Practical Thoughts on Expectations

So, last week I wrote about the danger of carrying the wrong expectations into a roleplaying session. Talk is good, but it can be hard to move from talk to practice. You might feel like you want to change the tone of your table, but how to do it? Well, I’m no expert — just another GM and player like the rest of you — but I’ve caught myself on both sides of this expectation issue and I have a few suggestions…

For Players

Communicate with the GM
This is a big one. It’s also one that is surprisingly easy to forget. Talk to your GM. You can be general, “Hey, next session I wanna do something crazy. Just, get out of the box.” You can be specific, “Hey GM, so, this is a fantasy game, right? Well, I really want to go find a dragon. I know I’m 3rd level — I don’t have to fight it — let’s just go find it. Dragons are awesome. So, yeah, I want to find a dragon, soon. My character is listening for rumors, talking to folks on the road, the whole bit.” Or, you know, “Hey GM, can we get a little more swash in the buckle? We’ve done some dungeon crawling, and it’s been great, I’ve had fun, but I want to quip a little, and jump off stuff, and set stuff on fire… can we make that happen?”

Communicate with the other players
And do it in character. Stir the pot. Don’t be a jerk, that’s counterproductive, but really, try to get a couple other players on board in some hair-brained scheme. I remember a long time ago, I was playing a thief in a D&D game (Rules Cyclopedia) and I was about 5th level. We were in a big city where every year the local orc population would have a public bloodsport, with teams, sides, all kinds of stuff. I decided to create pennants so people could support their favorite team. I roped in the other players, made a deal with the seamstresses guild, made contacts with the orcs, got involved in a side quest or two, and then manipulated the betting at the actual events by building team loyalties. It was crazy and totally changed the tenor of that game for a few sessions — we’d been dungeon-crawling and escorting caravans up to that point. It was tons of fun, and it was one guy’s idea (mine) but it was made worlds better by sharing it with the party and really getting them excited about it too. Don’t keep stuff to yourself, talk to the others. It’s a social game after all –heck, RPGs are the ultimate social game! Play to the strength of your medium.

Have a hare-brained scheme
And on the heels of that last one. Have a hare-brained scheme. I’ve jumped off the wings of airspeeders, infiltrated nobility as wedding planners, jumped from one moving car to another, had players that used squirrels to defeat a security system in Shadowrun (lots of squirrels), sold pennants in D&D (see above), and a million other stories that come to mind that you don’t need to hear right now… my favorite though is not my own story — but someone else’s. He was playing in a Star Wars game and the PCs were trapped on a flight deck by a boatload of stormtroopers. They were not getting out of this alive. So as the rest of the party runs off, he stops, ducks in between two shuttlecraft, and lets about half the stormtroopers run by. When one notices him, he’s just standing there with his arms out to the sides and he says, “don’t mind me, I’m a shuttle.” And then he goes back to imitating a shuttle. He was not a Jedi. No mind tricks here. But the GM was so taken aback that instead of shooting him, the troopers took him in and he got a chance to escape. It was a ridiculous moment, people laughed, people groaned. Years later they still talk about it. Some of the others in that escape attempt, not so lucky — they went down fighting… even when it was hopeless. Because, you know, if you have blasters, you might as well use ’em. I love this story. Yeah, it’s stupid but it’s also wonderful.

Don’t Ever Take No for an Answer
Again, let me be clear… I’m not advocating being a dick here. Always be respectful of the other players and the GM. But don’t let obstacles get in the way of a great time. Ask more questions, try stuff out, experiment, and when you’ve tried everything? Try something else. One of the reasons I don’t play more videogames is the frustration I experience when I realize that a game doesn’t want me to do something — so instead of having a good reason — my character just can’t do it at all. Even if a twenty-year old, three legged dog could climb that hill, if the game doesn’t want me to go that way – I can’t. But the great thing about RPGs is, they are a negotiate space. If your GM doesn’t have something prepared for what’s behind the door you just kicked in because he expected you to go another way, well, help him out. Just say, “Hey, that’s cool, I would never have expected a kitchen/well room/library, to be here — and what’s with that tapestry of the battle scene?” If you’ve been a constant communicator and a bold player, the GM might just let you run with it (and if you opt for throwing out some choices the GM might thank you for making his improvising a little easier). Not all GMs are comfortable with this level of negotiation (and players should not take advantage of it) but if you show the GM you can be trusted to care about the game, the GM will likely do just that. And engaged players are awesome.

Be Engaged
And that’s my final advice. Be engaged. At all times. If you think the barbarian is boring and you don’t like combat, don’t fade out when combat starts and just sit there and roll dice. Get amped, talk trash to the barbarian on your team and get him spitting mad, hide behind him on the battle map after you talk trash to the bad guy. Climb something and attack a dude from above. Fiddle with the weird statue in the room and look for a way to topple it onto the goblin archers. Whatever. Just don’t tune out and say, “I hit again. 3 damage.” That’s a sure way to bring everyone down. If you expect combat (or whatever) to be boring, it will be. Make it awesome-er. Only you can.

And that’s all I’ve got today. Wednesday, I’ll turn it around on GMs. For now, tell me what you think — suggestions of your own, complaints? Tell me. And thanks for reading.


4 responses

  1. ‘Don’t take no for an answer’ leads me to the same problems with a lot of video games, but most recently, Witcher 2

    The talking to other players bit has always been the most successful way I’ve seen of driving a game forward, or maybe to the side. Hell, just keeping it moving. For the first time in a long time, my girlfriend joined in on one of my regular weekday games that I GM – cyberpunk 2020 if you’re interested – and afterwards said she had never seen a game like it or so many people congratulating me for running a game whilst doing so little. I do everything I can to set an environment that allows and positively encourages IC chat. this led to a two hour planning session where I played an NPC who was just there to answer questions the players might have, so even when talking to the GM, they were talking IC. After all the twoing and froing, the plan was nailed down and went off with barely a hitch. All because the group bounced some crazy ideas off each other instead of asking the GM if they would work and then just trying them.

    Looking forward to your GMs advice next.

  2. Spring-boarding off “Don’t Ever Take No for an Answer” I’ll add:

    Always assume ‘Yes’ until told ‘No’.
    Then, if you really want ‘Yes’, do your best to negotiate to ‘Maybe’.
    But in “Don’t be a jerk territory” always be mindful that sometimes ‘No’ is ‘No’ and can’t be negotiated.

    But never simply assume ‘No’ without confirmation.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. I appreciate it.

    @shortymonster — man, I love “talking head” sessions. I’ve run years-long Amber campaigns where I’d estimate 50% of the sessions didn’t involve anything that would qualify as “typical action.” And they are my fondest gaming memories.

    I toot Amber’s horn a lot but I think the openness of that game is what truly taught me to take my gaming to a different place. As for GM advice, I’ll try not to disappoint.

    @Kevin — thank you. Your point is well made and I could have been more clear. I think you summed up what I really wanted to get at better than I did. Just don’t project and assume “no” before you try to see if there is a “yes.” Because honestly, if communication is really good at the table, the GM can probably be in a position where he/she can look across the table and just say, “hey guys, I really didn’t prepare anything for the chemical plant tonight and I’ve had a rough week. Now that I know that’s somewhere you want to go, I’ll prep it for the future — but tonight — can we just take 5 and come back and do the meet in the alley?” Players who respect their GM will probably be okay with that.

    1. That communication is the #1 key to a good game.

      Each side of the screen should feel encouraged to speak up and describe their desires and expectations for the game both in character as well as out of character. Only then can the game progress to something enjoyable for everyone.

      While that doesn’t that mean I’m advocating everyone getting their way 100% of the time on each and every point, if nobody ever describes what they want/expect from the game, then the game can’t be expected to meed those desires or goals.

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