Dangerous Expectations

Expectations are a brutal thing. I’m a big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (I know there are four now) but I was always a little disappointed in the first one. I went to see it expecting a dark, scary adventure story and I got a lot more camp and humor than I’d planned for. It just didn’t sit well. But forget about pirates for a minute.

Let’s talk about bounty hunters and Jedi. I started playing the D6 Star Wars game in my late teens/early twenties. I was an instant convert. The game was so much fun, so simple to learn, and it was — you know — Star Wars. So we played Jedi and we played bounty hunters and we played fast and loose with the rules. We went nuts. I jumped out of moving airspeeders onto the tops of other moving airspeeders (well, my characters did). I shot of a Gammorrean’s horns one time just to torque him off in a firefight. We infiltrated an Imperial Admiral’s retirement party as a band calling itself “Rebel Intelligence.” And looking back on those campaigns, what I remember most was the sense that there was nothing we couldn’t do. Now don’t get me wrong. We made mistakes, we failed (often), got captured, got hurt, fell to the Dark Side once (okay, twice), and even made a choice once that destroyed the biosphere of a planet. But we just DID STUFF. We assumed that no plan was too big, no obstacle too scary, no door too thick. And that’s how we played — no fear. I mean, Luke thought it was a good plan to attack the biggest crime boss (no word play intended) on Tatooine with a plan that consisted of, “I’ll put my lightsaber in R2’s head.” Because, you know, he was pretty sure that he and his were awesome enough to deal — no matter what.

I come back to the idea of asking questions a lot. That player skill is about interacting with the environment and the story, not the numbers on your character sheet. But I think it’s more than that. It’s about taking the initiative for your own fun.

Expectations get in the way of that.

When my girlfriend ran the Carrion Crown Adventure Path, my party missed this entire sequence of events that happens at one point because, well, when we met with some resistance to “getting in” it was decided that, “The adventure doesn’t want us to go this way” so we went another way. That still bugs me. We didn’t decide our course of action based on in-game events or desires but on the presumption that if the GM presents resistance to a plan then obviously it’s a waste of our time. Nothing to see here, move along.

In another game my girlfriend ran, a Dragon Age game, we actually missed the pivotal battle of the adventure and let a town get destroyed because we didn’t play to the “expectation” of the adventure and instead did what we thought was right at the time. And as sad as I am that we missed out on what sounded like a rampaging good time of a fight, it was the right thing to do. We played our characters, not the game.

What’s the point? The point is, I see a lot of games where players choose to follow certain expectations, certain presumptions about what they should or should not do in-game based on the math, or the skill points on their character sheet, or worse — what they think someone else (be it a GM or a faceless adventure writer who isn’t even at their table) expect them to do. And I often see that “flattening” of the play experience held up as a defense of rules-heavy games. That it helps players know what to expect. But for me — and I can only speak to my own experience — that kind of thinking is what kills the fun. Players have one set of expectations based on a rules-set, and I find it stifling. A recent discussion I read somewhere (I wish I could remember where) about people “playing Burning Wheel wrong” is a perfect example of this. I talked about all that running and jumping before, in Star Wars? My last 4E character I played for more than a session was a human paladin who made Athletics her best skill and spent most of the game trying to jump things — in plate armor. It’s an awkward example I grant you, but I heard some folk tell me I was doing it wrong (I also tended to play the paladin like a striker, not a defender/leader hybrid). And it bugged me to hear that I was wrong because “that’s not what paladin’s are good at.”

So I ended up leaving 4E behind. (Well, for more reasons than just that, but…)

Ultimately, I guess I’m just imploring players to go a little nuts. Don’t come to the table with expectations, don’t come to the table and try to guess what’s in your GM’s head. Just come to the table and do what you want… I’m not advocating being chaotic jerkwad, here. I’m advocating for playing looser. Don’t worry that your PC doesn’t have points in jump. Don’t worry that you just decided to chase 20 stormtroopers down a hallway. Don’t worry if your character dies. Just play.

It’s been a long week and I know I’m rambling. I’ve been struggling to write the blog lately because I’ve been busy with my own writing and I’m not sure what I want to talk about here. Any suggestions? Topic you wanna hear about, gaming issues, monkey problems, reviews, character conversions, nachos? I dunno. Drop me a line, I could use the inspiration.

Thanks for reading.

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2 responses

  1. “…what I remember most was the sense that there was nothing we couldn’t do.”

    This. 100% exactly this!

    That just about sums up what I think a RPG should be and how the game/world should be explored.

    To me, rules have gotten in the way of the imaginative process and have become a crutch on both sides of the screen.

    The players use the numbers on their sheets as limitations way more often than not. They see their statistics as dictates of “What they can and are allowed to do” and not “What opportunities they have to exploit in an attempt to try anything”

    And please don’t get me started on the imposition of rules on the GM vis-a-vis the encounter xp pool and the like.

    Seriously, we’ve removed imagination and replaced it with recipes – Honestly, I think sometimes we’re all just playing Cooks & Diners the RPG.

  2. Recipes… that’s a pretty good observation. I agree completely that rules have gotten in the way. We’ve been around on this… I guess what needs to happen now is to find ways to encourage players to really just… do it.

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