Monday, December 26, 2016

Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs)

We've all had to deal with that player at our table. Don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about. Maybe it's Dave, the guy who thought it would be hilarious to steal all the party's gear, pawn it, then use the money to buy a solid gold statue of his gnome. Or Susan, whose barbarian responded to every NPC interaction by getting in their face and demanding a fight. Maybe it's Chad, who always wants to play a twisted sociopath whose goals run totally counter to a game designed for heroic characters doing heroic things.

Then there's Steve... don't even get started on Steve.
These players are difficult enough to deal with when you're just sharing a table with them, but when you're the DM they can be a real strain on your patience. On the one hand, yes, you want everyone to have fun. You want your players to be able to express themselves, and participate in the story you're all trying to put together. But sometimes you can explain until you're blue in the face, but you're never going to get them to stop doing what they're doing.

And if you're a DM, I would encourage you to let them do it. Just remind them that, like Christian Bale's Batman, you are under no obligation to save them from themselves.

Let Them Sow The Whirlwind

No DM should purposefully manipulate their players into making bad decisions. The dungeon master's job is to act as a cosmic referee, narrator, and occasionally to make sure players have really thought through what they're doing before they do it. However, if a player is bound and determined to take a course of action that is harmful to their interests, their fellow party members, and themselves, it's important for you to make sure there are real consequences for those actions. They aren't playing Grand Theft Auto, where they're allowed to make nonsensical choices without any lasting effects... you do something in an RPG, that something stays done.

And it can haunt you for the rest of the campaign.
Stories are built off of cause and effect, and in order for players to believe their actions have meaning, it's important to actually enforce appropriate consequences. As a quick for-instance, let's revisit Dave's light-fingered gnome. Does this character have the skill to steal items from the party? Sure, that isn't hard. Maybe he snuck around the camp lifting purses and stealing magic weapons while it was his turn on guard duty. He then takes all the stuff he stole, and ventures to town in order to pawn it.

That's the action... so what's the consequence?

Well, that depends on the game. If said gnome isn't woods-savvy, he might get lost trying to find his way back to town in the dark. He might run afoul of a pack of wolves, or something worse, that's out hunting at night. He might even find himself face-to-face with something that's been stalking the party unbeknownst to them, and who was waiting for an opportunity to catch one of them away from the others. Or, if you're all right with letting events spiral out more naturally, does the pawnshop owner recognize the items the gnome is trying to sell? Can the gnome convince the shopkeeper that he acquired these items legally, and they are actually his to sell? If not, he might be reported as a thief, and a bounty might be put on him if he escapes. If he does, well, he's got a fat stack of gold.

But all of that is meaningless, because no one is going to adventure with him after he pulls a stunt like that. And knowing the temperament of most adventurers, the character may become the focus of all their violent intent. The troll cavern can wait until vengeance is served.

You Can Still Be A Bastard (If You're Smart)

Players, and their characters, have free will. In a healthy relationship, though, a player will work with the DM to create a concept that fits the world, the story, and the tone. All things that should be discussed in Session 0. But even if you use clear communication, and you explain the way the world works, there will still be situations where players want to do something that is clearly against their better interests. Maybe they want to kill that NPC who smarted off to them in the shop, or they want to steal that powerful magic item they saw, but can't afford. Maybe they want to burn down a tavern to punish the owner, or sell out the party in order to make a profit.

You can still do all those things. But for a character to take those actions, get away with them, and keep adventuring with their comrades requires a lot of planning, and forethought.

Yes, just make this skill check, and we'll get the process started.
For example, let's say that Harriet has learned from Dave's mistake. She knows that if she just up and steals her companions' stuff, the best result she can hope for is handing over her character sheet to the DM, and rolling up a new character. There is no point to that kind of random theft, especially since taking the wands from the wizard, and the weapons from the warrior, means they can't do their jobs. Which is to keep her alive, and get her rich. And if they catch her, it's likely that she'll be beaten quite severely about the head and shoulders.

But when her compatriots find the Heart of Darkness, the ancient jewel said to have adorned the crown of hell, she can't just let them destroy it.

So what does she do? Well, she could just steal it and run, but if the goal is to keep playing her character, then she needs to be smarter than that. If she's really prepared, she might have a fake gem made that she can switch with the real one when no one is looking. A strategy that would be particularly devious if there was a distraction of some sort (like a gang of armed thugs she hired to attack the camp, or a summoned monster who rampaged around, drawing all the attention while she made the swap). If that isn't an option she might contrive a way to make it look like someone else stole the gem, sending her compatriots down a false trail to recover it while she hands it over to her unknown masters.

No one is the wiser, and a powerful artifact is in what might be the wrong hands.

Work With Them, When You Can

If a player is willing to be savvy, and they can provide adequate motivation for actions that would otherwise be considered disruptive, see if there's a way to modify the game to make them work for you. Because while an arsonist with poor impulse control is not going to make the game better for anyone, someone who is planted as a spy, or who is a genuine assassin, can be a valuable asset for progressing a story along. Especially if that character owes allegiance to a shadowy figure, or is being paid on the sly by a secret cabal to go unnoticed among the heroes.

Again, provided the player works with you, instead of just trying to set the game world on fire.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully there are some DMs, and some players, who found it interesting. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then take a jaunt over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it comes with some sweet swag as well. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

1 comment:

  1. positive actions can also have positive consequences. maybe the rogue who donates large sums to the church to feed the poor recieves a few saintly relics they can use from thier magic item wishlist as thank you gifts.

    maybe the Sickly little girl who set up the contract of protection between the starving dragon and the desparate village recieves a share of the crops and a pick of items from the dragon's horde

    maybe instead of rewarding magic items. you reward permanent passive bonuses as rewards for good deeds. maybe saving the wounded guard from that werewolf rewards those who nurse the guards wounds with a permanent +2 bonus to thier Strength Score and free Skill focus in Heal.