Setting Expectations at the D&D Table

I’ve been a professional programmer for more than 25 years. Most of those years my job titles have included words such as president or chief or officer. Long before that, I was one of the employees trusted with opening and closing the local Software, Etc. I’m also a father of two boys, now teenagers. I have significant years of experience managing people and systems.

I did not have the specific experience of managing a table full of pre-teens playing D&D for the first time when we started playing in May 2017. Sometimes the chaos churned out a half an hour of fart jokes. At its worst, it led to players leaving with hurt feelings. The typical struggle has been about focus. Dragging attention back to the game, away from phones or silly side conversations, produces annoying gripes from the adults.

It was a classic case of unspoken expectations. I addressed this with a short list of expectations that I now review at the beginning of every session as part of a session format that I’ll discuss later. I present the expectations that follow as commandments for maximum evocativeness.

Focus on the Game

We get to play once a week if we’re lucky. We all have other commitments. Many other pastimes of various worth (reading Reddit, eating candy, teasing each other) can be done almost any time. We only get to play D&D for this particular three hours.

Know Your Character

Certain aspects of the player character are clearly written on the character sheet or in the rules. It wastes time to mindlessly roll a 20-sided and then ask the table whether you hit. You should know your Attack Bonus. The DM has already told you the Armor Class. Likewise, if you wonder how many hit points are restored by the Cure Light Wounds spell, look it up well before you cast it.

Decide Without Delay

The flow of the game cannot halt for a player to slowly cogitate over the best next action. There is plenty of time when focus of the game is on other players. When your turn arrives, you should be ready to make your move or we will move on.

Communicate Clearly

Precision matters when describing character action. Leaving out details requires the DM to make assumptions. At its worst, lack of clarity is a tool used by players to test actions and yank them back as the consequences play out. You may not revise the marching order after the DM asks the lead character to make a saving throw avoid falling in a pit.

Accept Rulings

While there is a some room to question results, generally the rulings of the DM should be accepted without argument. Fine points of spell effects might be missed, but forward progress of the game is more important than be technically correct with every encounter.

Entertain In-Game

We gather to have fun in the context of the game. Jokes made in-character increase immersion in the game world and provide opportunities for the emergent story to advance. Conversation unrelated to the game represents an interruption of play.

Remind, Ignore, Expel

When expectations are violated, we first remind the player of the expectation, perhaps a second or third time. After it’s clear the player is failing to honor expectations, we ignore the player. Ridiculous suggestions may meet silence. Turns may be skipped. This lack of attention from the rest of the players can turn the play back to the game. In the most extreme cases, a player will be asked to leave. Rarely, a player asked if he’d like to go home will accept and the game moves on.


My Return to Weekly D&D

In May 2017, I began running a D&D campaign for my two sons and our friends. I use D&D here generically. The rulebook we use is Basic Fantasy, which is D20 refactored to behave similarly to Basic D&D. This successful campaign came after a few false starts with Microlite20, Pathfinder and Dungeon World. These initial failures were some combination of the kids being too young and the rules being too complicated. In retrospect, we probably would have been fine with Microlite if we’d waited a couple of years, but I took a left turn into trying popular games before sorting out what I really wanted out of the game.

My initial aim was to provide for my sons the experience of gaming I had as a child and a young adult. Remembering my own playing fondly, lead me to reading retrospectives which would turn my thinking towards a return to playing. My group of friends had stopped playing after giving D&D 3E a good shot and after we all had babies to take care of. Boardgames were an easier format for constantly shifting players. General dissatisfaction with the 3E game also meant any talk of returning to D&D triggered hard lobbying for 2E from our most fervent RPD advocate, Jeff.

The conversation about the 1E DMG’s Appendix N I’d stumbled into enabled my successful run by focussing attention on the inspiration behind the original role-playing games. I began identifying why the older games were more fun than the newer games we’d tried. And given my primary goal of exposing my two sons to the tabletop RPG experience, I discovered the lever I could use to pry Jeff away from 2E. The pitch: a game for the kids with rules simple enough for 8 year olds and with dads at the table for coaching.

The regular game has evolved over the past two years to bring the adults in as equal players. We continue to learn and adapt to best serve each player’s needs, which makes the games better over time. I can now consider D&D a primary hobby rather than something I had fun with as a kid. And when I observe my sons engaging with the game away from the table, planning their own adventures, I feel deep satisfaction.


The “I Eat Poo” Game

Seems like you’d need to be drunk or young or both to play this, but it does illustrate a game mechanic I like. That is the hidden wager mechanic. In games played around a table, it keeps everyone engaged and prevents those lulls where one player is deep in thought while the other players might get bored.

I Eat Poo — Jeremy — Medium

Earlier this evening, @danfuzz told me that some of his friends were playing a game called “Tweet or Twenty” in which everyone around a table selects a Cards Against Humanity white card and either must post the content to their Twitter account or pay $20 into a pot. The idea is that if the card is too embarrassing, you’d rather pay than have to post it.

I thought this was a fun idea until I realized that since (a) the posts all contained “#TweetOrTwenty”, and (b) a more-or-less complete list of Cards Against Humanity cards is readily available, embarrassment is limited because it’s easy to tell when someone is playing and therefore when their post is not to be taken at face value. So I started thinking of ways to remove this limitation.