On Monday we talked about the expectations our players have when we run a table top game. We talked about where those expectations come from, and how to set expectations for the players through communication before the game. Today we're going to follow up on that with talking about how you want to play in to those expectations, and how - if you feel the need - you can break from them and bring the game in a new direction.
I should have done an april fool's joke....ah well!
Why Are Expectations Important?
To rehash one point from Monday, why are expectations important? Because they tell you what kind of game you and your players want to play. You ever take a bite out of a meal you normally love only for it to be less good than normal and you're left thinking "it's just not what I was hungry for." Alternatively, when you have something and it is better than ever because it was exactly what you wanted? This is the same deal, just with your game. Even players who normally love the dark and emotional thrill of playing monsters hiding in a modern world sometimes just want to play in a game where they light things on fire and smash through all their problems, and when they sign on for a game to do that they may not want all the stuff from their usual game to come find them.
In other words, Expectations are what the players (and you, presumably) are hungry for. You want to make the meal that fits that hunger, otherwise you won't get the best results out of the experience.
Now that you know why expectations are important, here are some ways to play to them.
Set A Rating And Keep It
We didn't talk about this on Monday, but when talking about the game you want to run it can be a good idea to ask what rating the players want. Most games I run end up with the players wanting the equivalent of an "R" rating. This lets us have some very mature content, but all the super graphic stuff can also happen off scren. I've also run Teen Hero games with a PG-13 rating where again bad stuff could happen, but the more graphic it got the less it happened in actual play sessions.
I use movie ratings a lot because they're something my players and I understand. If we set a game at R we're looking for things that can get a bit darker and depraved. If we set a game at PG-13 we're trying to keep that darkness in check a bit more. The important thing here though is that you never break that rating. If you agreed to run a game that is PG-13, you can't do on screen torture. Your violence can't be super graphic. You are limited on tones of sex and sexuality. These aren't limited or bad, but statements of comfort level and they should be respected.
Good vs. Evil or Shades of Grey
How morally complex are your villains? They say in story telling that a great villain is the protagonist of their own story, but this isn't always the case in RPGs. For a game of Vampire where the expectation of the game is the struggle against the inner beast, a very morally complex villain can be a wonderful thing to have. You can leave the player character with a bad taste in their mouth of whether or not they did the right thing, the needed thing, or just gave in to their base nature. This is the expectation for that game.
On the other hand, if you are running a D&D type game, and haven't done anything to change the expectations of your players from classic D&D then you shouldn't suddenly be humanizing the goblins. No matter how cute you may think the goblins look in the monster manual, you shouldn't play that into the game or bring up that moral ambiguity into the game. Why? Because D&D brings certain expectations and among them is the idea that some races are inherently evil. Players don't join a "standard" D&D game to wonder at the moral implications of fighting goblins. They aren't looking to feel like jerks because they got into a random encounter and it ended in violence. If that is what you want in your D&D game you need to tell the players up front. Otherwise you don't just risk losing the enjoyment out of the session, you risk losing the trust of your players.
Study Your Genre
When writing stories they say first you should read stories, and this is true for GMing. If you want to run a Super Hero game, you should consume super hero material. Watch the shows (Arrow and Flash are both great right now, and JLU, Batman Beyond, and the old Batman The Animated Series are all great,) read the comics, watch the movies. Consume the media so you understand the tropes and ways the stories work, then deliver on those tropes and genre tricks.
Ever notice how Superman will punch bad guys through buildings and destroy whole city blocks but no one dies and everyone oves him for it? This is part of being a super hero at that scale and in the DC world. The cinematic joy of the fight is done and there are no consequences. Marvel on the other hand shows the Hulk running through a building full of people in the Avengers. Why does this work? Because in Marvel the stories are grounded and more fraught with consequences. DC is a world full of stories about super heroes who happen to be people. Marvel is a world full of stories about people who happen to be super heroes. See the difference? If you were to run a Super Hero game you'd want your players to know which type of world they were going to be in. Otherwise you're going to end up with a very unhappy superman analogue that is terrified of using their abilities for fear of the collateral damage. On the other hand, with the right expectations going in, that could be just what that player wants.
Breaking Expectations: The Key Is Pace
You want to break the expectations of your players and change the game. Maybe you want your Super Hero game to become a space opera as the super powered champions of earth fight off an alien invasion. Maybe you want to add an element of cthulu horror to your modern day special forces game. Maybe you've decided that the best way for your Legend of Five Rings game to end is with a zombie apocalypse. All noble goals, especially when you consider that most GMs who want to do this are trying to bring a thrill back to the game. So how do you do it?
Sadly, it's an obvious answer but also a hard one. The key is two things: a slow pace, and communication.
For example, let's say that you want to introduce dark and gritty takes of High Fantasy into your gritty Game of Thrones esque medieval game. I'm not talking about the Red Woman and White Walkers, but I mean full down and dirty takes of Gimli son of Gloin and his dwarves along with the might of the elven armies. A game that has been all humans, very low magic, and political intrigue is going to a path where "wizard" is a character class. How do you do it?
You start with a single element of fantasy. You do a story about a man in the woods. he is ethereal. Tall and slender he seems to be one with the trees. You make it a haunting experience full of wonder in a world full of ignorance. You don't spell out that he is an Elf of the High Lands. You don't even hint at it. At worst this is a one off with the GM playing with a ghost (ghost stories are everywhere afterall right?). Then at the end of the session you ask your players how they felt about it. Did they like the character? Is that content they'd be interested in seeing more of?
If the answer is no, you stop. If the answer is yes however, you dole out a bit more. Talk about his famed people. Introduce the concept of hidden cities. Introduce the idea there could be more. See how your players like it. Eventually, if they keep going, you have this race of elf like creatures involved in the game. Through them you can introduce the dwarves. With both you can bring up the concept of the "old ways" and sorcery.
The point is you transition the game slowly and bit by bit, piece by piece it becomes something else. When you do it right the players won't be able to point out the session where it transitioned from the "humans only, low magic" game to one where elves and dwarves are a thing and are coming back to the world by storm.
Alternatively, you can just talk to your players and see how they'd like it if you did a story line where the old races just came back into the world. If they're for it, go nuts. If not...don't. Going slow makes for a smoother transition where you can feel out your players and cut off the new path as soon as it seems to be cramping the game's style. The conversation is a lot faster and can ruin surprise, but it can also get the full scope of plans across and fast.