Saturday, October 11, 2014

Expectations and Entitlement Among Millennial Roleplayers


We're the kids who were born between the advent of AIDS and 9/11.  Supposedly, Facebook has made us narcissistic and envious, while the culture of giving every kid a trophy for participation has made us self-entitled and prone to over-valuing our own opinion.

If you want to read up on it yourself, there's plenty of opinions out there (1 2 3).  Just remember to (a) check your sources, and (b) look for statistical trends, not just anecdotes or stats about a single generation.

Anyway, here's my idle, purely speculative hypothesis: these same generational trends have been shaping how we play our RPGs, too. 

Is player entitlement a new thing?  Do players show up and expect that. . .
  • their character will be treated like a hero?  
  • their encounters will be balanced to their level?  
  • they'll all get equal spotlight time?  
  • they'll all get equal loot that's also class-appropriate for them?
  • the campaign will revolve around them and their story?  
  • . . . and does that include some insurance against permanent character death?
  • . . . and the stakes are plot elements, rather than player death?
  • they'll have opportunities to take a more literal hand in telling the story (fleshing out scene details, deciding backstories for minor NPCs)?
And if so, are these new trends?  I'm going to argue Yes.


I think these are all expectations that cater to player entitlement.  Convenience, respect, control.  These are concessions to player expectations.

Numenera lets players bid on the fiction using Intrusions and XP.  Dungeon World offers players more literal ways to write their own story, aside from just the actions of their character.  Later incarnations of DnD have made recovering from permanent death a trivial task.  Some 4e DMs allow players to pick what loot is in the next treasure chest, since character builds are so important.  Games have a specific calculus that they use to ensure that a particular combat is level-appropriate.

I know a lot of grognards sigh and shake their heads at this stuff.  Well, cut it the fuck out.  There's no wrong way to have fun.  These are just signs of a changing time.  So what if players demand a more personal level of customer satisfaction these days?  These are great innovations that I'm glad have been added to the repertoire of tabletop RPGs.  There's a reason these games have gained in popularity.

These trends don't really become odious until they fall into the deepest abysms of player pandering, when the game becomes a power trip for the players, and the DM is probably better off just giving everyone a hand job.

But remember that the inverse has also been a criticism of our hobby.  Callous DMs who didn't care about the players at all.  Cheap, meaningless deaths.  Insurmountable results from the wandering monsters table.  Illogical traps that killed without so much as a saving throw.  DM NPCs that overshadowed the players at every step of the way.

So it swings both ways.  And everyone is going to have a different equilibrium within that spectrum, somewhere between "my character chooses to spend a plot point to avoid dying, since she hasn't avenged her family yet" and "hahaha give me your character sheet so I can eat it".

My Personal Preferences

As for me, I tend to shy away from games that offer too many of my bulletpoints, above.  I like old-school.  I don't want to be a special snowflake.  I want to be a pebble.  I like save or die mechanics.  I like roguelikes.

Roguelikes, by the way, are almost the direct opposite of modern trends towards player entitlement.  Everything is random, difficult, and utterly unsympathetic.  But that's part of the appeal.  All those brutal failures make victory so much sweeter when it finally occurs.

I remember playing in a game of +Courtney Campbell's where we were forced to lick a demon's boot.  That's about as far from playing a power fantasy as you can get.  It's funny--it didn't cost me any HP or GP to say, "I lick the demon's boot and beg." but I still found it distasteful.  (Too much empathy with your PC is always a dangerous thing.)  I wonder how many players have chosen to fight a doomed fight rather than merely swallow their pride?  Or more accurately, the imagined pride of an imagined avatar?

But looking back at it now, it was a pretty cool part of the game.  Heroes are never forced to grovel, nowadays, and that scarcity made it dramatic.  And in a callous way, realistic.  Outside of idealized fantasy, sometimes a dude needs to kiss a lot of ass.

(Out of curiosity, are there any videogames where the protagonist has to humiliate themselves?  Not just some cut scene where the PC does something humiliating, but an actual choice that the player makes to humiliate themselves?  Like, do you lick the warchief's boot clean or lose all of your money?)

Anyway, this might be one of the roots behind the old/new school schism.  But if so, that's great news, because it's just a matter of player+GM expectations.  And that means they can be discussed and agreed upon, because that's something that adults do.

UPDATE:  There's a good response to this post over at Incredible Vehicle that's gives some thoughtful criticism.


  1. Was expecting some high-handed bashing of younger players such as myself, but found an interesting and thought out piece. Nice work.

  2. I was introduced to D&D shortly after 3.5 came out, by an older friend who had played a lot of AD&D 2nd edition in the early-mid 90s. It was from his experience and GMing that I built my initial impression of D&D: that it was a storytelling mechanism where the GM wrote an adventure for the players to be the heroes of.

    So while I have no real experience with D&D before circa 2004, it's hard for me to imagine that these trends are really 'new.' Particularly after having read summaries of some Dragonlance modules. (Though I do lack first hand knowledge).

    For me, embracing the oldschool was part of a maturation within the hobby. There came a point where I'd been special long enough, and I wanted to try not being special. (this transformation was aided, in no small part, by becoming an avid reader and friend of Courtney, actually). In retrospect, I think this maturation also involved making a choice which I wasn't necessarily aware of at the time: do I play the game because it's an interesting and intellectually immersive challenge, or do I play it because I like to tell communal stories?

    I chose the former, which led me to old school games. If I'd gone the other way, as I think most gamers do, then I probably would have explored more narrative focused games where I could be the hero in space, or in a post-apocalypse, rather than a medieval fantasy.

  3. Hmm. I hold my hand up to 'insurmountable results from the Wandering Monster table'. I managed a TPK earlier in the week, and I'm not pleased about it. The players didn't play well (they're young and inexperienced) but I allowed a situation to develop where they only had one course of action open to them. They didn't take it, and they died under a horde of vicious undead. That's my fault as a DM.

    But even though they're all 'millennials' as you describe them (having been born in 1997) they all laughed and said 'right, what do we do now?' before getting on with rolling up new characters. I think I was more appalled than they were.

  4. "I like the demon's boot and beg." -- Facebook inspired typo?

  5. I seem to remember a number of those bullet points having tenure 'back in the day'... but they weren't written into the rulebooks yet.
    Except for the last one all were present in my previous group's games... an none of us were 'Millenials'. Oh, and the GM totally had a GM NPC as well.
    I do think videogames have ramped up those expectations... having undergone their own transition from 'you get 3 lives and after that you have to START THE ENTIRE GAME OVER FROM THE BEGINNING' to 'OK, you died, just respawn at your save point and continue'.
    My current group had a guy rage-quit because he didn't get a 'do over/respawn'... and he wasn't a millenial, but up till then he'd only played videogames.
    A lot of it does seem like just plain hand-jobs to me, at least the way I see folks speak of their characters/adventures... but happily I've found a group where TPKs are still on the table and there's no guarantee of 'balance'.

  6. I'm not a Millennial, but I kinda hate it when people make gross generalizations about them. Age-ism is crap. Like Luke I thought that's where this might go but it doesn't these are good thoughts. Player entitlement is a pretty good way to define the difference between new and old school. Some of those bullet points got a start in 2e D&D, that's why I think it's more of a continuum than a hard line, and that last bullet point a bout players having a hand in minor details strikes me as downright Arnesonian. The snake eats its tail.

  7. Wow. Okay. It blows my mind that people are describing this 'entitlement', let alone some sort of generational thing. Since this hobby started, there have been people trying to produce stories more like what they read in books and less like "And the rot grub you got from the pile of garbage reaches your heart and you die." The fact that we've finally found some tools and rules that allow us to produce these sorts of experiences is not entitlement, and honestly, calling it that says more about the caller than it does about the supposedly 'entitled' people.

    Thumbs down to these comments.

  8. I dislike you tying this stuff to the "millennial" thing. None of the new players I've run a game for have expected any of your dot points. They had no clue what a role-playing game was even going to look like, so of course they didn't expect class-appropriate loot. People gain those expectations from playing a certain type of role-playing game. They aren't ingrained in a generational point of view.

  9. " . . and the stakes are plot elements, rather than player death?"
    - So, you are playing like in that famous chick tract, if *player* death, rather than character death, is a thing?