Reality and unreality

A while back I ran a roleplaying adventure for some of my friends. It was a scenario I wrote myself, with a sort of X-Files vibe to it. The PCs were FBI agents, investigating what at first appeared to be an ordinary case, but which turned a bit weird once they uncovered what was really going on.

At this point the game bogged down a bit. I was ready and waiting for the agents to start kicking butt and attacking the problem with guns blazing. After all, Mulder and Scully would leap right in. But my players didn’t. Instead they did the considerably more realistic thing of sneaking around and trying to gather evidence. It was only when I finally threw a rampaging Unseelie horse at them that one of them fired a shot in self-defence. From there the cat was out of the bag and all Hell broke loose, as I’d been hoping it would for about an hour of game time.

The chaos that followed was a lot of fun. But I was just a little mystified as to why the players took so long to get there. Then when the game was over, a couple of them explained that they went into the game taking their roles as FBI agents seriously, determined not to step out of line and to do things by the book. Which was fine and understandable from their point of view, but not what I was expecting.

My assumption was that the PCs would be “TV style” FBI agents, not realistic ones. I expected them to ignore the rules and get their hands dirty to get the job done. The problem was I hadn’t told the players that. I hadn’t run a game for some time, and it felt really bad to have made such a fundamental mistake. But I’ve learnt the lesson now. Make sure your players know what you’re expecting of them. Surprise and secrecy about what is going to happen in the adventure are vital to a roleplaying game, but more important is making sure everyone’s playing under the same assumptions before you begin.

If I’d just said up-front, “You’re flamboyant, TV-style FBI agents who get away with breaking the rules when necessary” as opposed to “realistic agents who do their work silently and never fire a gun,” the game would have run much more smoothly. Ah well. Here’s to experience, and not making the same mistake twice.

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4 Responses to “Reality and unreality”

  1. Mikko Parviainen says:

    Yes, making sure everybody has the same assumptions about the game helps a lot.

    At least nowadays I usually remember to bring that up when starting a new RPG campaign. I also try to nudge the character creation process so that people know what’s expected.

    It seems that the games I play are different than what I used to play. In a GURPS Vorkosigan game I just started playing in, most characters had high Administration, Research and Carousing skills, rather than any combat skills. My character and one other have both the Rapier skill, just for a hobby…

  2. Andrew says:

    As one of the players, I should point out that it was still a lot of fun! I learned a lot of positive things about GMing from that adventure that I’ve subsequently used in running “Horror On the Orient Express”, an adventure that could be absolutely interminable if you didn’t keep it moving along.

  3. Arkady says:

    The sneaking around uncovering a mystery thing sounds really fun. Just running around killing stuff gets boring after a while.

  4. Glen says:

    Sometimes that tension (as a player) between playing one style and the need to shift to another can be interesting, particularly as the need to simply act builds.

    I often quite enjoy the build of tension to the need for action, followed by the catharsis of trying to kill the bad stuff before you die (or before whatever else would – be – bad).

    That shift from “following procedure” to the corruption of that ideal in the interest of survival may in fact be an enjoyable part of the character development.

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