Expectations and trust in RPGs: Or ‘Why GMs have an obligation to follow the rules’

Note: This is version 1.1 of this post, following feedback from various sources. Also, this post begins with one massive assumption – that people who play RPGs do so for the sake of entertainment and enjoyment, and that games are more entertaining and enjoyable when conducted within positive interpersonal relationships (as opposed to hostile or conflict-oriented relationships). If you disagree with this basic premise, you’re probably not going to find much value in the post that follows.

I decided to write this post after a brief conversation following this tweet:


Though in reality I was also responding to many other instances that I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in much angrier and more confrontational ways in different forums about gaming.

It is a sentiment with which I strongly disagree.

While every published RPG will likely include a statement that “these rules are just guidelines, change them as you see fit”, this does not grant a GM carte blanche to mix things up on a whim, or to do so at the expense of the rest of the players of the game.

This post is not about the freedom of gaming groups to modify the rules as they see fit. This post is about the mindset of some in which the GM is distinct from the players in a group, and believes they are not bound under any obligation to recognise the published rules of the game, or even, it seems, abide by unwritten social rules.

I’ve played in games with GMs who take the “GM is god” attitude, and on the whole found them to be utterly unenjoyable – not least of all because of the underlying conflict between people that this attitude fosters. I also took this attitude to being a GM at various times, and can also say that it was some of the worst GMing I’ve ever done, because, again, it fosters interpersonal conflict, but also because it transforms a position of responsibility into one of authority and power over people who are, otherwise, friends.

(and I want to note that while I identified Graham Warden’s tweet as an inciting incident for this post, in no way do I ascribe any particular intent or meaning on Graham’s part. He quite generously chatted with me for some time via twitter and even provided some feedback on an earlier draft of this post. Perhaps unfortunately, his tweet reminded me of a range of negative aspects of the gaming experience which I’m responding to, and I don’t want that negativity unfairly ascribed to him.)

The question of whether or not a GM is obligated to follow any kind of rules comes down to the GMs role in establishing and managing personal and player expectations within the game, the impact of individual expectations on the gaming experience and the role expectations may play in inciting conflict within a gaming group.

Expectations and emotional reactions

Have you ever heard it said that managing your expectations is an essential part of part of being happy?

Or what about the role that expectations play in creating humour, which says that humour is created when you violate an expectation the audience holds (either an expectation you create through the ‘setup’ of the joke, or an expectation commonly held as part of societal norms) in a way that is ultimately safe for the audience member.

There’s also a significant relationship between one’s expectations and feelings of safety and, consequently, anxiety.

Expectations play a significant role in the way we go about our lives, our state of mind and also our interactions with others.

Use walking as an example: when you expect the ground in front of you to be stable and flat, you step forward, almost unconsciously, confident in your expectation that the ground will take your weight and allow you to take another step. When something happens in contradiction to that expectation – maybe your foot hits an obstacle you hadn’t expected, or the ground was less solid that you expected – you might feel a range of emotions.

If you stumble slightly, it might be mild surprise. If you stumble in public you might feel embarrassment and even a bit defensive. If you suspect someone else has played a part in your stumble, you might feel anger or betrayal or humiliation, depending on your predisposition. And if you stumble and start to fall, you might even feel momentary panic at the possibility of imminent physical harm.

We form expectations based on past experiences that we extrapolate into the future, and it is the relationship between those expectations and our experiences that have such a significant impact on our state of mind and capacity for action.

What is important to note about this function of human psychology is that while you can attempt to apply conscious control over your expectations, the forming of expectations and their influence on your emotions and behaviour happen unconsciously as an ongoing process. It is entirely possible to experience an emotional reaction on behalf of an expectation you didn’t even realise you had. As such, you can’t always control your emotional reactions to things, but you can seek to exercise some control over your behaviour in response to those reactions.

You can see examples of this in just about every area of human activity. Every seen a professional sportsperson go absolutely berserk at a referee? Chances are the referee made a call that seriously clashed with the players’ expectations about the validity of their actions in the game. Or in a domestic setting have you ever felt frustration, or seen someone get frustrated or even angry when a household item isn’t in the place it was expected to be in?

That’s someone acting on an emotional reaction to expectations not being met, regardless of whether or not those expectations were reasonable.

So what does this have to do with RPGs and gaming?

Player expectations and rules

Just as humans go about their lives with expectations based on their past experiences, a player engaging in the fictional reality of an RPG decides on the actions of their character based on their expectations of the fictional world in which the game is being played.

So what informs those expectations? First, like in real life, past experiences of playing such games, but secondly, and possibly more importantly, the published rules of the game they are playing.

A player who has read the core rules of the game, even if they’ve only read the rules as they pertain to their character, will have formed a set of expectations around how the game is played, how the fictional game world works in accordance with the rules, and what kind of actions their character can take.

If, for whatever reason, the players expectations are broken, they are going to experience exactly the same kind of emotional reaction as a person would in any other circumstance. As with any other situation, it is entirely possible for a player to have entirely unreasonable expectations. Maybe their expectation are being informed by a misinterpretation of the rules, or maybe they expect to always succeed without factoring the random element of dice rolls into their expectations. Nevertheless, broken expectations will provoke a response.

The nature and severity of someone’s reaction will be modified by the circumstances in which the expectation is broken, much as with the example of an unexpected stumble while walking.

When a player wants to perform an action during a low-risk, relatively calm moment of the game, only to be told “the rules don’t quite work that way”, then their reaction is likely going to be similarly calm – especially if the player is then able to reframe their proposed action according to an updated understanding of the rules.

If, however, a player seeks to perform an action during the climax of a significant moment of conflict during which the stakes are high and possibly the character’s very life is on the line, only to be told “you can’t do that”, then the emotional reaction is likely to be more significant.

In a perfect world all people would have the level of self control necessary to be able to process such a reaction, filter it through an analysis of their own expectations before reacting in a measured way (“I’m sorry, I thought rule X meant I could do Y, could you explain?”). However, humans are wonderfully irrational creatures at times, and an outburst of “That’s bullshit!” is just as likely, if not moreso.

It’s entirely likely that such a reaction from a player will violate an expectation of the GM who initiated whichever interpretation or the game rules the player was responding to. If nothing else it may contradict the GMs expectation that they were correct or justified in their initial behaviour. Expectations and reactions are complicated, overlapping, and sometimes circular things.

This is where the behaviour and attitude of the GM come in to it.

The inherent authority structures within (most) RPGs

While there are a range of ways for a group of people to engage in a TTRPG, the most commonly encountered is one which has an individual as Game Master, and everyone else in the role of Player, controlling one or more characters within the diegetic game.

While the players control their character(s), this structure places the GM in the position of being the author of the universe in which the characters are acting. There are many different approaches to the role of GM, from being the ‘lead storyteller’ to the ‘primary arbiter’ to the ‘GM is god’ – regardless of how authoritarian a GM is or is not in their approach to the role, the GM still defines the way the world works around the players.

But while the GM has authority, they also are ultimately responsible for meeting or violating player expectations about that world in the context of the game.

Whether or not a GM adheres to the rules of the game, or discusses rules variations in an upfront manner, plays a significant role in their ability to gratify or violate the expectations of a player, and, more importantly, it informs the very process of forming expectations about a game that a player may have.

This is where trust comes in. People form expectations about each other, and react accordingly, based on past experiences, and trust is the name generally given to positive expectations of another person.

If Players have the expectation that the GM will follow the rules and identify specific rules variations ahead of time, then there will be greater trust, and players will be more willing to take risks within those rules and engage more actively in the game.

Trust is an essential resource that GMs need for those times when they want to defy the rules to serve the story – one example includes the characters being stripped of their powers or equipment, forcing them to deal with challenges that were once beneath them. If there is trust between Gm and players, then such a situation is more likely to be accepted. However, if a player feels that the GM ignores the rules on a whim, breaking expectations and jeopardising the player’s enjoyment of the game (and their character’s life), then trust is diminished and the player approaches the game more hesitantly, and the focus shifts from diegetic action to resolve challenges in game to interpersonal conflict as a way of addressing matters of character action.

Like with the very forming of expectations and reactions to them, this relationship exists whether people are conscious of it or not – and it is an unfortunate reality that it is much easier to damage and destroy trust between people than it is to build it up.

So what does this all mean?

RPGs are a unique form of entertainment that blend free-form action with rules-defined play structures, and they are also an inherently collaborative social recreational activity, which means that there is no real separation of the game from the people who play it. As such, I believe that any approach to playing a game needs to include an awareness of the people playing it.

Ultimately this boils down into two sets of advice for players and GMs:

Advice for Players

  • Be aware of your expectations, and what is informing them
  • Be aware of your reactions to expectations being broken
  • Try to be aware of the expectations of others at the table, including the GM (session 0 is a good way to address this)

Advice for GMs

  • Be aware of your expectations about being a GM, and what is informing them
  • Recognise that the rules of the game play a critical role in the forming of player expectations and enjoyment of the game, and that you have primary authority and responsibility over the exercising of those rules in high stakes, high conflict game situations
  • Discuss variations to rules upfront, in a manner timely enough to let players shape their expectations around them
  • Recognise that disagreements about rules are often more about the expectations formed around those rules, and consider your own role in informing and breaking those expectations.

Some final thoughts – Session 0

One of the most popular strategies for managing expectations in an RPG is to have a “session 0” – before gameplay actually begins, have an open discussion about the style and approach to playing the game that everyone can agree to. While I think this is a good idea, I’ve never really engaged this strategy explicitly. Instead, I try to be open about matters of rules and game management as the game progresses. We will have fairly open discussions about relevant sections of rules as they pertain to an upcoming scene, and then play through that scene.

Regardless of how you go about it, transparency is at the core of these strategies, and a consistently transparent approach will, over time, become the platform on which people in your group will build their expectations and trust in each other, and this is an essential part of a collaborative social activity like TTRPGs.


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