Thursday, April 23, 2009

Character Death

So yeah, I've neglected my blog. I blame Twitter. Rarely do I have something that's worth reading for more than 140 characters that isn't a comic. But that's changing. I've had a number of essays brewing lately, and right now I have one fresh in my mind.

I'm a gamer, and I always hated that nut-swinging Gamemastering style where I lord it over the players and kill them off because they weren't "smart enough" or whatever. And I'm trying to square my inclusive, tolerant, open approach to GMing with the fact that two of my characters just died like dogs in my Genius game.

Some background: Genius is a game I made for the new World of Darkness. You play mad scientists. This time, only two players showed up due to scheduling problems. They wanted to explore a warehouse full of bad guys. And basically, they screwed up, often. They made their presence known to people who were willing to kill them, they got cornered, one character got captured, the other character surrendered without a rescue plan or a call to the "cavalry," then, following an escape that, while it involved no technical fudging on my part, involved a great deal of generous NPC behavior, coincidence, and clue-dropping, the characters escaped. Wounded, they saw the crashed airship of their comrade, ran toward it, got fired upon by hidden machineguns that (miraculously) missed, kept running toward it, and got gunned down.

But that's not even a "neutral" retelling and I'm not going to pretend it is. Who knows what the players were thinking at the time? Perhaps that unwise surrender was a player role-playing a badly-shaken character (he had just killed a guy, after all). Motivations are tricky things. And I don't just want to say that the players made "bad" decisions because 1) I've dealt with stupid players--I mean, really, pig-ignorant, clueless, lazy morons, and these two aren't like that, and 2) I'm so enmeshed in the behind-the-scenes elements of the game that I can't tell if their decisions made sense to them at the time with what they knew.

Nonetheless, they died, and here, I think, is why those characters died: I ran out of explanations why they didn't die. Let me explain: ever have a player who won't latch on to any plot hooks, who just ignores and glides past them, again and again? Is it cluelessness? Peevishness? Miscommunication? Sometimes it's hard to tell. (It's probably miscommunication; it is when I screw up this way, on either side of the table.) And at the end, sometimes as the GM you're just like, "Look, you missed every single one of my attempts to get you onto the adventure, we're at an impasse." And you're probably pissed, even if the player isn't doing it deliberately or maliciously. I sort of ended up in the same situation with regard to not killing my characters. I would have been mad, but there was plenty of disappointment to go around when those last dice fell that I felt no reason to add to it.

Rather than leading a character toward a plot hook, this time I was leading them away from death. And I ran out of good "don't die" hooks. The PCs got themselves into really deep shit, again and again, and the quagmire just kept getting worse. So I found myself casting around for ways to get the PCs out, because I hate even the implication of sadistic "killer GMing."

Because I want the players to have fun; I want their characters to look cool. What does your lightning sword look like? Does it look awesome? You bet it does. You need help describing how awesome your lightning gun looks? No problem, that's what I'm here for. And I try to keep the characters alive and the players making choices and the game going; in fact, I pride myself on taking all sorts of messy situations and turning them into dramatic gold. Miss the adventure hook? No problem, I've got a cool scene that will bring you back to the main plot. Get captured? No problem--the other characters can save you, or you can sneak out, or something. Even player "mistakes" are, in my mind, just an excuse for more cool scenes.

But I have my limits. Like willworkers in old Mage who can "feel" when reality is going rubbery and paradoxical, I can feel when the world's illusion is breaking down due to too many coincidences, too many lucky breaks. If the players dodge five "Go to the Fortress of Eversummer!" plot hooks, the sixth big neon sign starts to look a bit absurd, and I just have to let it go. If the players dodge five "Survive despite going up against very dangerous people when outnumbered and without proper planning" signs...I just have to let them go. I can't stand to see the world unravel.

I don't know if my players would agree with me. They might be all "Fuck the illusion, I want my mad scientist back!" But I'm here to have fun too, and I just can't have fun when the game world's integrity falls apart. I'll move encounters around, adjust difficulties, fiddle with bad guy numbers behind the scenes, but I have a limit. Every GM has a different "world integrity" limit, from an absolutely fixed reality to a total shell-game, and I know where I draw the line.

So they died because it was either character death or, basically, dropping the facade, and I wouldn't have fun if I exposed the bare stage on which the game is played. It wasn't out of malice, either. That seems like a desperate attempt at defending myself, but it's not. I've killed characters out of malice, in my younger and more dickheaded days, killed them in a fit of "fuck you for being so stupid." I remember a thief-based D&D3 game that fell apart because one player pissed me off too much with his stupid bullshit, so off with his head when he wouldn't run away. Fair rolls, of course, but malicious ones. And I made it clear that it was his stupidity that got him killed. None of that this time; I apologized profusely, like I had just run over the players' cat or something. Because I did feel bad. It's no fun losing characters. It's no fun losing all that hard work, and it's no fun feeling foolish, or that you "lost the game." I felt bad for 'em; not even pity, just empathy. It sucked.

But it was done. My girlfriend, an avid gamer, when I described the final machinegunning, asked "Couldn't you have asked them, 'Are you sure that's what you want to do?'" Ah, the old GM "Don't Do That" hint. And I could have. In retrospect, maybe I should have. But here's my rationale, perhaps a bit post hoc: it felt railroady. That might seem strange, but there's a railroading of GM intent in addition to the regular kind. I could, if I chose, give the players all the clues they need to succeed, and no information that does not contribute to their success. But that sort of clue-train strips away a player's liberty to play his character as surely as a badly-railroaded plot. It removes a player's ability to interact with the world on his own terms, at his own pace, and in his own way. And I had already moved too far in the direction of "clue-dispenser" during the course of that session, and I felt I was stripping agency from my players. Could I have warned them? Yeah. Did I feel it was right? No; I felt I had already chipped away at their freedom of interaction and begun to expose the game's facade. Was it the right call? I don't know.

So there's my little tale. I've probably learned more about how I run games from this one session of Genius than the last 20 or 30 assorted adventures I've run. Pity a bunch of characters had to die for me to learn something, but I hope it means that future sessions will be even better.