Erik Schmidt
Erik Schmidt



How many emperors were also philosophers?

The Stoic philosophers have something to say about players destroying the best-laid plans of gamemasters.

One Weird Trick

You can either read the post below or watch it in video form.

You’re probably familiar with the adjective stoic. In everyday use it usually means something like enduring without complaint:

Corporal Jones stoically endured the freezing wind and golf ball-sized hail as he walked the perimeter on guard duty.

But the origin of the term reveals something much more interesting and useful. Stoicism is a school of philosophy that came out of Ancient Greece in about 300 BCE. At its core is the idea that we humans are best served by doing two things:

  1. Examine all the forces affecting us and determine which of them can we control and which of them are beyond our control.
  2. Don’t waste energy worrying about the forces we can’t control.

The trick of course is in figuring out which things we can control, and maximizing our efforts in that direction. I can control whether I exercise every morning. I can’t control the fact that I’m going to die some day. Those are easy. But a broad range lies in between those poles.

Figuring out how to sort out that middle range requires that we don’t trick ourselves, that we assess the world around us with clarity. But there’s a wild card that makes doing so more difficult than it should be. That wild card is expectation.

Expectation Has Entered the Building

Our minds are telling us an ongoing narrative about ourselves and the world in which operate. That narrative builds expectation. Expectation distracts us from what seeing what is, in favor of what we want. Then when our internal story, our expectation, bumps up against reality, it can really throw us for a loop.

When we have an expectation that something will or won’t happen, when events play out otherwise, we’re disappointed. The Stoics called this out as a source of discomfort and frustration, and the Buddha before them pinpointed it as the root cause of actual suffering. This makes sense; when life is a continuous series of disappointments, well that just sucks.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Of the many gripes that surface in online TTRPG forums, variations on this one are evergreen:

I put so much effort into planning this session, then the players had their characters do something completely unexpected. I put so much work into prep, and it’s all wasted!

This complaint comes from expectation, and the answer to it is well known: Prep situations, not plots. As a GM you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary prep and frustration when players do the inevitable and make choices you didn’t anticipate. You’ll be more prepared and the game will go more smoothly.

But there’s another GM expectation trap that is a bit more nebulous, and I’ve fallen victim to it even though I prep for situations rather than plots. It’s the almost subconscious expectation that players will embrace the theme and mood I’m trying to convey at the table, and that their characters will act accordingly.

For example, I can set up a somber scene with background music, a shift in lighting at the table, a slower delivery when I’m explaining the situation to the players. But maybe a player wants his character to get into a fight. Or another player has had a long week and is looking for some levity.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes when you’re engaged in a social activity, everyone’s expectations aren’t lined up completely. I’m not talking about big picture Session Zero stuff here, I’m talking about the nuances of what’s happening in the moment during a particular session.

They’re Trying to Tell Me Something

This happened to me the other night. It wasn’t a big deal – the adventure was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed ourselves. Yet in the back of mind this thin yapping voice told me I had failed to bring the players into the “right” frame of mind. I couldn’t even define for myself exactly how I would have wanted them to act; I just knew something was off.

That little voice was expectation. My internal story about how the game was supposed to play out tonally impeded my ability to enjoy the direction it went. Thinking back on how I ran the session, there were definitely things I could have done better to establish tone, but that’s not the big lesson I took from the evening.

What really stuck with me is that sometimes as a GM, no matter how fluidly I can respond to player actions at the table, no matter how well I can adapt to what’s happening in the game world, I can’t control anyone else’s fame of mind. As a GM it’s perfectly valid for me to set a mood. But if they don’t pick it up, I can either let my expectations turn to frustration, or I can work within the frame my players are giving me. I can pull back from the idealized game mood my mind tricked me into embracing, and I can work with the cues they are (usually without even realizing it) giving me.

Give the Cats Milk

Usually when players aren’t picking up the mood bait I’m laying down, my best course of action is to give them a bit of what they want. Maybe that’s a carousing scene or a brawl with baddies, or making lighthearted jokes in the middle of a scary situation. It doesn’t take much, most of the time. I can then gradually re-introduce the tone I originally had in mind.

There are times, however, when that’s not enough. Sometimes it’s better to just give into it and realize that the mood I had in mind for the evening’s adventures isn’t going to cut it. In such situations I usually create an interlude. It could be a chance encounter with a previously-established NPC, the arrival of a new tidbit of information about what the baddies are up to, a stranger recognizing the PCs – whatever it is, it has to feed that urge I can see in the players.

Particularly when I’m trying to set a somber or fearful or otherwise heavy mood, such an interlude fulfills the same function as a short comedic scene in an action movie, or a false alarm in a slasher film. It breaks the tension and allows me to lay out a heavier mood as a counterpoint.

Nine times out of ten, that’s enough. Once the interlude is over, the players usually are more than ready to shift to a more serious mood. And in those rare cases when they aren’t, I can either keep trying to bring them back to the mood I had in mind, or I can just recognize that it’s out of my control. I can roll with it and embrace the moment. After all, as Epictetus laid it out in The Enchiridion:

Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.


Image Credits

Marble bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France is used under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. I have lightened and cropped the original image and added text.