Tuesday, January 24, 2012

PCs who won't run

Some players won't ever have their PCs run. Or surrender. Or negotiate from a position of weakness (read: "Take our money and spare us" instead of "Give us your money and we'll spare you.")

These players always go "all in" - essentially betting the whole campaign, or at least just their characters, on winning every fight.

They have reasons/rationalizations for this:

- our enemies will kill us if we surrender, so it's a fight to the death anyway.

- our stuff is so valuable that it can't be replaced, and if we lose it, it's as bad as starting over, so it's a fight to the death anyway.

- these enemies won't let us surrender, so its . . . (refrain)

- my character wouldn't surrender, (refrain).

- (in town) we'll be arrested and put in prison or sold into slavery, which will end the campaign, (refrain).

- and so on.

I find that some players also regard every fight, especially fights in town versus guardsmen, as a game of chicken with the GM - "He won't kill us in a fight with guards after spending so much time developing this city" is an example of that. To my mind, the solution is to kill them all off if they play chicken with me that way, and use the city with new PCs. They can view the heads of their old PCs on stakes as they come into town. It's winnowing out bad behavior.

If the PCs literally can't surrender (berserkers, say, or under some kind of magical compulsion or curse) you can be nice and spare them when it's not really their fault. But that's case by case, in my opinion. Maybe the downside of that very fine longsword with Puissance +3 and Penetrating Blade (5) is that you go Berserk occasionally and might fight to the death when surrender would have been a valid choice. You knew the breaks when you picked the sword up. Or maybe you chose Compulsive Behavior (Fighting) and Berserk and Bloodlust and Intolerance (all non-humans) and then you get into a bar fight in Dwarftown and get out of hand. Maybe your disads will kill your character.

But, as a GM you do need to make it clear that:

- you aren't going to bail them out if they play chicken with your game, or make characters who can't avoid fights/back out of bad ones, or make terrible choices. Combat is potentially lethal.

- you can flee. Not all encounters are beatable, and running away is acceptable. Some encounters can only be "beaten" by fleeing.

- you can negotiate. For Gygax's sake, talk to them.

- it's just stuff, you can get more stuff. But you start over at the bottom if you die and have to make a new character.

- you can (sometimes) safely surrender, especially if the law is involved.

About that last one, The Law. Zak S. has a great line in Vornheim about the law - basically that legal consequences have to make the game better. To quote him precisely, "the arrest process should lead to something unexpected and interesting rather than just meaning the game grinds to a halt" (Vornheim, pg 39) So one trick to town battles, in any case, is to let the players know that arrest is going somewhere interesting. Maybe they'll be tossed into the gladiator pits and get to fight. Maybe they'll be sent to recover the Soul Gem (see C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness for this exact plot). Maybe they'll be cursed to always tithe 50% of their cash until they pay off their debt and turned loose on the worst dungeon imaginable. All of which are fun, but the players must know that surrendering for crimes committed isn't death.

As a player you need to find out if fighting to the death is the only thing allowed in the game. Odds are, it isn't. Know when to run. Remember permanently dead characters don't advance, and it's better to lose your vorpal blade to a magistrate after surrendering to than to lose to his men after they kill you and burn your corpse to ashes. It's better to bribe the goblins than to die against them. It's not always do-or-die; you can lose a fight and keep playing. And running away isn't really losing, it's just not killing those monsters now. Come back and get them when the odds are unfair in your favor.

Short version: The GM needs to make it clear that running, surrendering, or negotiating are going to be valid options (although not all options are valid at all times). The GM also needs to make clear that these options will lead interesting places, not end the game. And finally, the GM needs to be willing to pull the trigger and kill off characters who don't take these options when they need to.

All in my experience. Maybe it's just my players who won't run . . . how about yours?


  1. Are we talking about laws as written, or a *GM/player*-level approach to the campaign structure? In other words, is there a specific law that there'll be alternatives to death for adventurers and similar "worthies", or is this more along the line of "Come on guys, I won't end a campaign like this, I'll always try to come up with an interesting way to continue things, quasi-medieval simulationism be damned"? I'm all for the latter, but find it a bit twee to have "adventurer" as a legal term or generally flavor the campaign with too much gaming-specific items.

    Yes, even when we're talking about "old school dungeon bashing". I generally prefer a campaign style where the players are a bit more exceptional and just just a very specific caste of mercenaries.

    Talking about specific experiences, I found out that when you're a GM who doesn't needlessly abbreviate things - especially bad outcomes - there isn't even a need for too much talk beforehand (if your players are aware of that, which isn't an issue for me, as I don't do pick-up games in game stores/clubs). So if you're arrested, you know that it'll continue with a scene in a cell or a prison transport, it's not just a quick narration of your way to the chopping block, without actual gaming coming from you.

    I generally loath anything where the GM tells what the players are doing beyond expanding a bit on their explicitly stated intention.

    1. I'm talking about both laws as written and GM/player level issues.

      At the first level, have actual laws that aren't all just "get your stuff taken away and get executed." There is plenty of room for weregild, trial by combat (vs. humans or monsters in a fantasy game), trial by challenge, fines that amount to "tithe half your gains until you pay the crown plenty of money" and weird trials that showcase the talents of PCs.

      At the meta level, the GM needs to tell people that encounters with the law aren't automatically fatal or game-ending, but consequences are pretty high for murdering people. Basically, screw around in town and you don't die automatically but you're asking for, and will get, unhappy consequences.

      I think you need to do both. It doesn't matter if you do the first one if you don't do the second.

      And you need to do the same with surrender and negotiations - if sometimes you surrender and goblins say, okay, give us a choice of your stuff and your ready cash and we'll drop this fight, or the evil high priest says "great, now you're bound to do me one service" or the dragon takes away your armor and weapons and eats your horses and then says "Run away and tell all of my ferocity," and the players know this can happen, they might surrender. If they know surrender = death, well, who can blame them for fighting to the finish?

  2. Pfft, my group never runs, well not until all the hirelings are dead at least...they are getting a bit of a reputation...


    1. Mine have never been that good at running until bad stuff already happened. And even then . . . sometimes they'll stick it out instead and bet the farm on pulling out a victory.

  3. This is an issue that I sometimes fret about in my own games.

    In my experience, much depends on the temperament of the individual player. Some players seem deliberately to court death for their characters, others can be relied upon to flee or surrender at the drop of a hat, while some are less predictable.

    A player that refuses to have his or her character surrender is not always a problem though. As you say, it can sometimes it can be difficult for a GM, because there can be a powerful temptation to look for an underhand way to 'save' the PC. But I accept firstly, that taking difficult decisions is part of running a game and secondly, that I do not always get it right. Other times the 'no surrender' attitude is fine because the player doesn't mind if the PC dies.

    It seems to me that a 'suicidal' PC is only a problem when the player ends up being unhappy with the result. Sadly, a player will occasionally adopt this 'break-through-or-just-break' attitude, which leads to the PC's very avoidable death, followed by a bad feeling. In some ways the PC's behaviour may be realistic: real people in combat situations sometimes do irrational-seeming things. But it is frustrating to watch as a GM when you can see it coming. You can see that the player is never going to allow that their character might back off; and you can foresee that the character will 'fail' by dying in the conflict; and you can also sense that it will hurt the player's feelings. It is as though the player's ego is so wrapped up in the PC's prowess that he or she is unable or unwilling for the PC to change course; but precisely because of this, when the inevitable happens (if not this time then the next time, or the time after that), the player is not going to happy when the PC fails or dies.

    Players sometimes respond well to explicit out-of-game talk about these issues; but I have not yet found a formula that always works. Apart from anything else, when the root of the problem is the player's ego-entanglement with their character it can be difficult to get past, even outside play.


  4. Surrender usually means the players have taken a moment to think. Many times they don't, and just rush at everything or into every situation. It's probably because them damn video games have corrupted them into thinking they can problem solve by trial and error. They should play Eve Online for a while or something like Demon Souls that have painful consequences for failure. Then they'll learn a bit of the ol' risk assessment. Killing them won't educate them as much as punishing their shortsightedness - they will assume it's bad luck or bad GMing if you kill their characters. I'd start out by taking their stuff or making friendly NPCs pay for their hasty decisions.

  5. @James - Thanks for the thoughts. Yeah, I think the suicidal guy who's unhappy when he dies is a real problem. I think you have to repeatedly make it clear that your PC can die, and that's that, and do so repeatedly, at least you won't get accidental suicides. You know, the folks who figure all fights are winnable (they aren't) and that all fights are win or die (again, they aren't).

    @Todd - That's an interesting perspective. You might be right - death of allies and lost of stuff might be more of a "teaching moment." Heh.


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