Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Action vs. Frustration

So, while I was pondering other “GM How To” ideas before yesterday’s massive post, one that stuck out was “How to piss off your players without pissing them off at you.” Curiously, this is a lot easier to explain than how to describe something.

The trick of it is simple: Your players don’t mind you doing terrible things to them. In fact, they expect it. They did not sign up for these games to play boring people doing boring things. Stuff going badly is an essential part of excitement and adventure. A lot of GM’s shy away from pulling out the nastiness because they think their players might be averse to it[1] but that’s a misunderstanding.

What players hate is when something bad happens and they can’t do anything about it.

This is not to say they need to be able to *stop* the badness (though that’s nice) but rather that they need to have some sort of reasonable response available to them. Being capable of responding actually breaks down into a two elements, and things tend to fail when one of these is overlooked.

First, the characters must be able to act effectively. In broad strokes this means that things like inescapable paralysis forcing players to be audience to the badness will be frustrating, but it can also be more subtle. If the players can act, but their actions will do nothing, as in the case of an invulnerable boss, then that’s equally frustrating.[2] One way that this can be gotten around is if the limitations on the players are already part of the scene. Characters will occasionally get captured and put in chains, and there’s a certain expectation of helplessness that comes with that, so if a bad things happens as _part_ of such a scene, it is less offensive than the idea of putting them in chains _solely_ to make them watch the badness. Needless to say, you also need to make sure the situation changes quickly so the players can start acting soon – if you show them the badness then just leave them in chains, that’s a little lame.

Second, the players need to be able to act intelligently. That is, there needs to be a clear line of action for them to pursue. If you create a villain and kick the characters’ teeth in to the point where they really hate him and set off to hunt him down, they need to know which way to go. Even if they don’t catch him (‘He was just here last week, but let in an awful hurry!’) they need to know how to keep going if they want to pursue. Give them enough information to feel they can make reasonable choices.

Enough information is a slightly tricky thing because you don’t want to give _no_ information, but at the same time you don’t want to give so many options that it becomes paralyzing. If the path branches, that’s fine, but when it turns into a starbust, you may have a problem[3]. Similarly, be very careful with trying to play the villain smart enough to try to trick the characters (and players) with false leads. If you do this more than very rarely, all information starts becoming suspect, and the game grinds to a paralytic halt.

So that’s the short of it. Do bad things to the characters, but do them in a way that produces action, not frustration.

1 – And some players will say they’re averse to it, but I’ve found that usually means they’re looking to avoid something more specific than trouble, but they can’t articulate it. Often, this is a result of bad experiences with other games. There’s no one solution to this problem (except, of course, to play respectfully) and it’s something you’ll have to explore with the player, re-establishing trust and finding tastes.

2 – This is a big reason why stealing magic items in D&D is such a hot button topic. It absolutely engages the players by pissing them off intensely, but because a character’s magic items are such a large part of their mechanical effectiveness that the characters end up feeling neutered.

3 – This is, by the way, dangerously close to railroading. The difference is in player motives – if they _want_ to hunt the villain, it’s reasonable to provide a road to him. The catch is that you don’t punish them when they decide to go off the road, or to pursue another road entirely.


  1. I've fallen into the trap of making things too complicated. I had very smart players, and the smarter the players, the harder to gauge how tricky to make the trail. A complicating factor was that one of the players favors taking down bad guys and their plans with overwhelming competence and force. My thinking was "If the villains are too incompetent, it doesn't make sense that they would have gotten away with this for so long, and the PCs will utterly trounce them in the first reel, and I will have bored players."

    And it's quite true -- how to find the happy medium to walk?

  2. @lisa This question probably merits a post of its own, but the rub of it is in the "Why hasn't someone already stopped them?" question. The trick is that the answer to that should only tangentially be related to the bad guys being badass (unless they're really, hugely epically badass, like the sorcerer kings in Dark Sun). Instead it should be abut the people underneath them, the secrets the hold, the things that make fighting them directly a terrible idea, if not for the people who fight them, but for everyone else. (If your players are willing to kill a villain whose death will detonate a nuke in a major city, that's fine, so long as the players realize that they are now also villains.)

    History provides most of the useful answers to this. It is a rare tyrant who keeps his position because he can win fights with people who challenge him - that model just doesn't work past a certain scale. They stay in power through other means, and in mimicking those means, you can often find a way to keep villains afloat.

  3. @Lisa One interesting answer to the "Why hasn't someone already stopped them?" question is to ask the question what would happen if they weren't there?

    As an example in my current Dresden game the Black Court Vampires were viewed by my players as an issue. They rounded up a considerable force to deal with them and drove the Black Court out of town.
    Since then they've been dealing with the consequences of that action. Some of the issues they've encountered include a) The balance of power between the three vampire courts was finely balanced. Removing one court has resulted in open warfare between the other two, b) Without the Black Court to control them then Renfields are a serious problem, c) The Black Court limited the flow of drugs into the city because they saw the drug trade as benefiting the Red Court. The city now has a serious drug problem and d) The Black Court sorcerers have for decades been holding back something from beyond the outer gates which has now partially entered the city.

    Sometimes the question isn't "Why has no one been able to stop them?" but "What did people fear would happen if they stopped them?".

    Its also fun that the problems the players are now facing are quite clearly problems of their own making.

  4. I've had this feed sitting in my reader for so long that I'm no longer sure when or how or why I started following this feed in the first place.

    But I certainly don't regret it. You're definitely my favorite RPG philosopher.


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