This may be more high level than some people like to consider when they're talking about their hobby, but as a GM it is something important to keep in mind - especially when planning encounters and campaigns. Every game has expectations, and beyond that every group and every player also has expectations. Manage those well and your content will stay on point to the enjoyment of all. Betray those expectations though, and even though nothing has changed about how you run your game, your players may suddenly not be having the same level of fun that they were previously. Today I want to talk about where those expectations are coming from, and how to find out what they are. On Wednesday we will talk about some of the ways you can play into and work with those expectations.
First, What do I mean by expectation?
When I say expectations I mean it by the most literal definition of the word. This is what the players - and you - expect to have in the game. What type of stories do you expect to be told, what type of encounters do you expect to have, and what kind of antagonists do you expect to run into. This isn't a spoiler warning for the game, because it's not like your players are expecting to go against Darth Vader just because you're running a Star Wars game, but if you say you're running a Jedi Knight game your players will be expecting to run into dark jedi. You follow?
Yes, The Game You Choose Gives Expectations
The first place you get expectations for your campaign actually comes from the system you choose to play. I've had people balk at this, and with an established group the "group experience" can trump this, but be honest with yourself. When someone says they're going to run a D&D 4th ed campaign you expect certain things, such as a lot of focus on grid based combat.
Beyond this though, there are expectations in almost any game. D&D in general has a certain level of moral simplicity built into it. You have races that are Chaotic Evil or monstrous that you don't have to feel bad about killing because they're evil and monsters. In L5R you know the game isn't going to be about good and evil but chaos and order and honor and dishonor. You also know that there is going to be a level of social nicety required just from the system. Even a universal system like FATE tells you that the game is going to be less focused on physical reality and more on a narrative reality and that your character can be attacked physically or mentally with equal expectation of crippling you or success.
Setting Gives Expectations
After the game system the next big place you get expectations from is the setting. This can either be from borrowing from an established setting or from the context of that setting. You'd expect a different game out of a cyberpunk setting than a high fantasy one, right? Same idea here. Tell your players you're running a game in the 40k universe and they'll expect that level of bleak despair and everything that goes with it. Run a similar game in the Star Trek universe and suddenly things are a lot happier, full of hope, and a lot more refined.
The Characters Your Players Choose
Finally, at least for the game's mechanics, the characters your players choose to play not only tell you their expecations but also set them. Your players aren't going to make a cabal of mages for a game where they expect magic to not be a part of. For that matter, if someone builds a Fighter they probably want to get into fights and have that featured at some points in the game.
Your players will build a team of PCs to meet the challenges they expect to run into. The standard D&D party (a fighter or 2, a cleric, a mage, and a rogue) works because of its ability to handle a wide variety of challenges you expect to find in the labyrinth like dungeons people expect to be in when playing D&D. An L5R group with three bushi, a courtier, a shugenja, and a ninja is expecting some combat heavy parts of a plot based around intrigue with the possibility of a spiritual element. Look at your group of PCs. What would you think it could do well against? That is what your players are expecting.
Group Experience Also Counters
Finally, for real this time, group experience also contributes. The more a group plays together the more it gets to know each other and the more refined the expectations. For example, in my group one of the things I'm known for is going for broke and trying for cinematic action. By knowing this, my players have the expectation that a "go big or go home" attitude can carry them far, and in turn they bring characters who do that. If I was known for punishing mistakes with a harsh and gritty consequence laden game, I would get much different PCs in my games.
So how do you set and find out expectations? Quite simply you have to talk about it with your group. Talk about the kind of game you want to run and the kind of things you want to have in the game. Bring up anywhere your game may deviate from the established norm of the system or setting. Also, ask your players what they're looking for in the game - and pay attention to what they say. If your group is looking for a simple game of good guys and bad guys then bringing up morally clouded enemies that are hard to determine if you should help them or not may not be the answer. Can it work? Sure, but by betraying expectations you might be deviating from the game everyone wants to play and not for the better.
On Wednesday we'll talk about how to play to expectations, and even how to defy them if you want to.