Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Managing Player Expectations, A Response

First, I've got to say that I love reading +Jens D.'s blog, The Disoriented Ranger, and while I don't always agree with him, I'd say that he gets my wheels turning more often than not. This morning, he posted this thing here [] and I thought I'd actually reply to something he wrote as a full post for once, rather than just a rambling comment. Oh no, instead you get a rambling blog post. Here goes.

Jens asks the question "Should the DM cater to the whims of his players?" then provides an argument for and against the proposition. While I'm not a big believer in the idea that "the truth lies somewhere between two extremes," I think that the dichotomy that Jens sets up is a false one: neither can a DM completely capitulate to player desires, nor can he completely ignore them. The secret to achieving real balance here is managing player expectations. 

Every player goes into every game with an expectation for what that game will be like. This is why they showed up to the gaming table. Whatever they are expecting, it's what convinced them they should come to this session. 

While some parts of this expectation comes from the game group itself (the oft-cited social aspect of gaming), much of it comes from the game as presented by the DM to the group in general and the player in specific. 

Central to the problem as Jens presents it is when the DM wants to play the game in a very different way from the way the players want to play it. The players want high fantasy and the DM wants low-magic grim & gritty. The DM wants pirates and the players want crusaders. Stuff like that. 

I'm going to come off as a jerk for a minute, but by now I'm sure you're used to it. 

I don't understand how dissonance in the manner that Jens outlines can occur. Seriously. If you didn't want the kind of game the DM is presenting, one of two things failed: either you as a player failed to understand what the DM was going to present as a game (or feigned interest) or the DM failed to manage your expectations for what the game is going to be. While I can't investigate why a player fails to understand anything ever (and am even less able to investigate disingenuous behavior on the part of players), I can talk about how DMs should manage player expectations.

First, the DM needs to know what kind of game he wants to run. Dungeon crawl? Hex crawl? A political game? Fates of nations? Epic quest? Sure, much of this is going to hit the fan when it comes into contact with the players, but the DM should know the tenor of the game he wants to play. For example, when I was coming up with my Iron Coast setting, I knew that I wanted a game about misfit adventurers trying to make their fortunes in a sword & sorcery setting amidst the maneuverings of rival small nations all vying for the crown of the Iron Prince. Thinking about this premise, it becomes pretty easy to sell to my players. 

Key to "selling" a game idea to players and managing their expectations of it is an appeal to the aesthetic(s) that will guide the game. If anyone ever tried to sell me on a game by just saying "hey, we're going to play D&D" I might do it, but I wouldn't be sold on it. There's nothing for me to latch onto here. In fact, this happened recently: a friend was starting up a 5e game and his entire pitch was "Hey, let's play 5e. They published a module I like for it." Everything in that sentence told me why I'm not interested in participating. All I know about the game is that it's vanilla 5e, that it's based on a published adventure and therefore buys into the tropes of Genre D&D (that I can't stand) and that no effort was made to sell me on the game. No statement of what to expect, why the DM liked the adventure, anything to build my expectations about the game except for the really lame stuff that are points against it. Sure, I wanted to hang out with some of the players (and the DM!) because I really like them and love spending a Saturday night with them, but I'd rather not play the game that was presented to me. 

The DM of this game failed to positively manage my expectations. Instead, he let the negative expectations I have about what I'd learned about his planned for a game to outweigh the one positive (the social aspect). 

Not knowing anything about the game now (since I'm not participating), I can't tell you how he could have better managed my expectations and made me want to sit down at that table in specific. Rather, I can tell you that I don't know how this game would be different from any other D&D game (if at all), what the game would feel like (other than it feels like 5e D&D) or what the game would actually be about. And here the about-ness (properly called "intentionality") of the game doesn't have to be super-explicit ("this is a story about x-types-of-character who do y-thing to accomplish z-result" smacks of a scripted railroad), but some sort of hint as to the sorts of things we can expect the characters to be doing is goddamn important. "We're gonna play D&D" doesn't answer any of that.

DMs can mine their players for expectations to help create a consensus for what the game should be like, too. Seriously, you trust these players to come up with interested and inventive solutions to the challenges of the game -- so much so that they entertain you the DM (if you're not entertained by the game, why run it?) -- so why not tap them for the things they're looking for in a game as well? Incorporating these ideas into a game only helps draw your players in more firmly to the aesthetic (creating what we like to call "player buy in" and building expectation). Honestly, this feels like a no-brainer. The sort of Ivory Tower DM-ery where you sit in seclusion planning a game for players who aren't involved in that planning process makes no fucking sense ever

Managing player expectations isn't just for the beginning of a campaign or game, either. Being clear about themes and aesthetics throughout and discussing these things with your players is essential to keeping a game going over time. Because I've been clear about my aesthetic and such with Iron Coast, the game has been running for three years to pretty great success. Metal Gods, although I haven't been a part of it since my son's birth in July, has been going even longer for the same reasons: solid communication about what you can expect out of the game. 

And so, in answer to Jens's question, I choose not to answer. Or rather, that the answer to the question is that the wrong question is being asked. Instead, we should ask "How do we come together at a gaming table to play a game we all agree to enjoy?"