I’ve played in a lot of pen and paper RPGs, and I’ve run a lot of them, too. Some have been very enjoyable and run very smoothly; others have been less fun and more fraught with player conflict. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that these player conflicts have arisen from one primary problem: not everyone was playing the same game.
Sure, there are a million little secondary problems that might plague a group of players, but often the secondary problems can be pretty easily put to rest. However, if one (or more) of the players is simply not playing the same game as the others, it’s not likely to be something that just goes away. In fact, it often trends in the other direction, as players begin to play against each other rather than cooperate.
To help prevent such a situation, I’ve always been very careful with players in my campaigns, making sure I clearly explained the kind of game I was going to run. Sometimes that helped people decide if they wanted to join, and if they found they weren’t getting what they expected, I could always refer back to the conversation, letting them know that while there were no hard feelings, I had told them what to expect.
When thinking about how to explain your campaign, a lot of immediate material comes to mind: the system you’ll use (Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, etc), your gaming schedule (once a week, twice a month, Saturdays or weekday evenings), the world in which you’ll play (commercially created or homebrew), and so forth. Usually, though, that doesn’t really communicate the kind of game you’ll be playing. For that conversation, I’ve devised a simple system of three scales on which you can find the game you tend to enjoy playing.
Each scale gets at a different aspect of player expectations that can lead to conflict. The first is whether the campaign is more character driven or more party driven. Some players prefer games that allow them to fully act out what their character would do in a given situation. In fact, I think a lot of players ideally prefer this ethic, but realistically with a set of players who are approaching from very different backgrounds, this can lead to party chaos where nothing’s really getting done. The opposite pole on this axis means that the good of the party trumps all personal entanglements. Here, people will more likely be fulfilling a role than playing an actual character with its own interests or backstory.
I don’t consider either axis alone to be perfect, but you can certainly find your ideal game somewhere between the two. I’d say that I prefer my games to be about 60% party-driven and 40% character driven. I prefer party cohesion, but I like fully-developed characters who will occasionally disagree or act out. I don’t like those tantrums to be disruptive to the overall game, though, so clearly I put party before character.
The second scale balances whether your campaign is episodic or cohesive. Some players prefer to enjoy only the height of adventure, finding themselves standing at the entrance to an ancient ruins, unconcerned with how they got their – or why they would come to such a dangerous place. Others enjoy the long-term story arcs that tie these adventures together, living a more full life in between the adventures, pursuing their interests, making campaign-long friends, allies, and, of course, enemies. Players who expect an endless stream of adventurous action will get very bored during long role-playing sessions, and players who like to play their character and not just their role will be annoyed to find themselves in dangerous situations they may not understand.
Personally, I trend much more towards a cohesive story arc; all the campaigns I’ve run have been designed that way, with a general idea far in the future I wanted to explore, broken down into smaller stories further divided into play sessions. It’s a lot more work to craft that tangled web in a way that makes sense, but I find that the payoff is much greater, too. However, I’ve played in an excellent episodic campaign run by a hilarious, creative DM who made every episode engaging and entertaining regardless of the lack of a greater purpose. Still, communicating this ahead of time let us both know what to expect to avoid any confusion in the future.
The last axis has story on one end and mechanics on the other. Again, the expected ideal is that the two never get in the way of one another, but any tried-and-true DM knows that’s not realistic. You can respect both, but eventually you’ll have to choose what’s more important: an epic moment or the rules as written. The danger here, of course, is that players who are more invested in the story will be annoyed when they feel constrained by rules that can’t predict everything a player might want to do or that players who are intimately familiar with the rules will feel slighted when others are allowed to do wild things outside of what was written. I’m sure all RPG players have found themselves in discussions about rules that were ruining the moment, and while how those discussions are handled are up to the individual DMs, a clear communication at the start of the campaign about whether rules or story will be more important could avoid the conversation altogether.
Again, I’d likely put myself at about 60/40 with story in the lead. I like the rules; I think ignoring the rules leads to situations where players are abusing their powers, which isn’t fun for anyone else at the table. However, having an epic moment that will be re-lived in story later is simply more important to me. I try to say “yes” to anything a player wants to do – assuming they can explain how they propose to do it within the rules, even if it’s a stretch. After that, it’s up to me to determine the difficulty of the die rolls.
So when thinking about how to explain your next campaign to your future players, think beyond just describing which game you’ll be playing and also include what kind of game you’ll be playing: more character or party driven, more episodic or cohesive, and more oriented around story or mechanics.