Meaningful Choices, part three: Consequences

…”pulling the trigger is tough.”

Ultimately, in the question of a diceless system and meaningful choices there comes a point where you have to ask the question — when is it okay to do something awful to a character?

Put another way — an earlier comment on one of my diceless posts mentioned disagreement arising between player and GM over the feeling that they should have succeeded and the GM said they failed — the idea that one person (the GM) gets to make all the calls when it really comes down to it. This is a legitimate concern and a strong argument for a randomizing element at the table. But leaving aside simple failures like talking your way by a guard or missing with an attack, when is it okay to bring down the hammer on a character, to blind them, or cut off an arm, or worse, to kill them?

My answer may be a little weird here — because, short aside — I actually like character death. Well, like is a strong word, but rather — I appreciate the place character death has in RPG play and I value letting a character die over a lot of the serious (and some half-baked) attempts to get some sort of extra mileage out of PC death I’ve read all over the blog-o-sphere and elsewhere. PCs in RPGs are usually in some dangerous line of work or another — they are adventurers fighting dragons, or shadowrunners taking on the corps (or dragons), or soldiers fighting aliens. You get the idea. Characters die. And I’m a narrative fun kind of a player so I appreciate when a character dies in a big way, but you know, if the dice just happen to be against us that night, then that’s okay too — I took that risk when I played the game just like my character took risks by going out and fighting terrifying things better equipped to kill me anyway…

So I don’t mind losing a character — for some though, it is the epitome of “bad-wrong-un-fun” and they are as welcome to this hobby as I am — so it takes all kinds. I just wanted to get it out up-front — I don’t mind losing a character.

But how does that translate to a diceless game like the one I want to work on? Well, first, I think it bears mentioning that when you join a diceless game (or any game for that matter) you are accepting certain rules/mechanical constructs to define your character (like hit points) that can lead to a character dying. More importantly, you are accepting a group and a play-style that you should be aware of and comfortable with before you even begin. As I mentioned before, trust is paramount to role-playing group success. Without trust, why would you even play with those people? So if you accept the basic idea of a diceless game and the play-style of the group you are joining, then the consequences stemming from in-character actions should never be a surprise.

Let me repeat that: The consequences stemming from in-character actions should never be a surprise.

I consider that a vital rule for a GM to always follow to maintain my trust and it’s something I hold myself to when I’m running a game — especially a diceless game. Much like the discussion of Dark Side points in Star Wars D6, a GM should have clued players in to the general consequences of their actions long before that PC hits a point of no return.

That doesn’t mean that in-game events can never be a surprise… plot is a completely different animal. If that guy you’ve been trusting for the last ten sessions suddenly betrays the group — that’s a different discussion. I’m simply talking about specific actions.

Take an old-school D&D thief for example. If the thief has searched for and found a trap on every door in the mega-dungeon so far and decides to forego searching the latest door they’ve come to and just flinging it open, then it’s totally fine to hit that dude with a trap. If the thief was warned before entering the dungeon, “hey, the Halls of Stormstone are full of deadly traps” and he ignores checking for traps — hit that dude with a trap. If the GM (ahem… DM) has never put a trap in front of this guy before, every door has been clear, and the party is in a hurry and the thief player says, “I’m going to probe the door a little to see if I think I can pick this lock,” then if you don’t give some warning, it would be bad form to suddenly explode that guy because he failed to check for traps first. It’s an extreme example, right, but it makes the point.

But still, you’re the GM, you are ultimately responsible for the final say of every outcome when there is not random element (or even a resource to expend) so how, how can you ever justify killing a character?

By making sure the player is aware that if they continue to pursue the course they are on, they are going to die. And this goes for more than just combat. I would never, even in old-school D&D, use save or die effects. I was one of those guys who didn’t use monsters with energy drain or poison (or I tinkered with the poison) because no one should die in one shot. That’s an awful thing to do to a player (in my opinion) but I would be happy to tell a player who is fighting a monster something like, “…the beast rakes you with its strange metallic claws and you feel an unnatural chill radiate from the wound. The attack cut easily through your armor left great bleeding slashes on your stomach.” When the player asks, how bad is it? I can reply, “it’s pretty bad. You felt as if it was way too easy for this beast to hit and hurt you — and that chill is spreading…”

This is a pretty good indicator — especially if you are a great fighter — that you are in over your head. Now you allow the PC to try and escape. Again, this was an extreme example, but again, it makes the point.

For the videogamers out there — I liken it to the damage system in something like the Uncharted games. You don’t have a health bar, just, things start to get a little hazy, a little dark, then, if you aren’t careful and just keep pressing on, you die. But it doesn’t come as a surprise.

In a diceless game environment, the GM does (seemingly) have more power. I submit that this power increase is equally shared by players — who have more narrative freedom — but it is truly dependent on the GM in this environment for a GM to be very communicative with their players and to be very explicit in description — and honest when asked questions that impact the characters. I think such a policy is good for any game — and running diceless games is what really brought this lesson home to me.

Overall, if you are going to pull the trigger and kill a character in a system without an arbitrary dice mechanic — then it should be something that the player is ready for. The ball is always in the player’s court. If they don’t want to die, they are aware of the consequences long before it happens, it’s up to them to stop it.

Thanks for Reading.

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