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Friday, May 23, 2014

A GM's panel "How to value The Life of a character."

(This will be a long one)

I am so glad this is a long post, I'm very exited about this one.

I love to know how other GM's think and play and why they game like how they do. For me how others approach the hobby is a source of  never ending curiosity. I tend to find allot more commonality that I would expect, even among seemingly diverse gamers.

I wanted to write a post about different GM's and their thoughts on player character life span. 
To that end I went looking for some guest writers.

On G+ I asked the question:

  • How do you as a GM feel about player character life span and PC Death? Please don't Hurt me? or Nightmare level?
  • The second question was how central in your setting are the characters are they the main heroes? or more like Cogs in a greater machine?
My overall goal was to find out how other GM's view characters and handle the player character position within the game world, so that I could use that information to inform my work on Amazing Adventurers and incredible Exploits. (AAIE)

Lets dig in!


I put the question out generally on G+, then I posed it to three people who are the writers of blogs / content that I read regularly and respect for their honestly, creativity, and general willingness to do / say  whatever they want within this hobby.

I was highly fortunate in that they each took time to contribute answers, something I appreciate greatly.

So our guest writers for this blog are four fold.

Charles Akins:

Writer of Dyvers Campaign Blog. This blog spans the breath of the gaming industry, with a post rate I envy, and well written content on the daily. Charles is also the keeper of the great blogs roll call, perhaps the most complete list of PRG blogs in the fishbowl.
He also wrote a series of blogs on his site called if you're going to be evil Which is one of the most amazing actual plays you will ever read and the only one I've ever read that made me think "Could I hang? I'm not sure..." and I have been doing this shit since Jr. high.


Mike Evans:
The writer of the forth coming Hubris campaign setting. 
Mike's G+ image is a big middle finger  with D.I.Y. for (do it your self,) a D20, and R.P.G. written on it.
So yeah, had me at hello, a kindred spirit.


Neal Tanner:

Neal gets a special spot here at the dust pan blog in that he DM's me on a regular basis. I have a vested interest in knowing why he would kill my Numenera character some Thursday night.
That aside Neal is a big time Con attendee, will play anything, is I think more of a story gamer than any one else on this list, and  most importantly  knows exactly what he likes and what he doesn't in an RPG play experience, and is not shy about it.

Venger Satanis:
Venger from what I can tell has allot of contexts in which he cuts and interesting figure. in this context he is a writer of old school adventures and if I may be so bold a champion of the old school RPG experience in some of it's purest forms.
His blog Venger's Old school Gaming Blog is very entertaining and full of FANTASTIC imagery.
From his blog you can navigate to the resources he has published modules like  "Liberation of the Demon Slayer" and "The islands of purple haunted putrescence,"
And old school class options like "Three swordsmen" and "The Baleful Sorcerer of Tsathagkha"
He does not shy away form adult themes in his gaming and when he writes a mod lets evil be evil.
(Use of purple intentional)

Introductions are over, here are the  replies I got for each  contributor.
If I write any thing in among the quotes I will write it in blue italics so that my statements don't get confused with  the guest author's



Charles Akins
How do you feel about Character life span?

I have killed a lot of player characters in my life, both as a DM and as a player, so I usually feel like if they make it past the first session that they should be able to go for another five or six. The problem for me as a player is that once someone starts putting my character's life at risk because of their own foolish actions I find no hesitation in ending their lives.

Now as a Dungeon Master I find that it's my responsibility to ensure that everyone at the table is enjoying themselves. Laughs, memorable moments, and all that noise; but an important part of that experience has to be the threat of danger. If my players know that they're going to come out alright no matter what happens then the game stops being fun for them and the start taking liberties and treating the game like it's some forgettable noise they downloaded for free online. I want my games to matter more than that, so when they do foolish things I ensure that they have realistic consequences to their actions.

I work very hard to ensure that I never cross the line between reasonableness and jackass. I've been on the receiving end of both.

Are the characters the center of your stories or cogs in the machine?


I always tell everyone that the way I play is called co-operative storytelling and not story time with Uncle Charlie. In my games the players create the story as we progress, choosing what they want to do and when, and I set things up and react to their choices. I rarely go into a session with a set plan and I've never run a campaign with an overarching storyline. They just wouldn't work with my style of play.




Mike Evans:
How do I feel about character life span?
 I am of two minds.  I understand the importance of having a character grow and the player becoming attached to them.  I understand players want to play "that type of game" where they are Buffy, Mal, etc.

As I have ran games though I grew tired of trying to make sure encounters were "just right" or being nice to player when they were idiotic and pushed the big red button that said, "TO TOUCH IS TO DIE!!"

On the other hand I understand the importance of death.  If there is no fear of death, then players do increasingly dumb actions because they no long fear reprisal.  They justify the actions as "that's what my character would do."

As I really started delving back into old school (and OSR) is that I was really drawn to that you touch something you shouldn't, you fucking die philosophy.

I NEVER punish players though.  I always attempt to give clues, descriptions, etc that doing something is a bad idea...  It then is up to them to jump off that bridge.

With regards to Hubris- I have intentionally made it brutal (which is a reason I love DCC so much).  Part of the fun is see just how horribly you die, get mutated, corrupted, etc.

Are the characters the center of your story or cogs in the machine
I kinda touched on that above, but I'll go deeper.

I really have grown weary of the "my character is a special unique snowflake with a large back story" shtick.  I like the story and character emerging from the adventures rather than a player expounding their fanfick version of Leon or Han or whatever.  So here they are more a cog or a spring.

However if I am playing a system like Savage Worlds- I'll be a bit more understanding and the characters will be more central (but can still be a cog).



Neal Tanner:

Unless I'm running Paranoia, I'm usually not a killer GM.  I try to challenge the players, without actually pushing things to the brink of disaster.

I'm also running mainly narrative games, so the characters are pretty central to the fiction.  It should be their story, anyway.  If it isn't... why are we all sitting around playing RPGs?  We should just play Monopoly instead.

The players only involvement in the game is THEIR characters. So their characters should be central to the fiction.  What they do should matter.

That's the inherent problem with most MMOs.  Your character isn't central to the fiction.  Your character is just a carbon copy of so many others you may see running around.  What you do has no real impact on the game, or even on your own personal story.


That's where tabletop RPGs really shine.  Letting your character tell their particular story, whatever that happens to be.  It doesn't even have to be huge.  Maybe you're the great hero, armed with the legendary sword.  Or maybe you're just the former village baker turned adventurer, armed with a brick.  Either way, you still have a story to tell.

I really like when you say  the story does not have to be huge. It makes me want to write a game called little heroes who just do simple things like find lost car keys, but turn that act into huge adventures, like we all did when we were children. I agree with you that letting the characters tell their stories is important and that working with the players to do that is even more important when you GM a consistent group over a long campaign. PS Thanks for the AAIE reference in there.

Venger Satanis:

Not to be too esoteric, but I feel that character life is about initiation.  A few won't make it, most will do alright, but only a select few will excel beyond what ordinary man is capable of.  The struggle to survive is part of the whole progression cycle.  I believe that's true of real life.

Characters should be given a fighting chance (even NPCs).  The caliber of decision making melds with the luck of the dice.  If every adventurer reached level 20 with a semi full of gold, gems, and magic items, then that kind of status would lose its meaning. 

As you mentioned, "seeing the players experience the mysteries in your modules for the first time." is one of my chief motivations.  Occasionally, those mysteries kill.  If you take away the possibility of character death, the GM robs a module of its deadly allure.  Yet, death for death's sake is GM weak-sauce.  Don't take PC lives wantonly.

Are they central to the story or cogs in the machine? 

Both.  Neither.  Well, it's hard to say.  Probably somewhere in the middle.  As a GM, I'm focused on the PCs and what they're doing, but the place they're exploring didn't come from them.  They didn't build the dungeon. 

And yet, if the PCs weren't really important to the story, then why wouldn't I bypass them altogether and spend my time describing the actions of NPCs or monsters?




My  Conclusion:

Were all  searching for the event horizon.


We have points of view from four people all of whom presumably run their games differently.
Is there commonality here, Yes I think there is.

A point I find common is that a good Gm is not going to kill for the sake of killing; it’s too easy, and as Venger put it “is GM weak-sauce.” The gm is going to meet out realistic consequences for players being careless, or just plain stupid. 
If a character should die it more likely happens because as Mike Put it they “they were idiotic and pushed the big red button that said, "TO TOUCH IS TO DIE!!"” 
(I am so adding this button to AAIE somewhere, someplace..It will be big and red and one of the players will push it. I'll bet money on it)

Like I said above, as Gm's it's easy to kill of a character, its so fucking easy in fact that it's not even fun. The fun happens when a player has something happen at that brink of disaster that no one not even the GM saw coming.

That is the character death event horizon:
In a recent game I ran, a player tried to climb the leg of a rhemoraz. I knew the player on the other end of roll 20 had the  monster manual in-front of him, we both knew trying to hide on the leg of this insectoid ass kicking machine was a really bad "big red button" decision.

I gave him a saving throw when the creature kicked him off. The save was the event horizon, I knew his character was going to get hurt and badly for the player being reckless, but I gave him a shot to salvage some part of the situation. 
He failed the save and died brilliantly. As Venger put it " The caliber of decision making melds with the luck of the dice."

Neal brought up an interesting perspective, in that with a game like Paranoia he will be a killer GM, that's the point, but in a more narrative game where the characters are more central to the fiction he likes to "I try to challenge the players, without actually pushing things to the brink of disaster." Neal's point dovetails nicely with Venger's "Characters should be given a fighting chance (even NPCs)."

Having played in Neal's game's I know that if I did something  really dumb, he would hammer me, there have been times in Numenera when I was convinced my character was a dead man. (pop up walls and spinning blade robots galore.) 
Those moments are the games event horizons, the players sit up straight, quiet down stop making jack hole comments and start trying to survive. If they survive they come to appreciate the character just a bit more, if they die, that character wasn't meant to be any more that what he or she was.

That moment when every one at the table knows the character is on the line and you pick up the dice, just before the player rolls.
It's the good stuff.

A  good GM will value a characters life enough that these events count and have the desired weight during the game. Just offing player characters right and left  will devalue each characters life and make those events mean less over time, reduce the tension in the game, disrupt the story and generally make the whole game a cluster-fuck.

Or as Charles Put it "Laughs, memorable moments, and all that noise; but an important part of that experience has to be the threat of danger. If my players know that they're going to come out alright no matter what happens then the game stops being fun for them and the start taking liberties and treating the game like it's some forgettable noise they downloaded for free online."

Characters are the big shots or "mongo just pawn in game of life."?

One thing I find interesting is all of the GM's that replied mentioned in one way or another, that even if the player characters are not the center of the fiction , they are still the center of the action, the story can flow from their actions.

I think Mike Evans came closest to my personal views with, "I like the story and character emerging from the adventures rather than a player expounding their fanfick version of Leon or Han or whatever."

Neal,
"Letting your character tell their particular story, whatever that happens to be.  It doesn't even have to be huge.  Maybe you're the great hero, armed with the legendary sword.  Or maybe you're just the former village baker turned adventurer, armed with a brick.  Either way, you still have a story to tell."

Charles,
"In my games the players create the story as we progress, choosing what they want to do and when, and I set things up and react to their choices."

and Venger,
" As a GM, I'm focused on the PCs and what they're doing, but the place they're exploring didn't come from them.  They didn't build the dungeon. 
And yet, if the PCs weren't really important to the story, then why wouldn't I bypass them altogether and spend my time describing the actions of NPCs or monsters?"

This is also a firm belief of mine. 
That yes the player characters may be cogs in a greater machine, but they are our cogs damn it, and while we are playing the story can come form their actions and the story is about our cogs little part of the machine. 

In my current 2nd ed game there is a dwarf warriors, gnome bard, and a human druid who have been in most of the sessions , each one of them have some part of the story that is uniquely theirs. The  Druid has to reawaken the ley lines in a land mostly robbed of natural magic, The  Dwarf has a thieves guild from ruined city to hunt down, after all they cut off his left hand. Unfortunately all he has to go on is a dagger and an amulet with  a strange symbol on it. And the gnome, well the gone is played by Neal so I'm keeping my mouth shut.

 My point being those story lines are enough to last a few sessions and were built exclusively out of play, seeing what the players wanted out of their characters and running with the ball.


So as a guy that writes games how can I use all this awesome input and info?
good question.
Briefly (this is long enough)

Gm's know that
  • Character attrition is good (D.C.C. funnel cake anyone? umm tastes like tears.) because the survivors will mean more to the players.
  • Realistic repercussions for stupidity is good, it keeps the players motivated and playing, it makes the reactions meaningful.
  • The tension brought on by the event horizon where that next die roll could be the end for a character is good, it should happen, often.When it does happen that's where the fun lives.
  • When those "event Horizons"occur they should be celebrated and remembered, close calls, big actions, critical failures are the things that endear characters to players.
  • Characters don't have to be the center of the game world, but they should be the center of the game.
  • The fiction can flow from the actions of the characters. Regardless if the fiction comes from characters purely or only mostly, it can and that can make for more invested player. 
I feel that if as I work more on Amazing Adventurers and Exciting Exploits I keep those six bullet points in my mind that game will be that much more enjoyably both for players and Game masters.

Before I go I woudl like to again thank 
Venger Satanis, Neal Tanner, Charles Akins , and Mike Evans for contributing.

Their work  in the blog-o-sphere and knowledge of gaming is  superior to mine, so having them on board as guests here a the humble dustpan has been a great experience.

Thank you again fellas.