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Every now and then a player character does something extremely risky because "it would be fun." What are some good ways to handle this as a GM, for the different styles of play? I like playing non-epic sandbox stories, which makes matters all the worse.

Just the latest example:

DM: You are walking a wide trade route, paved with large white stones. The surrounding hills are homes to small fortresses protecting the city in the distance: Zvezdovryh. Nearing the end of your tiring journey, you approach the huge gates, when something very much out of the ordinary happens – men on horseback rush out of the gates, cutting down the halberdier city guards. The horsemen keep coming and coming, rushing along the wide road under arbalest fire from the walls.

Player 1 & 2 (well to the side of the road): We stay and watch, ready to draw weapons.

Player 3 (on the road): I sprint towards the hills.

Player 4 (on the road): I move to the side of the road, draw my bow and start shooting at them.

DM (to Player 4): At first no one notices you – but when you kill one of the front men, a detachment of five rushes you. Roll dice.

Needless to say, the newly-created, inexperienced rogue got slaughtered. Worst part is, that was 4 hours of character creation versus 1 minute of game time. How could I have handled this differently?

I have a feeling this question is a duplicate, but I can't find the original. If you can, please post link and close the question.

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After the player said "start shooting them", before making it happen, you might ask "Are you really sure? There are a lot of them, you will not stand a chance. By the way, you don't even know on whos side they are." Especially early in the game, you can always ask "are you really sure?" when the players attempt something stupid and dangerous, and only go on if they insist. –  vsz Jul 31 '12 at 6:22
Yep, talked to her. As I had expected, I had not explained the situation clearly. She had expected that the dust from the horses hooves would conceal her, making the riders blind to anything further that several meters. I, on the other hand, imagine stone road through a grassy field (think ms windows desktop). –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 6:10
As described here (which may or may not be the same as described in the actual game), it sounds like you may not have explained the situation clearly even aside from the environment. I was picturing a handful of riders - probably spies or thieves - making their escape from the city... and then you said they sent "a detachment of five" to deal with the archer, implying a much larger and better-organized (perhaps even recognizable military) force. I'd probably shoot at a handful of bandits, too, but a company of soldiers is another matter entirely. –  Dave Sherohman Aug 1 '13 at 11:38

7 Answers 7

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Player 4 sounds like a pretty novice/young/both player. I'd try one or more of these:

  1. Explaining issue - I'd try to explain the player that there is a difference between kill-everything-that-moves Diablo and your average-rpg-with-some-battles-and-story. It might be that they are not familiar with how to play a table-top RPG, which generally is more about social interaction than mindless bloodshed and endless dice throwing.

  2. Solving it in-game - It is almost always possible to make someone or something not kill your player. In this particular situation, the five people could just incapacitate your player, throw him into jail and forget him. Force him into slavery. You can try to find your way around this stupid action and use it as a plot hook, while making it uncomfortable enough for the player/character that they will know they did something wrong.

  3. Changing your vision - Heck, perhaps the players don't want your fancy RPG-ing stuffeyz things. Maybe they want you to throw them into a randomly generated dungeon with randomly generated encounters from the book? Their expectations might be quite different from yours.

  4. Wait a couple of years - At worst, the player might just not be capable of an organized and sane gameplay due to simple stupidity or immaturity. Maybe they won't learn their lesson even if you bribe them with money to play coherently. You have to declare a line after which you will tell the player "Play like a normal person or leave". There is no point wasting anyone's time with a person who just want to jackass around.

  5. Warn and talk about it - (added after seeing the clarification in the comment) If usually she's a normal player, then hm... Yea, as others have suggested before, first of all I'd make sure she is really aware of what consequences her actions can have. Asking her if she is Really Absolutely Totally Whoever-forbid Sure at first, and if she insists, you might try going the...

  6. Your character wouldn't do that - I have problems believing a raving lunatic or some war fanatic would do something like this character. If all reason fails, unless characters have some serious problems with themselves they would never do something as stupid.

But all the above advice aside, the best you can do, in my opinion, is to just chat with such players and inquire why they did that. This will give you the necessary insight to resolve the problem.

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The thing is, I have played a lot with her, and she is usually reasonable. Now she wanted to do something crazy, I guess. I am beginning to regreat that I didn't deus-ex-machina her character. –  Vorac Jul 31 '12 at 7:26
I have improved the answer a bit taking into consideration your comment. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jul 31 '12 at 8:26
I've had the exact same thing happen as the original poster in my first DM session for new players and a combo of #1 and #6 just barely managed to keep the player at bay. I even emphatically said, This isn't Skyrim. You can't murder everyone, everywhere because you have the best armor and spells and can murder whole town guards. This is a world with real reactions and real consequences. (This was a 4e game, where I more annoyed and it a different edition I probably would have cackled and said, The city guard detachment of 20 ruthlessly murders you). –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 31 '12 at 17:21
I accept your answer because of point 5 & 6, the pretty formatting, and "talk to the player". –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 6:12
I respectfully disagree with number 6. The player decides what the character would do, and what kind of character they are. I might say, "That doesn't seem to mesh with the backstory" but if the player responds with something like "I think it does" or "I want him to grow in a different direction" then that is the end of the discussion. I very strongly agree and support everything else int he answer. –  TimothyAWiseman Aug 1 '13 at 17:02

In the current example text, Player 4 seems not to be warned by the GM nor his own common sense that this will result in a hostile reaction.

That aside, if the player is set upon his character suiciding, it's best IMO to confirm their knowledge of the risk, then to let them, then ask why after session.

  • Sometimes, it's a character that's not what the player envisaged. Sometimes, especially in old-school games where the GM enforces "play what you rolled," it's a way to be rid of a bad character or a character that isn't anything like what the player wanted.
  • Rarely, it's a way for a player to drop out of a group and make it look like the GM's fault.
  • In other cases, it's poor descriptions resulting in not reacting appropriately.
  • In a few cases, it's some secret the player kept about his character that he thought would be cool triggering stupid behavior.

When dumping a bad, undesired, inept, or boring character, the issue is one of expectations. In general, such players should not play in games where the rule is "play what you rolled." Use of alternate generation methods was instituted in both D&D and T&T for that very reason; Champions, GURPS, and many others went to deterministic CGen methods so players could get what they wanted every time. Less litigious types might allow rolling two or three and picking one to appease such players, or even allow retiring them after some number of sessions or adventures, or even arrange a "good death" for them, and allow them to go out a hero.

The rare cases where it's dislike of the game - either the system, the setting, or the campaign - it's a way for a player to quit without looking like their quitting. And often, to save face by making it look like a GM being unfair. In even rarer cases, it's a player putting the GM into the unfortunate double bind - either look like a jerk for not allowing the suicide, or for killing the PC over a misunderstanding of the situation.

Far more common in my experience is the player not having the same mental image of the situation and/or the odds. Inexperienced players and inexperienced GM's are often causes for this - and the combination of both can be a comedy of errors. In dealing with this situation, one just needs to confirm that the player understands the risks.

In the case of Secrets, it's a very common misconception that secrets are best kept in roleplaying games. There are two kinds of secrets a character can have - those the GM should know about, and those that everyone at the table should know about, even tho' their characters don't. Any secret that motivates your character should be something the GM is aware of. If it was a case of some motivation or backstory that the GM didn't read because the player wrote 10 pages of it, get the player to write a one paragraph (of no more than 10 sentences of no more than one typed or two hand-written lines each) listing of the key motivations, including any relevant secrets.

In all these cases, communication failures are usually the root cause. Only in the rare case of the Jerk player trying to make the GM look bad is it not really a communication failure (and in that case, it's a player error).

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Clearly, I should have asked her "Why would your character want to do that?" ;( –  Vorac Jul 31 '12 at 7:31
+1 Well, it was my poor description of the scene. –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 6:14

If it's an inexperienced or an immature player, it's most likely a communication issue. I would definitely give them an idea of just how many enemies there are. Also, for younger players, I advise suggesting information the character knows that the player might not, like any ditches or brush piles that might be near by. Even if there is no cover it's not entirely suicidal for an archer to lend support (of course assuming player 1 &2 are ready to shield the rogue from the mounted soldiers).

If the players are looking to detract even a handful of these cavalry men just long enough for the crossbow men on the walls to make pin cushions of them they stand a good chance of further fragmenting the retreating force. This assistance could further help them win favors in the long run.

From the stand point of the GM, the players might not make any real difference in dwindling the retreating forces numbers, but it gives the players a chance to look good in front of the city watch and feel like they are doing something from the get go. Hell, if we are talking about a seasoned player trying to suicide a poorly roll character an unexpected good roll in one of these chance encounters could give them the courage to stick with the character. A few victories here or there from an unexpected hero are thousand times more memorable, and can even lead to a lot of laughs!

If I were in the characters shoes, seeing what they saw I might feel morally obliged to help the guards on the walls besides. I would definitely ask the GM what the chances are. There's always the decent chance that four players are too insignificant to draw attention allowing them land a few good hits.

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Welcome to the site Josh! You've got some good insight here. I've edited your question to add paragraphs and fix spelling errors, so please don't be surprised by the 'edited' notification. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Nov 6 '12 at 13:31
This is really my first time posting on any board ever! Thanks, this is a great site. –  Josh Nov 6 '12 at 18:17

Based on the discussion in the comments, I think this is a communication issue that can be resolved with "Intent and Task" resolution.

When a player wants to take a game action, get consensus on both of these points:

  • What is the character doing?
  • What is the player hoping to accomplish by succeeding at this task?

This avoids the rather nasty business of making a check only to find out that the outcome is totally the opposite of what you were hoping for.

So, in this instance, when a player says "I want to shoot at them," that's just a task. What's the intent? "I want to shoot them in order to draw their attention"? "I want to shoot them in order to take out one or two while they're not likely to notice me"? "I want to shoot them so that their enemies will see that we are helping them"? Come to agreement on that before you roll. If the intent doesn't match the task, work together to come up with a different action that can accomplish the intent. (E.g. if the player says she wants to shoot at the riders covertly, you might reply that this requires rolling an attack + Stealth rather than just an attack.)

As the GM, you be honest about whether the player can actually accomplish the stated intent with the chosen action. This doesn't mean surprising consequences down the line are off the table. But the thing that you actually wanted is sacrosanct.

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I often employ this tactic when faced with problematic situations (or just complex actions) - players often get ideas in their minds of what they want to do based on something they think is going to happen, since this is not a computer game - nor a shared simulation, sometimes the player can have the wrong idea. For example, If a player wants to run into an alleyway, jump onto some boxes, climb a window and get to a rooftop in order to outflank a fleeting opponent - that is great, but if all the player says while in the middle of a chase is "I run into the alley" It creates a problem. Intent!! –  Inbar Rose Aug 1 '13 at 7:06

It's embarrassing to admit, but during one campaign in my youth, I intentionally put my PC into those sorts of suicide situations because I didn't believe the GM would actually kill him off, and that bothered me. I felt he was too ready to bend the rules and bend the game to accommodate player stupidity.

I'm not at all insinuating that you are bending the rules to compensate for player stupidity. But it may be that the player is uncomfortable with the game for some reason, and is unable or unwilling to address that discomfort directly by discussing it with you.

Some meta discussion about the direction of the game might help you determine if these suicide moves are a passive-aggressive indicator of displeasure with the game.

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It's so simple: death is the answer. Done.

Some might worry about the lengthy character development, but death is part of the game. Perhaps she is less willing to act rashly in the future, perhaps she decided she didn't like the character.

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+1 this is not a bad answer. Some of my favourite moments have been when my character dies for the cause (for what he believes in). –  Vorac Aug 7 '13 at 7:37
@Vorac I don't see anything about "dies for the cause" here. –  Alex P Aug 7 '13 at 23:28

My RP's have the ''common sense roll'', where you roll a d20, and then usually if you score above 1, the DM shouts ''you are not a retard!''. But mostly he lets them get KO but in such a way the rest of the party can help them (if we so choose that is).

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I'm not sure the common sense roll is an appropriate piece of advice for this situation, where the OP is actually concerned about the player's feelings. Personally I would find that awful to be on the receiving end of unless I was used to it: I have to roll or be shut down by the GM, and have him yell at me that I'm retarded? I guess that works for your group, though. I would like to see the second suggestion about leaving the character rescuable expanded, though. It's a decent response, but is there more to say about it? –  doppelgreener Aug 1 '13 at 1:54

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