Off the Cuff #5: Setting Expectations

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Off the Cuff


What do players expect from their Game Masters? The answer to this question is more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

The short answer is, like so many answers are, “it depends.” Let’s set the ambiguity aside and take a closer look at this question. If we can figure out what players want, we can understand what we as GMs can do to deliver.

Players Just Want to Have Fun

I feel it’s safe to assume that all role-players want to show up to a game, sit down at the table (or other seating place of choice) and just have fun. They want to socialize with friends, participate in a shared storytelling experience, and walk away happier than when they came in.

For many people nowadays, stress is a large factor in our lives. Gaming allows us to escape from the stress of the world for a few hours and just relax—even if relaxing means making Sanity tests and running away from evil cultists. We sometimes de-stress by playing games which put us in fundamentally stressful situations, but it’s still a form of escapism.

The difficulty is that each player has his or her own idea of what is fun and the more players we add to the group, the harder it is to meet everyone’s expectations.

It’s possible for a group of people to have fun by showing up to a game, playing a pre-written scenario that was prepared in advance, and pretty much following the plot as-written from start to finish. I do it all the time in Pathfinder Society and spent over 5 years playing this way in Living Greyhawk. Thousands of people play Paizo’s Adventure Paths, and gamers have been slogging through the Temple of Elemental Evil for decades.

Taking a closer look at these adventures and scenarios though, what do we find most fun about them? To me, it’s the player-to-player interactions. It’s the silly side-jokes, the high fives for rolling a pair of Natural 20s, and the “I cast magic missile at the darkness” moments we all have.

Setting the Stage for Fun

Many of us can play any genre, any system, any setting, and in any adventure without losing those moments. Though the story does play a big role in the narrative of the evening, it’s not the deciding factor in whether or not the people at the table are going to have fun. As an Off the Cuff GM, that’s good news for you.

You have license to grab your story ideas from anywhere. You can rip them out of movies, books, TV shows, pre-written RPG adventures, or lists of 100 Random Genre-specific Adventures. What you don’t have to do is spend a lot of time preparing complicated plots filled with intrigue and backstabbing (unless you like that sort of thing and are good at whipping it up on the fly).

Set realistic expectations with your players before sitting down to play, and you’ll likely hear few complaints. If you let everyone know ahead of time what you have in mind for the campaign, they’ll understand they have license to take a plot point and run with it (which, let’s face it, players don’t always get to do when playing a pre-written adventure) and that alleviates some of the prep work on your end.

Basically, be up front with your players that you plan on giving them a sandbox to play in and that you’re there to facilitate. If for some reason they really don’t like the idea of not having a clear path to follow, you’ll know that before the beginning of the campaign.

Competing Expectations

Sometimes your players have different expectations. One person may prefer stories based on political intrigue while another may just want to kill goblins. The beauty of being an Off the Cuff GM is that you can incorporate a lot of different player expectations in a single campaign. You don’t need to look for a pre-written adventure that is both a dungeon crawl and an urban adventure. You probably should brush up your background knowledge in these different styles of stories, but you’re already a step ahead when it comes time to deliver.

That’s the simple scenario. The difficult one is when a player actively opposes the idea of playing in a game that isn’t structured. It seems a little strange to me personally, but many people really do just prefer to know that the story they’re getting was written by a professional and is being laid out for them. There are a few ways to handle such players:

  1. Kick them out of the group. Okay, you don’t need to be so harsh about it, but you can let them know that maybe they’re not a good fit for your GMing style. As usual, I presented the least appealing option first.
  2. Ask them to give it a try. Maybe the player has experienced really poorly run campaigns that were a result of an ill-prepared GM. Assure your player that you’re confident in your abilities to run a game for them, and have them give it a try. If they don’t like it after a few sessions, they’re welcome to find another game.
  3. Fake it. Grab a pre-written adventure and read through it, roughly follow the storyline, and sorta-kinda use its NPCs. Lean on the scenario as much or as little as you feel comfortable, but don’t feel obligated to run it verbatim. If for some reason the player still can’t handle it, perhaps they’re just too high maintenance for you.


Be up front about your GM style and set expectations with your players early on, and you’ll be better able to facilitate a fun time for all involved.

What kind of expectations do your players have? How do you set your own expectations? What do you do to resolve conflicting expectations? Let me know in the comments!

Series Navigation<< Off the Cuff #4: Filling Plot Holes