Come hell or high water…

Anyone who has spent any time with games set in the World of Darkness has probably at one time or another wondered if their Storyteller were out to get them. While games like Vampire do not have a monopoly on pushing for consequences for character action, they certainly introduced a lot of young gamers to the concept of punitive environments. With traits like Humanity, Paradox, and Angst, not to mention a die pool mechanic which was often even more aggressively seeking your failure than your in-game enemies, the atmosphere of play was tangibly oppressive. Excellent arguments can be made about other games and game lines being similarly so, but that is not really the topic I intend to raise. Instead, it is the idea of repercussions and consequences at which I would like to look.

“…the light at the end of the tunnel is a body-part dispenser machine!”

-Mind-Battered Gamer in a Conspiracy X game

I am known among my friends and fellow gamers for having a keen sense of the consequences of action and inaction. I suspect that for longer than I am aware, this sense put my games into a very challenging category where players were pushed to the breaking point trying to find ways to resolve the ever-more-complicated situations they were rigging for themselves with every move. That this was usually fun for us I suppose can be attested to by the full roster of players the games had, but that it was hard and not always an enjoyable sort of fun should not be overlooked either. I can cite more than a few games where campaigns and chronicles became more about winning and losing than about roleplaying. As my primary interest is in immersion and simulation, I have to count these as failures no matter how much fun some or all the players may have had, or claim to have had.

Consequences are an important part of simulation and ‘realism,’ but there are limits.

Damned if I do or don’t

I don’ t mind a character having the sense that there is no way out of a situation or plot in which they have become embroiled, but I never, ever want my players to feel that way. That they do sometimes was brought home to me just a few weeks ago when one of my closest friends ever had to take a smoke break from our All for One session to clear his head and decide what to do. He came back after a few minutes with the announcement that, he was tired of second guessing how I was going to react and he was just going to do what he felt he should do – come hell or high water. Knowing how he agonizes over actions sometimes, especially as he looks for the perfect solution to problems, I was initially very glad to hear him come out with this pronouncement and encouraged him to do it all the time, not just in this scene. He took that to heart, and the gaming has been much faster, lighter, and more fun for all of us I think – despite all the consequences which have come their way since then.

Initially, I was glad about this, but later – when I should have been thinking about other things – I found myself wondering about it and questioning why someone who knows me so well would tie themselves in mental knots trying to avoid negative consequences for their actions in my game. The answer came quickly as I have been down this road before: the game is what the players perceive it to be, not what I intend it to be.

Leap of Faith or Long Drop into a Meat Grinder?

Details can bring a game to life, and so they can also gut it where it stands. We’ve all been in groups where only a few in the group can retain the details of the scenario from week to week, no notes are taken, and all the hard work you have done crafting connections to flesh out the game world transforms into so much ephemera. Your rich tapestry unravels with one simple comment, “Didn’t we hear about some dude somewhere who might care about that, or was that the last game?”

Decisions we make in keeping with the personalities and capabilities of NPCs, or reactions in the game world which come about due to its culture, politics, or other factors can seem blindingly obvious to us, but remain opaque even to the players who are paying rapt attention to everything. Elements vital to the comprehension of  description do not translate from the GM’s conception of an idea to the players’ actualization of it. In terms of percentages, even if the signal to noise ration of your description is 95% clear, that 5% will eventually come along to turn your game world into something it was not intended to be. In my case, it would seem that the noise quotient makes my worlds very dark and unforgiving places that suggest to players that errors cause reactions they would prefer not to experience. This is an asset in Call of Cthulhu, but I play more games than that. That I do not actually do this to them in that way is irrelevant: that is how some of them experience it. At least, I do not intend to do this to them anymore. I know that I used to – particularly in Vampire and Mage, which I always felt took more skill and attention to play well than most of the casual players I knew then used to give them.

From my perspective, if a player commits to running their character as if they were real and operating in a real and internally consistent world, then consequences will be of both the good and bad varieties, and the amount of effort they put in to being awesome should directly translate into awesome results within the limitations of their character and the situation. Failing to respect or recognize the internal rules of the setting or genre will lead to less than satisfactory results, not as a punitive measure, but as a direct result of the action taken.

Like all intentions, what we intend is not always what we actually do.

Repercussions of Misaligned Intentions

Consequences are important to a game, but they should not be a means of control or punishment to keep players in line when the intent is to run a logical and internally consistent (realistic) game world. Some may be punitive given the nature of the situation, but that is a pure reaction – not retribution. Even if the real world punishes us for our stupidity, there is no need for the game world or the GM to do so. Consequences and repercussions give shape to risk, and add value to reward. They are essential.

If your league of superheros is destroying homes, killing innocents, and breaking multiple laws in their pursuit of violence on evil-doers and your setting is a gritty, street-level heroes campaign something has got to give. Sooner or later, you will have to give up the setting and shift over to wish-fulfillment theatre, or the characters will have to pay for their actions. It’s one or the other. This direct conflict between campaign intentions and character actions puts the setting and the players in contention, and that cannot be resolved in game. Using consequences to modify their behaviour either ups the ante for their hijinks, or it creates dissatisfaction and the sense that the GM is being adversarial. Neither are a particularly good use of time in my opinion. We already  know that the only way out of this is communication –  the real kind, not just accepting tacit agreement from vaguely attentive players to a campaign pitch.

Communication is not enough, however. As I have mentioned in the past, you also have to keep track of what you are doing behind the screen and see if what you think is going on is mirrored on the other side of the screen. Is the experience from the players’ eye view that same as from yours? Are you giving enough pieces of the puzzle that the picture which they gradually fill in produces results that match their expectations and yours? Are you impartial, or do you just have the T-shirt?

Sometimes, being a GM requires the patience of Job. It seems like anytime a group expands beyond two players and a GM the likelihood that one of the players will be a tool is almost assured. It gets very tempting to put a negative spin on reasonable consequences whenever that player has a character in the scene, and to reinforce your rulings with a toughening of your reality’s laws in areas where that player flaunts the accepted boundaries of the setting. From my perspective, working to overcome these temptations is worthwhile and will make all such exercises easier in the future, but as my recent experience shows, you can perhaps backslide, or hold players to a completely unrealistic standard without even realizing it. If we want to consistently improve or at least maintain a certain level of competence, we must remain vigilant~

Related Posts:

Calls to Harms (Casting Shadows Blog)

We Could Be Heroes (Casting Shadows Blog)

GM: The Core Principles (Casting Shadows Blog)

Rewards of Risk (Casting Shadows Blog)

10 Responses to “Come hell or high water…”
  1. Murderbunny says:

    For many players, there is the sense that negative consequences in a game are the result of their failings as a player or character, whether it’s an unfortunate roll of the dice, or a poor decision. It also doesn’t help that some GM’s are deliberately punitive of what they perceive as player stupidity, or feel the need to enforce their setting’s reality with draconian retribution. Sometimes this is perfectly justified according to the established setting (“You just flipped off the physical incarnation of the Merciless God of Murder, what did you think he was going to do?”) and other times it’s just the GM feeling ornery. It can be difficult at times for a player to distinguish which is which.

    Many players who consider themselves very clever will get themselves tied up in knots thinking that they can avoid any negative consequences if only they could come up with a plan that takes into account every possible angle and have every possible contingency worked out. I see this a lot in the MechWarrior PBeM we’re participating in, with the result that all action grinds to a halt while two of the players meticulously dissect every detail of their plan in the hopes of coming up with an optimal solution that results in a 100% win with no negative fallout. The goal, while laudable, is also unachievable, and it’s not necessarily a failure on the players’ part, especially when the consequences come from sources that the players could not possibly have knowledge of.

    I sense both a positive realization and a negative resignation in the tone of the “hell or high water” anecdote: one is that the player realizes that it’s impossible to account for everything, and one simply has to do the best they can and reap what they have sown, for better or for worse. The other side of that is that the player realizes that the GM is going to find a way to screw them no matter what they do, so no sense agonizing over every decision since it will all turn awful anyway.

    It can be fun to play the underdog and have the odds stacked against you, but there are too many GMs who think that in order for a setting to be properly dark and oppressive, the players must be denied everything that remotely resembles accomplishment or success. There are limits to how fun this can be, and I think there are few players who want their character to turn into a perpetual boring Failure Hero ( ).

    On the other hand, I have met the odd player who will actually court what some would describe as failure; what I mean is that they deliberately play up a character’s flaws, or they make characters who are actually incompetent but get themselves mixed up in situations where their (lacking) skills are required.

    One player, when his character was on a recon mission to gather blackmail material, had the misfortune of encountering some Mafiosi to whom he owed a debt. The player, eyes open to the consequences, had his character *panic* and throw the camera at them, destroying the incriminating photos he had gathered, as well as his big chance at making a good impression on his employer. No dice rolling required to “force” this incompetence, the player just decided that his character would “solve” the situation in the worst way possible. He knew that things would turn out badly for his character and we both had a ball with the scene because of the drama it created.

    Another player created a character who was a has-been rock star, but was still all ego. He noted that the way the game was set up, was that characters of his type are mechanically encouraged to sink to their worst impulses at every opportunity (short version: Daeva vampire with Pride as a Vice; Clan Weakness is a Willpower loss for failure to indulge in their Vice when the opportunity presents itself). He had his character do things like get into fights with rough vampire bikers and then try to claim victory for himself as he picked his broken face off the pavement, or demand recognition/validation from the stuffy 200-year old elders of the city – and get huffy and snotty when he was rebuked. Naturally this launched a number of petty feuds which make up the bulk of Vampire politics.

    Many players create characters with flaws stated on their sheets, but often try to act as if their characters are immune to their own bad habits. It’s rare and somewhat refreshing to me to find a player who plays their characters’ flaws to the hilt and genuinely enjoys it when the natural consequences of doing such play themselves out.

    After all, TV and movies are rife with characters who have terrible flaws and perform self-destructive actions. Characters like Col. Tigh, Starbuck and Gaius Baltar would be a lot less fun if they weren’t absolute train wrecks in human form who wrought misery and pain in their wake. They would, however, be equally dull if they were not also competent in other areas and managed to wring genuine victories out of the seemingly hopeless situation they were in.

    • Runeslinger says:

      You covered a lot of ground in your reply. I am just going to focus on points related to our Mechwarrior campaign, and the player I mentioned (you know him from your time here in Korea, too~)

      In Hair of the Dog, as I have mentioned often in my posts, the campaign name should be changed to Hair of the Decision. The player group has a lot of interesting history, shall we say, with decision-making – very little of which has actually had anything to do with the fear of GM-infliicted reprisals, or a lack of understanding of where consequences might originate, but rather with simply wanting to get everything right. Punishment from an unexpected quarter could be the topic of a different post, but it’s not what this one is about. This one is about the necessity of there being objectively developed results from in-game actions.

      The anecdote about Kyrei was a story of liberation, really. He used to agonize about decisions and about not being able to determine where the story was going. In actuality, he often could figure out where the story was going, and then would talk himself out of it. Even later evidence that he was on the right track would not convince him. This little story was about him finally accepting that second-guessing himself was a problem, not intelligence or perceptiveness. He freed himself of it, and we have all been having a grand time since. Where this story went later for me is that there had to have been a reason for him to start second guessing himself, and as I like to review my GMing, I had to ask myself if it had been caused by something that I do behind the screen.

      As a partial aside, to be honest, I think people have got to start stepping away from lists of tropes, from the ’22 tips for telling a story,’ and from beat management. It’s killing the best part of roleplay in my eyes: the discovery of our stories, and our unique methods of expressing appreciation for the archetypes that these collections and commentaries seek to codify and as a side-effect have been rendering both sterile and trite. A big part of the frustration which I can sometimes feel behind the screen is when a player, old or new, tries to assess what kind of story they are in, so that they can try to figure out what my ending is or what my plan is, so that they can then know the ‘right thing to do.’ I don’t create endings; we do. I plant seeds and tend them as the story develops. If that becomes a garden of eden, or a twisted plot of nightmares, is up to the players… or should be allowed to be. Our stories are our stories,and it really could not matter less if any of them have been told before in the same or differing ways.

      • Murderbunny says:

        I did wander away from my point of origin, didn’t I? Tracing the path: consequences of decisions being rated on a success/failure scale; players getting stymied by wanting to avoid “failure”; player learns to stop second-guessing themselves trying to find the “Golden Path”; even when accepting that some negative fallout from their decisions is inevitable and okay, too much oppression is no longer fun, especially when it’s GM fiat; but sometimes a good player will embrace the fallout of their character flaws rather than avoid it.


        The cultural meme in role-playing communities that “bad result = player failure” (and conversely, “good result = reward = success”) has deep roots: The earliest games – perhaps due to being the descendants of tactical wargames – were set up as a series of challenges for a player group to overcome; dungeons full of nefarious traps and horrible monsters tested the mettle of a party of heroes, and if the heroes were clever and lucky, they overcame those challenges and claimed the treasure. Otherwise, the dungeon claimed their bones.

        Games became more story-driven as the community began to ask where the horrible dungeons came from and what were they going to do with all that loot, but the mind-set that “bad result = player failure” has hardly gone away, it just mutated. When GMs nobly intone, “I only kill player characters when they do something stupid to deserve it,” they may think they have graduated into “real role-playing” where they will no longer arbitrarily murder a PC for walking into a room with a disguised carnivorous floor, but they in fact perpetuate the “bad result = player failure” mind-set.

        So, if Death is the GM’s punishment for player transgressions, then GM is an agent of retribution against “stupid” players; thus, lesser harms to characters are lesser punishments for less “stupid” transgressions; hence whenever something bad happens to a player character, the first question that pops into their mind is, “What did I do to deserve this? What did I do wrong?”

        It would be nice if the answer were always, “You did nothing wrong, this is simply the results of a the chain of events, for better or for worse, without any implied judgement on your ability as a player or the decisions that have brought us to this point. It simply is.”

        It’s not always easy to distinguish objective consequence (based on the framework of the game world) from subjective GM-driven punishment, and this is what you touch on when you say that the player’s perception of what you are doing behind the screen is key.

        What did you do to cause your player to start second-guessing himself? It’s possible you did something, but it is also possible you did nothing. Players bring their experiences and prejudices to the table, and your actions are filtered through the player’s experiences and expectations. Sometimes it comes from direct experiences with other player groups and GMs, and other times it comes from cultural osmosis (ie, gaming forums).

    • Runeslinger says:

      Cute, and good point: Tropes are tools, and the uses and views of them are tropes themselves, no argument.

      My point was that the search for shorthand in fiction, and the wish-fulfillment desires of an audience of fiction, even the jargon of referring to the events of play as ‘the fiction’ all contribute to the same undermining fallacy – that the GM and/or group is telling a story. Some games are made that way, and some so strongly reinforce this idea of play I cannot fathom why they use dice if not as a beard.

      RPGs provide us a chance to play a different kind of theatre game in a different way; if we have the skill and desire to develop our ability to let stories appear on their own and stop trying to force desired patterns onto everything from start to finish.

      The sense you mention of players linking negative consequences to personal failure is tied to this, at least partially. From my point of view, the happy ending is not owed, and is not something that will be had if ‘no one screws up.’ There are many possible results, but we are free of the burden of having to produce endings. RPGs are not tied to the conventional limitations and structures of other formats of tale creation. We have no page count, no set run time, and no episodic contracts. The game can go on as long as it draws our interest. It’s not over until we stop playing and fail to return to it.

  2. Kyrei says:

    That moment for me was more of a self-realization of my own prejudices in GMing. I still have it in my head that the game we are playing has a script written by the GM and it is our job as players to unravel it. I *know* that Runeslinger plays a sandbox type game, I know this in my head, but as we start the session my instinct is to start trying to figure out what I am *supposed* to be doing next to further the story. The realization came after I got tired of the Runeslinger grin which I most often (and quite mistakenly) assume means, “Really? Do you *really* want to do that?” Then, when I couldn’t figure out what we were “supposed” to do, I had my smoke, and came back with a “Screw it. We charge in and kick some ass. I’m tired of waiting around” attitude, which did fit the character well. Things all fell into place then.

  3. Laraqua says:

    “a die pool mechanic which was often even more aggressively seeking your failure than your in-game enemies”

    That’s beautifully worded.

    As to the ‘Game Master grin’ that Kyrei mentions above, I have something similar although its amusing to me that the players always think it means trouble. Often it means “I have an idea” or “That’s clever; that solves a lot” or “Yes, they’ll fine the loot!” or “Oh God, what happens next? Smile to buy time!” The smile is more of a Dungeon Master Screen than an actual hint but the players still think it means I’m cheekily plotting against them. I don’t disabuse them of the notion because they seem to take such joy out of the thought of it. Runeslinger’s grin may be the same.

    But then, my players are all of the school of thought that an ‘evil Game Master’ is a good one. A fair few GMs I know in the local area call themselves ‘evil GMs’ with pride as some sort of boast. I never refer to myself in that way. I know they mean ‘evil’ as in brutally clever and awesome but I can’t help but see it as a willingness to be mean.

    /end tangent.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for the kind words~

      I like the idea that “that expression” is as much or more of a screen than the one on the table. It’s funny how players can forget that the GM is there to enjoy the developing story as well. I suppose in the case of opting to run a scripted tale or printed adventure, such a reaction would naturally fall under being amused by the consequences of a group’s choices, but I find that in my stories I am just responding naturally to the scene as it develops.

      I certainly take a certain amount of pride in those times when I have been able to challenge my players, but as I am not that competitive, I don’t want to put myself in an adversarial relationship where they are trying to beat *my* plans and plots. I like to adjudicate what happens in accordance to the underlying laws of the system, the campaign’s cast, and the setting. I am not out to get them. Some NPCs might be, but I am just an innocent observer. I want them to be trying to foil the plans of the enemy. I see nothing wrong with out-thinking your players (when it is appropriate to the scene and characters) and I see nothing wrong with characters failing. Like you, however, I see those who choose an adversarial position as GM, playing with a stacked deck, as willfully mean. It irks me when I realize a GM is thinking, “How can I make this harder for them?” when I feel they should be thinking, “What would this villain do?”

  4. mxyzplk says:

    Just saw this since it got necro’ed – good stuff. The quote “he was tired of second guessing how I was going to react and he was just going to do what he felt he should do” really resonated with me.

    One of the strengths and drawbacks of heavy immersion roleplaying is so much of the world is in the hands of the GM. This can allow us to project too much upon the situation at hand when we’re setting up consequences. By this, I mean that players feel like they are guessing at what we’ve decided is the “right thing” to do in this situation. And sometimes we fall into that trap.

    “They are discussing with the leaders of the colony. Convincing them to fight is the only real solution. Convincing them to flee, working with them to do something else, those are all the wrong thing to do and will carry specific penalties.” Sometimes the “right thing to do” in our mind is somewhat Byzantine, as well. But this is falling in love with *our* solution to the problem, and we’re not players in our game and that infringes on their area.

    It helps me to realize that there’s plenty of people in the world taking more or less optimal approaches to life, work, specific problems – and many are being more successful than I despite picking strategies I consider to be suboptimal.

    All decisions have pros and cons, sure, but they’re not always huge make-or-break pros and cons (the outcomes when you go talk to someone are not always “they now love you and support you” or “they hate you and will never listen to you.”) You can give bonuses/penalties for things you specifically find convincing but always give them room to succeed by the strength of their own arm.

    I also want the players to be thinking in-world rather than trying to second-guess me – but the challenge is to make it so the right solution really and truly isn’t second-guessing me. (Or the adventure, there’s plenty of Paizo AP situations where “collaborate with the demon” is the right answer and the adventure warns “well, I mean, they don’t have to but then you’re going to have to make up some other way of moving the plot along at great time and expense…”)

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