This Month’s Blog Carnival was proposed more or less as follows:
People love it when player characters do great heroic deeds and win fame and fortune in a campaign. But how about when things horribly wrong go… and it’s all the fault of some foolhardy decision by some Player Character? Those can be either tragic-fun or Fun-Fun, or even just plain old un-fun, depending on the circumstances.
What is the most memorable experience you have had GMing your Ship Of Fools?
This proved to be a rather more difficult topic than anyone really expected. There were a number of problems and discussions about them, but for me, the biggest hurdle was that I had already used much of my most appropriate material in other articles and blog posts. Even when expanded to include mistakes by NPCs, the results barely trickled in. I suggested further broadening to the topic to include how GMs dealt with the situation when the players made a mistake, and that is the subject of today’s article.
Mistakes. We all make them. GMs have something akin to unlimited power at their fingertips to use in covering over their mistakes – at least some of the time; at other times, more drastic action may be required. I covered the occasions of my biggest mistakes in the series appropriately entitled My Biggest Mistakes back in September 2009 as part of an earlier blog carnival, and I’ve written many articles on how GMs can correct smaller mistakes or even turn them to their advantage – for example, see By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On The Fly. None of those articles specifically cover Player mistakes, though some of the principles can still apply. This article will fill that gap.
Types Of Mistake
As usual when considering a new topic, I’ve tried to be systematic about it. What I realized when I was initially considering a list of the types of errors a player might make for his PC was that the type of mistake made a serious difference to the way I handled the situation within the game. There were two basic criteria used to distinguish the different types of mistake: seriousness and cause (actually, ‘seriousness’ tends to underplay the significance of that criterion, but you get the idea).
I ended up deriving a list of 10 types of mistake, each of which comes in different grades of severity:
- Characterization Demands
- Technical Errors
- Flawed Reasoning
- Unreasonable Choices
- Tactical Errors
- Mistakes of Genius
- Deliberate Mistakes
The Decision Tree
Even a cursory examination of each of these, and the coping mechanisms that I employed, enabled my to generalize a checklist of questions that I asked myself each time a mistake was made. The first questions were designed to identify corrective mechanisms that could be applied to prevent or minimize the error and whether or not that was the appropriate response; the rest assessed the severity of the error, with a view to answering the general question, How Far was I justified in going in order to cope with the error?
- Is it a mistake?
- Is the mistake mandatory?
- Should the character know better?
- Should I have known better?
- Was I expecting the Player to know better?
- Will the consequences be Campaign-Lethal?
- Will the consequences be Character-Lethal? And what are the consequences of that, if so?
- Will the consequences be Plot-Lethal?
- IS A SOLUTION REQUIRED?
The Hierarchy Of Cataclysm
In the worst-case scenario, you have worked your way down the decision tree and been unable to take successfully advantage of any of the get-out-of-jail free mechanisms at the top of the list, and found yourself facing a cataclysm, disaster, or a catastrophe, mandating a “yes” answer to that ultimate question, it’s time to consider a suite of possible solutions to see which is most appropriate to the problem. In order of increasing severity, these are:
- One Bad Mistake Deserves Another
- The Temporary Aberration
- The Backstep
- Change The Plot
- Change An NPC
- A Dues-ex-machina (including Divine Intervention)
- Change A PC
- Live with the consequences
Before implementing any of these, I will take a few moments to clear my head. Now is NOT the time to panic. And, unless I can solve the problem with one of the first two solutions on the list (and sometimes even then), I will start with a Mea Culpa.
Because even if the mistake is not of the GMs making, it is still his mistake for failing to anticipate that the PC might make a critical error. If the players know that you’re scrambling to salvage their entertainment, they will be less inclined to knock down any house of cards that you may erect, and may have some suggestions that will help solve the problem.
A General Principle
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. For every one of these solutions (except the last one) there will be a Quid-Pro-Quo – an occasion when the PC must pay the piper, and discharge their Karmic debt. This serves three purposes: it prevents the PCs from being lazy and relying on the GM to pull their fat out of the fire; it encourages them to consider their actions and learn from their mistakes; and it maintains game balance, preventing them from gaining an advantage by making a mistake.
Types Of Mistake In Detail
That outlines the scope of the discussion, and in fact, synopsizes the entire article. I would not be surprised if you found it rather larger than you might have been expecting: I certainly did. My initial thought was that there would be perhaps 4 types of mistake to consider, and I had not fully appreciated how comprehensive the decision tree was that I was employing almost instinctively; in actuality, the only question I would ask myself was the last one, and the others would be fleeting thoughts used to frame the answer. Nor had I realized how many different solutions to the problem I have employed in the past (and make no mistake, I have used each and every one of these in real life).
So let’s get down to cases and look at these types of mistakes in detail.
Some mistakes are made by players, knowing that they are mistakes, because those are mistakes that the character would have made. It’s my job as GM to anticipate these and make sure that they don’t permanently screw the character over. Complicating his life, that’s fine – that’s what these flaws are there to do. One of the big strengths of the Hero system is that these are codified as disadvantages.
In fact, rather than punishing the character for these mistakes, I tend to reward them (eventually) for good roleplay. These are therefore the easiest “mistakes” to cope with.
The real trouble only occurs when I have failed to anticipate such characterization demands – and that’s my mistake, not the player’s. Nevertheless, the same process should be applied when I make that mistake.
Mistakes in this category can occur because the player doesn’t have the technological, scientific, or technical knowledge that there character is supposed to have. When I am sure that this is the case, I tell the player what I think is going on, and provide the relevant technical information so that the character’s incorrect decision can be corrected. If it’s a particularly critical question, and not something that is fairly obvious, I might require the player to make a skill roll to get the correct answers.
The other way this type of mistake can occur is where the character doesn’t have the technical expertise to make the correct choice (even if the player does). This is definitely time to require an appropriate skill roll, if there is a relevant skill.
Once again, it’s part of the GMs job to anticipate these situations and plan accordingly. If there is knowledge that the character would have and the player might not, I will make sure that I provide that information to the player ahead of time. If the character is unlikely to have the required technical knowledge, I need to plan for the possibility that the character will make the mistake – and also for the possibility that he will fluke the right answer.
That means that, once again, only in the event of a failure by the GM to correctly plan that I need to put the crisis management process into operation.
This category of mistake has two subtypes: they can be caused by the player misinterpreting something the GM has said, or by the GM misinterpreting what the player wanted to do, and hence incorrectly determining the consequences of the action. These problems are especially true when gaming in a noisy environment, like a convention, a party, or a games store where there are other events occurring, but even in an enclosed and private space, a side conversation can cause this to occur. Alcohol can also increase the likelyhood.
Regardless, the correct solution is to clarify the situation before the mistake is irretrievable. Both player and GM need to remain aware of the possibility, and speak up immediately. “I think you may have misunderstood [the situation]”, “You’ve misunderstood what I want to do,” “You didn’t let me finish explaining,” or whatever. Establish that there has been a miscommunication, rewind to the critical moment, correct the misinterpretation, and permit the player to reconsider.
The trickier aspects of this type of error only occur when the misinterpretation occurred some time back and wasn’t noticed at the time. That’s when a more drastic correction may be needed – in which case, the process is the same as usual.
Closely akin to the misinterpretation of circumstances or situation is the case where one of the two parties misunderstands what is occurring. One of the most frequent causes of this type of mistake is human fallibility of memory – if the key events transpired in a prior game session, the player’s memory of them (or the GM’s) may be incomplete. This type of mistake most frequently shows itself in the form of the character’s actions being unresponsive to the actual situation. “The countdown resumes at 8.” “All right, I stroke the cat.”
Okay, that’s a rather unlikely example, and a particularly blunt one, but its valid in all its essentials – the GM describes a situation in which the character should have to respond (usually with some urgency) and the character does nothing, or does something completely irrelevant.
When this occurs, it is first essential to verify that the character is not behaving this way out of characterization necessity. It is also necessary to rule out “Mistakes through Genius”, discussed below. Once these concerns have been addressed, I proceed as described in Misinterpretations.
This, once again, is closely related to the previous types. This type of error is one of degree, and not of kind – the character over- or under- reacting to a situation because the GMs description understates or overinflates the situation. Once again, it’s a communications failure between GM and player, and the correct solution is usually to back up, clarify the situation, and give the player the opportunity to revise his action. Only when the player insists that the stated action is what he wants his character to do is there a real problem.
Often, the cause is a flawed theory as to what is going on that the players have formulated.
The first thing to do, in such circumstances, is to rule out “Mistakes by Genius”. Assuming that’s not the case, I proceed as usual with the general solution.
“If I do A then that will result in B” – which is all well and good except when the player has overlooked some element of the circumstances that instead results in “C”, or “B and C”. If I suspect a case of flawed reasoning, I will usually give the character a skill or stat roll to be reminded of whatever it is that they may have overlooked – and permit a revised action choice if that happens. If the character archetype is one that sets a high priority on their logic and reasoning abilities, I may also offer a roll to discover and correct the flaw in their reasoning at the last possible moment (giving the player every chance to discover the problem, and fix it, themselves).
This type of error most frequently manifests when the players are making plans, and it occurs so frequently that a standard refrain when a plan of action is described by a player is “Tell us where this goes wrong.”
In general, aside from the corrective checks listed above, I will do my best to allow players to make this type of mistake without overt correction; only in the most catastrophic of cases will I normally intervene. That stems from my usual approach to adventure writing: put the PCs into a situation in which I know there is at least one solution, and then let them find their own answer to the problem. Only when a choice of action is all-or-nothing, or when the player is completely out of ideas and left with only a desperate choice, will I intervene at any other time. Though there will often be hints that a plan isn’t working long before the Rubicon is crossed!
The more plot-train your adventures are – which is considered bad GMing in general – the more critical, and prevalent, this type of mistake becomes. Some introspection on the GMs part is appropriate if this sort of problem is a recurring situation.
What can you do when a player insists on doing something profoundly unreasonable? Well, you can either have it succeed because his character is a PC – inviting other unreasonable actions in the future – or you can have it fail, and cope with the consequences – always assuming that any attempt to dissuade the player responsible have fallen on deaf ears. I have once had a player walk out of a campaign because I did not permit an action that I considered unreasonable to succeed.
Not every GM will agree with me in my handling of this situation, or any similar ones that might come up; my former partner in this website, Johnn Four, advocated something quite different in one article posted here (Say Yes, But Get There Quick). Actually, as I said in my comments, I agree 99.5% with his article, but reserved a small margin for a “No, because…” answer, with just this sort of situation in mind. Or, perhaps, a “You can try, but…”.
Tactical errors are the most pure – the character expects to be able to do A, or expects their opponent to be able to do B – and, for whatever reason, they are wrong. This type of mistake can also be the most catastrophic. I do my best to permit combat decisions, however mistaken they may be, to stand; but, having said that, these require intervention of some sort far more frequently than is the case with Flawed Reasoning errors.
There have been times where I have permitted these sort mistakes to play out far further than the PCs expect, once it becomes clear to them that a tactical error has indeed been made. An example might be the death of a character who is critical to the plot, or at least seems that way to the players – if I can think of a way to have another character shoulder the burden of the plot, no intervention is necessary. If I can’t, there may be a way to bring the dead back to life – it happens all the time in comics and soap operas. These solutions are derivations of one of the key solution types, “The Temporary Aberration”.
Mistakes of Genius
Sometimes, what the GM perceives as a mistake is actually a masterstroke on the part of a player – because a failure to do what the GM is expecting you to do is not necessarily a mistake. Every time the player surprises the GM with a choice of action, the GM has to double-check that the player doesn’t know exactly what they are doing.
Sometimes this type of “mistake” will occur because the GM will think that the circumstances will rule out that particular choice of action – only for him to realize subsequently that the PCs weren’t given the information regarding that circumstance. If they don’t know about it, they can’t factor it into their plans. That’s when the GM suddenly finds that he has a full-blown emergency on his hands; the PCs have done something that will have catastrophic repercussions, but weren’t in a position to know any better – and it’s all down to sloppy planning on his part. So, even this type of mistake sometimes requires intervention on the part of the GM – but it is essential that the GM realize that whatever else, the player’s “mistake” has to be allowed to stand, and the GM has to find a way to accommodate it. Fortunately, the solutions matrix contains several techniques that can be used to achieve that accommodation.
Nor is it acceptable that the GM punish the players in any way for their brilliance. On the contrary, they should be both rewarded and commended – often at the same time as the GM is eating his humble pie.
I have had players make deliberate mistakes in a fit of pique. I have had players make deliberate mistakes in a cold-blooded attempt to destroy the campaign for ulterior motives. I have had players make deliberate mistakes out of sheer curiosity as to the outcome. And I have had players make deliberate mistakes because they so disliked another player, or another character, that they were willing to suicide their own character to take out the subject of their dislike.
Motives and intentions are all-important when deciding how to handle Deliberate Mistakes. In only one of the above can it be said that the campaign is not in Deep, deep, trouble. Before tackling any of these, take a deep breath and calm yourself down – you will almost certainly be angry, in some cases, justifiably.
I’ll dispose of the easy one, first: If a deliberate mistake is made “to see what would happen”, promise the player to run an out-of-continuity “what if” conclusion to the adventure, assuming that the answer isn’t, or can’t be, incorporated into the narrative of the existing plot – on condition that he withdraw the spurious decision and play properly. Then keep your word.
The other versions of this problem are more catastrophic. Before you can begin to solve the resulting game problems, you have to get the real-world human problem out of the way. Sometimes this can be resolved simply with an earnest conversation; at other times you may have to immediately eject the player responsible from the campaign, then turn your attention to cleaning up the mess. One way or another, you have to deal with their grievance immediately.
You may then be able to salvage the game situation by making the offending character an NPC, writing them out of the campaign as quickly as possible; or by persuading another player to take over the character. You may need to abandon that adventure completely. Where the adventure was continuity-critical, you may have to write it as a short story. Once again, I’ve employed all these solutions in the past. The choice of which solution is best depends very much on the circumstances of your campaign, but it’s clearly an exercise in damage limitation.
The Decision Tree, in detail
Having expanded on the different types of mistake that can be made, and on any variations on the general mistake-handling process, it’s time to take a closer look at the decision tree that places the possible solutions in context.
Is it a mistake?
There are several circumstances described above in which the mistake is something that is reasonable for the character to make, given what they know, or because the player has a “brilliant idea”. If it’s not actually a mistake, don’t treat it as one.
The only way to confirm that it is a mistake is by determining what type of mistake it is from the ten listed categories. Some of these have their own recommended remedial actions; some specify skipping this entire assessment process and standing by the character’s decision, meaning that you have to move directly to assessing the different mechanisms offered for coping with the consequences in the next major section.
Is the mistake mandatory?
Similarly, if the mistake is something that the character has to make, by virtue of characterization, it’s a case of “move directly to coping mechanisms, do not pass Go, do not collect $200”.
Should the character know better?
I’ve covered this question in several specific error types where it is obviously relevant, but it’s always a good idea to ask it of all mistakes in general. If the character shou8ld know better, you can always give them a skill or stat roll to pry that guidance out of the GM before they are committed to the action in question. If they go ahead with the action despite receiving this information, or fail the “should know better” roll, it becomes too late to deal with the mistake by the player taking back his announced action and reconsidering. Instead, you find yourself in a situation in which the player is committed to his action choice, right or wrong, and you have to cope with it. Which means it’s time to start assessing the severity of the problem you are facing, because that gives an indication of how far you should feel entitled to go in dealing with the mistake.
Should I have known better?
A number of the mistakes listed are actually the GM’s fault, or at least, the only reason it’s a problem is because the GM has been inadequate in his prep. When this is the case, it’s incumbent on the GM not to make the players suffer for his mistake. All the solutions are on the table, and should be considered.
Was I expecting the Player to know better?
This is a dangerous trap to fall into that we’ve all been guilty of at times. The player might be quite correctly distinguishing between player-knowledge and character-knowledge, while the GM has confused the two. Once again, that means that this is a problem of the GM’s own making, and while all solutions are on the table, he cannot reasonably punish the PC for the mistake.
Will the consequences be Campaign-Lethal?
Okay, now we’re getting down to the serious questions. Will the mistake blow up the world, or kill all the PCs, or do something as catastrophic for the campaign? If so, drastic action is justified.
Will the consequences be Character-Lethal? And what are the consequences of that, if so?
Slightly less cataclysmic is the disastrous mistake that will be lethal to one or more characters. These might not be the character that is making the mistake. It’s one thing for a character to get himself killed making a mistake, and quite a different thing for that mistake to cost another PC his life. In this circumstance, drastic action is warranted to save the life of the innocent party, while it is the character making the mistake who incurs the Karmic Debt.
Even if the character who will be affected is the one making the mistake, the GM’s problems don’t end there. How central is the affected character to future plans for the campaign? How attached to the character is the player – might he choose to walk away from the campaign if his character goes up in smoke? The answers to these corollary questions will dictate how extreme the GM’s response should be.
However, the death of any individual character will probably not derail the entire campaign, so the most drastic solutions may not be an appropriate response.
Will the consequences be Plot-Lethal?
Will the mistake derail the entire adventure? While it would be nice to salvage the adventure, if at all possible, there are times when the GM simply has to abandon his brainchild. Because both characters and campaign can survive an aborted adventure, the most extreme remedies are probably not warranted.
Is a solution required?
If a mistake is not campaign-toxic, character-killing, or lethal to the adventure, a solution is probably not all that necessary. The mistake happens, and the action moves on from there. This is especially the case where a character has been given all reasonable opportunities to retract his choice in favor of something more reasonable or rational.
The Solutions In Detail
As noted in the summary, the solutions are listed in order of increasing severity. That means that it’s easy to select the least drastic solution that will do the job simply by ruling out all those above it on the list.
One Bad Mistake Deserves Another
Why should the PCs be the only ones who make mistakes? When a PC makes a mistake, it’s often easy to restore the status quo by having the NPC make a mistake of his own. Not necessarily right away, but whenever seems most appropriate. I once had to deal with a character who misjudged the amount of movement he had left in his turn (estimating distances by eye), leaving him exposed and out in the open under threat of the villain’s weapons. But the character had a reputation for successfully employing unorthodox tactics, and the villain decided that no-one with that much experience could make so fundamental a mistake – and therefore it must be a trick, a distraction to keep his attention from someone sneaking up behind him. As a result, he leaped out from behind a sheltered position and engaged the PC in hand-to-hand combat, snarling, “You can’t trick me that easily!” One mistake nullified another.
The Temporary Aberration
So long as the worst is not permanent – which is to say, so long as you can devise a subsequent sequel adventure to undo the damage – go ahead, do your worst. Let the coup succeed because of the PCs mistake. Let the villain get his hands on the megawhatzit. Let the PCs be exiled to Hell. Let the villain disintegrate the good guys (so far as he knows) – it’s not his fault if he doesn’t really understand what his weapon really does. And you get the benefits of a jaw-dropping moment for the players.
Even if you can’t justify it by way of a skill roll or a stat check, sometimes the easiest solution is to permit a retcon anyway.
The ultimate expression of this solution (combining it with “The Temporary Aberration”) is a Groundhog Day-style adventure, which is a trick that I used for an adventure in my Superhero Campaign entitled Force 13, which I synopsized in my article Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 2), which in turn was based on a Star Trek The Next Generation episode, Cause And Effect. In a nutshell, the PCs inadvertently involved themselves in a Dalek Invasion, accidently trapping themselves in a temporal loop in which the force of the creation of that temporal loop destroyed the world. They had to figure out what was going on, and how it had all started, before it was too late to stop it. Doing so ultimately prevented the Dalek Invasion in question but resulted in the destruction of a Dalek Ship outside the temporal loop – which attracted the attention of the Dalek Empire, leading to a Dalek Invasion of Korea (in place of a Korean War).
Change The Plot
If what the PC has done is entirely reasonable, given what he or she knew of the situation at the time, then its time to throw away most if not all of the plot you had planned and substitute a new one in which the PC action was NOT a mistake. This can be a minor variation on the original or completely and radically different. Do it well enough (the “By The Seat Of Your Pants” article cited earlier will show you how) and the PCs will never know. In fact, I got so adept at this that I got accused of plot railroads!
Change An NPC
If what the PC has done is only a mistake because of a misunderstanding about an NPCs motives or abilities, sometimes the easiest answer is to change that NPC. If necessary, institute a hidden power behind this villain, or give him a servant with the capabilities that you have just removed from him. The most critical consideration here is to make sure that the reformulated NPC is still consistent with what he has achieved in the past.
In another GMs game, there was a legendarily clumsy (NPC) character who amassed a huge reputation as the most dangerous man alive because he was as lucky as he was clumsy. In fact, the character was no luckier than anyone else, the GM simply rolled an improbable series of successes. The PCs came to trust his luck implicitly to get them out of fights more dangerous than they were really good enough to win with a victory. Which left them all caught very short when his luck finally ran out.
In more practical terms, reducing, removing, increasing, or adding a skill to an NPC can often produce a plausible way of mitigating the worst consequences of a mistake. The trick is being able to do so in such a way that it is plausible for the NPC to have always have had, or not had, the skill in question.
A Dues-ex-machina (including Divine Intervention)
Sometimes a silly mistake can be solved with a bit of silliness. If the players realize that your objective is to keep the campaign intact, they will generally go along with the gag and not ask too many difficult questions.
Behemoth, one of the primary characters early in my superhero campaign, once spent six months researching magic in a parallel world. He then set his teleporter to return him to approximately where and when he had departed with a relative velocity of zero relative to the surface of the world he was standing on. I gave the character the appropriate skill and INT checks to realize his mistake, but he blew them – spectacularly. When he teleported, a margin of error factor had him arrive 20,000 km above the surface. The earth had its orbital velocity around the sun, and the character had an equal orbital velocity in the other direction – the two were on a collision course at roughly 60 km/sec (216,000 km/hr). I dutifully did the math: 180,000,000 dice of damage. There was no way that the character could survive (actually, there were several, the simplest of which was to teleport away again). He had about 3 minutes before reentry to think about it, after all. Instead, the player elected to try for Divine Intervention (a 1% chance of success) – I figured, let him try and fail and then he can turn his mind to trying to find the obvious solution. Much to everyone’s surprise, he succeeded. But I decided that God was too busy with other matters; instead he got God’s third left-hand undersecretary, who gave him a pretty pink plastic parasol with floral print pattern to use as a heat shield. The character punched straight through the Andes and 30km deep, excavating a crater 120km across and creating the largest volcano on earth – but both he and the parasol survived. It was dutifully placed in the team’s trophy room and never used again (and a good thing, too, because its magic was all used up). Much later (years), another PC found that their history had changed because the parasol didn’t appear, and the critical team member Behemoth, was killed during a fiery reentry from orbit. That character, a mage, travelled back in time after imbuing the object in the trophy room with a one-shot force-field spell powerful enough to survive reentry, impersonated Gods Third Left-Hand Undersecretary, and handed over the life-saving umbrella.
The second half of that little subplot was just me dotting i’s and crossing t’s; the players had never questioned where the legendary “pretty pink parasol” had come from. But Behemoth’s player never made that particular mistake again.
Change A PC
Sometimes, the easiest way to correct a mistake is to give the PC in question a skill they don’t currently have but intend to obtain in the future. In many ways, this might seem less drastic than previous solutions, but I regard the GM monkeying with a PC to be an extremely serious matter, no matter how beneficial to the campaign the results might be. I never do anything permanent to a PC without their express permission (other than what various enemy NPCs might try and do, of course). If a character has paid character points for something in the Hero System, if I take that item away from them, they will get a replacement before too long, if not the original. It’s a bit trickier in non-points-based systems like D&D but I follow the same principle – things are either expendable or they get replaced.
So it is only with some hesitation that I will change a PC to get the campaign out of trouble, even if the change is only temporary, especially if that trouble is self-inflicted. In fact, this is just about a last resort. I have done so before, and will do it again if the circumstances warrant – but never without careful consideration – and to a far greater extent than simply giving a PC a free skill. But that story is in fact a sequel to another story that illustrates the next solution, which in turn is a sequel to the pink parasol story – so, rather than telling them out of continuity-order, I’ll reserve that particular story for a moment.
Live with the consequences
Finally, there is the ultimate bottom line: what happens, happens.
I mentioned, in relation to the Pink Parasol escapade, that the then-team-leader, Behemoth, had undertaken a scientific study of the principles of magic, in the process violating a very sensitive agreement between the team and its greatest enemy. In the course of that study, he learned how to cast summoning spells – but not how to control either the spell or the creatures summoned, many of whom were immediately hostile. If the specimens were unique or interesting, he developed the habit of stuffing them in a stasis tube and hiding them in the team headquarters until he could get around to a full dissection/study – he couldn’t leave them in the dimension in which he had cast the summoning or they would go back where they came from when the spell wore off. There was a Storm Beetle, a couple of Beholders, a Shadow Dragon, and a few other beasties. The character had deliberately ignored a number of hints concerning the ethical treatment of sentient life-forms.
Eventual discovery was inevitable, and eventually, the team’s second-in-command (another PC) made that discovery and hit the roof. Accidentally releasing it didn’t help matters. Almost getting trapped in a security device intended specifically to keep him away from the critters was not exactly beneficial to his sunny outlook, either. Suspending the character from team duties for 30 days, and instituting court-martial proceedings against him, was the mildest possible reaction under the circumstances.
Everything that Behemoth had done was the player’s choice. They were serious mistakes of judgment for a supposedly super-smart superhero. While there were various things that I could have done, plot-wise, to excuse or justify the conduct, protecting the campaign from the player’s mistakes – each of which was reasonable on its own and shorn of context – the cumulative total was abhorrently unheroic. I chose to let the character suffer the full consequences of the player’s choices. Unfortunately, the player expected that his character would be protected from the consequences of his actions simply because he was a critical PC to the campaign – and he learned nothing at all from the incident.
The delayed change-a-PC example
This started a long downhill slide in the fortunes of the character. He decided – for no really good reason – to try and corner the world’s coffee production, using wealth obtained from off-dimension, earned by introducing Smurfs (and all the entertainment trappings (suitably altered in format to suit the local technology. He set up a Smurf factory and began to import them back into his home dimension, taking advantage of different temporal rates to manufacture them 1,000 times faster than an equivalent terrestrial factory – and completely ignoring the licensing and copyright implications – but more sloppiness in the teleport process resulted in these slowly transmuting into Antimatter. Undeterred, he sold them as a nuclear fuel supply to UNTIL, while never investigating the whys and wherefores of the transformation, or ensuring adequate containment safeguards. These were also stored at the team headquarters in crates labeled “rubber mice”. He started corresponding with Magneto, making several suggestions and refinements to the villain’s plans for world conquest. He did his best to build in inobvious flaws, but never considered what might happen if Magneto spotted and corrected those flaws. Oh, and he started monkeying in the elections in certain banana republics and Central American countries, and cloned himself a few times to permit him to be in multiple places at once.
Again, in isolation, most of these decisions were not unreasonable, but cumulatively, and in context, they were very poor decisions. Another PC, now in a side-campaign, got wind of some of these developments and decided that Behemoth could no longer be trusted. A business rival, she set out to achieve a hostile takeover of Behemoth’s company, which was financing all of these misdeeds. At the same time, the 2iC of the team, conducting a thorough auditing of Behemoth’s activities preparatory to the court-martial, came across some of the misdeeds. It all came to a head at the court-martial, which stripped Behemoth of his chairmanship and placed his membership in the team on a probationary status. Immediately afterward, he learned of the hostile takeover – and found that there was nothing he could do to block it.
Now, because the character had paid points for the corporation, I was duty-bound to replace it in due course, if not engineer circumstances in which he got the original company back. But the player wasn’t in a fit emotional state to realize this; to him, it seemed like everyone in the game had decided to dump on him at the same time. He made the decision to have his character go on a nationally-syndicated TV talk show (Johnny Carson) and willfully reveal the other PCs secret identities (that’s the deliberate mistake out of pique that I mentioned earlier).
This might not have been campaign-wrecking, but the degree of animosity that had arisen between the players as a result of all this certainly would have been. If the character hadn’t crossed the line into supervillainy, he had come to the very brink of doing so, and in the process had created a major problem for the campaign.
So: Step 1: calm myself down. Step 2: Calm the player down. Step 3: Give a dispassionate review of the character’s activities, and ask how he would have reacted if he had discovered an NPC doing these things. Step 4: Convince the player that if he had left well-enough alone and gone with the flow, his character’s corporation would have been replaced or returned to him. This was (so far as I was concerned) a challenge for the player, and if he gave it a serious go, I would not block it out of hand. Step 5: Ask the player if he wanted to continue in the campaign, if this damage could be undone. Warn that there would be consequences of doing so, that he would still face a penalty for the actions he had willfully perpetrated, and a stiff one.
With the player deciding to accept the challenge of reforming his reputation and rebuilding his company, and giving me carte blanche to deal with the emergency that he had created, I instituted a combination of “The Temporary Aberration” and “Change A PC”.
- The Carson Show’s producers had decided that national – heck, Global – security was at stake, and had bleeped out the names of the secret identities.
- UNTIL began the process of making it illegal to publicly reveal a superhero’s secret identity against his will, or to broadcast that identity if it were illegally revealed.
- A supervillain attacked Behemoth’s factory, causing an unnatural disaster over Sydney’s Darling Harbor and CBD, in the course of which, Behemoth was seemingly killed.
- The team then received a request from Behemoth to teleport up to the base – he had awoken in a stasis chamber in his Blue Mountains (just outside of Sydney) private Lab and had no idea of what was going on. This surprised everyone, including his player.
- In the team’s third adventure, Behemoth had started researching cloning techniques, with the goal of being able to replace any team member who was killed in the line of duty. The player had completely forgotten this fact, and at the time had not revealed it to the rest of the team. He also started collecting cell samples from the rest of the team without their knowledge.
- Those cell samples had subsequently formed the central point of a plotline in which genetically-engineered “children” of the various members (both PCs and NPCs) had come back in time to prevent an alliance between Magneto and an invading alien fleet.
- In the team’s 5th adventure, Behemoth had invented an electronic memory transfer/recording device, which he had used to boost his intellect dramatically (+100 INT). This device was based on the Mechanical Educator from The Skylark In Space by EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and the description of the process by which it was used to boost Behemoth’s intelligence was based on the description of Clarissa Kinnison’s advancement to Second-Stage Lensman in Children Of The Lens by the same author, but no details had ever been decided on how the device worked.
- Aside from permitting the redevelopment of selected brains, and the quick transfer of specific skills from one character to another without relevant context and practical experience, Behemoth had intended to use the device to enable the clones to possess the full memories of the original, up to the point of recording. But the device scared the other players (and their PCs) and they didn’t trust it, so they avoided using it at all costs (Behemoth had a rep for creating brilliant gadgets that had unexpected side effects).
- I now created a theory for how the device worked. I won’t go into details, which are lengthy and involved. The key essential is that the explanation had the side-effect, when a recorded mental scan was played back into a blank mind (i.e. a clone), of inverting the personality – subconscious or suppressed personality traits became dominant, while dominant personality traits became subconscious or suppressed.
- At some point, Behemoth had given his cloning process a trial run, producing a version of Behemoth with supervillainous trends. The clone had attacked the original by surprise, locked him in the stasis chamber, and taken his place. Everything that “Behemoth” had done since was the work of the clone. Oh, and the clone had figured out what had happened, had corrected the flaw in the Electro-mechanical Educator, so that the clones he had recently created were in his image and not a restoration of the original. Unfortunately, the clone had overlooked that the stasis chamber was set up to release it’s occupant on the death of “Behemoth”, as per Behemoth’s originally-intended purpose.
In effect, then, I had stripped Behemoth of everything that he had achieved in the last year-and-a-half of game play – experience, character upgrades, etc – but given the character replacements for the Hunteds and Supervillains who the team had dealt with in the meantime.
As it happened, the player quite liked this resolution (under the circumstances). It absolved the character of guilt in relation to all the things that (on reflection) were unwise. It gave him the opportunity to develop the character in different directions, presented a roleplaying challenge, and restored the character to it’s roots. He liked the way it built apon forgotten campaign canon. He was eagerly looking forward to the challenge of rebuilding his fortune – and of repaying the PC who stolen his old one from him. And, of course, it left a number of questions in the minds of the other players – How much had the player known of this plotline? How much of what he had done was with GM connivance? This effectively defused much of the animosity felt by the other players.
Crisis averted. It was years before we came clean and revealed the answers, and by then it was all water under the bridge. The owner of the PC in the side-campaign was quite put out when UNTIL accepted Behemoth’s bid for a new, unbreakable communications system based on Ballybran Crystals (as described in The Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffery) instead of his own proposed system, which was technically superior in some respects but which suffered from one insurmountable flaw: UNTIL didn’t trust the character not to have built in ways to tap the comm systems (with good reason, because the character had, in fact, done so).
There is a postscript to this story. The reason Behemoth had chosen the extradimensional world he had used for his arcane research was not as straightforward as it seemed. He had built a large number of extradimensional probes and sent them out looking for a spacetime that had certain very specific criterion; unknown to him, the ruler of the world he eventually chosen (and one of the team’s enemies) had cast a spell to inhibit the finding of anywhere else that matched ALL the parameters, so as to manipulate the team into breaking the agreement with him. That put them in a position of having to come to him and accepting his revised terms for a peaceful settlement; whereas if he had simply approached them, they would have been altogether more suspicious and disinclined to accept his proposals. He had begun experiencing prophetic visions, thanks to a spell he had crafted to reveal the future, and he foresaw the eventual destruction of his world. He didn’t know what could be done about it, yet – but this was a first step in gathering the expertise and resources to save his subjects (and, perhaps, himself). I had known this all along; that was the plot development/revelation that I had in my back pocket, and could have used to “to excuse or justify the conduct”, as I said back in the example of “Live With The Consequences”.
PC mistakes range from the comedic to the catastrophic. The key to coping with them is to have a variety of corrective mechanisms on tap, and to use them to intervene as little as possible. And always to remember the Karmic Debt incurred when you have to save the PCs from their own folly.
The goal of every game is for both players and GM to enjoy themselves. No one enjoys seeing the game destroyed by a silly mistake; but any outcome short of this is fair game. The GM has to get his prep right, know the PCs, prepare his game circumstances properly, and make sure that the players know everything they need to know to make the best decisions they can under the circumstances. If, despite all this effort, they insist on stuffing things up, they are not entitled to any expectation of salvation; the GM may choose to do so, but if he does so, it should be for reasons that are bigger than any one character.
You can check out other posts in this month’s Blog Carnival (there are a few) by visiting the Host Blog, Elthos RPG. And if you have a blog (or perhaps a podcast?) and want to join in, the RPG Blog Alliance Wiki will tell you how – you’ve got until the end of April to do so!