So… yesterday was the 4th of July. I obviously got caught up in the festive mood and never got around to this post. We’re a day late, but here it is.
I wrote last week about the danger of carrying certain expectations to the game table, and last Monday I offered some simple advice to players. I’ll attempt to parallel some of those thoughts for the other side of the screen in this part two:
For Game Masters:
Communicate with your Players
This may seem like simplistic advice, but it’s important to always keep in mind. Talk to your players about the game. Don’t necessarily talk about your campaign… talk about the game you are playing. If you are running 4E D&D and someone at your table observes that 4E “is really only about combat” then you might pull them aside one night to chat about what they are expecting at a 4E table and what might work to alter their expectations somewhat. Going back to my own well — I used to spend car trips, dinners, and other “hanging out time” discussing Amber with players. Not just the game we were playing, but the whole Amber “thing” to help me keep the pulse of the game. Maybe you aren’t close friends with the group you play with. That’s okay, if you’re hanging out at the game store before you start a public event, get a bead on what the people who show up early are thinking and subtly mention what your style is like to help them ease into your event. If you are a by-the-numbers, rolls-in-the-open kind of GM, let the players know and discuss what they expect that will be like.
You can (and probably should) also try to talk to your players about their expectations in any long-term game you set out to run. And I’d suggest not necessarily talking about their characters but, rather, their perceptions as players. I say this because it’s very easy to get caught up in what characters want vs. what players want. And the differing sets of expectations can be at odds sometimes even if the player doesn’t realize it. I’ve often had the experience where a player talks and talks about what they want out of a game and then shows up to a session with a character completely unsuited to fit those desires. And they may not realize what they’ve done until they are already frustrated by the game and what they are getting out of it. Asking questions early might help that player see the disconnect. Never tell a player not to play something (as long as it’s appropriate to the game) but asking them to look at their work and think about how it plays to their expectations is not a bad thing.
Communicate with the characters
When it comes to finding out what the characters (as opposed to the players) are all about, I highly recommend doing this in-game. Have NPCs question the character’s motives. Have scenes where a PC can reveal something about themselves. Set the stage to allow secrets to be revealed (or created), stories to be told, and ideas to be bounced around. You can talk to someone about their character, but it’s better to have their character interact. This has the added bonus of engaging the PCs in the world as well and making their lives seem a little more “real.” I mean, I share an office with another person. We often exchange small talk throughout the day about what we did on the weekend, what we want to do on the weekend, a work situation, etc. If the PCs are engaged by a duchess in a conversation about their upbringing — low-stakes, friendly conversation — this can be a character-building moment, and it might just sharpen the focus of your world and your story in ways you can’t even imagine yet. I introduce a “brash young noble” in one of my Amber sessions once — he chatted up a female PC who had wandered away from the group. I had no intention of him being important, I’d made him up as a random encounter. All the sudden, I found myself introducing him as the Crown Prince of Chaos… and he ended up becoming a vital part of the campaign, the next campaign, and eventually marrying one of the children of the first group of PCs. It was a cascade of circumstances stemming from a moment of connection between a PC and NPC that led to a weird but wonderful place.
*Aside: Don’t be afraid of “mouthpiece” NPCs
I know you’ll hear differently from most GM advice, but played with moderation and intelligence, a good mouthpiece/centerpiece NPC doesn’t detract from the PC’s story, it enhances it. An NPC should never outshine or overshadow the PCs but it doesn’t hurt to have a few “go-to” NPCs who enhance the game with their consistent, useful presence. That prince of chaos I mentioned. He became one of my ways to be a part of the game at a character level and he had deep ties to the PCs, across two campaigns. I had two other NPCs in those games who played similar roles, one a sorta villain and one a cosmic power, and their consistent nature gave the game a stability the players really appreciated. It’s a balancing act, but trust yourself to try it.
Don’t Ever Be Afraid to Wing It
I mean this. Shake up expectations by changing things. And trust yourself to do it. Maybe this is the rules-light person in me, but even when I run Pathfinder I tend to be willing to just throw stuff in, heck, if I need a monster, all it needs is an AC, a to-hit, damage, and HP. Everything else is just window-dressing. It can hit you with it’s sword or it can use a flaming touch (they can be the exact same attack, right?) or it can throw balls of pink energy (that’s just magic missle but I don’t have to tell the players that). Who cares? Gaming is a low-stakes environment. It’s a hobby, played for fun and entertainment. So be entertaining.
The fastest way to shake a complacent group who have certain expectations is to defy those expectations in a fun way. Winging an encounter, going off-book for a few minutes, is a great way to do this. Every GM should trust themselves enough to be willing to throw caution to the wind a wing it. You have my permission, if that helps.
*Aside 2: Don’t Be Worried About Retconning
Seriously, don’t go crazy with this one, but if something happens in a session because you wing it and you can’t fit it neatly into the plot right then, well – shrug, smile, and move on. Then, after the session, try your darnedest to make sure that it makes sense in the long run. Players don’t need to know everything – but they should be able to find things out eventually if it’s important to them. Secrets are good, permanent secrets, worthless.
Let the Players Wing It
This is one for thwarting GM expectations. Let the players wing it. One of my favorite stories is still about the elven rogue in one of my city campaigns who is running from some bad guys. She runs down an alley and heads for a city dump. She looks at me and says, “I’m gonna run into the dump and get the dwarves who work there to delay the guys following me. They’re friends of mine through the Thieves’ Guild. We’d never discussed these Dwarven Shovelbuddies before, but it seemed like a logical thing to be okay. After all, the Guild probably did have dealings with the dump, I didn’t care what race ran the dump, and it put the PC into debt to a new set of NPCs at some later time. Win-win. So I made it happen. She got away and the “dwarven shovelbuddies” became a part of the game. I had to figure out what all that meant but it was an inspired bit of play and the kind I like to reward. Certainly jostled me out of complacency in that session. Trust your players and great things can happen.
This was a bit of a fail. Don’t get me wrong, I like what I wrote but it’s really more general GM stuff than specifically tied to expectation the way the player post was. Not sure why that happened but hopefully there is still something useful here.
Thanks for reading!