[Tensided] Save the Party From Their Own Bad Choices?

Started by arthurtuxedo, July 16, 2008, 08:11:48 PM

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A while back we ran a short-lived cyberpunk / post-apocalyptic campaign involving the players fleeing a city under assault. After crash landing their helicopter in gang territory, they peeked out to find some armed and potentially hostile gang members. There was one member of the group who was considerably more geared toward combat than the rest of the group. No non-combat skills or abilities, cyborged out to the max, custom assault rifle, etc. As you might expect from this type of character, she approached this situation by immediately opening fire without trying to negotiate. Taken by surprise with no cover and no armor, the gangsters were all gunned down in short order.

Well, this was a dumb thing to do, but not necessarily fatal. There were lots of competing gangs, so the group could have left the scene into another gang's territory where they couldn't be easily pursued and that would have been that, although they still would have made a powerful set of enemies for dubious reasons. And indeed they did leave the scene quickly until they came upon some folks holed up in an apartment complex made into a practical fortress. Upon speaking with their commander, it was learned that these people were trying to place themselves outside the reach of gangs and their constant demands of protection money. Upon learning that there was a crashed helicopter nearby with a working XM134 Minigun, the commander tried to persuade the group to go back and get it for a reward. It was a perfectly natural thing for him to request, after all, since it would bolster his defenses considerably without endangering his own people. To my amazement, the players accepted this assignment and went back to the scene where they had just slaughtered a dozen members of a ruthless and powerful gang with no provocation.

It's not hard to guess what happened next. The rest of the gang showed up with armored trucks, machineguns, and light artillery and slaughtered most of the group before I charitably allowed a very high computer hacking roll to serve as a deus ex machina and take out the vehicles, sending the gangers running. Since more than half the party was dead, we decided to end the campaign. Most of the players were thrilled by the spectacle of going out in a blaze of glory, but one player stormed out of the session and was very upset by the whole thing, accusing me of unfairly railroading them into a fight they could not win. The episode brought up a couple of issues:

1. Should the GM step in and save a party from their own bad choices?

I had made it pretty clear to the group when the session started what kind of firepower these gangs had at their disposal, but I could have nerfed them. I could also have provided an easy escape route. I could have fudged the spot rolls to allow the group to see the gang force coming or had some kid run up and warn them in time. There were lots of storytelling devices I could have used, but I chose not to. For one thing, this campaign had no particular story that I wanted to tell, and its premise was "Let's see how these guys can get by in rough territory". Going out in a hail of gunfire and explosions struck me as interesting a narrative as any other. For another, if I kept rescuing parties from their own foolishness, it seemed like it would damage the sense of danger for future campaigns. Who wants a group of players who happily crunch corn chips as their characters sneak through potentially mortal danger and say "Eh, even if we're caught, I'm sure there will be some way out of it"?

I'm sure most or all of you GM's have had instances of players digging their own graves. What is your approach?

2. What should be done about hyperfocused combat characters?

My main problem with these characters isn't even that they're such better fighters than the rest of the group, it's that they start fights as the preferred solution to almost every problem. There's the old saying "To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." When all you know how to do is shoot people, then you're a lot more likely to pick up your gun and start blasting than someone who can sneak, talk, climb, or hack their way around. The problem for the party is that if a character with those skills tries them and it doesn't work, they can always try something else, but if the killing machine tries her solution and it doesn't work, everyone dies. To my thinking, there were three things I could do to make sure we didn't see characters like that again: Veto a character outright until it didn't offend my sensibilities, set limits on the amount of XP that could be spent on combat skills, or set limits on the amount of XP that could be spent on any one skill. I wasn't overly fond of these ideas, the first one seemed too arbitrary, and I don't like to limit players' choices in general if I don't have to. In the end, I settled on a combination of the second and third options. In real life, people don't hyperspecialize to the point where they're literally only good at one thing. A real life soldier knows how to maintain his gun, how to be stealthy, and whatever he might have learned in school or his prior life, not just marksmanship and that's it.

What are some of your strategies for preventing hyperfocused characters? Keep in mind here I'm not talking about munchkins or powergamers in a general sense, these are characters who are completely focused on combat with no non-combat abilities.

Here are the chat logs for the final two session for reference:
March 18, 2007
March 25, 2007
Tensided, From Realism to Fantasy and Everything in Between.

Don't forget to visit our attached forum!


Sounds to me as though there was nothing wrong with the game, but there were some serious problems with group communication.

The first issue you ask about is the most easily solved, if hyperfocused combat characters should not be an option in your games, then don't allow them and say so up front. If the players expect to be able to "create any type of character they want" and you or the rest of the group does not dissuade them of that notion, then you are rightly at the mercy of whatever character types they create. There is nothing "to be done" about them -- no backhanded, sly punishments and limits to inflict on the player to "control" them or "teach" them -- if you allow such characters. They exist and you and the rest of the group have to factor them into play. Do you want character design freedom, realistic character design, or story-focused design? You need to decide up-front what you want to run and what you can handle running fairly, without judging some character on criteria that character wasn't designed for (ie: "real people don't hyperspecialize" when character design was not about making real people).

If the players believe the GM will save them from themselves based on past experiences, campaigns, and gaming tradition, only to be destroyed by a foolhardy choice, they will be rightly upset. If you say up-front that you will not fudge to save characters, that planning, scouting, and forethought is integral to survival, then you are on much more solid ground. But play afterwards has to match that; you have to give the players clues that they are about to enter situations they simply can not handle or hope to win against in a direct confrontation. You can't ever fudge a die-roll to help them or make the story better or etc. because then when you don't to their detriment, the game and the dice have given way to nothing more than outcome-by-Fiat.

And finally, perhaps I am mistaken but it seems to me the players (particularly the one who stated you were railroading) thought that by returning to the scene of the crime at the insistence of the compound leader they were "following the plot" and therefore should not have been mercilessly hosed for doing so. It seems they were expecting a story to unfold, and this was your bread-crumb...but if you were not telling a story. This is another instance of lack of communication and crossed expectations about how play works.

You have to be consistent here, as well. You can't "tell a story" at one point and then "not tell a story" at some other point. Because if you are telling a story or using plot schemes, the players will keep looking for those breadcrumbs--whether or not they exist--to try and figure out "what they're supposed to do next". And when they follow the trail and get killed, they'll rightfully feel they were misled. This can happen even if you don't have a plot in THIS campaign, if your players expect it because they have in other campaigns. Most players will keep using those story-following tools they think they need for this game, even if they've been told they don't need them, because it is habit and expectation.

As an example, the expectations of play for the West Marches experiment are very clearly laid out: there is no plot to follow and you will die if you are not careful. Yet the GM noted that players still ran around trying to figure out the plot until they realized there wasn't one, and lost numerous characters until they adjusted their play style to match the game, learning new tools to cope with the game environment.

Honestly, the only thing that it seems like it might be done is sit down with the group and have an open discussion about it and the styles of play or expectations that weren't being met or shouldn't have been expected. Ask "What do you guys think went wrong in that game?" and listen to their answers without judging or interrupting. Then afterwards try to see where what they wanted and what you were thinking weren't matching up. Talk about those stylistic differences and expectations, without using words ideas like "you (or I) have to do this" or "this is how games are supposed to run" or "I expect". If those statements pop up, those are play expectations, often hidden.

You can either try to cater to everyone's expectations, if you're interested in running that sort of game, or possibly lose a few people in your group who aren't interested in playing the sort of game you'd like: who are there for a very particular experience. Or you may not, and everyone may get on board and say, "I get it now. Let's try something different then." Then play the same way some more until the players realize "Oh, crap. We can't just stumble around relying on divine story-teller providence to save us and see us through to the finale."
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Here's my quick answers.

Quote from: arthurtuxedo on July 16, 2008, 08:11:48 PM
1. Should the GM step in and save a party from their own bad choices?


2. What should be done about hyperfocused combat characters?

If you don't want meat eaters at your table, stop serving steak.

These are my own personal opinions, based of two decades of GMing. So I'll give a bit more depth to my responses.

I guess one of the questions you'll often get around here is "What sort of play experience are you trying to develop at your gaming table?". Were you trying to tell a story based in a post apocalyptic-dystopia, or were to trying to give the players a feel for how that type of setting might change their decision making processes? Were you trying to get players to focus on the way the characters felt or what they could do to the outside world? There's plenty of essays here at the forge which go into heaps of depth about this sort of thing...

Personally, I hate the term "rail-roading". Don't get me wrong, I think there are certain styles of play that benefit from a more focused intervention on the part of the GM. Sometimes players just like to be swept up in the narrative, and in other situations the themes of the game require a higher degree of intervention to ensure they are felt by the players. This is a social contract issue.

If your running the "sandbox" style of play, where a world is developed, and then you let the characters loose in it to see where they go, then Hamstringing the characters choices is an obvious breach of the play style.

Player: I want to get in my car and head over to the next town.
GM: The car won't start.
Player: I do my skill check, it only had a minor difficulty last time.
GM: It's harder this time.
Player: Why?
GM: Because the adventure is based in this town, and I don't want you heading elsewhere.

It may be right for the story, but if you're trying to keep a consistent world it makes players upset really quickly.

I've found that it pays to drop hints into the situation.

The players gun down enemies, have one of them run away but make sure the players notice this...if they follow him and gun him down afterward, show the players a two-way radio in his hand, or a mobile phone with it's last call being to the local gang stronghold. If the players come back later, then it's much less of a surprise that the enemy gang will be waiting for them in ambush.

Show players the ramifications of their actions right from the small things, and in the very way the characters hold themselves and display their attitudes to the outside world. This is especially important in the Cyberpunk genre.

A combat maxxed character should have trouble ordering food at the local cantina, after all, they've probably got really low social stats and no etiquette training. They might complain about prices, but they'd be more inclined to raise a gun at someone or hold a sword to someone's throat to get the meal for free. This isn't going to make them many friends.

If the same character faces a concrete blast-shelter and needs to call on a computer specialist to break the security systems, are they going to be met with friendly responses when they have a known history for getting their less combat-inclined associates killed?? I don't think so. Reputations spread fast, bad reputations spread faster.

If a player is digging their own grave in one of my games, I'll drop hints to the other players..."Would your character really think this was a good idea?"..."Are you sure you'd be following that lunatic into battle with that fragile computer you just spent a year's worth of wages to buy? One scratch and you know it's resale value will halve."

If other players aren't taking the hint, I'll just measure the depth of the grave to all the players.

1 foot: You've caused an incident, but it shouldn't be hard to get out of.
2 feet: You're really starting to cause a scene, and word of this will spread to the neighbouring area.
3 feet: Not only have you started a scene, but people are starting to take action (either to run, or to armour up).
4 feet: You're starting to get active resistance to what your doing, it's probably in your best interest to stop.
5 feet: Your opponent's have just declared "Stacks On!!".
6 feet: I've given you plenty of warnings but you kept doing stupid stuff. Sorry, you've been removed from the gene pool.

Players can't complain about GM rail-roading because plenty of fair warning has been given. The only person they'll be able to blame in this situation is the player who keeps doing the stupid stuff. Either that player will get the message, or the player will not be invited back to play further games.

Also consider this in the context of the group. If one player is a combat junkie in the midst of courtiers and scholars, then cater to the less combat oriented players by introducing more intrigue laden plots. Two spies, you don't know who is on which side, and it's going to take careful diplomacy, cunning wordplay and a bit of research to determine who is the operative on the character's side without blowing cover.

Sure the combat monster could just blow them both away, but then their company will not be happy and might require the return of any high end military equipment or cybernetics. The combat monster might also be asked to reimburse the millions of dollars spent getting the operative in place, or other damages for destroying the long term mission.

The company might also consider the combat monster to be a liability...

...signatured depleted uranium sniper rounds take the cyborg down as he raises his gun against the operative. Another member of the team receives a phone call.
"Sorry he was just getting too dangerous."
The phone hangs up...

Real people need to consider their actions in the context of the world around them, and role-played characters should also consider their actions in the context of their shared imagination space with the other players (and GM). If the player can't handle that, then they might not be worth having at the game.

I'm probably telling you stuff you've already considered, but that's just the way I'd be handling things.

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.


Thanks for responding. It seems I've started an interesting discussion. I won't do a line by line response of each post because that would be tedious for the reader, not because of any lack of merit in your points.

I agree with your point about a GM keeping his mitts off a character that he didn't have the foresight to disallow, Greyrom, which is why I didn't try to artificially weaken her by forcing them into situations where violence won't help (though they did manage to get themselves into one). But I do wonder if I might have been mistaken. She got everyone killed, after all, and caused me to revise my hands off approach to character creation. The point about setting expectations is also on the money, and something I hadn't really considered. I've chastised players in previous games for doing what they think I wanted them to and not what came natural, so I thought they would realize by then that I don't drop bread crumbs, but perhaps I should have been more up front. I did actually sit down and ask the players to critique how the game turned out, and all but one was happy with the ending. One player did say that he thought he was following the story, but he wasn't upset with the overall outcome. The one malcontent wasn't more specific than saying she felt the group was forced into a fight they couldn't win, so I can't tell whether expectations had anything to do with it.

To Vulpinoid, I agree that dropping hints is an important tool. The group could hear the sound of the approaching engines long before the attack came, so they did make a conscious decision to stay and fight, they just assumed it wouldn't be anything they couldn't handle. I could have hinted more strongly, but that's no different to my mind as simply forcing a player to do something. Particularly when there's no background story driving things and we were few enough sessions in that no one could get overly attached to their characters, it seems like one or two fairly subtle hints is all they should get.
Tensided, From Realism to Fantasy and Everything in Between.

Don't forget to visit our attached forum!


Quote from: Vulpinoid on July 16, 2008, 09:19:38 PMAlso consider this in the context of the group. If one player is a combat junkie in the midst of courtiers and scholars, then cater to the less combat oriented players by introducing more intrigue laden plots.

Michael, I believe that conflicts with your first statement regarding complaining about meat-eaters when you are serving steak.

I say that because I feel the advice you gave is a dubious method of social problem resolution at best, moreso at the gaming table: it is always wrong to single-out a specific player in a game in an underhanded manner to either make them "toe the line" or "teach them a lesson". Especially if they built a character and you approved it as GM, you are honor-bound not only to not make that player "suffer" for making a character that doesn't "fit" but to make sure that player has fun in the group. Otherwise it's like serving hamburgers at your vegetarian restaurant, but never cooking them correctly/tastefully (so that no one will buy them), rather than just taking them off the menu.

I think if a GM screwed up and can't figure out how to make everyone have fun because the character mix they find themselves with isn't feasible to them, fess up, and discuss the problem with the group (or at least the affected player). Then they should rethink their pre-game behavior during character approval so it doesn't happen again, because it isn't the player that was the problem in that situation. And if a player truly isn't working out in a group -- they're playing in a manner that is goofing up play for everyone else or that simply isn't acceptable -- then they need to talk like adults about the situation and either fix the problem or part ways, not quietly and non-verbally perform "I'll show him! This will teach him! He'd better wise up!" passive-aggressive retaliation.

Despite the amount of geek-love there exist for the idea of forcing other gamers to conform by hosing their character and any fun they might try to have in play -- and I say that based on the amount of time I have heard that very advice given as sage gaming wisdom and my having been banned from a mailing list once for suggesting that punishing a player's bad behavior by punishing his character and sabotaging his fun/free time was a terribly immature idea -- that sort of behavior simply does not belong at the gaming table (nor really anywhere else).

Also, apologies if I sound like I am ranting, this is just one of those issues I'm very passionate about and it's a long-standing problem in gamer-dom. I think it better if you have a problem at the table with the character choice or behavior of a particular player to pull that player aside and talk with them about it, not hint through what you do to their character in play that they should play a different character or even that they should go somewhere else. Seriously, it's like if you play with cat-piss man. You can't complain after the game how much you hate the way cat-piss man smells if you don't bring it up with him (politely and respectfully) at least once.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Rev. Ravenscrye/Greyorm,

Yeah, your right that my expanded comments seem to conflict with the one-liner I used to open my rant. I can see how they can be viewed in different ways, and that's my fault for not clarifying. I've had plenty of thoughts regarding these issues and my typing tends to be pretty "stream-of-consciousness"...

In my experience, there always seems to be someone who isn't happy with the way a game finishes (indeed, if there's only one then your doing well).

Before I visited the Forge, I hadn't seriously thought of things like social contracts and shared imagination space. I'd had these ideas festering about in the back of my mind but didn't have a structured understanding. It was more instinctive. I guess that's like a lot of players. They have expectations; these are not formal requirements from a game that are codified in the rules, but simply ways that they believe games "should be run".

Again, just my opinion from my experience, but it's when these instinctive expectations differ that friction occurs on a gaming table.

It may be politically incorrect to say that a good method of conflict resolution is singling out a trouble-maker and identifying them for what they are. But would you rather have that individual poison the experience for the rest of the table? I've seen plenty of good groups collapse because one person wanted to have their say and had the force of personality to inflict their desires on the rest of the table (or the rest of the LARP), contrary to the desires of those people who were trying to promote story, collaboration and a communal experience.

I'm sorry to say that I'd be one of the first to question a player's motivations if it looked like they were disrupting things for the group. Especially if other players were becoming less motivated in the story, or were starting to feel frustrated or losing the enjoyment from the session. If the player was able to show that their character was contributing in a positive way to the flow of play, then I'd discuss it with the other players openly.

If the player wasn't able to give a good reason for their character's actions, I'd also be one of the first to ban them from my game after a second warning. That seems to be where our opinions will always differ...and by the way, I don't consider "But that's just the way my character is!!" as a decent reason for causing trouble in game. 

I guess I'm just passionate about it from another angle.

I try to run games that cater to the desires of the larger group, if my group generally wants combat and only one or two players want intrigue, then I'll offer a bit of meaty intrigue on the side for them, but the game will predominantly relate around combat and strategic play. If the group are wanting to delve into mysteries and conspiracy, then I'll try to make sure everything has double meanings and rarely is something what it first appears to be...different players need different styles of play.

Never did I say "Don't bring it up with the player", nor did I say "Single out a player"...in fact I said...

If a player is digging their own grave in one of my games, I'll drop hints to the other players...

...followed by...

If other players aren't taking the hint, I'll just measure the depth of the grave to ALL the players.

If you want to take my words out of context and put your own spin on them, then we'll never help Arthurtuxedo...we'll just end up spinning around in a whirlpool of rhetoric.

Another thing to consider is that I've often found the problem players at the table coincide with the players who are unable to separate reality from game. They role-play for a sense of escapism, but they can often get caught up in the fantasy of that escapism to a dangerous degree. This isn't always the case and it may seem like a gross generalisation to you, but that's what I've been seeing time and again.

Due to this I've found it can be very effective to address a character's actions through in character means. One of the best ways to address a character's actions in this way is through roleplaying opportunities using other characters. This can also be used as a valuable tool to develop the personae of the character's involved and it may help to get at the heart of the matter through play.   

A player who's had some bad issues in their life may take it out in play as an aggressive character who just wants to destroy stuff. It's a more socially acceptable method of catharsis than actually going out with a sledgehammer and vandalising property. If that player is willing to talk out their inner turmoil through their character then it might help the healing process.

I'm not advocating that all gaming should be turned into group therapy sessions, but if there is an underlying issue then having the other players act role-play through it can be helpful.

This is another one of those social contract issues. If one player wants to use the game as a venting session to the expense over everyone else's fun, then their participation needs to be questioned. If that player wants to use it as a venting session and the other players know what's going on in the background and don't mind helping her through it, then it can be a very rich and rewarding experience.

There's no generalisations that can do every situation justice, so I'll leave it at that for the moment...

I'm glad that this discussion has been started. If a GM were to simply say that their game sucked because one player ruined it for everyone, then I'd say that the GM was not accepting responsibility for their part in the collapse.

If a GM were to say, "Most players enjoyed it, but something didn't quite work. Please help...", that shows more of a sense of maturity in my opinion. It's something that we can discuss and work toward a solution on.

I'm sure this will be discussed further.

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.


QuoteI'm sorry to say that I'd be one of the first to question a player's motivations if it looked like they were disrupting things for the group...If the player wasn't able to give a good reason for their character's actions, I'd also be one of the first to ban them from my game after a second warning. That seems to be where our opinions will always differ...and by the way, I don't consider "But that's just the way my character is!!" as a decent reason for causing trouble in game.

Clearly we are talking past one another here as the situation/behavior-response I am discussing has nothing to do with the situations/behaviors you are discussing above, with allowing disruptive players to continue being disruptive, or with player excuses for disruptive behavior. Nor do our opinions differ as you seem to think they do. As such, I don't know how to continue this discussion productively, but thank you for trying to clarify.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio