Seems a no-brainer, but it is sometimes hard to remember when you’re designing a game. The players (and by that, I mean “the people playing the game”, not “non-GM participants”) aren’t out to subvert what you do. They’ve bought your game, they’ve bought into the idea of it, they are gathered together to try to play and have fun. They are not trying to use loopholes to make the game not-fun.
I was reminded of this when reading a post over on Vincent Baker’s blog from a bit over a year ago, Reliable vs. Unreliable Currency. The post itself is not really what caught my attention, but rather the comments, Ben Lehman’s especially. He talks about sportsmanship, that magical thing that lets a group of people working towards a common goal (fun, good story), but with competing interests (their characters’ desires), not forget the former for the latter.
Somewhere, once upon a time, I heard that people will act more unethically in a business situation when there’s a financial penalty for doing so than when there isn’t. If unethical action just leads to a payment, then they treat it as a financial, not an ethical, decision, and the penalty becomes a cost of doing business. If there’s no penalty, then people engage the moral parts of their minds and hearts, and more often than not do the right thing.
When you play a story-game, you actually do want things to be unfair. You want to throw awful things at someone else to see how they’ll respond—not necessarily “get out of it”, but respond, at all—and you want them to throw awful things at you so that you can get a moment in the spotlight.
So do it. Make a game where you, the game designer, are collaborating with the players-to-be. You are providing them with some reminders of the kind of story they want to tell and the game they want to play. I think that a gentle hand and a solid embrace of the unfairness of story can go a long way.
(Now, personally, I find that all of that militates against heavy emphasis on the game part of story-game, but that’s just fine. I need something to counter-balance my game-oriented instincts.)