What This GM Does Wrong: Lethality and Player Character Mortality
EDITED and UPDATED, Monday, July 21st, 2014.
Comment, critique, and enjoy.
We just completed the 21st session of our monthly (more or less), classic Traveller campaign, TRAVELLER: Operation Paladin.
It was a great session. Not to mention a rough one.
Although perhaps not rough enough. Not tough enough maybe. Maybe I was not tough enough to back up my intentions. Please read on.
It was rough in that I have decided it's long past time I took off the training wheels for my group and ditched the kid gloves.
The kid gloves are off.
In the process of running this campaign, it has become very clear to me that I am way too easy on my players. The truth is, I have been for several years.
I don't think it started with my current group, but rather some previous incarnation of it. On the whole, my group/groups over the past few years have consisted of some variation of the same guys, with some people leaving, and others coming in, on a semi-annual basis.
In contrast to previous NJ and NY groups of my Junior High, High School and College years (and for sometime before and after as well), the group dynamic I've encountered from 2010-2014 is one with fewer experienced players, who are not only less familiar with RPGs, but also not as familiar with each other, or with me (Nor I with them).
After suffering for a time with no regular group, I initially took on a few people who hadn't played in a long while. To beef up the groups numbers, I added some really cool guys I met who were much newer to the hobby than the rest of the band, and certainly myself.
That was when I made a miscalculated judgment that will slowly, and subtly, create a major problem for me in the long wrong. I decided to go easy on my players.
For a good stretch of time, I made a concentrated effort to make the challenges challenging, but not too difficult. Enemies were dangerous, and could hurt you, but they weren't too deadly. I wanted this group of people to get into it and still around. I didn't want to frustrate them, or scare them off. The problem is, once you do this, once you establish this approach, and it works, it's very hard to undo it.
Before long, you've grown soft.
My friend Dave noticed, and he would often make me aware of it in conversations we'd have on the subject. He felt, and rightly so, that without the threat of PC mortality, RPGs lose a good deal of their appeal for many (Toon, TFOS and other comedy games not withstanding). Without the threat of ultimate loss, there is no sense of ultimate victory. If I can not die, why work so hard at living?
My games were (and are) still fun of course. The stories, characters and challenges remained entertaining. So crazy fun apparently, that my players not only keep coming back, we expanded the number of times a month we meet to game, and they keep asking if their friends can join in. "I told my pal So-and-so all about our campaign, and he's really jazzed to play in it. Got room for one more?"
Problem is, I sat in front of my computer one day last week, and thought to myself, 'Of course people want to join in. Adam's giving away free candy.'
Now that's an exaggeration. I do not make it anywhere near that easy. At the same time, the sentiment is valid. I needed to get more serious, tougher, less worried about whether or not they were going to bail on the campaign, or the group, if their characters died.
So this past session I let them know. No more Mister Nice Guy. No more hand holding.
What do you think happened?
One fellow got very close to dead at least twice. The first time, he bitched and moaned, searched through every bit of equipment he had, and any loophole in the rules for combat to avoid death. One of the other players said, "I'm confused, why is this taking so long?" (My combats usually move very smoothly and quickly).
"Because his character could die. This is one of the reasons I've been easy on you guys. I was afraid that, if I wasn't, I'd get this."
In the end, he did find that one of his hi-tech items reduced the damage of the attack considerably. Thinking quickly, he managed to paralyze his opponent with a hardening foam grenade. He then ran like heck, and received assistance from one of the other players whose PC had hacked into the computer system controlling the maintenance tunnels the first PC was in. Thanks to the PC hacker, the first guy avoided the second potentially life threatening situation (explosive decompression).
I have to wonder, did I still go easy on the bitching and moaning guy. At least one of my players thinks so. In an email to me after reading this blog entry he said,
"When one of the assailants tried to shoot [the PC] in the arm, and afterward the other assailant attempted to throw a bomb into the room, both times [The Player in question] got out of his chair, and started loudly complaining until he made you [Me-Adam] retcon a battle situation you'd already established. It felt like he pulled a fast one."
In retrospect, that is essentially what happened. I can not deny it. He further when on to say,
"You created a lot of great stuff in that session, but I think the retcons undermined the stakes you wanted to raise. More than ever it feels to me like [That Player and his PC] cannot lose."
Bottom line is this; Just as going easy on them for a long while made it hard not to do that after a while, it will take some time before we (my players and I) get used to my return to a more lethal style.
However, I need to keep up my end of the bargain. I have to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.
My old groups were OK with it because they were accustomed to it. However, when I met them, nearly all of the players in all of those groups, were raised on games far more dangerous.
The Old School games didn't assume you were creating a deep, in-depth story, and so they didn't figure the death of your character would be a big deal. Since I tend to run games in genres where the death of the lead characters is fairly uncommon (Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, etc.), the players knew to enjoy the heck out of their time, and be very smart about their actions since, although they weren't supposed to die, they knew they could.
By going easy on my more recent groups, I fear I have created a situation where they needn't be too attentive or too clever. After all, Adam's going to give us a way out of this mess. Simultaneously, none were too bold either, a strange dynamic I've noticed with my current group that I can't yet fathom. My older groups knew they could die, but rushed bravely into danger. This group is less afraid of meeting their makers, but less likely to enter a potentially life threatening situation.
Curious. Annoying, but curious.
In the end I have to do what's best for the group and the campaign we're all trying to enjoy together. That can mean making tough decisions. Decisions I've rarely, if ever, had to make in previous games over the last 37 years. It may mean kicking a player out, or myself in the arse, or both.
Well, that's that. I have not been tough enough, and now I will be.
Suck it up you pansies.
But your still my buds, so I say that with love. Yes. Suck it up with love.