Monday, 15 December 2014

Confessions of a Killer GM

Between Fear the Boot Podcast talking about killer GMs, Kiel Chenier presiding over what may be the end of the famous goblin PC, Man Rider, in a Google Plus Hangout game this past Friday, and the deep darkness that is the Canadian Winter, my thoughts and ruminations swirl around the solemn GM task of adjudicating PC death.

[Image and text by Jez Gordon, see more of his awesome work here!]

I hate it when my characters die. I usually play with a discovery mode, having the character's background develop through interactions and roleplay over the course of the different situations and adventures. I find this allows the characters to be integrated fully into the GM's world and allows for unique characters to reveal themselves and keep me from playing the same thing over and over. Sometimes a GM will ask for a back-story so s/he can make adventures and sub-plots that work with what the players are interested in. In such a case I can easily crank out a back-story with all the juicy hooks and dark secrets a GM can handle in one email. In both of these cases though, by the time the character is fleshed out, whether it's a couple of levels of play or a couple of hours of mad typing, I'm pretty invested in the characters. I know the people I play with feel much the same way. And yet...

I am a killer GM.

If the dice fall badly for a player and the stakes of the roll were life or death, that's it. No hesitation. No waffling. The character is dead. Time for the player to generate a new one and get back into the game. I expect no less from any GM I play with.

I'm going to step outside of tabletop for a moment for an example that explains how these two things work together. In the late 1990s I played paintball. For those that don't know, paintball is basically a complex version of tag with guns. I played at the competitive amateur level (IPPL) and our team was sponsored to the point where we were almost breaking even. Not bad at the time.

When our team first entered the high level of play we were coached by the veterans that if we wanted to win, we were going to have to learn to wipe. Wiping is cheating. You get hit and then wipe the paint off before the referee sees it and calls you out. I tried this in practice once. It was awful! I never played as bad as I did in that practice game where I wiped three or four hits. I also never wiped again. I needed the possibility of failure to get the edge I need to play my best and for it to be fun. I needed the rush that came with the risk.

The philosophy that I take from the paintball field to the table top is simple: If you can't lose, you can't win.

When I'm playing an RPG and I take a risk with a character, it is awesome because it can go bad. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension. The more that turns on a single die roll the mores eyes around the table that are glued to it as it stops. This tension is where a lot of the fun comes from in an adventure!

When I GM, I want my players to do awesome stuff with their characters and I want the players to have those awesome moments that make them feel like they won. As a GM it's my responsibility to present challenges and stakes that allow them to shine and have the moments they will talk about well after the game is over. It can't be easy and when they do fail I need to describe consequences that support the tension and maintains the excitement. I need to allow a character or two to die for the others to be the "big damn heroes" that everyone wants to play.

That said, life or death stakes can be a bit overused. I've had a player lose two characters in a single session to bad saving throws. That sucked for everyone. While there needs to be consequences death is not the only one. Sometimes it is much worse for a PC to survive. The same player who lost multiple characters in one session retired another PC as unplayable after it had suffered so many magical mutations he felt it was unplayable. Capture, the loss of cool items that characters have accumulated, disfigurement or even the loss of a limb can all be interesting results that lead to new adventures as the players try to fix the new problem. Things like that work because they change the character's situation long term and enforce the idea that failure has a consequence. Everyone understands they are playing without the net.

Total Party Kills (TPKs) are a terrible thing. They are rare, campaign-ending anomalies; the threat of which hang over a game and fuel some of the best and most creative play ever. TPKs usually happen when players miscalculate or think they are playing a game rigged in their favour. Occasionally the dice just go against you and bad luck brings you down. The majority of the time good play, calculated risks, or the good sense to run for it will keep the characters going despite the odds. 

It is this rare event, the TPK, that prompted this post. Last Friday Kiel Chenier's players experienced a TPK-O with all the player characters in his group knocked out and captured or trapped. These bad guys have a history of interrogating prisoners so all is not lost yet. Again, interesting results have developed from the consequences and this Friday, the worst denizens from the far corners of the internet will assemble in Generica to mount a rescue, because Man Rider is not going down to some crappy driders and bugbears! This turn of events is one of the cool things about hangout games. Help is never really that far away.

The short version of what I am saying here is, don't pull punches as a GM. The failures make the successes that much sweeter by their contrast and failure can always lead to something wonderful if you just give it a chance.