Managing Player Expectations for a D&D Game

The first time I saw the film The War Lord starring Charlton Heston, I remember feeling bothered by the writers’ apparent disinterest in historical accuracy. The film was set during the time period most would ascribe to the Dark Ages, but the film featured costumes, armor and fortifications that weren’t to evolve until hundreds of years after the story was reportedly happening.

Upon further thought, though, it occurred to me that I was something of an unusual viewer; most people viewing such a film wouldn’t have my interests in Medieval and military history, tabletop wargaming or Medieval fantasy role-playing, all of which are niche hobbies at best. I came to the conclusion that the writers were doing what the best storytellers do: take the images and preconceptions in a listener’s head and build upon the details that were already there, making the story more real to them in the process.

If one was to ask a passerby on the street what elements would be expected in a film set in the Middle Ages, the response would probably involve stone castles, knights in armor, dragons and damsels in distress. Knowing this, the writers may have included them because forcing an audience to view a historically accurate film that doesn’t align with preconceptions can make suspension of disbelief more difficult.

Just like the aforementioned filmgoers, there are certain preconceptions that Dungeons & Dragons players will have regarding a fantasy setting and, unless the intent of the campaign is to specifically recreate actual historical periods or to explore something deliberately alien, it can be helpful to keep those expectations in mind when designing adventures.

It is granted that, but for changing a few place and character names, that one Dungeons & Dragons campaign might be much the same as another. How often have you played in a game where your hero is a subject of a goodly king, hard-pressed to defend his borderlands with the evil overlord to the north, since he cannot reach the mysterious elves in the ancient forest and the dwarves have withdrawn into their mountain citadels? While “the same old thing” can certainly be boring, it may be “the same old thing” because it makes for an enjoyable game. If such games were worthless, they wouldn’t be so common.

Some of my most successful campaigns involved keeping the traditional, Tolkein-esque game world structure that players seem to expect largely intact, and making a few select changes that pleasantly – or not so pleasantly – surprise the players.

For example, in my current 4e D&D campaign, the heroes are the not very thrilled subjects of a particularly greedy king who, although he isn’t evil in the strictest sense, has such unpopular tax practices that he has been forced to put down two rebellions during his reign thus far. While I was certain to explain to the players that the amount of treasure provided in each adventure was increased by a fifth to accommodate this tax burden – so that the heroes would have as much money “after taxes” as they would in any other campaign – after just four sessions, the characters had a positively visceral response to seeing the banner of the king’s tax baron in every town. One character, having just earned his second level of experience, was already talking about overthrowing the monarchy based on these tax practices alone.

There are a couple of pleasant surprises as well. For example, the party’s paladin was very happy to hear that, since her church is the most prominent in the kingdom, she has a right to church trial, and is therefore immune to prosecution by civil authorities, a right that she is already planning to exploit.

The benefit of this approach is that my players seem to be focusing on those story elements that don’t match their preconceptions, which will drive the campaign forward. If they discover that this greedy king and his equally avaricious tax barons are in league with any evil force, a hero-led rebellion is very likely, partly due to the players’ annoyance with the taxation “wrinkle” in their game world.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that originality is something to be completely avoided – it is the differences that will make your campaign memorable – but in a setting where everything is “original,” the players won’t know where to look for adventure first.


7 comments on “Managing Player Expectations for a D&D Game

  1. […] symbols, since most players will expect to see these symbols, and it is important for a DM to manage player expectations about what a setting should […]

  2. […] chivalry is as much a part of the Middle Ages as dragons, swords and knights in shining armor. As a previous post on the RPG Athenaeum discusses, part of creating a setting for which players are willing to suspend […]

  3. […] seems to be a few good reasons for employing the gold standard in D&D, first among them being player expectations. After being exposed to fairy tales, films and novels of the fantasy genre and pirate […]

  4. […] a DM, I’ve spent considerable energy managing player expectations for a D&D game, and the results have been generally good. But I’ve never devoted much energy to creating […]

  5. […] were as how players think they were (for more about managing player expectations, consider reading this post). Just as truth is often stranger than fiction, though, there are times when accurate history can […]

  6. […] benefit can be found in relying upon player expectations in order to enhance suspension of disbelief; since most players aren’t medievalists (which […]

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