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Expectations and How to Set them

Our everyday lives are full of expectations. Thoughts we have on the future, or something we are anxiously awaiting for. For me right now it’s the release of Endgame, and the upcoming Game of Thrones episode, but we all have this one thing in common. We all have expectations for things we are excited about. Good or Bad, that part doesn’t matter. In storytelling, expectations are something that begin to mold and shape an opinion of a story before it’s ever told to us. If you think back to any particular movie, television show, or book you’ve thoroughly enjoyed your interest can usually be traced back to something that immediately gave you a sample of what was to come. For a movie this could be a three minute trailer, a piece of promotional art, or even a quick blurb from an actor about how immersive and revolutionary this piece of entertainment is. In the end, these expectations can make or break the receptions of this story, or piece of entertainment. Anyone who wants to become a true storyteller should learn how to manage, and sculpt the expectations of their audience before their story is ever told. Now, this is no easy feat. Any good trailer for a movie, or blurb about a story, gives their audience a precise look into their story, without revealing anything of importance to the audience. Done well, this can generate excitement and anticipation for your story. A strong example of this is the international trailer for a film called Baby Driver, which you can find here. The first twenty seconds of this piece gives the audience everything they need to know about this film, and what makes it a cinematic masterpiece without revealing the exact details of the story. The first 6 seconds start with an empty warehouse and a group of rough looking individuals sitting around a table. Then we hear a narration about a heist synchronized with quick rhythmic clapping. We see, the protagonist, Baby sitting at the head of the table observing the discussion. Then this discussion fades to the background and we are left with just quick piano, and Baby tapping his fingers on the table to a song only he can hear. From that moment we know music is more important to this man than his job is. The music comes to a halt as one of the heist members question if he can hear them, then, without losing a beat Baby recounts the whole discussion to the group, proving he’s valuable. These two moments set the expectation that the music is important, and it conflicts with Baby’s criminal exploits. Then immediately after the bouncing rhythmic music kicks back in. In thirty seconds they have sculpted our expectations for this movie to perfection, and helped lead to its success. Ironically, the U.S. trailer for this film took twice as long to establish the same tone and conflict as the international trailer. You can guess which market had a larger reception for the movie.

The takeaway here is that managing your audience’s expectations for a story is vital to creating a consistent, and successful experience. Your story may be beautiful and wonderful, but it could be even better with well managed expectations. Doing a bad job of setting expectations can ruin the experience, or at its best, just create something fun but not truly meaningful for your audience. Another popcorn movie, or book that entertains you but doesn’t stick with you in the long run.

How does this relate to tabletop gaming? Well, for those of you who are new to the medium a storyteller and a group of players sit around the table and craft a story together. The storyteller has the world at their fingertips. It could be a journey through space, a land of witches behind wardrobes, or even a hidden school for wizardry in the forests of Britain. The players each craft a character that fits into this world. You could make a child detective, a valiant knight, or a powerful sorceress. As a player you can pretend to be anything you want. Next, the storyteller runs these characters through a scenario. Most games start of with something familiar, or simple. The players are gathered at a town square, a festival, or even a local bar. Then something bad happens. It could be robbery, murder, or monsters abound. Then most players here the joyous phrase “What do you do?” Then the storyteller uses improvisational storytelling to build a story with the players based on what they want to do. This is what I like to call the first adventure. After the scenario is complete, they explore this make-believe world and play through more scenarios. This is what we call a campaign. Before all of this begins though, a storyteller should always start by setting expectations with their players. This type of session occurs before characters are made, before stories are told. Everyone, including the storyteller, sits down for a time and discusses the type of story they want to be a part of. I enjoy asking my players what movie they would like to be a main character in. One player may want to be in a post-apocalyptic mad-max game, while another wants to be just like Frodo from Lord of the Rings. In the end the players and storyteller should always work together and determine the boundaries of the story to come. For some, this may be topics your story will never cover, like graphic violence, fairy-tale tropes, or domestic abuse. For others, this may be the world you play in, or the types of scenarios they enjoy. As a storyteller you have to be aware of your player’s expectations. I say this because time and time again I see a bit of friction among the tabletop community’s storytellers about their games and their players. More often than not someone will ask how to fix their game when their players don’t engage with their content, or when no one seems to be paying attention, or when their story keeps going “off the rails,” which affectionately means “they are ruining the story I planned for them.” In my experience the issue is always the same. The players expect one type of game, and the storyteller expects to be telling another. This ends up becoming a tug of war between what the players want to do, and what the storyteller has planned for their experience. In the end the players feel frustrated and not engaged, and the storyteller feels like their players are always trying to mess up their plans, creating an adversarial experience, instead of a cooperative one. Strong experiences are tied to cooperative storytelling.

As a storyteller for tabletop games I firmly believe that it’s our job to ensure our players have a fun experience, but also the kind of experience they want to have. Everyone in a Tabletop role playing game, like D&D, sits down around the table with an expectation of the stories to come. As a storyteller it’s your job to understand those expectations to create an experience everyone can enjoy, not just yourself. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it time and time again: You can’t make someone enjoy a horror film when they desperately want to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail with their friends. Listen to your audience, and your players. This week, I’d like to open the conversation to those of you who want to tell stories of your own, or have questions about your own storytelling experiences. In the comments below, feel free to write questions, or start a conversation about how expectations have improved, or interfered with your storytelling experiences and we can help each other. See you next time.

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Boston, I absolutely agree there. Any good game experience, or trailer tells the audience just enough to give them an expectation of the piece that's accurate to its tone, and desired outcome, but leaves plenty of details covered up for the audience to discover. My favorite moments in storytelling are the 'cut to the commercial' endings. If you haven't noticed already we love our cliff-hangers at Tales of Asperran. I tend to lean towards establishing that "opening encounter" precedent before my games ever begin, in the form of a Session Zero. There's no game play, and we all just sit down to make characters and talk about our expectations. This is a standard practice of mine now mostly because in…


Lowell Boston
Lowell Boston
Apr 24, 2019

Good points Mike. Like a trailer I think I look at a good a game like the way TV uses the opening Teaser. This is the opening intro clip that sets up the unique situation of a sit-com, or the plot of a more dramatic/action based show. Classic Star Trek TOS is a good example where Kirk and his crew beam down to a planet. Kirk flirts with the green skinned alien woman, Spock makes scans and the obligatory guy in the red shirt wanders behind a rock where seconds later he's dead by mysterious reason. Cut to a commercial. If the audience is hooked enough they'll wait through the commercials to see what happens next. I try to play…

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