Monday, March 18, 2019

Consent to Conflict and Genre Expectations in RPGs

So this is something that's been coming up a lot for me both in my writing life and in my tabletops and as is the custom when this sort of thing happens, I'm gonna blog about it.

Content Warning: Vague allusions to grimdark content (nothing graphic), obnoxious insinuations regarding player and reader expectations and a healthy dose of irreverence.

Imagine you're shopping for a book. You know what genre you usually read and basically what to expect in that genre, and yeah, there's some wiggle room, but sub-genres exist for a reason. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Game of Thrones, are both fantasy. You're going to expect very different things from each of them.

Yo. Dungeon masters.

If your players expect the Holy Grail, don't drop them into Game of Thrones.

But Megan, you might be saying, sometimes bad things happen isn't that just realistic?

Look. You pick up a comedy book expecting to laugh. Maybe you really like grimdark, but if you go in expecting the lols and you end up getting people waking up missing limbs and everybody dies, it is going to be a shock and you're not going to like it. Well, okay maybe not you, you might be the kind of weirdo for whom that is a pleasant surprise, but most people. Most people have expectations.

This is largely what session 0 is for in an RPG. In literature, all you have is genre.

But these are extremely important. In a book, if there's suddenly sexual assault content, a reader can put it down. At the gaming table, your option is basically get up and leave. And that's an extreme example. Think about what you think of the people at your games that get up and leave. That's not an easy decision to make.

Let me cite my Sunday game, Mischief and Misfits. We're lucky enough to have an excellent DM in that game, but we hit a snag this last session (when I wrote my first draft of this it was last week; this actual last session was smooth sailing) because we weren't all on the same page. We ended up in an impossible situation. There wasn't anything we could do about it, ended up knocked out without any kind of warning or any kind of saving throw. It was legitimately just a whole session of one thing after another grinding us into the ground.

I don't know about you, but I've had a lot of DMs who do that just because they're enjoying the power trip and this is my first campaign with this guy in particular. So you can imagine what we, the party, thought was going on.

Not so, in this case.

He was setting us up for a turn around.

Honestly, fixed points are not the devil. It's fine to have them in your game. Your players should know they're going to be a thing. They will rebel like no one's business if they think they're being forced into a situation that was going to happen no matter what. That no matter how well they plan or roll, they aren't getting out of.

In Doctor Who, situations like that are called Fixed Points. We're going to use that here.

Unless they know you're going to do it in advance. No, not when. Not "this saturday I am going to fixed point you." More like, "this is a campaign that has fixed points in it."

An Urban Fantasy reader is going to expect a modern setting, first person smart ass, typically a female protagonist and a romance with a brooding underworlder. And in fiction you pretty much have to change up something or no one is going to remember your book.

In an RPG, figure out with your players what sort of game they want to play. If they come in expecting a dungeon crawl and get political intrigue they're going to be upset, yes, but this is true on a smaller level as well. Is this the kind of game where your character can get maimed? Is this the kind of game where your character can fall in love? Is this the kind of game where a wizard can come give you three tasks and the party is expected to save the entire kingdom or is this the kind of game where you're trying to figure out whose trying to poison the queen and you're going to be lucky if you make it through and no one dies?

Discuss genre expectations with your players. If there's something people consider kind of boosted in general, as a DMing convention, instead of just never doing it, let your players know it's something that can happen and they will be much more willing to work with you.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

PS, if you're into demonology or the zeitgeist of the 1920's you might consider popping over here and checking out Torchlighters. Physical copies are coming but the digital version is only 99 cents <3 I'll stop trying to sell you things now.

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