Most games have some form of rules that determine how they should be played. However, good rules do not necessarily a good gaming session make. Today’s post discusses ways in which game masters can establish players’ expectations prior to playing, and how doing so can turn an average game session into a highly memorable one. We’re also going to briefly look at how this can relate to rule-setting in a classroom setting.
A week of good gaming
Last week, I ran a few games of Risus (all horror scenarios) with my students. The scenarios differed from class to class.
(To avoid spoilers in this post, I will upload the scenarios separately at a later date.)
The games went well even though I ran them minimalistically, with few visual and gaming aids. In fact, energies were higher in the classes involved. Players were more immersed in the games then, compared to previous sessions. I could feel a genuine sense of fear permeating the room. And this was with Risus, a game that by default doesn’t tend towards high mortality rates in-game.How could I instill that much fear within the group when my narration style hadn’t changed much?
The answer to that question lies in what I did before playing.
Enforcing expectations and ground rules
Over the years, articles on various blogs and websites, including one that I regularly read, bring up the importance of setting expectations for the group before playing. This is a step that I sometimes overlook, and may explain why not all of my games have always been smooth-running.
But what exactly does it mean to set expectations? This very idea is broad in itself. It applies to all forms of gaming: board games, role-playing games and even video games. This is why we explain in broad strokes when first introducing certain games to newcomers. Remember when computer games used to come in big boxes, and at the back you would have those advertising blurbs explaining what players would experience in-game? Same thing applies. That’s setting expectations.
Setting ground rules is pretty much the same thing. Think of them as running along the same tangent as expectations. We’re not talking about game rules here; that’s different. Instead, ground rules are there to establish boundaries in a game’s world. They define the physics, the laws, the conditions that player characters (PCs) need to adhere to. This is more pertinent to RPGs and video games (because they tend towards more structural open-endedness).
Why do we need to do all of that? Actually, let’s take a step back and ask another question: why do we play games? Everybody has a different reason for gaming, but the most common reason is to unwind and relax. At the same time, not everyone has the same idea as to what constitutes to “relaxing”. Some may want to play a high-octane, action-fueled game, others maybe to explore an alien world. Enforcing expectations and ground rules helps to funnel everyone into a specific mindset. It creates a stronger motivation for players when you tell them that the session’s objective is to “develop a memorable storyline with the best ending”. This is important for some games to work well. You can’t go into FATE with the aim to powergame, for example. If I were to GM a narrativist game, the last thing I’d want is for my players to cheese the system and end up altering the tone/theme because the characters they’d created did not adhere to what I had in mind.
With that being said, here are some of the things that I will bring up at the table before a session:
- Let players know what the theme/genre of the game is and enforce that. This is especially important in games with freeform skills systems e.g. 13th Age, FATE, Risus, etc. There’s nothing wrong with cross-genre tropes until they start interfering with the thematic flow of the game.
- Explicate the game’s tone and be firm about it. If it’s a wacky, over-the-top, light-hearted, family-friendly game, let them know that’s the tone you’re going for and stick to it. If there are realistic undercurrents in the game, then have them know that the gonzo elements will be cut out. The last thing you want is to kill the mood when the playboy character starts flirting with the barmaid while the town’s being obliterated because “it’s in character for him”.
- Explain the goal of the game. Is it to explore a theme on a deeper level, have characters embark on wondrous journeys, or to simply do something awesome within an improvised scenario?
- Is there miscellaneous metagame knowledge you’d want the players to take note of in advance? Maybe your typical combat-centric RPG is going to introduce more narrative-flavour verbalisations between rounds? Or perhaps you want to introduce Doom to a casual video gamer without scaring him/her off, by talking about the maze-like layouts of its maps first?
These are just a few ideas that you may find helpful. No doubt experienced GMs and gamers will know of more. The important thing here is, having players take note of some of these pointers prior to the game will most likely make it easier for them to get into the spirit of the game. Part of this responsibility sits on the game referee’s shoulders.
Ensuring everyone is on the same frequency
Going back to the Risus games, one reason I would say they were successful was because I had funneled the players into a common frame of mind prior to playing. The players knew what they were getting into. They knew what kind of game they were playing. It made the GM’s descriptions stick. And because expectations were set and enforced, the games ran in an organised manner without ever turning chaotic.
But think about it: it’s a similar principle that applies to any setting, not just games. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about players, students or employees. Doubts arise when participants are kept in the dark as to the rationale behind certain tasks. And really, all that’s needed to make things better is to explain with as much clarity as possible the expectations and boundaries.
I hope this entry is informative to gamers and educators alike. If you have any thoughts on this topic, please don’t hesitate to share them below. Do follow Swords and Stationery’s Facebook too if you’d like to stay up to date on the blog’s posts and links to other interesting reads. Have a good week ahead and happy gaming!