Pinpoint and use player's expectations?

Not sure if it's the right title for the thread as this is something I haven't been able to find more information about. Perhaps it's just that I haven't found yet the proper keywords to google it. I´m pretty sure lots of different games and GMs have been using different tools for this since ages ago, so it's nothing new, it should be out there somewhere.

What I'm looking for is any tool, prop, procedure, technique, loaded questions, etc to help players express their expectations towards the game and the content in the fiction. Like when you brainstorm a setting, region, organization or group of NPCs with the players.

My goal is to design a game that can help the GM produce quality content with the player's help so it mets their expectations, instead of giving the GM a load of work along with the responsability of meeting such expectations. It should be able to bypass blank-page syndrome and czege's principle issues. It should produce enough coherent content to spark the player's and GM imagination while avoiding derrailing, gonzo or murderhobo gameplay. And it should be quick. As I say, nothing new, plenty of games/GMs already do this but as most I've found doesn't meet my own particular expectations I went and tried to make my own by hacking too much of them to leave anything recognizable.

Anyway, part of the problem that I can't find too much of what I'm looking for is that I'm going for a somewhat trad gameplay feeling: the GM frames the challenges for the players, they control their characters, conflict resolution is triggered by whatever the GM deems as a challenge. But most of these type of games GMing philosophy goes around having the GM prep the setting and adventure or use pre-made ones, so I didn't had much luck researching there, with a few exceptions.

Indie games were another story. It took me a long time but now I have a close idea of how to approach the design. So far I solved the quick worldbuilding part (though I still think I can make some shortcuts there) in a way that it ignites the spark for adventure creation. Here I want to help players create a premise for the adventure that gets them invested (I can even make this in play). Adventure creation still needs some work though. The challenges still need work too. In the next post I'll list some of the tools I'm using to give you a better idea of what I'm looking for.


  • You're discussing flagging here, right? It's the usual theory term for various formalized ways that other players use to signal interest to the GM. E.g. in Champions a player who takes "Hunted: Vampires" for their character is flagging the idea that they want vampires in the campaign for the GM's benefit.
  • Worldbuilding: I'm using my old tool up to question 4. I added a simple question about the main productive activity in the place and a roll for it's state, as it triggers ideas for fronts motivations and goals. To generate fronts now I ask the players about their character concepts, as these will naturally always be linked to a group: elves, warriors, guilds. By asking to the player who choose a dwarf "how do you imagine dwarfs?" you get a front and meet the players expectations about that front, while fishing for possible sources of conflict. You can ask then to the players that suggested fronts "how do each other front get along?" for that end.

    Worldbuilding finishes with NPC creation in a similar fashion, with some random rolls added to define if some of these are enemies, sources of conflict or allies. After that the notes are left for everyone's use as this material is what the players know about the world and that can be later proved right, wrong or just misinterpreted.

    Adventure: The biggest fish will always be the Crisis. If the world turned out unbalanced in terms of population, technology, economy it's a clear sign that either something happened or it's about to happen. Too few people? Then it got struck by a disaster. Too many people with a poor economy? Then crime must be on the rise. Everything is going too well? Then there must be somebody planning an invasion or a heist. If there's an obvious problem to solve there is the premise of the adventure. The second big fish would be the Mistery. If the players placed anything in the map that calls for exploration, the adventure can be easily built around that. The next big fish that I'd go for if the previous were missing would be the smaller sources of conflict detected. These may be weaker at first sight or affect a single PC, but properly nurtured they could become great motivators. However these work best in combination with the previous two.

    Also, there's the Initiative: if or whenever the players get into the idea of doing/building something themselves like a front or challenge of any kind, then it's time to drop everything and follow them. If needed the previous problems can be made to be solved by building up this front or just resolve in the background by themselves, creating interesting consequences or just fading out.

    Finally there are the challenges. I believe that character stats may be an open book for the GM to find out what kind of challenges the players expect. It's not as easy as putting challenges that would be solved by specific skills the PCs have, this would totally defeat the purpose. It's a bit more about reading into the character concept and the stats to find out if the player wants a physical conflict, an intrigue or a mental challenge. The way the player will solve each type of challenge should matter less. Would they prefer to avoid combat instead of solving by hack and slash? Great, you still need to put there a possibility for a combat instead of focusing on traps or puzzles. They can have deception, intimidation or persuassion as skills, that should be a sign that you need to come up with characters with secret agendas and skeletons in their closet as well as interesting relationships with one to another and with the PCs too.

    Probably this last part is where I'm needing more help. The general idea is there though. Also, there's a big chance that due to my poor memory or the path I took in my reasoning I'm missing the obvious. Feel free to question anything and if you have a good idea of what can be of help here, it will be very much appreciated, thanks!
  • I find that talking to players helps.

    For more formal mechanics, everything from Sorcerer's Kickers to the Disadvantages on the sheet should indicate what the players are hoping for. The problem is that they can indicate other things as well.

    E.g.: I put down Disadvantage: Alcoholic, let's say, on a GURPS sheet. Do I want you to explore this in the game? Or am I just trying to get a few extra points and I'm hoping it really won't come up that often, but am willing to put up with it for the sake of those few points?

    E.g.: When I ran Eternal Lies for Trail of Cthulhu, I looked at what a player less familiar with Lovecraftian RPGs than I am put down for Pillars of Stability and explained that anything that's down as a Pillar is something that I will take as a signal you want me to push on it until it crumbles. If you want it to be something I don't touch, don't put it on your sheet.

    Player: Ah! These aren't actually keeping you safe -- they're your Achilles's heels.
    Me: Exactly.
    (Player revises Pillars.)

    Dreamchaser is a game that's all about what players want to see. That's front and center.

    But at the end of the day, I find that the best way is to talk to people.
    The second best is to have a section on the character sheet labeled "Stuff I as player want in this game" and "Stuff I as player don't want in this game".

    Everything else is at a further remove -- which doesn't mean it won't work as well or better as the other two methods. Some people have trouble asking for what they want, for a variety of reasons including not being aware of what they want until a few sessions into the game because the game shapes the want which shapes the game and so on.
  • Eero, its a bit more than that. Flagging does work, but I need a procedure to help the GM pinpoint smaller clues to players expectations.

    I admit that some things could be asked in a less roundabout way, but in practice I found that it depends on the group. With some, being direct and ask for quality input will work just fine, but with others it will just end up in blank page syndrome. I often ask for the first thing that comes to their minds and built upon it no matter how ridiculous it sounds. This often has a great effect in relaxing players and inspire them to bring better material to the table as they found out that their input will always be accepted and appreciated, so they automatically start to edit themselves and get into the flow and the joy of creation.

    However there are still a lot of places where players express their expectations in their character sheet, and many other things they stay silent about because they think it's not their place to call 'em or because they believe they are in the same page as the GM about them. Like, if a player makes and elf and when the PCs get to an elf town I as a GM portray them as hippie pot smokers, while the player expected to find revered wise inmortals. Or maybe they just wanted to be the only elf in the setting. Sure, there's a chance they find funny the GMs interpretation of elves and embrace it, but why risk betraying player expectations?
  • edited December 2018
    Lisa, great seeing you here. I'm all about talking to players. The whole procedure I've got here is just a guided conversation, some -somewhat- loaded questions and a few dice rolls to keep things interesting. Coherence and consequences guides the rest of the conversation. The thing is that when you're used to talk to the players you will use specific questions. Usually we interiorize the dynamic so much that only when playing with a new group we will notice how important the phrasing of the questions is. Also, if we know our group, it will be easier to handle their expectations by intuition without actual need for a detailed procedure.

    There's also the need to keep a control over player input, mostly because people may get enthusiast and start dropping interesting input non-stop and steal the spotlight from the rest of the players, hence the reason for asking questions that require short answers, make them general at first and then spot for particular player preferences as they arise from the choices that they have already made.
  • edited December 2018
    Another form of world building : hybrid story maps including relationships but also more abstract ideas like themes. One pen only, so it's obvious who's hugging it, and an A3 is useful too. Vaguely taking turns, so that you can pass and have time to prepare your contribution, but also to let the others' contributions sink in and accommodate them - or reject them. A conflict pre play is what you're after. It means you found the cleaving point. More than that and it depends on your table.

    Also, traits bouquets : players propose traits they expect will come into play (names, descriptors, tropes, whatever). This is lighter and you can make it just before entering a scene, or just before a break. You take most of the traits and arrange them in an artistic way.

    Things like that ? Well, my game is all about that. Honest same page conversation are best, but most players don't know clearly what they want !
  • edited December 2018
    Oh and moment to moment, you can use "freeze frame" : on their turn, players pile up details to the scene at its turning point. Typically : the second before a shootout. Telepathy at anyone's reach.
  • I'll add another technique/approach:

    When you want to get to know someone, you ask questions and you give them room to talk. Sometimes the best way to get someone to open up to you is simply to smile at them and not say anything. The most closed off person will often react to the silence by pouring out their deepest thoughts.

    It's a similar thing in roleplaying, I find: make time and opportunities for the players and/or characters to speak, sometimes without purpose. Monologues, internal vioces, flashbacks, character backgrounds, visions, dreams - they are all really great ways to get a player to give their own spin on what's happening.

    I like asking simple questions and then stepping back.

    * "How did that make you feel, when ______ happened?"
    * "What did you think about _______'s behaviour at the party?"
    * "When are you most comfortable at your work, and when do you feel insecure?"
    * "What do you tend to think, when he stares at you like that?"
    * "Does your character have terrifying dreams lately? What are they like?"
    * "What's your character's bedroom like? Is it orderly or a mess?"
    * "As you're about to pull the trigger, what images or thoughts enter your mind?"

    And then just let them talk for a few minutes.

  • Interesting, everyone! Taking notes already! :D
  • I've been thinking about this a lot too. My goal over the last year was to introduce a lot of new people to tabletop RPGs. I've done that successfully and it's been a great experience. But one thing that I do miss from experienced players is they can dance on the head of a pin with me. New players tend to have so few expectations (often imported from other media, or portrayals of a game they find streaming online) that it's hard to get much guidance from them. Instead I have to be a leader...but shifting from leadership to getting them to open up is hard. They get used to me being the leader. It's a tough subject.
  • I haven't had to fight with people introduced to the hobby by watching streaming games online yet (though a few other people who have complained about that over in the Critical Role thread), but I can really relate to the problem of "leading" in such a way that the group doesn't become dependent on you.

    My best games so far have been the ones where I'm running or facilitating the game but I also have an experienced gamer friend there to model behaviours (especially important if it's a GMed game).

    Nevertheless, playing with non-gamers is still one of my favourite things in the world (I'd take that over hanging out with hardened gamer veterans on most days!).
  • Honestly that's a problem I used to face all the time many years ago, even before I became an insufferable RPG theory geek. Every time I would ask people, "Well, what do you want to do?" I'd get noncommittal answers.

    It felt like everybody always wanted to play, but nobody particularly cared what the game was about. That was up to the GM; in a lot of ways I think the expectation many of my friends had (and many people probably still have) is that the point of GMing is coming up with and presenting all that stuff on your own. *curmudgeony old gamer noises*
  • I had some practices to share here, as far as how my group handles making sure that everyone gets to express exactly what they want in the fiction, to make sure they get all the content they want, as they want it.

    A huge part of our play is the scene framing. Each player who is playing a PC gets to take turns framing scenes. A scene you frame is centered on your character. It might include other characters, but it's distinctly your character's scene. You have absolute control of how the scenes you frame go.
    Basically, you start out by declaring the scene - its dramaturgical purpose, primarily, and what exactly will happen in it. A big part of this is issuing instructions to other people who will be playing roles in the scene (if anyone else is involved in the scenes - sometimes scenes are completely solo, with a character performing actions on their own or monologuing, so other people might not be relevant at all). These instructions might be extremely detailed, or they might be more vague, with a general guideline and an "improvise accordingly". It really depends on how tightly choreographed the scene needs to be.

    An example of a more detailed scene framing from our play (paraphrased, because I don't have easy access to the exact words at the moment):
    This scene is going to open with Sadako and Matteus in the streets of Fortitude, with Matteus pushing Sadako's wheelchair. They're hanging up posters advertising Sadako's services, inviting people to come to her house for help. Sadako and Matteus are going to talk idly for a little while, and then she's going to notice how depressed he is. She's going to ask him what's wrong. He's going to talk about his feelings, and she's going to comfort him, but a big part of this scene is Sadako realizing exactly how badly Matteus has been doing emotionally, because he's been working really hard to hide it. Then she's going to make a formal committment to helping him deal with his depression. This scene also needs to highlight the fact that Matteus's mindset is realistically one bad day away from being basically Sadako's mindset, which foreshadows him becoming a Strategist Shard in Part 3.
    And then we played out that scene!
    That scene in particular was framed by Sadako's player (me). Matteus is an NPC (played by the HG) who is Sadako's fiance, and who is one of the main characters of the story.

    In some situations, scene framing might be a bit more generalized, with a lot more points of "improvise as you see fit".
    For instance this scene framing from a few sessions ago (also paraphrased, of course):
    In this scene, Iris is going to show up at Sadako's house to fix the pipes. Sadako and Iris are going to talk while she fixes the pipes, and are going to have a big moment that addresses the fact that they both understand that the other one is lying about her feelings, and that they're generally okay with this. Then Sadako is going to ask Iris for her opinion on the weird stuff going on with the mantelpiece in her house. Feel free to run with whatever you think makes sense, because Sadako isn't going to figure out the answer to the mantelpiece mystery here. Iris just needs to say something that gets Sadako thinking in a way that eventually leads to the answer.
    That scene was also framed by me. Iris is an NPC (played by the other PC-playing player) who is one of Sadako's girlfriends, and who also is one of the main characters of the story.

    Then everyone gets to do their thing because everyone gets to frame their own scenes and gets that level of absolute control of stuff when their scenes come around.

    I should note though that my group is kind of an above average level of aware of exactly what we want and how to get it, and everything about this set-up is very much involved with the fact that our play is deeply pre-planned, with set arcs and stuff. This sort of thing probably wouldn't work with a group that's playing a "play to find out" game.
  • More than content, you want to narrow down their desires.
    You could use this soft survey technique. Make a table and either check or cross the cell when the player responds to the test. The theory needn't be perfect, but try to test the whole table.
  • Honestly that's a problem I used to face all the time many years ago, even before I became an insufferable RPG theory geek. Every time I would ask people, "Well, what do you want to do?" I'd get noncommittal answers.

    It felt like everybody always wanted to play, but nobody particularly cared what the game was about. That was up to the GM; in a lot of ways I think the expectation many of my friends had (and many people probably still have) is that the point of GMing is coming up with and presenting all that stuff on your own. *curmudgeony old gamer noises*
    So far my design is still unfocused on a particular setting or genre, so in the playtest I got the same type of answers too. It helps to ask them about the last piece of fiction they got hyped about, being either a book, movie, series, videogame, etc. Of course is better if at least the GM is also familiar with it, but not a must. Other than that it helped to have some random tables ready to give players inspiration and start narrowing the choices from there.

    Past sunday we ended up playing a sort of unseen armies meets steampunk setting, with the PCs being a demon possesing a human body, the alchemist that summoned him, the cyborg that alchemist made with the brain of a deceased policeman and a witch able to control animals and plants. We went for the princess play feeling (rules are modular to allow other play modes) and everyone got surprised of how nicely the setting turned out.

    Yet, the adventure was the problem. I ended rolling up a whodunnit on my tables and had to improvise a couple steps/clues to solve the crime. Whoddunit plots are best when prepped, as you need to come up with a criminal,a misterious enough crime, how was it done and covered, the reasons behind it and whatever mistakes the criminal made to turn it all into clues. I improvised most and it got noticed. One player commented later that it felt a bit forced. Not bad, as everyone had fun, but a bit forced.

    I still get the feeling that I shouldn't had ignored the signals I got from the setting and the characters. There was a better story there and I totally missed it. Like, the demon had been freed from the main city freakshow by the alchemist, who felt guilt for summoning the demon only to made him an slave for the circus, handled by a heartless succubus. I could have tied all PCs to that conflict and set it in fire. After all it isn't like the setting nor the characters were calling for a whodunnit anyway.

  • An investigation is a very specific type of story. Doubly so in RPG.
  • Been thinking about this one for a long time ago and wondering if there could be another approach. Like, presenting the players random clues, let them piece a theory together and roll to find evidence. Problem with this approach is that this isn't an investigation, a challenge to decipher an enigma, but collaborative writing in a sherlock holmes princess play (Unless you go into full illusionistic fashion saying "oh, I still can't understand how you figured out my evil machinations!" after players state their theory, but that's too cheap).

    It still sounds pretty feasible given that players agree to this mechanic, but I haven't seen the issue of the random clues satisfactorily solved yet in other design.
  • @Paul_T I didn't mean that they fought with me, I mean that they don't have a clear picture of the game table as a collaborative place. They're used to watching along and following what the leader is doing. Nothing wrong with that, I do a lot of following myself in various parts of my life. But when I start talking to them about what expectations they might have and how they might do things differently, they just don't have any picture of what that might be.
  • Indeed! I'm with you 100%. (Those are two different topics, somewhat, in other words.)
  • @WarriorMonk Do what authors do. Don't prepare a plot, prepare some principles : thematic (eg the criminal is like a beast), sociologic-fiction (the upper class is keeping their cupboards sealed), and something deep to explore (a fishtank, photos, 1/10000 maps). The players fill in the canvass. You can be transparent, but do not reveal all the principles.
  • edited December 2018
    My experience testing this design so far tells me that for the theme, if nobody expresses a particular choice, you can drop keywords and let players choose from them or react against them. Both ways you'll get a spark. Next you can ask some questions to narrow down the theme and world or use some dice rolls/random tables to establish to which degree the player's ideas apply into the setting (I want flying cars! - All right, roll to see how widely is the technology spread or how available it is. Yes, PCs will eventually get in a flying car, but now either everyone has one or they are hard to get by.)

    So far I've got that part somewhat solved, but filling the details and establish any hidden information that creates a branching tree of consequences to explore is the hard part. Not that it needs to be solved from that viewpoint, though. There's also the issue of what kind of story are the characters suited best for. Let me try a first approach at both problems, hopefully just writing it will make it clearer for me or you can spot something better.

    Adventure: the premise of the adventure will depend on the character concepts, attributes and skillset along with the theme/setting chosen. It's akin to looking at the cast of characters and trying to guess what kind of story will they protagonize. If you've got figth-ready characters, you set up a direct conflict. If they are mostly stealthy then you set a conflict they can avoid. If most of them are social you set up an intrigue and so on. Then it comes to connect the PCs and NPCs in a way that would fit the adventure, which could use a customized random table for each type of adventure.

    It's nothing really new, it's just that we are used to do it the other way around: the GM leads and establishes a premise, then everyone makes characters that fit that premise as we understood it. But that makes the GM fully responsible of feeding players with a premise that will both catch their interest and motivate them. Sure, good GMs can do it because they know their group and/or are great at writing, but I'm also wondering what else could good GMs do when they are free from that pressure/workload.

    Details players filling the details is the way to go, but inspiration material is a must. Pics are the way to go, thanks DeReel!. The map is usually among the first steps in the brainstormed wordbuilding I use, so no prob there. Players create great maps, though now I'm thinking I could make things better there by asking them to make the last three locations in the map something related to different characters, either PCs or NPCs. Usually they link their characters to some locations at some point in character creation anyway, but prompting them to do so should make a bit of a difference I'm willing to explore.

    The fish tank is a good idea too, though it ends up being a good chunk of prep -which I'm avoiding for this desing. Yet the thing is that different settings will definitely need different fish tanks, so it can be something I could include in the design. GMs can then have this list of small setting-oriented elements like color and events, that they can offer the players and turn them into major setting elements the way a fish tank would work. This way I can load here all kind of minutia to add quality to the content and further spark player's interest.
  • The fishtank techniques is credited to Rickard Elimaa and his group.
    All set, except I think creating characters and then creating an adventure around them, premise or not, is taking the burden of coherence on yourself alone. Why would you do that ?
  • Hmmm you've got a point. I'm somewhat good at keeping coherence in other genres besides mystery. Everywhere else this method of writing the adventure premise based on the characters should work. At least I know how to make it work: if things just keep going forward it's a no-brainer, you just keep building upon it. But a mystery by definition is built backwards: the consequences are being offered to the viewer to determine the cause. Those consequences are the source of the clues over which the investigator's theories get built upon.

    If we seek for a solution based on narrative conventions around a mystery, the thing may be simpler. The human brain is used to join the dots and make sense out of anything, so if you present it with random dots it will come up with something logic and rational. In a mystery usually the first and obvious guess is always wrong because there's some additional information missing. It could be the guess the criminal or the one protecting the criminal wants everyone to think. Then the investigator notices something important missing and starts looking for it until the whole picture is complete. So you can have mechanics to pace this process and collaborate with the players to come up together with a mystery in a way that even the GM doesn't know or need to know the solution to the mystery beforehand.

    But unless the players are able to immerse in the roles and forget that there isn't a predetermined solution to the mystery, the thing will just feel as a guided exercise in creative writing where the dice decide if their reasonings were correct. And I'm saying dice because otherwise, how do you decide how and when has the mystery been solved? GM judgement? Voting?

    I dunno. It still looks doable at some points but perhaps It's easier just to rely on prep for mystery and keep my usual method for everything else.
  • edited December 2018
    We come back to the mirror story of 2097 and the feeling of realness.
    Mystery as a story written twice is perfect in conventional fiction, inadequate in interactive fiction. Don't aim for a closed room mystery, they were written due to the limitations of the literary medium. Think closer to life : the story ends when the criminal is caught. The mobile is irrelevant. Only the relation to clues.
  • The question is, though:

    Do the players (as a group) care about the feeling of "realness"? (Their answer implies different things about the gameplay.)

    And the GM, what about her? Does she care about the feeling of "realness"? (Sandra really does, for example.)

    There are at least four possible permutations, each with different design solutions.

    Personally, if I'm playing a game, and I'm a player, and I want the sense of figuring out a mystery, I don't mind if the GM is making it as she goes along (assuming she can do so well! When it's too obvious, it can be disappointing).

    Some kind of hidden "discover it as you play" process (i.e. only the GM is privy to it) would work fine in that context.

    For instance, imagine a game where the players generate clues ("Hey, this torn curtain! This clearly means something!") and the GM rolls a die which tells them whether the clue is relevant to the mystery, is being interpreted correctly, or is a red herring. Given time (especially downtime, between sessions), a creative GM can work those together into a coherent mystery - and, as the prep catches up to the improvised play, drop out the rolls.

    That could be very satisfying for many groups!
  • edited December 2018
    A good example of something like that is Sorcerer, where the player starts by writing a Kicker (which is very often a mystery of sorts!) and the GM gradually figures out, through play, what's behind that mystery.
  • Also in Chuubo's etc. the obsessive project is some mysterious pet project "by the time you're there, you'll know what it is". Foreshadowing, hints : very precise techniques about them.
  • I've got nothing against the feeling of realness but for my and my group it isn't a must. I'm a bit worried about new groups though, as I was hoping to pitch this game for newcomers here in my country. Well, I can always include a few example adventures with the corebook. I'll guess I'll never know unless I give it a try at having players improvise the mystery as the game develops.

    The pics idea got me thinking. I read somewhere something about using dixit cards. What if the game used tarot cards or other similar stuff to provide players with a prompt to create clues? The minigame of coming up with coherent stuff sounds better to me than having the players roll to determine if their reasoning is correct or not.

    I'd still have to find the right tarot for what I'm thinking for the gameplay or end up making my own again, but it could worth the try.
  • @WarriorMonk,

    You might want to take a look at the board game "Mysterium". It has a murder mystery to solve, and it does it with vague, atmospheric pictures as clues.

    There's no "shared imaginary space", but otherwise it could serve as a sort of general model for this style of play, where a deduction is made from clues that are open to interpretation.
  • Go for Tarot and build on it. For me I think photographs are ideal : the informatic "noise" is perfect for foraging interpretation after interpretation.
  • (Continuing my quest to kiboize my mentions while I was away)

    I love that the mirror story is being referenced♥♥♥

    I wrote a follow up post to the mirror story where I make clear how group expectations (the "impro group" vs the "sandbox group") can create opposite reactions, and hold opposite values around, the same techniques. Expectation management is important and is why I went for radical transparency. Recently some people sought me out at a con and they were like "ok we've read your threads please run for us so we can see" and I realized that a lot of the stuff I've developed for our home group (like the inventory sheet or the tweaks to spells) fall away but what's immediately clear is the extreme dice transparency. Players rolling all rolls, some of the consequences on the encounter table and weather table being revealed right away etc. Putting mechanical buy-in above, uh...
    let me rephrase. Putting "dice" level immersion above "cloud" level immersion. "Your life depends on that die roll, son, don't flub it."
  • That makes a great deal of sense, and helps get at larger scale concerns about what the dice are FOR and what the game is actually about.
Sign In or Register to comment.