Six Unstated Expectations for Roleplaying

Women in elaborate carnival mask and custom puts a finger to her lips

When new players are introduced to roleplaying games, they are usually encouraged to do whatever their characters would do in the narrative. If only it were that simple. While getting into character is a great thing, the best roleplayers balance it against what their group expects of them. Unfortunately, these expectations are rarely spelled out. And when they’re violated, it can result in hurt feelings all around.

This doesn’t mean expectations should never be broken. Sometimes the game benefits from or even requires doing so, and every gaming group will have their own conventions. But thinking of expectations as the default play behavior can encourage players to check with the group before doing something that could upset others.

Let’s go over six typical expectations for tabletop roleplaying.

1. PCs Will Follow Up on GM Story Hooks

Small fish on fishing line

GMs are full of tales of when their players didn’t cooperate with their plans for a session – and the shenanigans that resulted. These tales are great fun, but they can conceal the fact that for most games, players are expected to follow up on the plot the GM introduces. Sure, players have free will, but the GM has spent who knows how many hours preparing a specific, interactive story for the session. Deliberately ignoring their hard work could be hurtful to the GM and irksome to players who want to play along.

That doesn’t mean the story hook is the only thing players can pursue. A good GM will play along when players hunt for the perfect pair of shoes or romance the town’s mayor. But if an NPC asks the players to find a lost child or defend the village against marauders, players are expected to work on the problem, even if they put on a show of reluctance or demand gold in return.

Of course, GMs are all different. Some run more sandbox-style games where players are merely presented with a world, and then they have to find a plot for themselves. If you’re not sure what kind of game the GM is running, ask. Your GM might even be frustrated because all the hooks they presented are too subtle. Outright stating the direction for the session could clear it up.

2. PCs Will Collaborate in Solving Problems

Once the PCs identify a group problem to solve, whether it’s a GM-provided story hook or players just wanting the village to have more trees, it’s time for a huddle of some kind. Roleplaying is largely a game of creative problem-solving. Players will dream up whatever means of pursuing the issue they want, and the GM should do their best to accommodate it. However, PCs are expected to cooperate and collaborate with each other when solving issues that affect the whole group.

This doesn’t mean they have to have a perfectly unified vision for proceeding. Players may be interested in following different lines of inquiry and then split up to pursue them separately. But a group discussion with a mutually agreed on plan for action is standard in most games. If a PC refuses to collaborate with others or just decides not to carry out the plan after the fact, that could make other players feel wary or hurt.

Generally, plans should change because something changed in the game to require a different approach. If the players split up to carry out a plan and then one of them is caught sneaking into the castle, the group will expect that PC to improvise or even abandon the mission.

3. Players Will Tackle Their Own Story Hooks

Calvary charging, led by commander

While PCs are expected to solve group problems together, not all problems are group problems. Depending on the GM, it’s not unusual to have content made for one particular character. If an NPC privately tells a PC that their mentor is in trouble or the PC’s long-lost sister shows up and challenges them to a duel, it’s content meant for that player. PCs might also create their own storylines by getting in a fight with the innkeeper or deciding they must steal the crown jewels.

These kinds of story hooks are done for the benefit of the player in question. The GM might use them to get less active players more involved or give each player their own side plot. Whatever the reason, the player that owns this subplot should decide how to solve these problems. If the player asks for help from other PCs, it’s fine for other PCs to be involved. However, it’s generally not okay for another PC to swoop in and solve someone else’s problems without being asked.

If you’re feeling disappointed that a topic you were interested in was given to someone else, you can tell the GM you’d like to be involved in the storyline or ask the player if you can help them. You’ll probably get positive responses; just let them find their own way to work you in.

4. PCs Will Share Information With Each Other

Woman about to make call on cell phone

A big part of solving many conflicts is learning the right information. Whether it’s finding the traitor at court or discovering where the smuggled loot is hidden, many problems are mysteries at some level. However, in the narrative it’s common for new information to be given to just one PC. Often this is a result of PCs splitting up to follow different leads. GMs can also drop hints about the main plot in individual storylines as a way to lure that player back to the group challenge.

When PCs learn anything that has relevance beyond their character’s personal interests, they are expected to share that information with the other player characters. In fact, it’s not unusual to share information when the characters are apart and have no realistic way of communicating. Most players will create some pretense of being ignorant until the characters are reunited, but I’ve never seen a GM call players out when they don’t.

Because information sharing is assumed, if you don’t want your character to share, you usually have to tell the other players that your character is keeping that tidbit to themself. Unfortunately, doing this can leave other players feeling resentful. If you really want to do it, explain what personal feelings are leading your character to hide the information. For instance, perhaps discussing the information would reveal something your character feels deeply ashamed about. Even in these cases, it’s usually helpful to look for an opportunity to roleplay your character confessing to another PC.

5. PCs Will Serve Each Other’s Interests


PVP can be great fun with the right group, but the default play style in most games isn’t PVP. Most obviously, this means one PC shouldn’t attack another without warning. However, PCs are capable of undermining each other in many ways. A PC could warn an enemy that the group is about to attack. The rogue might steal from the cleric, or the cleric might tell on the rogue for stealing from someone else. A PC could use a spell or their social skills to make other PCs do what they want without asking their players first.

If the players aren’t careful, these types of interactions are likely to result in anger or resentment. Most players identify strongly with their characters and want their characters to succeed, so having PVP can come at the cost of someone else’s enjoyment. That’s why, by default, players should avoid getting in win-lose situations with other PCs.

Of course, sometimes players have goals that are naturally at odds with each other. Perhaps one player is loyal to the monarchy and another supports a peasant uprising. Then they meet a group of peasants deciding whether or not to rebel against the crown. While the GM often takes the lead in sorting out these situations, good player communication can also resolve differences. You can agree to have a roll-off to decide the outcome. Sometimes players are fine with changing their PC’s mind after another player successfully rolls to convince them; the key is to ask.

6. PCs Will Act Rationally

Abacus next to drawings and colorful pegs

While every campaign is different, roleplaying games are intended as an immersive story experience. Players become part of a new world they can interact with. And while video games must program in a limited number of ways to interact with that world, there are no limits to what the GM can think up to make the setting come to life. But this a group narrative, and it depends on all the PCs working together to suspend disbelief.

Accordingly, players are expected to roleplay in a manner that feels realistic given the world and the tone of the campaign. If the campaign is a silly Adventure Time game, it’s probably okay for the PCs to act a little wacky, but most games feature serious life-or-death scenarios. If a PC loots every NPC cottage or recklessly walks into a death trap, other players will probably resent them. This goes double if the PC is also violating another expectation. If the PC works against the interest of the group and has no realistic in-story reason for doing so, there’s a good chance that player won’t be invited to the next campaign.

Sometimes players are tempted into subverting the tone of the game because it’s fun for them personally, but they can also be put in situations where it’s difficult to play realistically. Players expect a game where their characters are largely free to do what they want. If there’s a boss character that orders them around the whole game, you can almost guarantee they won’t act like a real employee would. Preserving the story and everyone’s fun requires any leaders in the story to be collaborative and hands-off, if not absent.

It’s not uncommon for players to feel that competitive behavior is the most natural for their characters. That’s why knowing when to stop roleplaying is so valuable. Just talking out of character with other players for ten seconds can do wonders in ensuring that everyone will have a good time. And if being true to your character means ruining someone else’s enjoyment, then break character. Games should be fun for everyone.

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  1. Tenorius

    Thanks for the great article!

    As a long time player and recently started GMing, I’m finding it very interesting to see both sides is the same coin.

    As a player, I was often frustrated when our GM would drop very subtle hints of where/ when to go or what to do. I know it’s very exciting to watch a movie and see Ethan Hunt figure out the conspiracy inside the agency, or Indy decipher an discover the real location of a tomb. But in reality, as a person, we often lack the skills to do so. And when the GM proposes that, be prepared for the game to have some long awkward pauses until someone has a breakthrough, or the GM gives up.

    About the collaborative solving problems, nothing against it. But, as a GM, I like to take advantage of some characters’ skills and drop some informations or a puzzle that them alone can handle. That gives them some “me time” to shine inside the whole thing. And everybody loves it, as long as everyone gets a bit of it too. I also think that, regarding giving out information, if I deliver them in a secretive way (in a folded piece of paper, when everyone can see it), it increases the tension as everybody thinks there’s something new in the game that can help/ hinder them, but just when that player decides to share. But I think it’s really boring when one character knows something, but because the GM said it out loud, everybody changes their behavior. It looks to be it’d be more fun to pretend NOT to know the info!

    And I KNOW that playing a game is supposed to be fun, but when a player cracks a joke at every single thing, that completely turns me off, as a player and a GM…

    • Michael Campbell

      You may enjoy running a nice game of Paranoia.

      • Tenorius

        I’d never heard of Paranoia before, but reading about it got me really interested! Wish I had an experienced GM on its setting to walk me through it!

        Thanks for the suggestion!

        • Michael Campbell

          You could sit down and watch:-
          Logan’s Run
          Judge Dredd (2012)
          It’ld help where an experienced judge isn’t available.
          Thematically it’s a difficult game to play.
          No, the GM isn’t out to “get” the players.
          Yes, the computer is out to “get” the player characters.
          You need players who can walk that rather difficult tightrope.

  2. Leon

    Excellent artical, thanks.

    You said something about leadership; in shadow run, CoC or d&d chatacters are individuals working together, in world of darkness you are all individuals period. How would you handle military characters?

    The only way i can see around having a rank structure is to make the PCs mercenaries, with vastly different skill sets (ie, a diplomat/pilot, an engineer (navy), a scout sniper and a navy seal/SAS type fighter) so one is obviously running things at any particular time. But then there is the potential for players to switch off when they think their PC isnt important.

    Is there a way to make it work?

    • Chris Winkle

      I think the hardest thing about doing military wouldn’t be the difference in rank. It is possible to put a player in charge, it just has to be a player you really trust. Like the GM, this player has to keep the happiness and agency of other characters in mind while they play. Oren has an article on that: – rotating might actually make this harder since you couldn’t hand pick who the ranking player is.

      The biggest issue I think would be getting players to actually roleplay military discipline for an entire campaign. If they are really into military culture it might work, but otherwise you’ll probably have to look the other way at some point while they disregard orders.

      • Michael Campbell

        Another factor is the close relationship military leaders have with their underlings. It’s not like business. In the military you usually have three subordinates of the next lower rank under each rank.
        In business it’s closer to ten underlings per manager at each level of management.
        Partly this is because the military can expand during wartime, with everybody pulling an additional 66% workload and every rank thus having five underlings. But also because military mistakes don’t just cost millions of dollars. They cost millions of dollars and scores, if not hundreds; of lives.

        I’ld be inclined to explain a few things to the “player with rank” as an in-character conversation with their immediate superior.
        “You know why military officers who think the enlisted men are the enemy get quietly shuffled off to the motor pool by their superiors???
        It’s real simple.
        Better to court martial an underling who had a spanner in his hand with a charge of striking a superior officer.
        Than to court martial an underling who lost his temper while clutching an assault rifle.”

        Once the player knows that the job of “boss” is to “lead” rather than “bully”, the usual problems evaporate.
        And if they don’t…well the next guy up the chain of command starts making life difficult for bully-leader.
        What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

        • LEON

          Good points guys. I read that arical and am now burdened with more knowledge and wisdom to over analize ?
          A key part of my game is the PCs deciding what to do with lost post-human colonies; liberation, coup, revolution, reform, hostile takeover, anaihilation, etc. So this will take a lot of thinking.

          • Michael Campbell

            Sounds more like a board-game than a role-playing game.

          • Michael Campbell

            Of cause it should be noted that military discipline is not always associated with the military.

            In Aliens, the military discipline evaporates rather quickly and there wasn’t much to start with.
            In M.A.S.H. the doctors see that their task is diametrically opposed to what the military is doing. Doctors patch boys up. The military blows them to bits. So the doctors soon learn that military discipline aids and abets:- the “other team”.

            Once the player characters know that they’re the infantry being used to retake some colonial facility on some barren-world because a cost benefit analysis has been run and it turns out that it’s cheaper to have 50 funerals than it is to vap’ the colony with shipboard lasers and rebuild the facility from scratch…military discipline will evaporate real fast.
            So the characters start behaving like the players usually act; “Okay, sure, you’re the guy who’s in charge…okay…now what’s in it for me???”

          • Leon

            Maybe, you could probably call it d&d IN SPAAAAACE.

            In both of your examples the poor disipline is a direct result of conflict with or lack of leadership. Unlike the Colonial Marines in Aliens and the doctors in MASH, the PCs in my game have both agency and authority. They’re more like Special Circumstances agents from The Culture, but far more low tech (so not overpowered) They’re also the ones doing the cost analysis, but their weighing human lives – even if they are in the form of cuddly kitten people (these can be evil), or winged fairies or squid (these can be cuddly) or cyborg centar millipeds (these are rearly good), or they can appare to be lazy naked people in a zoo (though really be incredibly active running every aspect of their habitat through neural implants) – it’s the interstellar age so material resources aren’t a concern (though they are also on the look out for new tech).

            Leadership will become an issue when deciding on the method of ending the horrors being perpetrated by the powers that be within rogue colony, or Metro (gsv/space habitat), handling prejudices, preconceptions, misinformation (are the invaders really refugees) or even deciding if the insular, race of monsters are really a threat at all or just weird.

          • Michael Campbell

            @ Leon.
            It’s sounds less like rank and more like management.

            The typical doctors’ practice needs no-one in charge “as such” for the daily running of the office. The members of the organization are grownup enough to make their own choices about how much to take out of the petty cash tin.
            You only really need someone in charge about once a month.
            “Look, I’m going to make an executive decision.
            There’s only one way to end the debate about who gets the employee car parking space closest to the door.
            We’ll meet here next Thursday and draw names from a hat.”
            Yes, there should be some level of formal leadership but since everybody has a high level of personal agency & personal integrity; laissez-faire or nominal leadership will work just fine in most situations.

            Again, an in character talk from the immediate superior will do a lot of help.
            “They’re good problem solvers…but they’re a lousy bunch of order followers.
            So basically, all you’ve got to do…is convince them that your plan was their idea to begin with.
            And sometimes the easiest way to do that…is to use their plan.”

            If the leader-character shows poor skill in leadership (A.K.A. bullies the other players), you just have an in game statement from the next guy in the chain of command.
            “We’ve read the reports from the debriefing personnel and we’ve got a new theory.
            We theorize that we can raise productivity by putting so-and-so in charge.
            Don’t take it like it’s a demotion. It’s the nature of an ‘improvisational response team’ that flexibility takes priority over regimental discipline. The regular army; fight and kill and die and they do it in large numbers…so they need high levels of structured discipline.
            But what we do, isn’t written down in such black and white terms. So we need to maximize creativity and pay less attention to the hand book.
            So don’t think of this as a demotion. We’re just putting your career advancement on hold for a while, while we check out what other options we have within our existing personnel.”

            If a character who spends points on shooting skills has the possibility of getting his trigger finger, shot off. Then players who spend points on ‘rank’ have very little to complain about if they actually are handed a demotion through their own behaviour.

        • Leon

          The bloody emoji came out wrong.

  3. Adam

    Many of my players throughout the years have come from a background in videogames, so in D&D I sometimes break immersion by saying “yeah he totally has an exclamation point over his head” so my players know what content I’ve actually prepared for them tonight. Obviously, like you said, players have free will to go and do what they want, but at least this way, after their antics are done, they know how to get our story back on track.

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