new to you with a player character against player character attack may put them off. And it’s not that there’s anything “bad” about roleplaying inter-character conflict, it’s that a relationship requires trust to be able to engage in that conflict in a playful and comfortable way.

Obstacles to Trust: Rushing and Assuming

A common mistake I see at the gaming table is when an experienced player who’s comfortable with intense themes assumes others should be down with them too. Phil Vecchione at Gnome Stew wrote a blog post about safety tools and some incensed commenters criticized him saying D&D is an R-rated game and “delicate flowers” who need safety tools just shouldn’t play it.

There are players who get joy out of playing RPGs on “hardcore” mode. They want inter-character antagonization, sexual content, and graphic descriptions of violence. And that’s fine! But when those players belly up to a table of new-to-them players, and assume because they’re comfortable with R-rated D&D everyone else should be too, they’re wrong-headed. The question to ask when you want to explore complicated themes isn’t “should these individuals be able to handle this?” and it’s not even “can these individuals handle this?” it’s “can these relationships handle this?”

Because even if every player at the table is theoretically okay with exploring say domestic abuse, they won’t necessarily like exploring it together. Just because two people both like sex doesn’t mean they will want to have sex with each other. Relationship, trust, and agreement between players are more important than any player’s individual preferences.


Even if you know you can bounce your sibling around on the see-saw safely doesn’t mean you start that way with the new shy neighbour kid. But start gentle, feel each other out, see if the neighbour kid is into it, and you might discover that kid is super fun to play with! If you’re the shy kid, find the people who give you space to be shy. Trust your comfort level when choosing see-saw buddies, and deciding who to stick with.

Do get on the see-saw. Know that trust-building is important to playing your most-engaged thrilling game. Know that trust-building is a process and can’t be assumed. You don’t have to play with someone that’s not fun, and with a little vulnerability, you might find someone to play with who’s a ton of fun.

Hey you! Yeah, you attractive friendly person you. Leave a comment! Lemme know your thoughts. How do you build trust at your table?