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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.

Players 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.

Long after the fact we talked and it turned out that we had different ideas of what was happening, so 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.

How could I have handled this differently at the time?

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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
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
@vsz Could you convert that into an answer? It is clearly well-received, but answers in comments are in the wrong place and need to be deleted eventually. If you want the wisdom kept on the page, it should go in an answer soon. – SevenSidedDie Apr 27 at 18:39

9 Answers 9

up vote 47 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 someone who just wants 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 talk with such players and inquire why they did that. This should give you the necessary insight to resolve the problem.

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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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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
You must have some really good GMs if they always take the time to go over everything that motivates the PC. Also a very collaborative playstyle. – the dark wanderer May 11 at 23:12
@thedarkwanderer I'm usually the GM. Really, I prefer an index card or less. Anything more is probably too much for me to remember for a given character. That said, I've either done or had players do all of the above in my 35 years GMing. – aramis May 12 at 23:01

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

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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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 stupid!". 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 stupid? 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

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 - clearly the player did not understand the situation, so if you kill her, all you're doing is telling her that you're more prepared to kill her than you are to help her understand what's going on. – Airk Apr 28 at 14:08
I think Airk has it right on this one. It doesn't sound like the player intentionally chose the course of action thinking the character would die. It sounds more like the player thought it was a much smaller number of enemies than the GM intended. – Theo Brinkman Apr 28 at 14:45

I'm a little bit surprised to see so many answers to this question without what I thought was the obvious one, so I'm going to put it out here.

What you have here is an obvious disconnect between what the player thought the situation was, and what you, the GM thought the situation was. Very seldom do players actually do things that they believe are suicidal (and you can usually tell the types of players who are willing to do this sort of thing, as they are often the 'zany' ones.)

So when a player does something that makes you think "God, that's stupid, why would anyone do that? That's just going to get her killed." the most likely reason is that they see the situation differently from you. So the correct course of action is to get both of you on the same page as to what the situation is. I heard a story once about a PARTY full of PCs who were looking to stealthily board an enemy ship in the harbor, who got gunned down halfway there because THEY thought it was nighttime, and the GM thought it was broad daylight and never thought to question the plan. This isn't a "you need to roll common sense" thing - this is the players misunderstanding what the situation is.

When a player declares a "suicidal" action like this, take a step back and say "Whoa, hold on; The situation is [really explicit explanation covering all the details]. If you do that, I think the most likely thing that's going to happen is [very bad thing]. What do you think is going to happen?" So in this case, you get "Whoa, hold on; There's a bunch of riders galloping down a stone road through a grassy meadow - they've got fast horses and there's nowhere to conceal yourself if you step out into the open like that. If you draw attention to yourself that way, they'll probably send a detachment to kill you. What are you expecting?" and they'll go "Oh! I was expecting them to be blinded by the dust from the road, but if it's stone, then nevermind, I'll do [other thing]."

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The system and setting often contribute to my decisions in these cases. In a simulationist game with a deadly setting, you might intervene only as much to ask "Are you sure?"

In pulpier, heroic games, you want to encourage your players to succeed; you may even incorporate their misconceptions to do so.

I stole this idea from is 13th Age's One Unique Thing (Core Rules, p.31). It's a plot hook written at character creation, but it allows them to create fiction the DM hadn't thought of. This can manifest as something like "My character is the physical vessel for the ghosts of slain elves in the Orc King's raid of Alqualonde." The DM's response isn't to say "my mythology doesn't have an Alqualonde" but to figure out where it is and how all those ghosts got inside this character!

This impromptu world building resolves player misconceptions very well. In your example, if you use the "Intent and Task" technique mentioned by Alex P above, you can just fiat in "Yes, absolutely there is dust cover, but you'll lose cover after one round and deal with more enemies on the next round."

It sounds like your group might like to split the difference with skill rolls. Skill challenge systems that add "success, with a twist" are great for this. My current favorite implementation is Strike! (Basic Rules, p.2).

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