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When a character (I mean the in-game character, not the player) makes bad decisions, there should definitely be in-game consequences that have an effect on the character. I'm not trying to punish the player, but these consequences should:

  • Preserve the fun of the game.
  • Push the story forward.
  • Not make it seem like I'm picking on the player.

This question is addressing a general problem that I've encountered, but it might help if you knew the story behind why I'm asking, so here it is...


In the first session of my current campaign, one of the characters (not players) was enraged by a greedy Sheriff who was going tax-happy and decided to assassinate him. So this character (who is an 8ft tall human barbarian) successfully snuck into the sheriff's castle in the middle of the night. The barbarian, henceforth known as Fabulio -- yes that's really his name -- accidentally entered the the sheriff's bedchamber and met his wife. Fabulio convinced the sheriff's wife that he meant no harm, and she made him leave out the window. He landed on the next balcony down, which was the bedroom of the village's sage/sorcerer. Fabulio sneaks past the sage and into the next room. (His weapon was taken away at the village's gate, and he is trying to recover it.) There, he found the apprentice of the sorcerer. The apprentice freaks out and begins screaming, so Fabulio decides it is best to kill him. Fabulio sends the apprentice out the window, off the three-story balcony, and his mangled body rolls down the hill that the castle stands on.

The Sheriff finds the apprentice's body while coming back from his midnight perimeter check (my sad desperate attempt to save his life) and quickly runs into the castle to check on his wife. By then, Fabulio is already out in the entrance chamber, hiding in wait for the Sheriff. The Sheriff enters the castle and descends into a trapdoor leading to where Fabulio's weapon is hidden.

When the sheriff comes back out of the trapdoor, he has Fabulio's maul with him and is wondering about some runes on it. The maul is extremely heavy, so the sheriff has to carry it over his shoulders, at which point Fabulio sees the opportunity to strike. He kills the sheriff with a single blow of the fist. The chandelier is broken in the short brawl and the guards are alerted, but Fabulio manages to hide just in time. One of the guards goes to fetch the village's cleric to see what he can do.

After the guard leaves, Fabulio kills the remaining guard and drags his body away, replacing the guard with himself. When the other guard returns, he asks where the guard went, and Fabulio tells him that he has come to replace him because he was complaining about diarrhea. I make him roll a bluff check, and he rolls a natural 20, so the guard and the cleric both make Sense Motive checks. They both roll a 1, so they believe Fabulio. The cleric begins to revive the sheriff on the floor, but Fabulio has other plans. He kills the guard, at which point the sheriff's wife come to check out what's going on. She tries to kill Fabulio with a poisoned blade, but he crushes her skull.

Fabulio spares the cleric's life. The cleric then tells Fabulio that the next man in charge is far worse then the sheriff was, and asks him what he had against the sheriff, Fabulio says that the sheriff was a bad man and deserved death. The cleric agrees, but says "many who deserve life receive death, and many who deserve death receive life and fortune; who are you to say who deserves what?"


I ended the session there because I was at a loss of what to do and it was getting late. I didn't stop anything because it seemed fun and logical that a chaotic good barbarian would do something like this. We had a blast and I'm not complaining about what happened or the actions that were taken. This is an in-game situation that arose in game and I'd like to solve it in game.

Below is my question, broken down into the simplest form I could come up with.

How can I make the logical implications of the CHARACTER's actions take effect without making it seem like I'm punishing the player and, at the same time, preserve the fun and push the story forward?

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17  
I'm just going to point out that killing a panicked apprentice by tossing him out a window, and slaying two guards who -- by virtue of an outrageously successful bluff -- were no threat to him, are actions not usually considered "good," chaotic or no. Also, what were the other characters doing while this madcap scene was going on? –  Jadasc Mar 28 '13 at 2:12
7  
This isn't quite enough for a full answer, but make the consequences of the character's actions interesting challenges instead of things they find painful. For example, if there's a murderous barbarian hero on the loose, it's in the best efforts of pretty much everyone to make sure he's brought to justice - so declare him an outlaw, let him escape, and make being on the lam be the theme in the next adventure arc. –  GMJoe Mar 28 '13 at 2:56
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I'm assuming that Fabulio's player does realise that his character's actions were just wrong... If not, you have a different problem. –  Sardathrion Mar 28 '13 at 8:04
7  
Doesn't D&D subscribe to the idea that you only roll when there's a chance of success? Would a guard really not know that one of his colleagues was a giant of legendary proportions? Wouldn't a village guard of 8 feet be sort of...notable? You dug yourself this hole in part because you gave your player the leeway to get this far. On the other hand, these are some Conan-esque achievements and maybe you should just read some Conan and see how big a pain in the ass his life became...because while this character is an awful person, this sounds like an awesome game! –  gomad Mar 28 '13 at 10:38
2  
Also if this is D&D I don't believe critical success or fails apply to skill checks. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Mar 28 '13 at 18:16

6 Answers 6

up vote 28 down vote accepted

First and foremost, whether or not the in-character consequences come across as out-of-character punishments will depend on how you as the GM portray the situation. Tone of voice and body language speak volumes, and if you act gleeful or malicious while enacting the in-character consequences, the player will feel like he is being reprimanded rather than the character. On the other hand, if you don't act like you're punishing the player, it's not likely to feel that way to him.

You should also make sure that your NPCs' actions remain in-character. There's a big difference between, say, having that cleric duly report the murders to the local law enforcement (once the sheriff is replaced) and the lawmen then pursuing the character as is their job; and having the cleric, his friends, all the sheriff's friends, and whoever else is around pick up weapons and mob the character.

Finally, don't prevent the character from escaping the consequences, if he can find a way to do so. Some people are karma houdinis, and there's nothing the wronged parties can do about it. If Fabulio can escape the village before getting caught and punished, or escape the jail cell the new sheriff throws him in, it's highly unlikely that the village will mount a countrywide manhunt for him. (That said, if the sheriff's paladin sister shows up five levels later having tracked him across the land, that's within the realm of believability, and also makes for an interesting plot twist.)

In short: Treat the consequences as simply a continuation of the story and no different from any other plot element.

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2  
+1 for having the possibility for the consequences to catch upto him later –  Ben-Jamin Mar 28 '13 at 3:06
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As a side-note: The village itself may not have the resources to start a countrywide manhunt, but a sheriff is an official of the state (most likely a kingdom), and states have never been keen on allowing random people (especially barbarian outsiders) to hurt their law enforcement unpunished, as that may send the wrong message to the populace. The village most probably has to report the killings to the sheriff's superior, who probably will have the means & the will to bring down the iron fist of the law on the murderer and possibly on his friends, who can't be anything else but collaborators. –  OpaCitiZen Mar 28 '13 at 8:15
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+2 for linking to tvtropes, -1 for me losing an hour to tvtropes. –  tex Mar 28 '13 at 14:39
    
tvtropes - Its impossible to look up just one thing briefly. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 28 '13 at 18:47
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@tex: TV Tropes will ruin your life... ;) –  thatgirldm Mar 28 '13 at 19:11

A misconception

Let's do a quick 180° here, because there's one important thing that a GM must not assume: that consequences are necessarily bad.

The thing is, they're not.

The word "consequence" has a bad rap, but that's just because it's almost only ever used as a euphemism for the outcome of "bad" choices. In fact, it literally means only "the outcome of actions":

con·se·quence [kon-si-kwens, -kwuhns]
noun

  1. the effect, result, or outcome of something occurring earlier: The accident was the consequence of reckless driving.
  2. an act or instance of following something as an effect, result, or outcome.
  3. the conclusion reached by a line of reasoning; inference.
  4. importance or significance: a matter of no consequence.
  5. importance in rank or position; distinction: a man of great consequence in art.

(Dictionary.com)

Notice how the actual meaning of all of those is neutral – the meaning of "consequence" doesn't specify what kind of result is being discussed, good or bad, only that the act is relevant.

This is the great take-away from the idea that character actions have consequences. Character's actions must matter.

So when GMs talk and think about consequences, we don't ever mean the euphemistic sense that means punishment; we mean the actual sense that means "impact". Ideally, we want them to be indelible impacts, significantly changing the story and game. That's the best way to honour a player's choices and their partnership in creating the fiction. We don't want to punish their contributions to the fiction and game, but we equally don't want to nullify their contributions by making the consequences dull or unimportant. Every consequence is "of consequence" and important. Every action has a reaction.

Making actions matter

All you have to do to make a character's actions have consequence is to always, always make sure that their actions matter. A player character acts, and the world changes. Every. Time. There is no "nothing happens" that has ever been satisfying to a player, in all the history of roleplaying games.

Keeping that principle in mind, you are suddenly freer to think of results of actions without being constrained to thinking in terms of challenges, bad outcomes, or nasty complications. Sometimes, when a character takes a "bad" action, the outcome isn't necessarily bad for them. Sometimes, bad people get away clean; sometimes, they cause trouble for themselves; sometimes, their situation merely changes in interesting (to the audience) ways. When deciding what consequences an action should have, keep in mind that the most interesting thing to happen as a result might be in the good or "complicated" category, and not be clearly bad. Sometimes, as you already realised, bad consequences simply aren't very much fun for anyone participating in the story of the game (or the game of the story, however you see it).

Sometimes too, good intentions and actions have unintended consequences that are "bad" to the PC. Go for interesting above all: forget about "appropriate" consequences except in terms of good for the story and good for maintaining suspension of disbelief.

Bad and good isn't the only axis of consequences, either. Are the consequences immediate, or are you going to put these actions in a back pocket and reveal their impact later because their impact was felt on something that, right now, is in the background? Perhaps these actions will bring something new from "off stage" in due time. (In your example: does the Sheriff have family? Maybe someone will come after the PC for vengeance. Was the Sheriff being extorted to look the other way about something? Maybe now those people, lacking their leverage and protection, will have to take more open action, complicating the local area's situation.)

Another axis is scope. Does the action have a narrow, nearby impact, or is the impact on something larger? Maybe the apprentice had an experiment going, and that tower is about to explode now that it's untended. Or maybe the apprentice was a spy for a foreign power, and his death will make them think that their plot is uncovered and they must invade now! The impact of actions in real life can be unpredictable, and by varying the scope of the consequence you give your world just that bit more life outside the bubble that surrounds your PC(s).

One final axis that I can think of (and I'm sure there are more still) is the impact on the player. What the player thinks of their character is, itself, a consequence. When the barbarian's player steps back at the end of the scene/session and says, "My god, I'm a monster!", that's an excellent outcome of their actions. Sometimes you don't need to think of anything more interesting than the simple logical in-game consequence of an action, because the in-game actions have already had the most meaningful impact they could ever have: they made the audience feel something and care about the fictional events.

TL;DR

Consequences are merely the outcomes of actions, not "bad" by definition. Change it up by varying whether actions (bad and good) lead to bad, neutral, or good outcomes. Let actions (good or bad) have impacts that are immediate, or saved for later. Let them have results that are small and large in scope. Always, always make them change the world in some way – perhaps small, but always irrevocable.


Further reading

Many of these ideas are powerfully developed in Apocalypse World and its descendants, such as Dungeon World. Those games make the principle of always following PC actions with interesting (not necessarily bad) consequences starkly clear by building them into the rules that the GM has to follow. Particularly, they show in the list of Moves that the GM is instructed to choose from when it's the GM's turn to make something happen (i.e., when a PC misses on a roll or when the players turn to the GM for "what happens now"), but also in the PCs' Moves, where a good roll means they succeed, but also often has other consequences that need to be dealt with. If the above ideas are appealing, you'll find lots to learn from in how those games are designed and written.

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Players affect your storyline all the time. This player hasn't so much twisted the plot as torn it in two and set fire to it; but so what? As GM, you signed up for that, and now need a new storyline.

As you recognize, the trick is to enforce the In Character consequences without persecuting the player. The authorities will send a posse to deal with an 8-foot barbarian on a killing spree (looks bad in the crime statistics), but it shouldn't surprise the characters: you could have an awestruck small boy ask "What are you going to do when the posse gets here, mister?" if the player really hasn't thought about it. If/when he is outlawed and pursued, the other characters should have the choice of going on the run with him or joining in the manhunt (sincerely or otherwise). Others have mentioned that this behaviour doesn't fit any normal definition of 'good'; but before having him excommunicated (I would have thought an alignment change would be in order, but your campaign may not work that way), his god should send a priest to hear the character's reasons/excuses and perhaps allow him to atone.

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In general, springing any to-the-player unforeseen (or unforeseeable) consequence on his character might seem as player-punishment. You are wise for wanting to avoid that.

Ultimately, as you also seem to realize, the problem lies not in choosing the consequence as much as in choosing the means of delivery. If the player feels that the consequence is too harsh, and he didn't see it coming, then he will probably feel punished, irregardless to your way of delivery though. It is a mixed problem.

There's two ways I would propose solving this problem in general, though neither can be applied post-character-action:

  1. Letting the player know the consequences of his actions beforehand, or
  2. letting the player know that there might be harsh consequences for his actions beforehand.

The first gives the player a chance to take some control over the story, the latter is a nice way of saying; "you can definitely do it, but there might be severe consequences, and I can't be bothered by the whining that might follow".

As for solving your current predicament, my advise would be to ask Fabulio's player, what he think the consequences for his actions will be. If you feel that his answer leaves a lot of unresolved questions to be answered, then keep asking these questions until he realize what sort of mess he might have gotten him into. Just be sure only to ask questions about something his character would know.

He can't possibly blame you for punishing him, if he realize that he started a chain of causality, but just didn't bother to actually take it to its inevitable conclusion. This assume your player is not an idiot / bad player, of course, merely lazy.

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In general

This is a meta game discussion really. Ask the player What character story arc are you interested in exploring with Fabulio? then you can ask yourself Where does that arc fit within the themes of this game? Note that the game's themes should be decided with all the players. Never be afraid to ask during game play (or after) the player for what consequences they want to happen. Assuming you play with grown ups, they should be behind making an interesting story and thus can come up with things they want their character to live through.

If you are not playing with grown ups, that is a different discussion...

In specific

What you are describing here is a perfect set up for a decent into darkness plot arc. If you have not read Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, you should as it deals with just that theme.

In specific: Fabulio is going to fall more and more prey to his violence and under the mask of good intentions will become an evil overlord. He will be helped by demons, Gods of Chaos, and Things That Should Not Be Named feeding on pain and suffering all giving him power to inflict more justice on the guilty (read: kill everyone as no one is guilt free). Of course, at first the patrons will present themselves as nice and friendly guys who just want to help. Where will Fabulio draw the line? Will he even draw one?... This is an interesting story arc for the character. The key here is to make the character agree to deals to do evil acts masquerading as good acts. The player may see through it but still let his character fall.

Finally, once Fabulio culminates in his evil, you could run a redemption arc: how do you come back from being an evil overlord? Who would trust you? What can you do to leave your heart of darkness behind?

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ICA = ICC

In Character Actions have In Character Consequences. So long as the consequences are in-character and appropriate for the story and setting, they are not punishing the player.

Character punishments can be severe but you shouldn't shy away from them. In a Dark Sun campaign I ran, the low level players had a brief audience with a Sorcerer King before they were to be tossed into an arena pit to fight for their lives. One of the players had their character try to spit on the Sorcerer King. There was only one plausible consequence for that kind of character action, which was total and complete annihilation of that character. The player might have complained about his character exploding into dozens of elf-chunks right then and there, but he had provoked the ire of an incredibly powerful and evil being.

I didn't punish the player though. I told him to make a new character ASAP and if he had one ready by the time the other players finished role-playing their trip into the arena (I drew things out a bit to give him time) he'd re-join the group as an extra slave tossed in at the same time. The player wasn't punished, but the character was.

Punishing the player would be doing something mechanical, like taking away XP, making the player sit out the next session, or taking away his favorite dice. Punishing the player is saying "no you can't do that."

You may be running into a different problem, addressed by How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? As the answers there point out, the trick to manipulating character behavior is through in-character consequences and setting enforcement. But ultimately, the players have to have the freedom to play the characters the way they want to play, even if it means going against the grain of the setting and having the setting react (sometimes viciously) to those actions.

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1  
+1 Just for the first 6 letters (plus punctuation) –  Rob Mar 28 '13 at 8:35
    
+1 for linking to the murderous cretins article, and general good-answeriness –  tex Mar 28 '13 at 14:41
    
Notice how, in some systems (notably pre-4e D&D) the ICC (character death) would have meant XP loss for the player. IMHO, that's bad game design, preventing you from not punishing the player whit an ICC. –  Zachiel Mar 28 '13 at 14:55

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