This past week I managed to try out a game I’ve been looking forward to play for a long time: Mork Borg. It was a one-shot with a group of 5 friends, only one of which having played with me before (and only once). Mork Borg, for those who don’t know, is very different from your usual fantasy roleplaying games, as it relies much more on horror and the grotesque, the player characters die extremely easily, and is mostly made for dungeon crawling. People looking to play an elf, and having it live for numerous sessions, ending up a hero might not get what they are looking for, and that should be addressed before you start playing.
Game theme, Simplicity, Mortality
I believe these three concepts go excellent together when setting expectations, and should be the very first thing you communicate your players. Bringing a cyborg with a machine gun to a detective game in the 60s doesn’t make much sense (in most cases). That’s why the game theme must be stated first-hand. Usually when pointing out which game you are playing it’s not that difficult to state the theme. However, it might also be important to indicate if you are going for more of a goofy experience at the table or you intend it to be very serious.
Once the players know which game they are playing, make sure they know if it is more of a complex rule system, or one that barely has rules. Players need to know what they are getting into, and some people may not enjoy the aspect of bringing a calculator to the game to know how much money their character took from an attack. This, additionally, is tied to knowing how punishing the game might be with the players. OGL games such as Mork Borg are based on the first D&D editions, which were much deadlier than the newer editions. If there is a higher chance the player character doesn’t survive the session, players should know about this, so they don’t end up griefing the player character with 8 pages of backstory for months!
One of the main ways to set expectations straight in any game you are planning to run is having a session 0. This doesn’t make much sense if you only intend to run a one-shot, but some sort of session 0-style-minutes before you start can work as well for that. You need to indicate the game theme, simplicity, mortality, as stated above, but it is also vital to discuss what everyone wants to get out of the game. I’ve suffered from not indicating enough that I was about to run a city-based adventure in which PCs are not expected to leave at any time, only for them to want to run away from it the first chance they have. It is also an excellent time to state if you want the game to be more or less horror-themed, filled with political intrigue, gory combat, or something more similar to a slice-of-life movie. Once everyone at the table have the same expectations of the game, I’ve started to consider extremely important to talk about the safety tools at the table:
Safety Tools have started to gain a lot more track in these past years, and for a good reason! Many people think of them as a way to limit the game you are playing. This couldn’t be further from the truth in my opinion. While people use it to state they are uncomfortable with and don’t want to see anything close to it at the table, they are also indicating which things they have no problem for you as a GM to toy with. One great way to make sure of this is to use the Safety Toolkit from MCDM. Limits are stated from the very beginning, and that way everyone can better expect what the game is going to be about. If you are a bit short on time, I find the Lines and Veils system to be a great replacement. In both of these methods, if something is not contemplated it must be talked to the GM just in case, for them to make the necessary changes to the game if needed be. Lastly, as a last resort, I always make sure to add in the X Card. While this is more of a way to put a stop to a moment a player don’t want to play in the table, and it is not to set expectations in advance, a GM must then talk about the situation with the player if they feel comfortable with that, and adjust the game to set the new expectations. It’s more of an emergency button that has everyone feel safe just by knowing it is there. You can learn more about the X Card and Lines and Veils in the Safety Toolkit linked above.
Any time you want to run a game you will need to make sure that expectations are well forwarded to all players, and that all players inform the GM what they want out of the game. Using the tools and methods indicated above, you are to get a great game out of whatever you get to play.
How do you usually indicate your players the style of game you intend to run? Do you make use of methods that aren’t indicated here to set expectations? Make sure to let us all know in the comments below!