Monday, January 30, 2012

Doing The Impossible

It seems I have once again set this blog to update at the wrong time. Sorry for that.

RPGs are funny things. Especially the campaigns that you run at your own table. Why? Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but I'd wager that the impossible happens at your table a lot more often than you realize. No, I'm not talking about the elves, dwarves, and other magical creatures. I'm talking about the simple scope and epicness of your individual campaigns. However, what do you do when your PCs are trying to do something that should be blatantly impossible?

The Inspiration
The inspiration for this post comes from a game that I'm in. It's the Dark Heresy one for anyone interested, and basically the PCs have got it into their heads that to save humanity they need to turn off the Golden Throne. To do that, they need to amass a force that is capable of actually invading earth, get past all the legions there to defend the throne, and then figure out how to turn off a contraption that has been keeping a divine being alive for 10,000 years via the sacrifice of thousands of lives each week.

Basically, heresy of the highest order, and if you know the 40k universe, blatantly impossible.

Identify Why
The first thing I think a GM should do for this is identify why the events in question are impossible. Now the easy answer to this is that in your game nothing is impossible, which then leaves you with identifying why is this highly improbable? To answer that, with the example situation, you just need to look at the forces arranged against the PCs and the respective levels of those forces.

In this case, the PCs have just entered into the Ascension power level, so while they are very good they're not amongst the biggest fishes in the universe yet. Then there is the simple question of the scale of the task, the sheer number of forces that can be brought against them, and the types of forces that those will be. For example, space marines. None of the PCs are space marines, and chapters of space marines tend to make short work of any rebellion that they encounter. Also, the PCs are going to be running afoul of multiples of these being as their plan is to invade the heart of human space.

Explain The Situation
The next thing that I think the GM should do is explain the situation to the players. Let them know that they're trying to do the impossible. Do not tell them that it can't be done, just that it is going to be hard. Discuss the issue, and tell them some of the things that you've identified are going to be key problem areas. You don't want to give them the solutions (i.e. the GM shouldn't say "Space Marines are going to roflstomp you.") but you do want to present the core fact ("there is a lot of very experienced military between you and your goal. Probably an insurmountable amount.")

If the PCs still want to do it, then that is fine. Just make sure they know going in that they've chosen to play the game on Very Hard mode. The kind where you can expect a party wipe almost any time there is a combat going on.

Do It Anyhow
You are then left in the very hard GMing position of doing it anyhow. If the PCs can't be deterred, and the players know the risk going in, then you simply go with it. The players are going to try to pull off every ballsy trick they can think of in order to accomplish their goal. The problem is that you need to allow some of that to happen, present the full scale of the challenge, and still allow a chance for them to win.

This is the GM equivalent of walking a razor wire. Make it too easy and it feels cheap and handed over. Make it too hard and it gets overly frustrating and like the GM is trying to enforce their will on the outcome of events. Nail it properly though, and the PCs will feel like they've fought a good fight. Even if they don't win out their final goal, you can do it in such a way that they still have a spectacular end that leaves everyone satisfied with the outcome. And, in the end, isn't that the goal of the gaming group anyhow?


  1. In this particular case I think it's safe to say that if the multitudinous and ruinous enemies of Man (no less the Godlings in some cases) haven't so much as come close to the task, then it really is impossible for the PCs to accomplish "as PCs". That is, within the scope of an RPG campaign there is just too much that would need to be done, and all of it far too dangerous and important to roll one die and say something like "six years later you've successfully been elected to..." or whathaveyou.

    Some things aren't literally impossible for PCs but can still be impossible for Players running PCs in a particular game.


    Footnotewise, wouldn't the end of the Golden Throne would be the end of humanity as a spacefaring species and its extinction on most worlds in my campaign?

  2. Ending the Golden Throne would be the end of humanity in a lot of ways by a lot of interpretations of 40k lore. That is what makes it so fun. Also why I sometimes strongly dislike purposely built in ambiguity.

    As for your original point, I only partially agree. It is only possible to represent mechanically. though, it is theoretically possible to represent through non-mechanical means when the PCs get to higher power levels. Even if all you do is lower everyone else off of the same scale. A lot can be done by a clever GM with the time to work on things. But yes, the feasibility of the PCs having total success if pretty much next to impossible. Heck, the feasibility of even partial success is ridiculously close to 0. It just doesn't seem to be stopping them.

  3. Are you interested in that kind of game? If not, I'd strongly say up front, "Look, guys, it's not going to happen. At least, not in this campaign. Let's find a more realistic goal."

    OTOH, in one of my campaigns I'm currently coming up on my second world-shaking impossible task. There were two major tweaks I made to the campaign to allow it. First, the party happened to have a unique set of advantages that made them perfect to attempt it. (A combination of the right heritage, connection to a secret society with the right occult knowledge, access to a certain key artifact, and a couple other pieces.) This wasn't simply accidental, but a case of me rewriting part of the campaign to specifically create a lock that they were the key for.

    The other tweak was having certain powerful factions recognize them as that perfect key. The factions moved in swiftly to educate the party on what had to be done. They offered up support in materiel and personnel. They agreed to engage with foes that the PCs couldn't directly handle (and that would be mostly boring to fight).

    Of course, none of that came without a price. Each faction has an agenda. Not all of those agendas are friendly to the PCs. Many of those agendas are mutually incompatible, which forces the PCs to choose which faction to betray in the end.

    (Also, as a note, when you talk about PCs attacking the Golden Throne, I just can't help but think of the first Deathstalker novel. That was, after all, pretty much the plot.)

  4. Good point and one I forgot to mention in my post. if the direction PCs are going in is not one that you as the GM are comfortable with, you need to discuss it with them. Being the GM doesn't mean you are subject to their whims. Your fun and enjoyment is just as important as theirs.

    Everything should come at a cost. then again, I'm a big fan of actions having consequences. Both for good and bad.