Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

11 thoughts to “Great Expectations”

    1. Black Vulmea: great minds think alike! I like the idea of a bibliography for a game. Although, what do you do if your players haven’t read the book/watched the movie? I guess most of the group probably will have, though, or else they wouldn’t be playing…

  1. Interesting. I’m on pretty much the opposite end of the scale. I’ve run ‘the same’ game (i.e. the same prep) twice ending up in completely different genres. Once the players went very slowly and cautiously, and it became a detective/spy-type story; once they went in guns blazing, and it became a hack-and-slash. It worked both ways.

    I’m not trying to read my players’ minds and work out the desires they have but are keeping quiet. I’m working from the assumption that we don’t have clear expectations at the start of the game. We’ll work them out as we go. What we come up with will be better than anything we would have written down if we tried to fix them before we began. If I had to say what I liked before I began, and know that was what I was going to get, then I’d never get anything new.

    Yes, sometimes you get players with completely different expectations to each other, or to you. That tends to come out after half an hour, not half a campaign. I find it’s easier to sort them out after the game’s begun than before, because everyone’s talking about the same thing. Normally, you can find an in-character way of doing it. Sometimes you have to stop the game and come up with an out-of-character contract, but they’re the exception, and I’d hate to nail every campaign to a set of cliches just to avoid those few cases.

    It does mean that my games often end up being seen as comedies, when I hadn’t meant them to be. I once had to create an evil Galactic Empire that had ruled a vast expanse of space unchallenged for 1000 years. I thought what would happen over that time, and made the rulers arrogant, complacent, and easily manipulated by the various internal factions among their underlings. The players found the idea of an incompetent Galactic Emperor very funny. I honestly hadn’t meant it to be.

    (I think I was heavily influenced by Foundation at the time, too.)

    It’s just my style, and I agree that one way shouldn’t be seen as “good” GMing and another as bad.

    1. Yikes, sorry everyone. I seem to have stopped receiving notifications when I get comments on BA, and thereby missed your comments and never even approved them. Bad Rabalias, no cookie.

    2. Robin: I think your great virtue as a roleplayer is that you’re an amazingly good improviser, and you throw yourself into any role with great gusto. It sounds like your GMing plays to that strength.

      On the other hand you also have an immensely funny style of acting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you play a character that didn’t at least have a funny side to them. That probably explains why you end up with comedies :o)

  2. I agree. If you manage player expectations beforehand, you should avoid the kind of dissonance caused by e.g. gamist expectations in a narrativist setting. As for using genre as a means to communicate expectations I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. In fact as long as this is communicated effectively there’s no need to negotiate deviations from genre with the players–when those happen they should be gratifying to the players rather than jarring.

    I’m not at all convinced by the Emergent Storytelling concept (i.e. no planning) as a solution to changing player expectation–I think it’s a style of play that creates (and requires) expecations in itself.

  3. Yup. I think genre as a means of communicating expectations is excellent. I always try to let players know what they’re in for, and film references are an excellent way of doing this. ‘It’s going to be a bit like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket’ is different to ‘It’s going to be a bit like Avengers Assemble or Pirates of the Carribean’.

    If folks know what they’re getting into, then they can get into it. I think one of the things that makes roleplaying great is when you get a system and a genre that reinforce each other really well. Cthulu does it, Star Wars does it, you could argue World of Darkness gets it right as well (at least if you avoid the supplements).

    1. Martin: I think I see what you mean about systems and genres that reinforce each other. I happen to think CoC is not so great in that regard, primarily because the system doesn’t actually support the investigative side of the game all that well. (I’m intrigued to see how Trail of Cthulhu does in contrast… I’ve played it but not in a traditional investigative setting, so not yet sure.) But I assume you were referring to the sanity system, which I agree is genius.

  4. Robin, I find your comment really interesting – I must admit I’m surprised (and impressed!) that you’ve had such success developing the genre through play rather than suggesting it up-front.

    In theory I do like the idea, but in practice I haven’t seen it work – more often I have gone in with expectations based on what I *have* been told about the game (e.g. what system, what setting, etc.) and found that the game doesn’t support those expectations – either because the rules system doesn’t make it work, or because the other players have different expectations and they don’t mesh well. And that can be very disappointing / frustrating.

    I totally agree that this is usually apparent within half an hour, but by that point it still means an afternoon or evening (because I don’t want to abandon the session part-way in) playing a game I’m not particularly enthralled by. I’ve done this enough times that I’d now rather be clear about the genre in advance.

    This has been a real stumbling block with me for Fiasco, for example. (Since I have played that with you, it’s worth mentioning that in that case I think it’s been the system not supporting my expectations, rather than the other players having conflicting expectations 🙂 )

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