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“I used to play D&D, but I left the group because there was one player who just drove me nuts.” “I like him as a person, but I cannot play RPGs with him.” “I can’t go back to that store again because of that player.” I hear countless statements like these. One bad player can ruin a game.
Sometimes people are just jerks and those people need to be asked to change their behavior or leave a group. But sometimes a good person can come into a game with different expectations than the rest of the group. Those different expectations cause friction and make the game less fun for everyone at the table. A lot of headaches can be avoided by setting expectations from the start about the game’s premise.
What is the Game’s Premise?
When you sit down to play or run a roleplaying game, ask yourself, “What is this game’s premise?” Every RPG ruleset, campaign setting, and adventure has a different set of expectations of its players. For instance, in D&D the idea of a party of diverse adventurers each with their own specialty working together to overcome challenges is at the core of the game. Whereas in a game like Dread the idea is to tell a suspenseful horror story in which death (or madness or some other terrible consequence) is likely to affect at least one (and probably more) player characters. In Fate the premise is one created at the table by the players and GM.
Once the broad premise of a game is established, all players should accept that premise. In D&D if the game’s premise is “the party works together to overcome challenges” then everyone is agreeing to cooperate and not be at odds every step of the way. In Dread everyone should buy-in to the horror of the game. If one player sits with their arms crossed decrying, “The monsters are lame and the GM isn’t scaring me enough,” the players who are immersed have that immersion broken.
Buying into the premise of the game you are playing is your responsibility as a player. The GM or other players in the game don’t need to immerse you in the reality of the game or entice you to be a team player. Come in ready to do those things. Expect the same of your fellow players. If everyone at the table does this, the entire group maximizes their enjoyment of the game. Premise acceptance is king in any RPG.
Play Characters That Fit the Premise
“But my character WOULD do that!” How often have you heard this phrase exclaimed at the table to justify behavior that just doesn’t feel fun at the table? Maybe it’s the rogue getting caught stabbing the fighter in the back for a quiver of +1 arrows, or maybe it’s the tortured brooding loner vigilante leaving the rest of the superhero group to go investigate a crime on their own. Whatever the case, it ruins everyone’s fun at the table when a player plays a character who doesn’t fit the premise of the game. If you find yourself making a character who is a jerk in a game that doesn’t call for the player characters being jerks to each other, crumple up that character sheet and start over! Likewise if you find yourself playing a morally good person in a game that calls for you to be jerk (like Jeff Stormer’s soon-to-be-published Mission: Accomplished!), you’re also playing the game in a way that will be disruptive to the group.
Like many problems in at the table, you can solve and avoid premise problems by communicating. If you’re beginning a longer campaign with a group of players, it’s a great idea to have a session zero where you can discuss the game’s premise (among many other important issues like what content people prefer be avoided, the tone of your game, and character creation). If you’re running a one-shot game, then set up the premise quickly, by saying, “This is a game where your characters [DESCRIPTIVE ACTION] like [REFERENCE].” For D&D you might say something like, “This is a game where your characters work together to fight monsters and go on heroic quests like Lord of the Rings.” This shorthand sets everyone up for success.
If you’re a player in an unfamiliar game with no session zero, ask the GM what the game’s premise is in front of the other players. Get a conversation going to make sure everyone’s on the same page. If you have questions ask them. Don’t be afraid to ask outright, “Is this the kind of game where we work against each other?” or, “Is the expectation that everyone will be dead at the end of this adventure?” if those are the questions you are thinking. Odds are someone else has the same question.
Many RPGs have a premise and expectations of the player characters, but your group could choose to subvert them. In Phoenix Dawn Command, it is assumed all of the player characters are good heroes, but a group could change the rules to make them murderous villains plotting to take over the world. Even if you feel you know a game inside and out, it’s always good to ask about or share the premise with your group before running it to make sure there are no surprises.
When Should You Break the Premise
There are times in games you might momentarily break the premise for the sake of a good or interesting story. The most appropriate time to go against the premise of the game is when encouraged to do so by the GM and other players. For instance, in D&D you may be playing a character who has a flaw that they are terrified of spiders. If the GM puts giant spiders in the game and your character flees instead of helping the party battle the monsters, this breaking of the premise is not just acceptable, it was encouraged! You established with the group that your character is an arachnophobe and the GM has seized upon that fear to make an interesting story moment. When tempted into breaking the premise by the GM and your fellow players, feel free to take the bait, because that is someone else at the table telling you its ok to do so.
Another way to know when it’s a good time to momentarily break a game’s premise is during your chat about the game’s premise before playing. Ask if the premise is flexible or has any exceptions. This can be a difficult line to draw, so ask for or provide examples of when it might be ok to break the premise.
If you are unsure about it a moment being one where it is ok to break the game’s premise, pause and ask the folks around the table if they’d be cool with it. It might break the immersion, but better to get everyone’s opinion rather than making a call that could ruin the game for some folks.
Games are about having fun. If you find the premise of an RPG isn’t fun for you, then don’t play that game, campaign, or adventure (or don’t play with that group). Don’t try to make the game fit your idea of what’s fun, and don’t waste your or the group’s time. Find a game you love and play the heck out of it with people you love.
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