Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Importance of Pulling The Trigger

So, I've talked about this before, at least in part, but a post by the Angry DM yesterday got me to thinking about it again, and I wanted to touch on the topic once more. What is the topic? Well, specifically I am talking about the PCs losing and that unsavory duty the GM has on occasion to pull the trigger and end the life of a beloved character. It sounds mean doesn't it? Making the players lose, despite the fact they tried hard and just got a bit unlucky, and then going that step further and executing one of the characters. I mean, seriously, what kind of dick does that right? Well, honestly, I'm kind of curious as to what kind of a dick doesn't do that. Read on for my reasoning.

Preemptive Cliff Note: The point here? Without the chance of failure you can't have success. Without those, there is no need to roll dice or even make it a game at all. The GMs job, as unenviable as it is, is to be the trigger man on things people want to stick around when things go wrong.

So, several years ago I was the Head GM of an online Legend of the Five Rings RPG (for those interested you can find it here). We were doing a story line where an ancient evil, dormant since the descent of the Kami, was awakening and making moves to take back the world. Some Player Characters ended up in a fight with these creatures (we called the Tumo) deep underground. Two of the PCs went ahead, and were overwhelmed before being knocked to down and out. The rest of the PCs were too far away to help, and not even known to the Tumo at that time. One PC who was close enough, was moving in to position and waiting for a moment in time. Before any help would arrive, the Tumo would have the time to kill one of the PCs, so I flipped a coin for which one they would grab and that Character died that day.

Now, for the player involved this was fairly brutal. His character was one of the few still standing Day 1 PCs (a character around from the very beginning of the game). He had status, power, rank, he was capable, and just like that he was dead and gone. A beloved character died. As a GM though, I stand by the decision and would do it again and again if given the same situation. Why?

First off, let me agree with some of you on something. It would be easy to let him live, to let the PC moving into position be the hero and save them both. Really easy, just a delay in killing one of the PCs, 2-3 rounds at most could've probably done it. I didn't do that though. I didn't do it because I had told people ahead of time that death was on the line here, they had all agreed to it. I had told them I wasn't pulling punches, they had all agreed to it. More importantly, in other scenes in similar situations PCs had been killed. It would be unfair to the game, and a disservice to all of those other players if this character was spared while their character had not been. Most importantly though, it wasn't my decision to kill that character, the decision had been made by someone else. So who made it?

The decision was made by the player, right at the beginning when he joined the scene and said he was ok with the consequences. It was made again by him when his character chose to go into the tunnels and attack these creatures on their home turf. Finally, it was made a last time by him when he moved into the unfavorable situation, odds against him and the other PC. The situation turned bad, and they were defeated. After that, it was just a matter of which one bit it before someone else managed to help.

Now, for the secret. I do not like killing PCs. It gives me a weird feeling in my stomach. In the times I've GMed I've had players cry, beg, get angry, storm out, and all other sorts of emotional responses to their character dying. Even people who swear up and down they're ok with it, who I've seen be fine with it and in fact demand punches not be pulled, have on occasion asked for a break on it. People get attached to their characters, especially online, and I don't like taking that away from them. The problem is, as the GM, it is occasionally your job to pull the trigger.

I don't agree with everything in the Angry DM's post, but I agree on the key points. You can't have victory without the possibility of defeat. You can't have success without the possibility of failure. Now, what constitutes victory and defeat or success and failure is up to you and your group, but you can't have one without the other. If every day is a sunny day, then where is the joy in a sunny day?

Interestingly enough though, the GM has a bit of a rough position here. See, the GM doesn't have, or shouldn't have, a win condition. Sure, they can count it as a win when everyone has fun, when the players win, or something awesome happens, but ultimately the GM should not have a win condition that they are 'gunning for' that puts them in opposition to the players (unless your group WANTS an adversarial GM). However, the GM can still lose. They can lose when a TPK (total party kill) happens, as the game is effectively over. They can lose when something else happens to make the game stop. This is where the two rules the Angry DM brings up are also things to keep in mind.

"1. Never aim at something you aren't prepared to destroy."
This is fairly simple and straight forward, anyone who has handled a gun has heard it. Simply put, if you are not ready to destroy something, don't aim at it. Now, in his post he is talking about large scale things (NPCs, the world itself, etc) but it is true all over the board. If you aren't willing to pull the trigger on a player, don't target them. If there is no threat, there is no need for the roll because you are just going to give them the win anyhow. (See how boring this makes the game if you are never prepared to destroy anything?)

"2. Build fair, play to win"
This rule is a bit less clear, but is just as simple. When planning your encounters, when making the scenarios, make them fairly. There should be a way for the PCs to win, there should be a way out for them. At the same time, there should be a way for the opposition to win (why else are they there if unable to win), and that way does not necessarily have to be by killing all the PCs. Build the situation to be fair, and the rest handles itself. When playing though, play to win. You set the situation up to be fair, and you keep it fair, but play to win. That opposition wants to win as much, if not more, than the PCs do, so give them their shot. Don't bend rules, but use them.

Those two rules, used right, do a good job of helping to make the game more fun. By bringing in the possibility of failure, you also bring in the possibility of success. AngryDM talks about that more in his post, which you may agree or disagree with, but the main point I am trying to say here is this: "If there is never a chance for failure there is never a chance for success. If success and failure don't exist, there is no need to roll the dice, and no need for it to be played as a game."


  1. Nice Article!

    I'm very happy to see a mention of the fact that GMs aren't universally happy to see a character die. The point that the GM loses too if there's a TPK is very real to me when I run, but I don't want to end up babying the players to the point that they feel that they're not being challenged anymore.

  2. I joke around about TPKing all the time with the groups I'm in. Hell, one of our game nights was, for a time, called TPK Tuesday. Joking about it and actually doing it are totally different things in my opinion, and I have yet to meet a GM that I've respected as a GM that took joy in a party wipe.

    I've seen, and have taken, joy in the death of a PC. The person deserved it, but it was still handled fair, for instance, or the death was particularly good, heroic, and flavorful. But every GM I've seen that has taken joy in killing a PC "because it's awesome" or because it means they "win" has been a GM I've avoided from then on.

  3. As someone who's been the player for one of those awesome character deaths, I think they are really important. They make the game have more impact for one thing which I like. Even more importantly, there are some forms of drama and awesome that can't happen if you Don't pull the trigger!

    As a GM the more important rule for me than #1, because I feel that a GM should be willing and ready to pull the trigger on everything in their game if needed, is rule #2. The ability to build a reasonable enemy, give them reasonable knowledge or lack there of of the group, and have that NPC play within their bounds to the best of their ability to win is vital I think. I believe it makes things both more fun and more "real".