RP Tools: Managing Expectations as the Basis for Fun
“Managing Expectations” is a short way of saying something quite complex: the need to ensure that every participant in the game, players and GM, has the same expectations about the genre, narrative style, operations of the rules, and the ways in which they can influence the story. Role-playing games are a unique hobby, in that the expectations are not determined solely by virtue of the experience – In a movie theater, everyone experience exactly the same thing; When playing a board game, the rules are exactly the same for everyone and there are no exceptions.
In role-play, not only is there a huge room for the interpretation of the rules, there’s also a huge part of the experience that occurs beyond the rules. This interpersonal environment requires special attention, and those who do not recognize this need will find themselves helpless when dealing with conflicts that arise during the game, simply because they have no idea why they’re happening.
This idea isn’t new; the point of this article is to provide a concise and efficient guide for parties, both before and during their games.
For further reading, check out Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management, definitely recommended for players as well, despite the title. Here it is in PDF (affiliate link).
You should start with one of these two: a general concept for the game, or a system of rules.
If you have an idea for a concept, define a setting and a genre for it. Specifics are better than general – “Superhero” or “Fantasy” are too general as description of settings of genres. “Superhero with street-level powers, in the world of Marvel, with an emphasis on mystery” is far better. The difference between a setting and a genre is somewhat vague, but it doesn’t really matter; The important thing is to clarify what the characters are expected to do (a murder investigation? Explore a dungeon? Flee from an alien menace? Explore a sandbox galaxy to their heart’s content?), and which main tropes will be in effect (if a character is shot with a gun, is she wounded but continues to act like in an action movie, or does she drop dead? Is it a black-white world with actual Always Chaotic Evil demons, or is there no such thing as good and evil?).
The GM, as the person who probably initiated the game, should come up with a relatively solid concept, probably with the help of the genre’s main tropes. The GM should also be open to suggestions, making sure all players have at least something they find exciting about the upcoming game.
After everyone comes to an agreement, find a system of rules (a game engine) that serves your needs.
If you start with a system, in a sense you’ve already chosen a setting and a genre, because even the most generic gaming systems include some conventions, as a product of their rules. Be aware of the gaming experience the system is expected to create, and make sure all players are aware of that as well. If in doubt, you might want to run a one-shot with pregen characters, to make sure everyone’s on the same page, or allow the players to make changes to their characters after the first “official” session, if they’ve realized the rules do not produce the story effects they first imagined.
Now you should talk about four key elements: Character freedoms, player creative freedom, main types of scenes, and attitude toward off-play.
Character freedoms – How tight is the GM’s story going to be? What parts of it are the players “allowed” to change? What percentage of it will be created out of the players actions, and what percentage of it is planned to happen anyway as part of a the GM’s narrative vision? How much of the characters’ motivations and initiatives should come from the players, and how much of the things the world throws at them are they supposed to accept?
Player creative freedoms – In what ways can the players add to the fiction? How much can they describe themselves, about what’s happening in the world? Can a player declare a relationships (“the captain of the guard and I were together in school”)? Can they establish facts in the environment (“There’s a tree there, so I can climb it”), that aren’t part of the GM’s plans? What are the mechanical limits on this? What is the GM probably going to allow, and what’s totally out of bounds?
Main types of scenes – This includes real-world gaming experiences. Will there be a focus on tactical battles? Is there expected to be a lot of intrigue within the group, with entire scenes in which the players are mostly talking among themselves?
Attitude toward off-play – How serious are all the participants about the game? Is it more of a “beer and pretzels” type of session, in which we just want to roll some dice and get some treasures after a long day at work? Or are the players expected to care more about the characters and the plot, maybe even engage in discussion outside of the session (maybe with a weekly question)? Is it possible to find a compromise between the expectations of different players?
There are other subjects that might warrant discussion, such as the inclusion of controversial themes, the use of unusual sourcebooks, etc. Now’s the time to talk about it, with everyone, making sure there are no sudden surprises later on. If something that you enjoy in your game might be troubling, talk about it and make sure other people are okay; if there’s something you never enjoy in your games, talk about it to make sure other people won’t bring it up.
Once in awhile, after 3-4 sessions, each participant in the game should stop and think. Were there any recent conflicts between players? Was it because different people were expecting different things out of the game? If so, you might want to stop for a short coordination of expectations. Here are some examples of such frictions:
- A player tries to devote part of the session to develop their the character’s personal story, while others are pushing to continue with the main plot.
- A player character starts doing stupid cock-ups during the game, because the player gets bored during the combat you’ve been running lately.
- The GM places some cool technological objects in the game’s fantasy world, because he thinks it’s super-cool, and the players don’t use them at all.
In such cases, it’s usually enough to sit down and talk with the people at the center of the friction, to try and understand what they want to happen in the game, and why it doesn’t happen. There are a variety of solutions – the important thing is to notice the existence of the problem, and then make sure a solution is indeed implemented.
Here are some suggested solutions to the frictions from before:
- The group does not want to focus on personal stories; The GM offers the player to have a private game between them, possibly through emails, during which the player will have the opportunity to develop the personal story of their character.
Alternatively, as a way to try and stimulate interest in the rest of the group, the GM or player starts a weekly questions email, to encourage the players to develop the stories of their characters, and thus make them appreciate this aspect of the game.
- Perhaps the player gets bored because the combats are trivial and repetitive, and she’s a “power player” who enjoys trying new tactics and abilities. The rest of the party are satisfied with just rolling some dice and dealing damage, or maybe they’re not here for the combat anyway. The GM should add new and complex elements to future combats, as a kind of a personal challenge for the bored player – alongside five orcs, add a troll boss with a spiked chain, that knocks down pillars on the characters.
Or maybe the player gets bored because they are uninterested in fighting, while the rest of the group enjoys the tactical aspect of the game. The GM should add justification to the combats, a reason for the player to want and play through them, making fights feel relevant as a story element, not just a tactical game. For example, these aren’t just three goblins in a guard room; One of them knows the secrets of the prince, who is an intriguing NPC that the player is curious about. Another solution is to provide a story aspect to every combat, something for the player to do while the others are fighting, all in the same scene. The three goblins are headed by a 4th one, who really likes to throw insults at the characters, giving the player a chance for a fun back-and-forth during the combat scene.
- The GM is trying to sneak something new into game because he recently found a new idea that excites him, but the players just want to continue with what they had before. It may be possible to provide the GM an outlet to this burst of creativity by running a one-time session in which he could “unload” the new cool thing without affecting the ongoing campaign.
Once per adventure, or once per two months or so, you should make a deliberate effort to re-coordinate expectations, to force issues to the surface (if there are any, and if they didn’t arise naturally, so there wasn’t any occasional coordination regarding them). The following link is a questionnaire we made, intended to be distributed between the players at the end a session – you should be ready to end the session 15 minutes earlier than usual, to leave time to for questionnaire.
It’s much better to fill these at the end of a session, and not through email. You may want to ask your players not to talk to each other during the filling of the questionnaire, to give every player the opportunity to express themselves, and to avoid getting a consensus around averages (the more extreme the answers, the more important they are). You may want to offer the players the opportunity to submit anonymously – To do this, ask the players to fold the pages, and mix them up before you read them.
The questionnaire is written as a Google document, so it can be easily copied. You should change it to include specific topics relevant to your game and group.
It’s important for all of us to remember that the point behind of all this is to make a better game for us all. Criticism is welcomed, but it should be phrased with maturity.
You should come out of this session with at least two conclusions, which can be about positive conservation (“Keep doing X”). These conclusions might be important enough to warrant a major change in the game. Here are some tools that can be used to bring about such a change:
- Switch system. The current gaming system might simply not be suited to your needs. Consider other systems, and/or ask in relevant internet groups and forums for advice about making changes to your current ruleset.
- Talk to the player/GM. Perhaps one of the players has a very different approach than that of the rest of the group, and even though you’ve been playing for a while now, you haven’t come to a modus vivendi organically during play. You should sit down and raise the issue.
- Bring about a drastic change in the plot or in the game’s world. Your plans, as a GM, for the future of the plot, are less important than the fun you guys should be having (the plot is supposed to serve the group, not the other way around). You may find yourself required to make significant changes, to better suit the likes and dislikes of the players. Start a war, put more emphasis on espionage and investigation in your superhero adventure, kill a major NPC, or make a minor NPC into a major one. It is entirely possible that the themes and genres in which everyone wanted to play, are different than the ones you actually enjoy – you should abandon the original intentions, and adhere to what was discovered as an unexpected success. But don’t compromise too much on your own fun – a GM who’s not excited at all about her plans or gaming world, is not only betraying herself (she’s playing to have fun!), but also producing a much less fun game for everyone else.
- Start using a new tool, such as an online forum in which characters can have conversations, sending a weekly question, documenting meetings and publishing them on the Internet (written, audio or video). All of these can help solve certain problems. You should contact the relevant online groups to utilize the combined smarts of players and GMs who already went through the same ordeals, specify the problems you’ve encountered, and ask for new tools to help solve them.