Ass out of you & me
That’s right, this post is about assumptions in role-playing games. Whether we mean to or not, we bring a lot of assumptions with us to the table. Assumptions about our characters, the game, the setting, and the story. Most of the time, that’s fine! No one comes in with an entirely clean slate unless you’re playing with a newborn. Personally, I endorse beginning role-playing in the cradle because it’s the best hobby ever… But realistically, people are going to have some preconceptions.
If it’s fine most of the time, then when is it an issue and why? What can players and Storytellers do about it?
Let’s talk about one of the most common preconceptions — real-world stuff. In our last game session, one of our party members got into some legal trouble and off we went to hire a lawyer. But then I paused and asked, “Wait, are there even lawyers here?” We all assumed there would be but that’s because we’re familiar with the (deeply flawed) American legal system. Maybe in an RPG, the local magistrate handles all judgements, mediating between the parties directly, or a sentient computer calculates guilt and innocence. Perhaps the accuser and defendant face trial by combat, or have telepathic lobsters attached to their head that can read their minds to determine the truth.
There were lawyers, so in this case, we were fine. But role-playing games often take place in fantastical or far-flung and unfamiliar places. I mean, in most of the games that I play, there are spaceships, magic, or vampires. And there are even games where all of the above are true! (If that sounds like fun, take a look at Rifts or Spelljammer.) So maybe some things that I take for granted — public transportation, real-time communication, lawyers, and so on — just aren’t part of the setting.
There are even advantages to those assumptions. In World of Darkness campaigns that we play, the game takes place in a darker, supernatural version of our own world. So things like cars and phones and lawyers all basically work the same way that they do in real life — except there are vampires in the shadows, pulling the strings. It means that players only have to wrap their heads around supernatural powers and undead politics, which is plenty. That’s an advantage for the Storyteller who doesn’t have to describe every little thing, and for players who only have to learn the stuff that’s different from their real life.
We all bring real-world assumptions to the table, but we also bring in personal assumptions. As part of our party’s complex web of legal trouble, one character has to report for her job. She went out for a quest as a rite of passage, and now that she’s home, her master expects her to do the job that he trained her to do. But we’ve got another party member in trouble, and a world-threatening main plot going on! She doesn’t have time for a job.
Our friend sort of assumed that once she told her master about the danger that we’re fighting, she would be off the hook. The thing is, there were hoops to jump through. Dealing with her superiors was part of the morass that we had to navigate, and she had to convince them of our quest — they’re not just going to take her word for it. So things aren’t working out how she assumed they would.
And then there are the hardest assumptions — Storyteller assumptions. I started roleplaying sometime around kindergarten, and it wasn’t until fifth grade that I even met another Storyteller and got to be a player myself. But I still spent way more time as a Storyteller than a player — I was a forever DM for years. So now that I’m getting to spend more time as a player, I’m catching myself making a lot of assumptions about NPCs, rules interpretations, narrative flow and world-building… And the other 10,000 things that a Storyteller has to juggle.
But the folks at my table don’t run their games the same way I do. They use different rules or make different calls. Their NPCs don’t act the same way that I would make them act, the story doesn’t take the turns that I’d plan, and plots don’t always develop how I would have built them. Sometimes I catch myself expecting something to happen a certain way, but when it doesn’t, it takes me a little time and effort to reel back my assumptions. Then I have to catch up with everyone else who’s just going with the flow because they didn’t have those preconceptions.
It’s generally the Storyteller’s job to gently correct these assumptions. “Your character would know that there aren’t lawyers. They’re going to put a telepathic lobster on your head to see if you’re guilty.” That’s it! Just let the players know how the game world works, maybe give them a roll to figure out some stuff that’s not common knowledge, then let the players deal with the situation. Unless they’re very familiar with the game setting, they can’t be expected to know every difference between it and the real world, after all.
And it’s the player’s job to correct their own assumptions. “Oh, no lawyers? Okay, can I rub fish guts in my hair before the trial to make the lobster like me more?” As players, we don’t know all about the game world or what’s going on. It’s guaranteed that unexpected things will happen. That’s the game, after all. I mean, if we knew how things would unfold, then it wouldn’t be as much fun, would it? So if our character’s master in the example above won’t just drop all our friend’s duties so that she can work the case we think is more important, then go through the process. How do we convince the boss to release our friend from her job, or to assign her to the quest we’re on? Figuring that out is part of the game because we don’t really want everything to go perfectly — that would be boring.
The bottom line is that everyone brings assumptions to the table. That’s natural, it’s okay, and the Storyteller can even take advantage of them to make their job easier — each assumption is one thing less they have to explain. But when an assumption is off, it’s all about pivoting. Accept new information, buy in to how things work in this made-up, fictional world where we play in, and let go of assumptions.