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Eating an Apple with Your Nose: Aligning Out-of-Game Expectations with In-Game Reality

If you’ve ever played or run just about any edition of D&D, but especially 3.x or 4e, imagine this scenario:

Your party of 1st-level PCs all start the game with +5 weapons and 9th-level spells (or for 4e, 20th-level powers).

In the context of the average D&D game, those characters are essentially gods. Sure, they’re fragile, inexperienced gods, but boy are they going to be able to make up for those deficiencies in short order.

For most D&D campaigns, this would present a problem — likely a game-breaking one, at that. If everyone knew going in that the game was going to be structured this way, then it could instead be an opportunity — but it would remain a challenge for the GM.

Why a Challenge?

It’d be a challenge because D&D fundamentally requires a sort of mechanical balancing act on the GM’s part. It’s hard to know exactly how tough an encounter will be for the PCs, and as a GM I regularly over- or undershot that mark. (As a player, I saw my GMs doing the same thing — and ditto for published adventures.) That’s not a bad thing, nor a good thing; it’s D&D. If you like it, great; if not, play something else.

But when combined with the default campaign arc — wherein the PCs go from zeroes to heroes, both mechanically and in terms of their impact on the game world — starting them out with godlike uber-l33t powers would cause problems on both fronts: mechanical and fictive.

Enter Star Trek

Now consider Star Trek, where by default the PCs start out in command of a starship:

Your party of zero-advancement (Decipher Trek’s level equivalent) PCs all start the game with access to a vessel capable of stunning a city block’s worth of enemies from orbit, and they’re armed with weapons that can vaporize any opponent on a successful hit.

In Star Trek, that’s not a problem. Why not? Because the expectations, both mechanically and from a game fiction standpoint, are very different.

Are the PCs going to navigate their starship back to Earth and start stunning cities because it sounds like fun? Almost certainly not, because “that wouldn’t feel like Star Trek.” Similarly, while the PCs may not have amazing ranks in their skills (IE, not be mechanically all that developed as characters), they have godlike powers by way of their technology — and again it’s not a problem, because Star Trek isn’t about those powers, it’s about character development, moral choices, and human drama.

Expectations and Reality

These two examples illustrate why it’s so important to ensure that your entire group — you and your playuers — have aligned their expectations about the nature of the game and the game world with the reality of the game itself.

If you’re introducing the Star Trek RPG to a group that’s only or primarily played D&D, it’s worth embarking on some expectation-setting up front. You should also be on hand to adjust expectations during character creation, and should carefully craft your first couple of episodes to emphasize what kind of game Trek is, and how that’s different than D&D.

The opposite would also be true: Players primarily familiar with the Star Trek RPG would be just as thrown off by D&D’s assumptions about character power level, tactical play, and (stereotypical) campaign focus.

Or, to put it another way that it’s been put many times before: Know your audience.

When you don’t know your audience, as would be the case running a game for a group of strangers at a convention, you have to rely on shortcuts. Use NPCs to help set expectations, and resort to out-of-character discussion about how things work (while avoiding dictating to your players, which no one enjoys) only if one player’s fun starts reducing everyone else’s fun.

In that situation, you’d also want to craft a scenario that emphasizes what makes Star Trek Star Trek, or D&D D&D — based on what you know and love about the game (which may not be what everyone else knows and loves) — in such a way as to organically communicate the way the game world works and the things that the game itself emphasizes in mechanical terms.

Trying to Eat an Apple with Your Nose

Most of the time, trying to run D&D with Star Trek’s opening setup, or Star Trek with D&D’s opening setup, will be akin to attempting to eat an apple using your nose. Your nose isn’t designed for that, and it won’t be much fun.

Games are crazy malleable too a point, though. Just because D&D isn’t set up to start out like Star Trek usually is doesn’t mean that you can’t give it a whirl — you can, and if it sounds like fun for all concerned, you should.

RPGs are designed to different things, though — that’s why there are so many of them. Some RPGs, like GURPS or Savage Worlds, try to provide a framework for running many genres and styles of games using one system, while others, like Mage: The Awakening or Little Fears, try to deliver a play experience that’s more focused on a specific style of game.

In my experience, though, there are biases inherent in every RPG that make each one better at some things than others. Using the right RPG to run the kind of game you and your players are looking for is a key ingredient in any successful campaign.

There’s no one true way to run any game, there’s only your group’s way. But starting out trying to run the kind of game that the game itself encourages is like trying to eat an apple with your mouth: It tends to work out better than using your nose instead.

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5 Comments To "Eating an Apple with Your Nose: Aligning Out-of-Game Expectations with In-Game Reality"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On December 6, 2011 @ 8:05 am

It’s interesting.

Many games only differentiate when the dice are rolled – Savage Worlds imparts a “Pulp” feel to just about everything with its exploding dice and benny-it-away mechanisms, modern D&D is all about Teh Awsum and gets its inspiration on what should happen from acres of S&S literature combined with miles of celluloid. Of course, if you are pure roleplaying, the differences disappear altogether (duh!).

But some games do have an expectation of behaviour even when the dice are in the bag – Star Trek is a great example, as is Call of Cthulhu. Trying to play “out of genre” with either of these always results in friction. I’ve had a resolute action-adventure player try and bend my canonical Call of Cthulhu game to his requirements (resulting in one terse season during which one session contained essentially two different, incompatible games – a terrific strain on me, the GM) and I’ve seen one ST:TNG game go Kobayishi Maru because one player (out of eight) refused to “get it”.

In my case I started an Action-adventure heavy Delta Green game which is wildly successful and popular with everyone including this old-skool CofC GM but which paradoxically the AA player declined to join.

The ST:TNG game fell apart with acrimony on all sides, unfortunately. I thought it could be fixed without ejecting players by moving everyone off the bridge into Other Ranks, but by then it was too late.

It’s been said that GURPS is truly neutral in this respect but I don’t think it is in real life. I’ve recent experience that leads me to suspect that the type of GM who finds GURPS attractive is precisely the sort of person who delights in the details of the system rather than the feel of the millieu. I used to be such a mechanistics-loving person, but my brain is worn out now. Game worlds that should be lighthearted can’t break free of the “take it seriously, it’s GURPS” attitude.

I’ve been pushing a couple of long-standing GURPS GMs to try Discworld for example (I wanna play SO bad) but they won’t because each feels they don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Pratchett’s work that would be necessary for the job. I try and tell them that we are not telling Pratchett’s stories but our own, and that the Disc changes every time Pratchett thinks about it so trying to know everything is pointless – pick a book and shoot for the disc as it was then. No luck though. It sort of goes with the GURPS territory to want to get it right I suppose.

I got the same reaction from people when I floated the idea of playing Vorkosigan Saga. “It won’t be the same as the books”.

The GURPS world books are second to none though. Nobody does a port like Team Jackson. Which is why I’ve considered porting some of these GURPS worlds into Savage Worlds -a locally popular system (in part due to my enthusiastic promoting at my LFGS) I can get people to play just on the strength of the mechanics even if they don’t see how the world itself can work.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Martin.

#2 Comment By recursive.faults On December 6, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

I’ve always taken a strong consideration to the system I use to be a compliment to the game I want play or run. There is absolute truth that certain games encourage/discourage certain behavior in players through their mechanics and wording.

For the group I game with I get kind of disheartened at how strongly they grip d20 as the only system they want to play. Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity here and there to run games like Savage Worlds and Little Fears for them with great success. I would never try to run the game I ran in those systems in d20. Sure, you could argue that the system could support whatever game you want to play, but there is absolutely going to be a different feel and different habits if I did.

Shameless: Little Fears is awesome.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 6, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

[1] – Thanks! Thought-provoking is what I was going for. When the central comparison hit me, it made me think (as did the apple/nose analogy). I don’t know that I expressed it that well.

“But some games do have an expectation of behaviour even when the dice are in the bag…” is brilliant! This is a clever way to lay bare the distinction between mechanical and roleplaying elements/constraints in a system, and I loved reading your take.

[2] – I sometimes wish there were more options in cases where, for example, my group says “We want to play a game about this” and we weigh the available options, and the prospect of doing a conversion or using a generally inadequate generic system, and feel forced to move on.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On December 6, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

Great article and really relevant to me right now. I’m trying to choose between 2 different systems for the next game I run and it is hard to determine which one is going to be the best mechanical fit for the feel that I want to have. The expectations that come with the system might not fit the in-world feel that I want.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 8, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

Excellent take on it. BTW, someone did start their D&D 3.5 game out with a ridiculous windfall (200kGP each), just to see how it would work out. The results are here: [3]

#6 Pingback By RPG Faceoff – Determining The Right System | John Arcadian On March 20, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

[…] enough, this article comes right on the heels of Martin’s excellent Eating an Apple with Your Nose: Aligning Out-of-Game Expectations with In-Game Reality article. I’d definitely go read that, as the conundrum I present here is definitely one of how […]