While not the most exciting conversation at the game table, setting expectations in D&D or with your other tabletop group is critical for long-term success and avoiding player conflict.
In this article, I’ll break down why this conversation is so important and give you a few strategies to make it easier. Let’s get started.
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The People Element: Setting Expectations in your TTRPG or Dungeons & Dragons Group
In your haste, desperation, excitement, or possibly ignorance, maybe you did not have a session zero with your players. Or perhaps you did, but did not discuss any specific player expectations. If you already knew your fellow players outside of the game as IRL friends or seriously lucked out, this may have worked out for you. Most people do not have that experience.
Here are some of the issues setting expectations can help prevent:
- Unwelcome flirting
- Super violent scenarios that make players uncomfortable
- Incel issues
- Surprise children in attendance
- A terminally grouchy party of half theater majors, half murderhobos
- Players who want more roleplaying scenes and are bored in your combat
- Players who want more combat and are bored in your roleplaying scenes
- Attendance and tardiness problems
- Food organization, for better or worse
- Pace of the game
- Meeting outside of the tabletop game for other fun things
- Interpersonal conflict
- The list does go on. For forever.
People are infinitely creative in both their ability to be both awesome and horrible. We’re going to discuss solving a few major categories for ease of use. Let’s go.
Types of Conflict
People are super adept at causing problems with one another, but we’re going to cover three major scenarios here: play-style conflict, game type or theming expectation issues and intra-player personality conflicts. Setting expectations can negate many issues within all of areas.
Player Conflict: Clash of the Play Styles
Below are a list of player scenarios. Some of these you may recognize, know, or have created yourself. I think you’ll agree that put together, it would not a successful campaign make. By discussing what everyone wants at session zero, this kind of a mix is entirely avoidable. It can at least prevent a lot of confusion, disappointment and conflict.
Player Styles, Qualities, or Contextual Issues
Here are a few specific examples of these problems showing up at the table:
- Golden Path Player Loves to Min/Max, and picks fights with literally every non-player character, hostile or not
- Roleplaying Genius Should Have Been a Famous Actor, but has an incomplete character sheet and continually forgets their weapon stats
- “Married to His Job” Guy Loves Playing, but only shows up half the time
- New Player Has Matchless Enthusiasm, and is frustrated by the other players’ inconsistencies
- New Parent Brings Baby, surprise!…
- Political Enthusiast Brings that Garbage into the Game, and not surprisingly irritates everyone
A simple discussion at the outset can either send crusaders on their way, or at least get everyone on the same page before the game starts.
Game Type or Theming Conflicts
If you discuss expectations at the outset, you can prevent player boredom, frustration, and drop out by catering to their overall desires. Meet at session zero and they all want to fight? Cool. That makes prep for you pretty easy, doesn’t it? You get to move the story forward with one interesting, uniquely tactical combat scenario after another.
If your players instead say they prefer political intrigue and roleplay? Put on your actor pants. You’re going to be manning dozens of interesting NPCs to charm them (figuratively, of course…) into coming back every week. This is a lot of work, but is also enormously rewarding and a lot of fun. If you need help developing or running NPCs, I have a some help for you with that, too.
Intra-Player Conflict: When Personality Differences Grind the Game to a Halt
If you start running a game only to find out that you’ve got the next Michael Myers sitting at your table, this could be a major problem if the rest of the table doesn’t enjoy his murderhobo antics. Having a conversation in session zero can identify this type of person early on so you can ask them to move on before the game gets started. It’s a difference in playstyle. No hard feelings.
This goes for lots of types of people. You may love the idea of running the game for a group of vegan feminists, but do you really want to mix them with people who relentlessly admire former president Trump?
Having your pre-game session zero and establishing expectations for respect and conviviality are crucial to an enduring game. If you’ve already started and need some help, check out my article on mediating player conflict.
How to Go About Setting Expectations, Even if it Feels Too Late
Ideally, as stated before, this is done in session zero. It’s easiest for you as a DM to set the stage for things to come before any bad blood is on the table, so to speak; however, if you are finding that you need to do this now, it’s so much better late than never. The longer you wait, the more gentle you’ll probably want to be about it, though. You know your players best, but for me, I find it easier to come from a place of mutual joy.
Everyone will have more fun if we can get along better. I really don’t want to have to start kicking people out. I have some thoughts on how we can move forward in a more positive way.Something like that.
This is when you tell everyone what you expect from them in order to have the best game possible. This is not an opportunity for you to complain at people, but some people may feel targeted and you need to be emotionally prepared for that.
Allow other players at the table to talk about what they already love about the game, and what they’d like to see improve. It’s important for everyone to frame their ideas in a positive, non-blaming way. It’s your job as the DM to facilitate that. It may help to think of yourself as a facilitator or mediator here, instead of a friend.
If you’re having trouble with some triggering content in your game, now would also be a good moment to fix that. Make sure you take the time and effort to complete a safety checklist. It will show your players you care about their wellbeing, respect their boundaries, and want to facilitate a game that’s fun for everyone. MCDM has a free one that works great.
Loose Script for Session Zero
For those of you who aren’t sure how to discuss expectations in session zero, here is a loose script I would say to my players:
We will meet weekly, and the session will last for about four hours. I love having new players at my table and I’m excited you’re here! I expect everyone to treat one another with kindness and respect.
I don’t foresee this being a problem with you guys, but please understand that I have no tolerance for hatred or cruelty. This is a game, which means it is supposed to be fun. That means it needs to be fun for everyone. If your version of fun makes someone else uncomfortable, that’s not going to work for me.
Until we complete a safety checklist, we will be keeping the game strictly PG. I can tell you right now I’m not okay with any graphic violence against animals or children, and no creepy sex stuff at all.
Are we good on all that?
Allow your players to sound off if they’re feeling comfortable with what’s been put forth so far, too. It’s important that everyone at the table gets a voice.
Setting expectations can be one of the most challenging parts of running a game, especially if you’ve already dealt with player conflict at the table. Just remember: you’re not alone, and you have the power to make your game as great as you want. You only have to put in the effort.
If you have experiences with this you’d like to share, I’d love to read about them below. I’m here to help if you have questions or want to share a comment.
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