GMs Should Not F#$k With Player’s Characters

For the Screenplay playtest group, we had what was intended to be the last game in our High Plains Samurai campaign. Didn’t turn out that way, mostly because of a late start and a couple of extended rules discussions. Turns out, I have very strong opinions about protecting player agency in regards to their characters.

GMs should not fuck with player’s characters.

The first incarnation of my character Mauser as envisioned by Kieron O’Gorman.

For me, the character is the one part of an RPG that the player truly owns. Even if the player is involved in creating the campaign (in something like Spark, or the campaign creation system in Nefertiti Overdrive) or has shared narrative control, it’s not the same as the player’s character. The character is the player’s avatar in the game, it is the focus of the player’s wish-fulfillment in some cases or a finely crafted drama-machine for the player’s interests in others. In games in which all other aspects of the story is taken away from the player, the character is the focus of the player’s creative efforts.

The character is the player’s.

Now, in consultation with the player, the GM can certainly mess with that character. If the GM has an idea to create drama, excitement, or pathos, and the player is onboard with this, awesome. Who doesn’t love a chance to increase the importance of the character to the plot? But don’t do this without the player’s buy-in.

I would honestly refuse to play a game in which the GM could permanently effect change on a player’s character without that player’s consent. And, honestly, that includes death. I, personally, am okay with my characters getting killed -though I would prefer it be done in a suitably dramatic fashion -but I honestly don’t believe that death must be a viable option in order to create tension. Did anyone honestly believe any of the main characters in the X-Files could die? Or Star Trek? Did that remove tension?

But that’s kind of a whole other story. If the player isn’t happy with offering up their character for death, it shouldn’t be forced on them. That isn’t fun and the whole point of this exercise is fun. Why would we do something that isn’t fun for one of the members in our group? Don’t be a dick.

In the end, the player character is the player’s character, and it should be sacrosanct. In many games, the GM has all the other power, and it is unnecessary to give them power over PCs.

In my (not so) humble opinion.

Todd had me take over Broken Ruler Games to tweet the proceedings. The deluge starts here.

You can find more information on Screenplay here.

You can find more information on High Plains Samurai here.

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3 Responses to GMs Should Not F#$k With Player’s Characters

  1. Todd Crapper says:

    Oh, Fraser. That did end up being a heated discussion that ended up going nowhere because of a simple mix-up in what old rules made the final cut. That being said, it was an interesting discussion and reading this is something I agree with… to a point. Perhaps something to discuss in a future podcast?

    When it comes to something drastic affecting a PC thanks to random possibilities such as dice rolls, I think players tend to roll with the punches far more because that’s the risk they take once plastic numbers start rolling across the table. The dice giveth, the dice taketh away. But when it comes to altering PCs by spending points, it can be awkward because there’s nothing the player can do about it. There’s no chance of avoiding the GM spending a point that (for example) takes away a precious weapon or cuts off your arm. And when it comes to character death, it’s a tricky situation but one I believe can be handled co-operatively. When the original version of ScreenPlay allowed for 3 challenges to make a complication permanent, character death was not the goal in mind. Yet that is how the worst possible outcome was perceived and so it was altered to a hindrance to allow the GM to have something to challenge the PC throughout the remainder of the story. Plus since most hindrances are player creations, allowing Directors opportunity to poke at that wound seemed a good fit.

    My biggest concern when working on ScreenPlay was not super dick Directors abusing their power, it was actually Writers abusing their power. Having full creative control on not only their characters but the world around them and how they interact and excel is a risk to a seriously derailed game. Challenges were created to help Directors keep Writers humble if their characters were too awesome. Not too often, but enough times to keep things interesting and have new problems arise at inopportune times. Can they be used to do things against a Writers’ wishes? No, because of the Rule of Initiatives stating once you introduce an element into the story, you have final say on anyone else trying something with it. And I’ve played a game with someone who actually realized their character was fucked and said, “You know what? Let’s kill him off, but let’s have it be awesome.” And so his character was riddled with bullets and died a very Godfather-style death. Fun times!

    My goal with challenges and other aspects of ScreenPlay was to ensure the focus was on the shared storytelling experience between players and the GM. When you have a system that allows players to have carte blanche with their influence, it helps for the GM to have a back-up plan and keep players on their toes when they least suspect it. Every game has this hardwired into the mechanics, even if it’s only through dice rolls.

    • Fraser says:

      I certainly didn’t mean to impugn the reputation of Screenplay or High Plains Samurai, especially since that was simply a misunderstanding and the discussion really isn’t about one particular rules set, rather about a perception.

      However, since I can’t be stopped, I have some thoughts based on your comments.

      1) Dice Roll Impacts: I think this should equally be influenced by genre and choice. Negative impacts, especially death, don’t make sense in an over-the-top action game. In the inspiration media, these don’t effect the main characters. Character built to act as motivation or to highlight the main character’s bad-assitude, sure, but not the main characters. In Sword Noir, heavy penalties follow Dooms, and that can include death, but there is the second influence ā€“ choice. Although death fits with Sword Noir‘s aesthetics, if the players don’t want their characters to die, why should I force that on them? Isn’t this supposed to be about fun?

      2) There are players who will happily allow their characters to die, either as narratively appropriate or just due to the vicissitudes of fate. That’s fine ā€“ that’s a choice. I don’t believe they’re acceptance of this aspect of a game should be forced on players who do not share that attitude.

      3) Centurion and Nefertiti Overdrive are both games that simply don’t work if either side are dicks. That is not because there is a rule that allows one to impose harsh penalties on the other, but because the games are built to allow for the greatest freedom for both to generate amazing stories. I just don’t write games for dicks, and I am totally okay with that.

  2. Todd Crapper says:

    No offence taken and these kinds of discussions are vital to finalize a game’s design and play. While character death is a big faux pas unless done under the right circumstances, I would say having the ability to complicate the heroes’ progress is also vital to a game’s design. Especially in games where players control the fiction. It can be WAY too easy for players to end up playing like 10 year olds and start saying, “Nuh-uh, I have invisible body armour. Your bullets don’t hurt me and now I shoot you in the face.” It’s something I’m looking at for High Plains Samurai versus ScreenPlay’s core version because things can get wild. For example, there was the diesel powered/Wild West mechs you faced in the last game. Originally, they were intended to block damage when dealt facing the mechs because of their body armour. That was later scrapped because it was argued such a block went against the game’s core but I can’t help but think now that can play a role in HPS. Not to make it tactical like D&D, just enough to say, “Shit, we need another plan.” Much like complications in ScreenPlay, a block (and I’m actually thinking of this as the mechanical term) is a special feature in supporting characters and extras that force lead characters to try a different approach and add a little spice to the game.

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