This post is the first in what I hope will be a series of responses to ckutalik’s recent challenge.
There is an argument to be made that in order for a roleplaying game to be effective, it requires a certain level of standardization. There is also an argument to be made that in order for a roleplaying game to be effective, it requires creativity. I hold to neither argument. I say that in order for a roleplaying game to be effective, the players and the GM alike must understand the rules of the game so well that they can use them to manipulate the expectations and actions of everyone sitting at the table in creative, and unanticipated ways.
Great authors of literature know this. Shakespeare knew it when he wrote “The Merchant of Venice.” When Bassanio offers to pay double Antonio’s bond, in order to spare him from having a pound of his flesh taken from his body, Shylock shuns the payment, and says to the court, “If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them. I would have my bond.” That scene was powerful then, and it remains powerful today because we, as audience members, have been conditioned to expect that, in a comedy, everything will work out for the characters in the end. When that expectation is toyed with- even for a moment- it upends our carefully constructed view of the world, and forces us to reexamine everything that we accept as truth.
Of course, it’s one thing to say that players and GMs should use the rules of storytelling to manipulate the expectations of other players. It’s another thing entirely to actually do so. For starters, what are the expectations of the other players, and how does one use those expectations to one’s advantage? The answers aren’t easy, and they’re not always obvious. However, consider this example. If the players enter a dungeon, the general assumption is that they need to kill every evil creature living inside it. However, what happens if one group of evil creatures is at war with a far more powerful, and far more malevolent evil? How does that affect the players’ actions, and their assumptions about the game?
If you still find yourself struggling to come up with ways to manipulate your players’ expectations, I would advise that you go back and read through some of your favorite adventure modules. A good place to start might be the Dungeon article, “30 Greatest Adventures of All Time.” As you look over these adventures, ask yourself what expectations did these authors challenge? Is there a way that you can use those same techniques in your own games?