Expectations, Conditioning, and Your Game: Rules of Thumb

The First Night of Play Matters Most

You have to continually reinforce the kind of game you want throughout its duration, but the first night of play has a particularly strong impact. If you start off shaky, you don’t hold people’s attention, and your players immediately get into the habit of chatting and joking during the game, then that’s likely to continue and be seen as acceptable behavior. If your first plot centers around combat, people will assume that the rest of the game will have a strong combat element as well. This means that it’s to your advantage to plan the first night of game particularly carefully.

I’m not suggesting that you run your game like a classroom, with punishments for speaking out of turn (some GMs say it works, but I wouldn’t want to play in that sort of game). And if a chatty, social game is what you and your players want, or a hack-and-slash game, or anything else, then that’s great–play that way. Nor am I suggesting that you use the milieu of your game to herd your players into some sort of “proper” behavior against their wishes. If their playing styles are truly incompatible with your GMing style they’re probably better off in someone else’s game, and you can solve most other expectation-related problems through clear communication.

I’m referring to times when your players truly would enjoy a game of a certain type, but you find you have trouble making that sort of game happen. Even players who really want to feel involved and wrapped up in a game can get distracted and chatty. Even players who would prefer to play a political game or a puzzle-oriented game can get swept up into solving things through combat. By carefully tailoring the first night of the game to reinforce all the things your gaming group wants in a game, you can make sure it happens that way.

Before you plan the details of your first night of game-play, make notes about the mood and atmosphere you want to evoke. Note the style of game-play you want to stress, and how you can stress it. Also note any styles of game-play you specifically want to avoid. Then plan the details of your game to help you evoke and reinforce these things.


Next you have to remember to continue these things. Keep that list of goals nearby; check it now and then and make sure your game still reinforces it. With each major new plot, run the elements of that plot past your checklist. Try to keep your goals in mind the way you keep your plot or world background in mind.

What to Do When It’s “Too Late”

All right, most of you are probably in the middle of a gaming run rather than at the beginning of one. And if things are going “wrong,” you probably feel like it’s too late to fix things. That isn’t necessarily so. Wrap up your current plot and find a natural breaking point in your game; then try this:

First, take a game session to sit down with your players. Don’t play–just talk. Discuss what you all want out of a game, and in what ways the current game is and isn’t meeting your needs. Try to make sure this doesn’t turn into something where everyone jumps on one person as the culprit–keep suggestions constructive. (Ask for solutions rather than pointless griping; goals rather than complaints.) Also make sure that everyone’s needs get addressed in some form or another–don’t ignore anyone.

Write down a list of what you can all agree you want out of your game. This can be anything from “less chit-chat” to “feeling more personally involved in the plots” to “respecting other players when their characters are the center of attention.” Have everyone sign off on the paper once you have a list everyone can agree (or at least compromise) on. If a compromise can’t be reached on some issue, you have a choice to make. Perhaps someone will decide the game just isn’t for them, and they’ll leave. Perhaps you’ll have to go with majority rules, to make the game suit the greatest number of people. Or perhaps you’ll have to agree to change things around now and then, so everyone gets a little something they’ll enjoy.

Write down suggestions as to how these things can be achieved; have everyone brainstorm on the subject. (Keep in mind things that the GM can do as well as things that the players can do.) If you’re going to try anything that involves reminding the players when they stray from the path, or rewarding or “punishing” them at all, then get them to agree to that first. That way, they’re more likely to react positively when you do it rather than getting angry or feeling singled out.

Remind everyone that you’re going to try to “restart” the game on the next game night, with all of these goals in mind, and that you’d like them to keep in mind these things as well. (If everyone feels that you just can’t rescue the current game, there’s always the option of starting a new one.) Very carefully plan the next night of the game as though it were the first night of the game, as above. Make sure you create as strong and thorough a break in mood and atmosphere as possible, so that people don’t fall into old habits.

Type up, write out, or email people the list that everyone agreed on, so they’ll have a reminder. Preferably keep a copy on the table where you game, or posted on the wall.

For the first few games after you do this, remember to sit down and talk with everyone after each game night. Ask them in what ways the new tactics worked, and in what ways they didn’t. In cases where they didn’t work, brainstorm new ways to achieve the desired outcomes. After a little while, you should be able to do this less often. Just remember to check in with people now and then, even if it’s a brief email, to see how people are enjoying things.

This Isn’t for Everyone

Sometimes your style of gaming really is just entirely incompatible with someone else’s. Sometimes certain people just really shouldn’t play together, or at least they aren’t going to be able to enjoy themselves if they do. And not everyone will alter their behavior based on the way you run your game–some people simply behave in certain ways, and they aren’t going to change for anything. In these cases, it’s up to everyone in the gaming group to decide what they want to do. Sit down with your players and talk to them. Explain what you see as a problem; try to work things out.

Rewards & Punishment

Some GMs and players find that rewards and punishments work well to reinforce the behavior they want in a game. Before instituting any system like this in your game, it helps to make sure your players are okay with the idea. Also, make sure that whenever you dole out a punishment or reward, the player knows what it’s for–otherwise it’s unlikely to do any good! Here are a few ways in which you can reinforce desired behavior in your game:

  • Dock experience points (XPs) when players do things that “break the rules,” and/or give them XPs when they do things that particularly further everyone’s enjoyment. You could do this at the time, or, if you want to keep awards private, you could hand out a sheet at the beginning of the next game that details XP awards. (Or you could email it out between games.)
  • If your game has some sort of spendable stat (Willpower, hero points, Force points, action dice, etc.), award points when people do things that contribute to the group’s enjoyment of a session.
  • Some GMs hand out tokens (such as poker chips) that can then be traded in for various rewards such as XPs, dice re-rolls, magic items, narrow escapes from certain death, etc.
  • Put time limits on activities that players tend to get caught up in but which ultimately disrupt the game (or which they don’t really enjoy).

Note that reinforcing good behavior is usually more effective (and more conducive toward having a happy gaming group) than punishing “bad” behavior. If you do decide to go with the punishment route, however, try to be friendly about it and try to do it in private. Few people react to public embarrassment with anything other than defensiveness and anger.

Always Ask Yourself…

Whenever you plan to do something within the game, always ask yourself what effect it will have and what you are “teaching” the players and characters by putting it into the game.

Example: The characters get involved in a plot and it turns out that simply by getting involved they have a terrible effect on things and hurt people. This might sound interesting at the time. But the unwritten message you might be sending to the characters is that getting involved in other people’s business is bad. In a roleplaying game, where the continuance of plots usually depends on the characters’ willingness to poke their nose into other people’s business, this can kill a game.

Obviously this specific example might work out differently in your game, depending on the set-up and the personality of the characters and players involved. But the point still holds–it’s important to think about the ramifications of what you’re doing. Obviously you won’t always be able to rapidly assess such things when you’re improvising. But take a few minutes after each game to think about the consequences of anything you improvised during the course of the game–and how you might “fix” things if your decision has unwanted consequences.

The plot above could even lead to a poignant counter-plot wherein the characters learn that even if bad things sometimes happen, it’s important for them to step in and involve themselves because they do more good than bad. But again, that’s an example of ways in which the plots you plan can teach players and characters how to behave–to a certain extent, anyway.


Communication is an essential element in developing a fun game that you and your players will enjoy. You can’t work out a decent compromise on behavior with your players without talking with them about a problem. You aren’t likely to get people to sit down and work together on a problem unless you talk with them about it. Sit down with them, discuss the issue, and remember that this is a dialogue in which you all work out a compromise or a plan of action–it isn’t a monologue in which you tell your players how life is going to be. Too many GMs try to teach silent lessons instead of communicating directly with their players. These things should be adjuncts to each other, rather than mutually exclusive techniques.

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