Setting Expectations in Role Playing Games
Recently I’ve been watching Critical Role on Geek & Sundry’s Youtube channel. I had actually started watching it live on Twitch but I find it hard to dedicate three hours to a live stream. With the release of the episodes on Youtube and me spending a lot of time painting lately I’ve been catching up on what I’ve missed. It’s a great show and it’s really made me want to play more RPGs. In the meantime I’ve been reading anything I can find about role playing and I’ve found a few different people exasperated because they aren’t able to play the type of RPG they want.
When I first came across this sentiment I didn’t give the premise enough thought. Sure, I thought, other GMs may have a problem, but not me. Then I thought of a recent game I played where a player, one of my close friends, made a comment that completely demonstrated that we weren’t on the same page. It was a one-off game of Numenera using an adventure from Weird Discoveries, a book designed to run one-shots, and there were far too many players at the table for me to address or even register the importance of his comment at the time.
Even now I can’t remember exactly what he said. I think it was something along the line of the GM making sure to steer the plot and keep it on track. It wasn’t that he was accusing me of railroading, but that he was as close to correct as he could be while still being wrong that bugged me. There was a time when I was a rail-roady GM, so he truly believed what he said and I know it lessened his enjoyment of the game. As I said, there were too many players so I let the comment go. Arguing the point would have made the situation worse.
It does illustrate the need to get everyone on the same page before you start gaming because even close friends who’ve gamed with you many times before can want something different from the game or even misunderstand what it is your trying to accomplish. This can be even more important where a participant of an established group wants to try a new style of play. Often this can be disruptive, but if handled correctly will add to everyone’s enjoyment. The first step to RPG happiness is to set expectations.
Before starting to make characters, even before the campaign’s plot is sketched out by the GM, everyone participating in the campaign needs to make sure they’re all on the same page with how they want to play the game. Things like character death, game consequences and the character of the world should be hashed out at the beginning. I think many GMs like to leave these things as surprises for their players, or to teach them through play what to expect. Some players will accept this with aplomb while others will feel cheated and tricked. It’s not just the players who can be hurt by unset expectations. I recently read a Dungeon Crawl Classics AP where the GM was surprised and disappointed that the players missed a bunch of treasure by not searching. This can also lead to under or over-prepping for a game by a GM.
Some GMs like to fudge their rolls to give their players the ability to attempt crazy heroic stunts without the fear of death. I’ve run games where players can only kill themselves by gross stupidity and I’ve also run games were a bunch of bad rolls can permanently end a character’s career. I started roleplaying after the era of save vs. death but I know that there are players and GMs who love that kind of game.
It’s important that players know what kind of game to expect before they stick their neck out. If someone is used to their GM fudging dice or adjusting difficulty on the fly it can be devastating if their character meets an ignoble end from a lowly orc.
Let players know that you don’t pull punches before they learn it the hard way. They may not take you seriously but at least you can say you warned them when the time comes.
What I Prefer
In my games I don’t pull my punches. If the dice decrees someone dies, they die. I like Dungeon World‘s Agenda to “Play to find out what happens.”
On the other hand I don’t tend to design deadly traps or encounters in order to kill my players, which leads to another expectation.
One would think that encounter difficulty and lethality are the same thing. They do overlap but it’s one thing to know you can die, and another to know whether your GM is going to throw unwinnable encounters at you. If the players expect that every encounter is one which they can overcome they will always look for a way to defeat it. In my experience this is the default setting for most games, tabletop roleplaying and video games. Players are trained to expect encounters to be challenging but possible.
This isn’t always the case with every game or every GM. Sometimes a party can come across a fight they just can’t win and aren’t expected to tackle. If they expect that every encounter is geared for their level they may be shocked when they are thoroughly crushed. Meanwhile the GM has arranged for a number of creative ways for the players to bypass the obstacle.
What I Prefer
There are few games where I would ever want my players to feel that everything is arranged to perfectly match their skill level. What a boring, predictable game that would be. Even in a traditional game of dungeon crawling coming across an overpowering opponent creates the opportunity to gain strength and return.
Here is a tricky subject that could even star in its own article. Capturing PCs are one of the hardest tasks for a GM. It can be a real issue if you want to capture them alive and the players assume that every encounter can be defeated as they’ll frequently fight to the death.
Besides the mechanical difficulty of capturing PCs there’s also a physiological issue as well. Some players don’t respond well to being captured and feel that they are being forced to fulfill a plot requirement. Talking about things before hand will identify this issue so if it is something that will destroy a player’s enjoyment the GM will know the leave it out of the plot.
What I Prefer
I would love it if I could surround my players with a bunch of guards and have them give in just once. In the end I won’t ever force players to be captured as I find it too much of a GM railroad. I may arrange the circumstances where it can happen but I will be prepared for my players overcoming the odds or otherwise escaping. As I GM I may say “the bad guys attempt to capture the heroes” but the point of playing the game is to determine whether or not it actually happens.
As a GM I don’t often think about whether one class or character is balanced compared to the rest of the party but for some people the idea of being penalized for choices they made at character creation is unbearable. Other players are perfectly happy forgoing any kind of game advantage to give their character more flavour.
This is an expectation that should be set before the game is chosen. Some games try to keep players balanced with varying degrees of success and some make no effort at all. Players who care only about flavour don’t care one way or another while players who like to take every advantage they can would be miserable in the wrong game system.
What I Prefer
I once played a game of Dungeons and Dragons as a desert dwelling shamanic mage who didn’t speak common for the first few sessions. When we were unexpectedly teleported into the middle of a battle on board a ship at sea I t spent the first few rounds doing nothing to represent my character’s inability to act due to sea-sickness.
Here is one I’m always surprised by when it comes up in a game. I remember playing Dungeons and Dragons 4e and my players wanted to know how many spears the kobolds carried. Their plan was to loot the corpses of everything they could conceivably sell. I wasn’t expecting to have to furnish such a detailed inventory and it really threw me off.
In some games the party is little more than a band of murderous looters, snatching up anything that isn’t nailed down. Other groups like to quickly gloss past mundane items and focus only on shiney treasure and magic items. Either way of playing is fine but if the GM is awarding more coins to compensate for the players not bringing every scrap of equipment back to town for sale and they pack it all back regardless it can unbalance the game.
What I Prefer
One of my favorite parts of playing Dungeon World is rolling on the treasure table. I like being able to give players something more interesting than a handful of gold or some mundane items to sell. I also don’t like the idea that randomly slaughtering a handful of sentient “monsters” is a good business practice.
The Same Page Tool
There’s a lot more points on which all participants of a RPG should agree. Sexuality, good vs. evil characters, religion and politics can easily become taboo subjects for some people. It’s a lot to sick down and think about before a game which is why this tool I found is a great help. In fact, this tool inspired this article.
If you have any stories of a game going off the rails because participants weren’t on the same page please share in the comments, I’d really love to hear them. You can also find me on Google+ and Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe for more.