Setting Expectations for Rulings in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Somehow, despite reading hundreds of thousands of words on how to run roleplaying games since the age of twelve, I don’t clearly remember any RPG book giving me this advice:

Explicitly set expectations for your group around how you, the storyteller, will adjudicate rolls, rulings, and mechanical resolutions.

It’s totally possible that I simply glossed over this advice when I did read it. But it’s important enough advice that I’m going to devote more words to it here.

Setting expectations explicitly is helpful because it gives you more influence over something that will happen no matter what; people join your games with all kinds of preconceptions about how things work. Different game systems may imply different expectations of play, from the game’s mechanics to the group’s interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes players’ assumptions and the storyteller’s assumptions will mesh well. Sometimes the disconnect between those assumptions and reality will sink your game. Setting expectations can help you avoid that.

I can see why expectation setting is often forgotten or ignored: people forget that they’re making assumptions. Once you’ve played enough with one group of people, you know what to expect. If you’re playing a game that everyone knows, players often assume that you are using the rules from the book, or will tell them when you’re making a house rule or home-brewing some new game system. Sometimes they’ll object to not playing by the book. But you can avoid that disconnect by being really clear (and flexible if need be) about how you’ll run the game.

It helps to set expectations incrementally: don’t explain everything at once. Only explain what you need to, when you need to. If you don’t already have a good social connection with your players, start with basic social expectations: “don’t be an asshole,”  “tell me if anyone is being an asshole to you,” etc. If you do already have a good social connection, reiterating those expectations doesn’t hurt.

When it comes to the game, I find it really useful to state clearly how I—as the storyteller—will interact with the rules of the game that we’re playing. In my new D&D run, with players of varied experience, I found these worked well:

  • My goal is to make this game fun for everyone. Sometimes that means making things difficult for you in the game. If something really isn’t fun, let me know.
  • When I make a ruling about how something works, that ruling is final until I countermand it.
  • I’m more interested in keeping the game moving than I am in “playing according to the rules.” If I misread a rule from the book, or rule differently than the book, my ruling is how we’ll play. I may change the ruling later.
  • If you consult a book (or the internet) during play and find that source’s rule differs from my ruling, you can let me know during a lull in play. I may change my ruling.
  • If you want to ask a weird rules question, or propose a novel ruling or mechanic, you’re free to do so. I’ll defer handling that if I think it’ll slow down play too much.
  • I’m not here to play “gotcha”: if I change a ruling from whatever players had assumed while making mechanical choices about their characters, players are free to alter their characters so long as they retain the same character concept.
  • Similarly, it’s my responsibility to represent the world to you: if it becomes clear that we had a fundamental misunderstanding about the game world because of a communication failure, please let me know. I may change things or allow you to make a different choice.

Here’s one I didn’t have to find time to state, because it became evident through play: when I’m unsure about a topic or rule, or when I wish to disclaim decision making, I may ask the group for input.

And then there’s stuff around how I read skill rolls, specifically in D&D: failing a skill check doesn’t always mean that you fail your attempt. Sometimes it means there are complications, or different results than expected. Failing generally makes life harder or more interesting. I only stated this explicitly when someone failed a skill check.

To be fair, clear expectation setting is another interpersonal skill that people don’t always know. Asking storytellers to learn the skill in order to run games can feel burdensome. Maybe younger me would have felt overwhelmed by it… but it’s a skill (and habit) worth having, for your games and for the rest of your life.

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