Anyone who has spent any time with games set in the World of Darkness has probably at one time or another wondered if their Storyteller were out to get them. While games like Vampire do not have a monopoly on pushing for consequences for character action, they certainly introduced a lot of young gamers to the concept of punitive environments. With traits like Humanity, Paradox, and Angst, not to mention a die pool mechanic which was often even more aggressively seeking your failure than your in-game enemies, the atmosphere of play was tangibly oppressive. Excellent arguments can be made about other games and game lines being similarly so, but that is not really the topic I intend to raise. Instead, it is the idea of repercussions and consequences at which I would like to look.
“…the light at the end of the tunnel is a body-part dispenser machine!”
-Mind-Battered Gamer in a Conspiracy X game
I am known among my friends and fellow gamers for having a keen sense of the consequences of action and inaction. I suspect that for longer than I am aware, this sense put my games into a very challenging category where players were pushed to the breaking point trying to find ways to resolve the ever-more-complicated situations they were rigging for themselves with every move. That this was usually fun for us I suppose can be attested to by the full roster of players the games had, but that it was hard and not always an enjoyable sort of fun should not be overlooked either. I can cite more than a few games where campaigns and chronicles became more about winning and losing than about roleplaying. As my primary interest is in immersion and simulation, I have to count these as failures no matter how much fun some or all the players may have had, or claim to have had.
Consequences are an important part of simulation and ‘realism,’ but there are limits.
Damned if I do or don’t
I don’ t mind a character having the sense that there is no way out of a situation or plot in which they have become embroiled, but I never, ever want my players to feel that way. That they do sometimes was brought home to me just a few weeks ago when one of my closest friends ever had to take a smoke break from our All for One session to clear his head and decide what to do. He came back after a few minutes with the announcement that, he was tired of second guessing how I was going to react and he was just going to do what he felt he should do – come hell or high water. Knowing how he agonizes over actions sometimes, especially as he looks for the perfect solution to problems, I was initially very glad to hear him come out with this pronouncement and encouraged him to do it all the time, not just in this scene. He took that to heart, and the gaming has been much faster, lighter, and more fun for all of us I think – despite all the consequences which have come their way since then.
Initially, I was glad about this, but later – when I should have been thinking about other things – I found myself wondering about it and questioning why someone who knows me so well would tie themselves in mental knots trying to avoid negative consequences for their actions in my game. The answer came quickly as I have been down this road before: the game is what the players perceive it to be, not what I intend it to be.
Leap of Faith or Long Drop into a Meat Grinder?
Details can bring a game to life, and so they can also gut it where it stands. We’ve all been in groups where only a few in the group can retain the details of the scenario from week to week, no notes are taken, and all the hard work you have done crafting connections to flesh out the game world transforms into so much ephemera. Your rich tapestry unravels with one simple comment, “Didn’t we hear about some dude somewhere who might care about that, or was that the last game?”
Decisions we make in keeping with the personalities and capabilities of NPCs, or reactions in the game world which come about due to its culture, politics, or other factors can seem blindingly obvious to us, but remain opaque even to the players who are paying rapt attention to everything. Elements vital to the comprehension of description do not translate from the GM’s conception of an idea to the players’ actualization of it. In terms of percentages, even if the signal to noise ration of your description is 95% clear, that 5% will eventually come along to turn your game world into something it was not intended to be. In my case, it would seem that the noise quotient makes my worlds very dark and unforgiving places that suggest to players that errors cause reactions they would prefer not to experience. This is an asset in Call of Cthulhu, but I play more games than that. That I do not actually do this to them in that way is irrelevant: that is how some of them experience it. At least, I do not intend to do this to them anymore. I know that I used to – particularly in Vampire and Mage, which I always felt took more skill and attention to play well than most of the casual players I knew then used to give them.
From my perspective, if a player commits to running their character as if they were real and operating in a real and internally consistent world, then consequences will be of both the good and bad varieties, and the amount of effort they put in to being awesome should directly translate into awesome results within the limitations of their character and the situation. Failing to respect or recognize the internal rules of the setting or genre will lead to less than satisfactory results, not as a punitive measure, but as a direct result of the action taken.
Like all intentions, what we intend is not always what we actually do.
Repercussions of Misaligned Intentions
Consequences are important to a game, but they should not be a means of control or punishment to keep players in line when the intent is to run a logical and internally consistent (realistic) game world. Some may be punitive given the nature of the situation, but that is a pure reaction – not retribution. Even if the real world punishes us for our stupidity, there is no need for the game world or the GM to do so. Consequences and repercussions give shape to risk, and add value to reward. They are essential.
If your league of superheros is destroying homes, killing innocents, and breaking multiple laws in their pursuit of violence on evil-doers and your setting is a gritty, street-level heroes campaign something has got to give. Sooner or later, you will have to give up the setting and shift over to wish-fulfillment theatre, or the characters will have to pay for their actions. It’s one or the other. This direct conflict between campaign intentions and character actions puts the setting and the players in contention, and that cannot be resolved in game. Using consequences to modify their behaviour either ups the ante for their hijinks, or it creates dissatisfaction and the sense that the GM is being adversarial. Neither are a particularly good use of time in my opinion. We already know that the only way out of this is communication – the real kind, not just accepting tacit agreement from vaguely attentive players to a campaign pitch.
Communication is not enough, however. As I have mentioned in the past, you also have to keep track of what you are doing behind the screen and see if what you think is going on is mirrored on the other side of the screen. Is the experience from the players’ eye view that same as from yours? Are you giving enough pieces of the puzzle that the picture which they gradually fill in produces results that match their expectations and yours? Are you impartial, or do you just have the T-shirt?
Sometimes, being a GM requires the patience of Job. It seems like anytime a group expands beyond two players and a GM the likelihood that one of the players will be a tool is almost assured. It gets very tempting to put a negative spin on reasonable consequences whenever that player has a character in the scene, and to reinforce your rulings with a toughening of your reality’s laws in areas where that player flaunts the accepted boundaries of the setting. From my perspective, working to overcome these temptations is worthwhile and will make all such exercises easier in the future, but as my recent experience shows, you can perhaps backslide, or hold players to a completely unrealistic standard without even realizing it. If we want to consistently improve or at least maintain a certain level of competence, we must remain vigilant~
Calls to Harms (Casting Shadows Blog)
We Could Be Heroes (Casting Shadows Blog)
GM: The Core Principles (Casting Shadows Blog)
Rewards of Risk (Casting Shadows Blog)
Darken others' doors: