Sometimes it just fails

Have you ever tried joining a group, and after a few sessions you just had enough? A group where the game got boring, stupid or was just incredibly disappointing? Sometimes you know what went wrong, other times you don’t. I’ve been there a few times.

I post this because I read the latest entry of GM Struggles today, a blog written by Nifelhein, and it was a good read that actually shared some great insights. More specifically, I refer to his article Trying a New Game: A Matter of Trust. I will not give a resume on his article, though I would recommend reading it.

Why do I mention this article? Because Nifelhein touched briefly upon something I find tremendously important as a GM; expectations. I believe unmet expectations to be the single most important reason why some games just fail.

What do you mean ‘expectations’?

That’s a solid question. Nifelhein wrote:

Hell saying to almost anyone who plays tabletop that I want to GM a D&D game brings instant expectations…

The same goes for World of Darkness and Shadowrun. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s true for all systems out there, if the players know them prior to the invitation.

The point is; when you invite people to play a specific role-playing system, everyone has different expectations, and they often depend on their individual experiences with the game. This is both good and bad. Good because you can easily satisfy players, when you know what they expect, and bad because it can be hard when you don’t.

I’m not talking about “high” or “low” expectations. I’m talking about more sophisticated ones, like if you invite people to a session of Vampire, then they might expect it to be a game ripe with intrigue and backstabbing. I say “might”, because the inverse could also be true; a game with close to no intrigue, closer to a “supernatural action movie” game.

I have tried both, and they can both be fun, but it is rarely fun if you are sold on intrigue, and you don’t get any. If you hate “World of Action”, as I sometimes call the supernatural slug fest gaming style a lot of World of Darkness players seem to like, then you will probably be a little disappointed.

How do we avoid such disappointment?

Of course, there’s a lot of ways to deal with it. The only wrong thing to do is not to deal with it. What’s best most often depends on your players. A couple of ways to deal with it could be:

  • Don’t just pitch the system, pitch the style of game you wish to play.
  • Invite players that you know expect the same style as you do.
  • Talk with the players before the game about their expectations.
  • Discuss the style of the game to be played as a group, so everyone is on the same page.

This list is far from exhaustive, but these are the ones I have experience with, not only as a GM, in fact mostly as the player. I have positive experiences with all of them, and I can’t imagine how they could make your game worse.

Be honest to your players about the game. If you sell them on a game full of intrigue, don’t give them an action adventure. If you sell them on a game of fantasy adventure, don’t give them intrigue. I shouldn’t need to say this, but my experience is that people often sell their game as something it is not.

I don’t know why, but I expect it revolves around elitism. The “hack and slash” gaming style has received its fair share of verbal abuse over the years, so it’s not hard to understand why some GM’s don’t want to be associated with it, even though it’s how they GM. I don’t get why, because a lot of people actually enjoy hack and slash gaming, myself included if it’s how the GM sells the game to me.

My advice for everyone; think about expectations and be honest about your gaming style. It is harder to fix a broken game than it is to prevent it from breaking down due to unmet expectations.

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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

3 responses to “Sometimes it just fails”

  1. Nifelhein says :

    Very good post, expectations are something I am actually dealing with in that post, but in a broad sense, I am actually trying to conform DW into their expectations with D&D while still trying to differentiate its fiction focus. I have a post about expectations coming up sometime this week (if festivities don’t get in the way).

    Often, most of the problems in a game table arise from bad communication (and not miscommunication), this often means the GM imposes his/her expectations and views upon the group, without being sure everyone is on the same page.

    Being a GM is a lot about solving conflicts, just like in our lives a lot of things come down to solving conflicts.

    • Undreren says :

      I agree. Solving conflicts is the GM’s main responsibility. Rules disputes are hardly the most prevalent conflict, it’s the unspoken conflicts that are the most common in my experience. For example; the conflict of expectations.

      It is a bad GM trait to impose your expectations on the group. A lot do it though, and It’s definitely something I have to work on as well.

      At least I know I do it, I suspect that a lot of GM’s are quite unaware that they do it. My former Demon GM did it. He sold his campaign as an investigation campaign, yet it was all “action action action”, all clues handed to us by NPC’s without any meaningful way to interact with the story, except for beating up bad guys.

      My character was less than useless in a fight, and the others weren’t exactly dangerous either. He had his expectations of what WoD was about, and he kind of forced it upon me, but I’m quite sure that he had no idea he did it. I don’t know how the others felt, but two of them play with him a lot, so they might not have been as surprised as me.

  2. Nifelhein says :

    True enough, I don’t see rulings during the game as conflicts at all, it is the expectations and desires of the people at the table that clash.

    I am not bad at solving conflicts, I am bad at accepting input when I am part of one, there lies my greatest struggle. And I agree, the greatest problem most GMs can face is being unaware of their own limitations and short comings and then impose their own views upon a group who wants something different.

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