Saturday, August 10, 2013

Don't Break The Player's Toys

You know the temptation.  The players have really attached to a particular NPC and you just know the NPC's death would motivate them for revenge....  One player overly relies on a sword and the technique it allows her to use and that just makes you want to take it away from her.  The players love an NPC so much they keep contriving reasons to bring him along with them.  The players are intrigued by an enemy they have dubbed Out of Character "Moriarty" and enjoy clashing with them but you only intended him to be the villain of a single adventure.

What do you do?

Well, some Storytellers will go with their gut instinct and do what they need to do.  After all, everything in service to the plot....

In my view, that's not the best way to do it.  The real phrase, in fact, should be:

Everything in service to the players.

Which is why I'm a big believer in finding a player base you enjoy running games for rather than grabbing any old player and forcing them to engage with something they loathe - but that's a whole other post right there.

Your players are the audience and just like the writers and director of a hit new TV show you need to bear that in mind.  Your audience will start tuning out if they see something they love ... and then immediately lose it.

Take "The Walking Dead", for example.  Sure they could create a really intense episode where they kill off Daryl Dixon but how many people would keep watching after that?  Not nearly so many as would have tuned in if Daryl Dixon made yet another escape.

You don't take away your audience's toys.  There's a reason why classics like Buffy: the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural find out what the fans want and either give it to them or tease them with it.  How many Wincest jokes have been in the Supernatural TV series?  Sure, they'd never pander so much as to either go through with it or even create a really dodgy moment but they play around with it (and call the fans out on it).

If one of your players desperately wants their character to hook up with (and later marry) the CEO of a particular organisation why not give her a chance with the woman?  Maybe you didn't intend the CEO to be a lesbian but would it really matter if she was?  You might not have the CEO give in right away and might make it a fair hike to the goal but you could drop hints that she's either in the closet or in a rocky relationship with another woman and therefore the potential is there.

If another player wants the villain to be a recurring character and even after the enemy's death talks about his "apparent death" then perhaps bring them back for another adventure?  The players are up for it so why not go for it?  Its hard to get players excited about recurring villains, if you have a golden opportunity then don't waste it.

A lot of Storytellers have a moment when they forget that the old maxim "Without Conflict, There Is No Plot" doesn't mean "Destroy Or Constantly Threaten Everything The Players Love About The Game".  It can be a fine line (especially in horror) but they are two different things.  There's a lot of conflict that can come from a relationship other than the constant threat of death. 

You win if your players care so don't waste it.

Note to the players.

Don't let this get to your head, however.  While your Storyteller can get a better game if they focus on player and story needs, that doesn't mean that you are somehow entitled to such treatment simply because you picked up a character sheet. You have your own responsibilities to the other players and to the Storyteller and you should bear in mind that what you receive is a gift. If you don't like the gift, then that's fine, there's always other gaming tables that might suit you better. You'd be pretty darn grateful if someone baked you a cake just to watch you smile as you eat it, so you should make a point to show your gratitude occasionally or else your Storyteller may become demotivated and walk away. It's not like you're paying them for it (unless you are, in which case, contact me!)

Note to Storytellers.

Also don't get a big head! Martyrdom complexes aren't attractive on anyone.


  1. An incident in why my toys got broken, and how it quite badly hurt the campaign in question:

    Fantasy game set in a fantasy world's equivalent of the age of exploration and colonisation of the quasi-Americas by the quasi-Europeans. My character had been marked for destruction by an evil god, and was protected only by the fact that he'd been chosen by a weird obscure god to be one of His agents on Earth.

    Note that although this god is weird and obscure, at the same time my character had been raised in that god's worship. However, I hadn't paid for the theology skill in this (homebrewed) system, which meant that the GM ruled that I didn't really know anything about my own religion. (I wasn't the only person who ran into this problem a lot - more or less all of us constantly had to make rolls to remember basic tenets of religions we grew up in, in retrospect I think most of us assumed that theology would be used for comparative religion stuff and for major philosophical questions about religion, not to cover the sort of stuff we'd have learned in our faiths' equivalents of Sunday School, because seriously, most Catholics would be able to give you the basic facts about their faith even if most of them haven't given deep study to the works of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.)

    Anyway, as a result of this weird ignorance where I couldn't even know my religion's ten commandments, I didn't know that my god wanted me to be celibate and I ended up losing my god-protection as a result. The only hint of where I might go to get that back I could find was following the study of the secret, forbidden magic dedicated to breaking and reshaping the very rules of the cosmos itself, which most people considered to be a bad thing. This felt like a bad idea, but the alternative seemed to involve huddling in a ball and waiting for the evil god to eat me, so I followed up on that. Then stuff happened which made it obvious I was using this magic, and the party's quasi-paladin shot and killed me.

    Not only did we have a PC-on-PC murder happen, but this happened right when we had a new player joining the session, who decided - quite reasonably - that the party had behaved so abhorrently and dysfunctionally that her new PC would just run away screaming rather than sticking around with a group of dangerous lunatics who kill each other. The atmosphere of the campaign shifted somewhat after that session, and the campaign eventually exploded after another incident in which a PC died because of the actions of the other PCs, though I'd personally say that in that case it was much more clearly the fault of the player whose PC died that time (but also the GM, who completely failed to take steps to stop this player's behaviour from derailing things so comprehensively).

    Now, arguably my death was my fault for pursuing forbidden magic. However, my only toy had been taken away from me. In theory, my character had a bunch of skills which would have been useful for studying and inventing stuff in downtime. In practice, the GM never allowed us any downtime. (This is the same GM who had massive character-changing stuff happen to my PC whilst I was away, by the way. In retrospect it's mildly embarrassing how highly I respected his GMing abilities when it was clear that, as good as he was at this worldbuilding stuff, he wasn't very good at remembering that the game isn't just run for one person's benefit.)

    1. Ooops, forgot to add the conclusion there:

      The point is, when you take away a PC's main claim to relevance and being able to do shit and being able to survive in a game, their player is going to yank every lever within reach if it seems to give them even a mild opportunity to get their mojo back. In my case, the lever activated explosives which blew a giant hole in the foundations of the campaign, sowing the seeds of a subsequent total collapse.

    2. Leaving aside all the other random nonsense, you'd think in a setting like this then the deity in question ought to either a) make damn sure you know what their chosen is supposed to be doing, or b) let it pass as a matter of ignorance. That just sounds so, so broken.

  2. Lots of good points. I think you can to some extent threaten their toys, because that reminds them how much they're invested in them and also gives them a chance to fight for what they care about. So rather than killing the NPC, they're in trouble that the PCs can get them out of - could be physical danger, social disgrace, even financial trouble. Perhaps the sword-loving PC has it confiscated as part of a criminal investigation, and needs to clear her name to get it back (but the player is fully aware that it's a temporary thing) - so she has to find alternative ways to deal with the current adventure.

    And maybe Moriarty bides his time and broods on his defeat for a good while until resentment pushes him into another strike when the players least expect it. Or maybe (comic-book style) another villain seeks out those with reason to hate the PCs and tries to unite them, living or dead.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Some Storytellers get a little too excited by the prospect of destroying them one by one which leads down the Tragedy Route ... a genre that few players want to play and few Storytellers have any experience in running.