The GM Awakens – Setting Expectations to Avoid Player Conflict


This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GM’s by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny system.

In the course of the past year, many events have transpired at my game table as I dove back into the GM role for the first time in a long time.  Almost every one of them has been a great, positive influence on the game and enhanced the enjoyment for all involved.  However, occasionally, things have popped up that have made things challenging and even caused some tension at the table.  What I’ve learned, at least in my humble experience with my gaming groups, is that many of these troubling issues have been a result of players having a different set of expectations.  Further, a great deal of those expectations have been made from previous experiences with roleplaying games and GMs.  I realized that I needed to reset expectations with my players in these regards, and make sure they understand my GMing style as we move forward.

In my teens and 20’s, when playing Dungeons and Dragons and other RPG’s, there was a sort of “board game” element to things.  By that I mean there was a definite “GM vs. PC” mentality.  As a GM, it was my job to try and make things challenging, and if I can, try and kill the players.  It’s like a board game.  We all sit at the table and try to come out on top in whatever we’re doing.  Over the years this set expectations at my table that the GM was going to try and kill the party.  Back then I didn’t know any other way.  Doing so, the thought is, will make the game fun and entertaining as the GM challenges the players.  This is a GM style that many use, and one I was used to.  I always had to watch out for the GM to try and get one over on me, or I always had to try and out-play the PCs.

Another concept that was heavily present in almost every RPG I ever played was the concept of a “happy path.”  An example of this would be in a dungeon crawl, if we take the wrong tunnel, or step on the wrong square…splat!  Well, maybe not splat.  But something really bad was going to happen.  When we would play adventures, there was always a very straight and clear path to success.  Any deviation from this path meant anything from an ambush to a TPK.  So we generally were meticulous in our exploration and story telling because if we made a wrong decision, death followed.

Recently in my games, I’ve had these past experiences and expectations inform my players as to how they should and shouldn’t act in games, causing some internal arguments.  However, the way I GM now, these sorts of trends from my past are not present.  Had I made those things clear or addressed my GM style earlier with my players, I believe some strife could have been avoided.

In one of my large campaigns, I presented a moral dilemma for my PC’s.  The gist was that they were stranded on a planet, out of fuel, and wanted by the Imperials.  They needed fuel and needed to forge false ID documentation for their ship to be able to leave.  They worked out a deal with a local smuggler.  If they broke into an Imperial impound and stole back some spices that the smuggler had confiscated, she would refuel their ship and give them the documents they needed.  However, after acquiring the spice containers, my group learned that they were really full of highly illegal weapons.  They were also immoral weapons in the Star Wars universe…disruptors.  So now the team has a moral dilemma:  get rid of the disruptors and remain stranded vs. handing back the immoral weapons to a crime boss who will do no good with them, yet they are no longer stuck on the planet.

For me this sort of choice is fantastic for RPG’s.  Sure enough, a strong debate immediately happened at the table as half the group wanted to get rid of or sell the weapons themselves, and the other half wanted to turn them over to the smuggler and get off world.  I was smiling ear to ear as the discussion proceeded because it was precisely what I hoped would happen: a moral split of the team and a complicated decision to make informing the story.  However, the debate among the group became heated and an argument started over which tact to take.  The players were really getting after each other over what they should do.  After calming things down I realized what was at the heart of the argument:  expectations of me, their GM, and where they assumed the story might go or what I might do if they chose poorly.

Like many players, they were used to GMs who were trying to kill them or devise ways to make them fail.  They were used to being led down a path where there was only one right answer.  None of these people had ever gamed with me before.  They were under the impression that I had set up one right answer, and one wrong answer.

After analyzing the discussion and debate, I gathered the players for a sort of speech before our next session.  I told them that there were never going to be right/wrong answers in my games.  That regardless of which way the PC’s wanted to turn, it would not “break” my story or the game.  I told them they could do anything they wanted and not worry about dying necessarily.  Just play the part the way your character would and let the dice and chips fall where they may.  I explained that my job as a GM, was that I was there to facilitate a fun game, not to try and kill everyone.  Some GMs like running their games that way and most are used to it.  I, however, don’t run games that way.  So I told them to just relax and not worry about an old fashioned TPK.

I told them the moral puzzle of what to do about the disruptors was fun roleplaying fodder.  I liked that the PCs couldn’t agree.  It makes the social encounter of turning the guns over quite fun if the PC’s are acting somewhat against each other if they couldn’t agree.  I think it’s great when the characters can’t quite agree.  We talked about the fact it didn’t need to become an argument because no one was really wrong.  Explaining my GM style really got everyone much more relaxed.

I really needed to have had that conversation prior, however.  To me, the way I GM and the way the games should go are second nature.  I am not interested in being “versus” the PCs, nor do I feel good about trying to get them killed.  I just want to tell a fun, amazing story they think is killer.

So before you really set off into what your campaign will be, take time to talk to players about expectations, goals, and what they’d like to get out of it.  Talk about what you, the GM, would like to get out of it.  Talk about your style and how likely character death in the system you’re playing is.  I had no idea that past experiences, systems, and GMs would really get in the way as much as they did.  I taught them the system and away we went.  I should have made sure everyone was on the same page.

So, a rookie mistake on my part.  Part of this series is to examine the things that are working well and the things that have caused me to stumble as a GM.  This was definitely a bit of a learning experience for a GM getting back into it with players who never really left.

Have you had any issues at your table related to your or previous GMing styles?  Have you had situations in games where the players felt you were trying to compete with them?  Or is that your preference and you enjoy that aspect of RPGs?

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.
Scott Alden

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1 Comment

  1. Thankfully, that ‘killer DM’ mentality is fading, if slowly. There will always be GMs that think they need to punish players for making wrong choices, but more and more those are falling into the realm of the really hoary grognards or the really immature teenage GMs who haven’t yet figured out that the gaming table is not a place to lord over others. More of the games are rolling out with ‘how to GM’ sections that directly address that kind of behavior, and why it isn’t fun.

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