Expectations, Conditioning, and Your Game: Examples

Our understanding of the world around us, and our reactions to it, are shaped by how it treats us. If we live someplace where we’re likely to get attacked if we walk outside alone, then we’ll probably take self-defense classes or carry a weapon with us when we’re alone. If we believe that the police are trained to capture, not kill, and we think that a good lawyer can probably get us out of jail quickly, then we’re more likely to surrender than run when faced with a police officer with a gun in his hand.

We all have assumptions that shape how we react to the world around us, and the situation is no different in a roleplaying game (RPG). What you have to realize as a game master (GM) is that you aren’t just dealing with the assumptions of the characters in your game–you’re dealing with the assumptions of the players as well.

Players’ assumptions are shaped by a number of things:

  • What they know of the game’s setting
  • What you, the GM, tell them about how you plan to run your game
  • The events that happen during your game
  • The distribution of various rewards, such as experience points, special items, the in-game reputation of the characters, etc.
  • The distribution of various “punishments” (or things that will feel unpleasant to the players), such as giving out fewer experience points, adversely affecting a player character’s (PC’s) reputation, killing off or capturing a PC, embarrassing or humiliating either PC or player, etc.

PC actions are based on a number of potential factors, which can include:

  • A player agenda (for example, if a particular player feels that RPGs are all about amassing character wealth, then that agenda will color his game-play)
  • PC personality and agenda
  • Reactions to events that happen in game
  • Assumptions that the game, setting, and GM have trained or conditioned into the player and/or character

You can sometimes find out player agendas by chatting with the players ahead of time about their gaming styles, and you will almost always find out about them through game play. You should be able to get a good handle on the PC’s personality and agenda by talking with players about their characters ahead of time, and again, through game play. Reactions and assumptions, however, are a little trickier. They require you to think carefully about what it is you’re putting into your game, and how it might affect the characters and players in your game.

Many GMs want their players and PCs to do one thing, but unwittingly train them to do exactly the opposite thing. Here are a few examples of the kinds of assumptions you can (intentionally or unwittingly) train into your players and their characters, and how. Hopefully this will help you to more consciously shape your game in ways that will promote fun game play.

Note: None of this is meant to imply that you should strong-arm your players into playing things one way or another–it’s important that you all find a compromise that you can enjoy. It’s just meant to show you the ways in which you may be undercutting the kind of game you’re trying to create without even realizing it, so that you can more intentionally shape the game into something that everyone will enjoy.

Examples

Surrender vs. Fight to the Death

GMs often wonder why it is that PCs will consistently fight to their deaths when outnumbered rather than surrender and allow themselves to be captured. I don’t think you have to look very far to solve this one, and it has a two-part answer.

First, and most importantly, in most games capture should mean death. Most RPG settings are deliberately written up as very dangerous, because this generally makes them more interesting and full of plots. And most RPGs are about heroic or semi-heroic PCs fighting against evil (or at least, against the greater evil).

Now think about some of the un-stated assumptions that go into this. Evil enemies rarely capture characters unless they plan to do something horrible to them, generally ending in death, possibly ending in getting all sorts of information out of them that will lead to the deaths of others. Even the simple act of defining a game world as “dangerous” implies that capture will probably lead to death. Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that most PCs would rather die than be captured. You as the GM know when the villains plan to capture the PCs as a plot lead-in rather than as prelude to killing the PCs–but the players and PCs have to make their decisions based on what they know.

Second, you have to remember that in large part, capture is equivalent to the death of a PC as far as a player is concerned. In both cases, the player expects to create a whole new character and say good-bye to the old one. This means that, on some level, the player sees capture as death. And since going out with a bang is probably seen as a much more satisfying and dramatic end than capture, they’re likely to prefer that.

This may be fine with you. You might not mind the idea that the PCs would rather fight to the death than surrender. But if you’d rather have a world in which the PCs see surrender as an option, then you have to first make it clear that surrender is a viable option.

It’s always a good idea to discuss the kind of game you’d like to run with your players up-front, and you can take this opportunity to specifically mention the idea that capture doesn’t necessarily mean death. You could instead work it into the fabric of the game world–for example, if ransoming heroes back to their countrymen is a common practice for the villains of your world, then the players should be less likely to believe that capture equals death. Or perhaps the PCs aren’t fighting an evil enemy–they’re fighting the ancestral enemy of their homeland, who is scrupulous about returning prisoners of war unharmed. You can also work these ideas into the legal system of the game world by not having a death penalty (for example), and making it unlikely that anyone will be given a life sentence. Perhaps people are allowed to atone for murder by paying a blood price to the victim’s family instead.

As always, you’ll want to think about the other ramifications that any of these decisions are likely to have on your world and game. But these are some of the ways in which you can help your players to understand that capture does not necessarily equal death.

Plot Solutions: Peaceful vs. Combative

Many GMs see their favored way of roleplaying as “the” way to roleplay, and it doesn’t necessarily occur to them that their players may not have the same ideas. Their players may have learned to roleplay under GMs who felt differently. Just as it’s important to tell people the official rules of a game before they play it, it’s also important to tell your players what your unwritten rules are–the ways in which you will judge them when they roleplay. If you feel very strongly that non-violent solutions to problems are preferable to violent ones, for example, then your players have a right to know that before they play in your game. And if they know it and have agreed to it, then they’re much more likely to go along with it.

Partly this should take the form of open communication between GM and players. Everyone should talk about what they want from a game before the game starts. It’s at this point that compromises get made, or perhaps some people decide they aren’t suited for the game and bow out.

It’s more than this, though. Consider that when you read the opening chapter to a book, it sets the tone for what you expect. If a book starts out as high fantasy, you’ll probably be caught off guard (and unhappy) if it switches to science fiction a few chapters later. So if you want your game to have a certain tone, or reinforce certain types of play, then it must do so–immediately. Right from the start.

The very first night of play does a lot to form your players’ expectations regarding play. If the first night is combat-oriented, then that’s what people will expect. They’ll assume that if you’re giving them a combat-oriented plot, then you must approve of handling plots through combat in a game.

Keep in mind that plot solutions tend to naturally degenerate toward combat for many players, simply because it’s easier. It requires less thought. It requires less effort. It tends to result in less frustration, because with combat either you win or you don’t–there’s no running around wondering why on earth you can’t figure out what’s going on and what clue you might have missed. This means that if you want a game that doesn’t center around combat, you have to put more work into making sure the players understand this–both by talking with them, and by making sure that the game you run backs up the words you say.

Experience Point Expenditure

Keep in mind that things like experience point expenditure tend to naturally degenerate toward combat as well. And believe it or not, there’s actually a very good reason for this. After all, all it takes is one single combat against a more powerful foe, and your players’ characters are toast. A character’s life is unlikely to depend upon how many experience points the player puts into “violin playing” or “gambling,” and even if it does, it won’t happen often. This means that spending experience points on combat skills is far more useful to most characters. If you want to encourage the spending of experience points on non-combat abilities, then you have to create a world and game in which a lack of combat skills is unlikely to get the PCs killed.

Again, it’s good to both tell people your ideas up front, and back this up by immediately starting off the game with something that is not combat-related. In addition, this needs to be backed up by your setting as a whole. Any setting filled with dark and dangerous things, monsters, warring gangs–anything that likes to physically attack people and which must be defeated physically–is going to encourage players to spend their experience points on combat abilities to at least a certain extent. So if you’re using a dangerous, martial setting like Werewolf: the Apocalypse and wondering why your players are spending most of their experience points on combat stuff–well, there’s your answer!

If you want to have a dangerous world yet encourage the spending of experience points on other things, there may still be ways to do it. You might allow players to purchase merits, abilities, feats, or whatever your system has that make them difficult to kill, or you might put non-player characters (NPCs) into game whose job it is to act as bodyguards for the PCs. You should also make sure that you find interesting, plot-related uses for all those non-combat abilities the players spend their experience points on.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which the game you run shapes the expectations and behavior of your players and their characters. In the next article, we’ll talk about some general rules of thumb that you can follow in order to create the game you want to run.

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