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I GM a home-made D&D-style game which my friends and I play, and we had a scenario go as follows:

After a player-character threw something at the wall, the players rolled a one and I was beginning to describe that the wall in front of them was about to collapse: "you hear a cracking sound—", at which point one of the players said that they roll out of the way ("instant actioning," we call it).

My friend had done this a few times already, so I punished him by finishing "—and the floor crumbles away where you landed!" This unfortunately turned out to be the start of a series of actions which resulted in the perma-death of his character. (Fortunately, he took it quite well.)

My question is, is it right to punish a player for interrupting the GM? Especially in an ironic context?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds potentially fine, but there's a core question that needs to be emphasized, and I'm not sure what it is. Maybe Should a character suffer if the player exhibits negative behavior? or Should the game universe react to a player's real-life actions? or is it something else? (By the way, both questions are controversial in some circles.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 5 '15 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is not meta-gaming- the character is responding to partial information. Honestly the best GM response is you jump out the way of the sound- it goes everywhere so your character is stuck in one place. The player has to dictate meaningful directions to his character- jump out the way when there is nothing coming is not meaningful. \$\endgroup\$ – user2617804 Feb 20 '18 at 4:50
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No, it's not fair to punish a player in this way. But it's not okay for this player to take an unfair share of control over the game, either.

You are the DM — you are in control. You are in the Big Chair, and the group put you there to be responsible for pacing and mediation. You have that job because players striving for the benefit of their PC is fun but usually incompatible with players having responsibility for fair pacing of action. You don't need to resort to retributive actions like that. You need to exercise that pacing authority instead.

Don't punish — be proactively assertive

Punishing a player like this only makes "sense" if you're not in control of the game world and play pacing, but to be able to punish a player in-game requires being in control. See the contradiction? No control — in control.

Instead of letting the player take control, and then punishing them for taking it, reassert that they don't get to inject things whenever they want.

Player: I throw it at the wall... Ack! I rolled a one!
GM: You hear a cracking sound—
Player: I roll out of the way!
GM: Hang on there Speedy, I'm not done. Ahem. You hear a cracking sound, and the wall collapses onto you. Roll an Escape Save† to see how well or badly you're hit by falling masonry.
Player: But I said I got out of the way!
GM: Being good at interrupting me when I'm talking doesn't magically make your character faster in the game world. Make the roll.

† I just made that up. I'm not assuming exactly how your homebrew would work here — maybe they'd just take damage directly, or maybe something else might happen like using luck points or something — but I'm making this up for the sake of the example's narrative flow. Adjust it as you read to fit your actual game rules.

See how that works? Be confident, don't let the interruption startle you, and do not accept the contribution that is made inappropriately. In short, do not allow "instant actioning." It's rude, privileges people who are good at talking fast and startlingly, encourages being rude to get an unfair advantage compared to the other players, and adds things to the unfolding story that make no sense in-world. Just don't permit it.

When a player attempts to take control over the narrative, just ignore it. Void it, veto it, undo it — however you want to think about it, just do not dignify it by accepting and incorporating it into the "Shared Imaginary Space"  — the shared and agreed on story of what is actually happening with these characters. Don't let one interrupting player take inappropriate priority over what's happening.

Remind yourself that nothing passes that doesn't gain acceptance. Remember that the other players are looking to you as the example for what is accepted, moment to moment, so you do have this authority, even if it's uncomfortable to feel like you have that much say over the narrative. Being the GM is also about leadership, and leading by example.

Calmly, and confidently, disregard the interruption and continue as if it didn't happen in the game — because it didn't yet.

Moving forward

Normally I would suggest retconning the situation, but I won't here because your player took the PC's death well. That shows me that you and your group have an high degree of mutual trust. That means that rolling back and redoing this isn't really necessary to patch things up — there's no unmet need that would justify the significant disruption a retcon can cause.

What I would do here, is talk about "instant actioning" at the beginning of the next session. Say that it's become a problem, and you don't like how you dealt with it last time. Thank the player for being such a good sport, and apologise that how you handled it lead to their character's death. Then just let the group know that, to deal with the unwanted phenomenon of instant actioning, you're no longer going to allow "talking faster than me" to interrupt what's happening in game. Since habits are hard to break, tell them that it's OK if they forget and try an instant action, and that you'll just calmly ask them to hold on until you're done.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Normally, I would say that the 'I roll out of the way' portion is the 'escape action' check. Reminding the players of this - that there is an in-game mechanic for getting out of the way of such things - could also help to prevent them from interrupting you in the first place, or to recover from such a situation. "But I rolled out of the way!" "Yes, and you need to make the appropriate check for that, not just assume it worked." \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Mar 5 '15 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz Yep, exactly. Without knowing their homebrew rules though, it's hard to say directly whether that's how it would work. In my experience using this technique though it doesn't matter, because it doesn't eliminate the chance to do otherwise-OK things after the narration is done — it becomes obvious how to proceed after having the player hold on. If an attempt to evade is OK by the rules and situation, then it's natural to just say "Okay, now you can try to roll out of the way, by making [roll name here]," or "Okay, now you can spend Luck to avoid your fate. No, it's not free." \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 5 '15 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for order-of-operations not being dependant on order-of-speaking. In a way, this is the other side of: GM: "You open the door and see a gold goblet-" Player: "I run in and grab it!" GM: "-suspended 40 feet away over an alligator-filled chasm..." Letting a player react to information before their character would normally react often leads to implausible outcomes. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Mar 6 '15 at 0:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Beautifully-stated answer. In the "instant actioning" discussion to be held at the beginning of the next session, assert that -- if there is in-world time enough for your characters to react to something such as the wall crumbling -- you will finish setting the scene, then prompt them for their character actions at which point they can dodge (or duck under their tower shield, etc). \$\endgroup\$ – Doktor J Mar 7 '15 at 3:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ "GM: Being good at interrupting me when I'm talking doesn't magically make your character faster in the game world. Make the roll." This is a perfect summary for this answer/thought process. \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan The Brave Mar 13 '17 at 14:12
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I don't think it is a good idea to punish your players for anything meta gaming related. I think you should ask yourself why the player is trying to perform these instant actions:

  • Does he feel this is the only way he can escape the impeding danger, i.e. a wall about to collapse on/near his character? (Possibly some experience in the past made him very wary about these things, as a past failure to pay attention resulted in grave consequences to his character.)

  • Does it happen that you describe events and their effect on characters without giving them enough possibilities to react? (Not saying you are, but maybe the player perceives it that way...)

In those cases it could be that the player is trying to preserve his agency over his character, and his characters well-being. This is what you would expect really, so punishing him for it is not a good approach in my opinion.

Have you tried talking to the player and explaining to him why you think his behavior (i.e. interrupting you mid-description) is bad? It might be worth pointing out that the description you give to them is an instantaneous perception, leaving no room for any reaction yet. At the same time you should ask about why your player does interrupt you, and what he hopes to achieve with it.

Bottom line is, I think you need to find a compromise: the player should accept a certain level/depth of GM descriptions and story telling without blurting out what he wants his character to do next. On the other hand, you as GM should of course allow for your players to react to imminent danger or sudden events within a reasonable time. (Sitting through a detailed description of the castle wall tapestries might be a little unnerving if the GM just explained that the walls started crumbling around the players...)

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Clear Narration Rules

What are your rules for narrating? What are your rules for initiative?

RPGs are structured conversations - when people know the rules of how the conversation is supposed to flow - who can say what kinds of things, at what times, it flows smoothly. When they don't, you get problems like you're describing.

Are players expected to make instant responses any other times? ("Hey, you didn't say you were dodging, so you get hit by the fireball, no roll") If so, that might lead to confusion.

If not, then just be clear: "Hey, I'm narrating what happens, and sometimes that will be faster than what your character can react to (and it's certainly happening faster than it takes me to describe it). Let me finish and then you can go."

The Fearful Player

Sometimes, you get player who is a control freak. They want to win, everything, all the time. They tend to do stuff like hyper prepare for everything, and try to stop you from describing any kind of conflict or difficulty they might face. Interrupting or talking over the GM is one of the tricks they might employ.

In this case, it's not a misunderstanding of how to play, as much as a choice of behavior. The conversation you have is different here:

"Hey, sometimes bad things will happen to your character to make conflict or adventure. I'm not going to ruin, maim, or kill your character out of the blue, I'm going to present challenges and you'll have a chance to overcome them. If you're not ok with facing challenges, then this isn't a game you're going to have fun with."

And then you can see if they choose to modify their behavior ("I jump out the way- oh, sorry, bad habit... go ahead and finish.") or if they keep trying to talk over you and interrupt narration. At least at this point you've been clear about what to expect and if they aren't interested in playing the same game, you can ask them to leave.

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Use "Yes, and..." or "yes, but..."

Reacting quickly is perfectly sensible! However, it shouldn't mean that no-one else gets to find out what's going on. If the wall collapsing is primarily narration and wasn't going to trap the players anyway, I would go with something like:

GM: You hear a cracking sound-

PC: I dive out of the way.

GM: OK. The collapsing wall narrowly misses you. Behind it stands...

The player gets to look dramatic and competent, and everything can proceed as intended.

If all the PCs were going to need to make a save, I would go with something like:

GM: You hear a cracking sound-

PC: I dive out of the way.

GM: OK, roll a reflex check. Everyone else, the wall collapses toward the party, also make reflex checks.

The key is, the player probably wants a combination of:

  • A moment looking dramatic
  • Not to be caught with their pants down when something surprising happens

So, reassure them immediately that they get that, but not at the expense of resolving their action while leaving everyone else hanging. If necessary say "ok, you dive out of the way, hold on while we catch everyone else up".

If you want to keep the players reacting quickly but not quite that quickly, I'd suggest player reactions usually just get folded into the narrative but occasionally lead to either a bonus to evade, or an embarrassing mis-step.

Avoid

Avoid, ever punishing the player for not interrupting. (Saying, "choose now" may be ok, but "too late" without warning is usually going to make the players rightly paranoid.) You can do this, but remember it will mean the players ALWAYS interrupt.

Avoid, denying the action the player wants to take. Saying "yes, here's the resolution" makes them feel good. Saying "no, you don't have any warning" makes them feel bad. Even if the mechanical resolution is the same :)

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If it is the table rules, and everybody know it at the beginning, and all players know and agree to the consequences, then in a sense it's all good.

However, is it a good rule?

  • What's the purpose of ruling against "instant actions"? What is your concern that you decide to penalize players about it?
  • As it is a meta-game mechanic, what good does it to for the meta-game? Example: does it helps your concentration? Avoid being interrupted?
  • Does it apply to all cases? For instance, in the example above, some players may think good play means reacting instantly to danger. Is your rule too broad or too specific?

Say, if you don't want to be interrupted, there are many ways to achieve this without punishing your players. However. only by knowing the intent of your rules can you find another way to address your concerns.

Let's take the example of you don't want to be interrupted. If this was in my case, I would probably just hold up my hand and say "But wait, there's more!" or "Ok, you attempt to duck out of the way. However, before that..." At other times when the mood is light at the table, I would say, "Okay, but it's a cutscene now" and the table will chuckles and let me get on with my grandiose narration.

RPG games are like any form of social interaction. I prefer rewards and talking things over rather than punishments or threats. The less of the stick I need to employ, the better the experience it will be.

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