Dice Tales: With Great Power

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the thirty-second installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


I’ve been chewing on a particular issue lately, because it’s come up in the campaign I’m running. You’ll have to bear with me through a brief anecdote first, to set the context, before we get into the issue itself.

The campaign is set in an alternate universe version of Legend of the Five Rings (so if you’re familiar with canon and what I describe here doesn’t sound right, there’s a reason for that). The PCs all belong to the Owl Clan, whose role in the Empire is to deal with nonhuman things: spirits, supernatural creatures, and the various sentient races that inhabit Rokugan. Sometimes this means fighting them, but on the whole it means diplomatic relations and alliances and so forth. They also have traveling with them an NPC who’s from the Lion Clan instead — and in this version of Rokugan, those two clans are basically diametrically opposed. The Lion stand as the champions of humanity, against all those supernatural things. They eschew the use of magic, which calls on little elemental spirits, and generally view friendly interactions with other nonhuman things through a skeptical lens at best. I’ve set up this NPC to be very moderate, but he still argues in favor of solving problems through human capability and alliance with other samurai, rather than by turning to other creatures (whose priorities and ways of thought are inhuman) for help. (Obviously this attitude can be read as xenophobic, and to some extent it is. Rokugan is canonically very xenophobic toward foreigners. But there are actual foreigners in the setting, human beings of other nationalities and ethnicities; when I talk about spirits etc, I don’t mean them as a metaphorical stand-in for different kinds of human, but rather as a personification of different forces and impulses.)

So here’s the issue I’ve been pondering. I’d like the story to show that there is some value in the Lion Clan way of thought: that if you consistently look to magic as a solution to your problems, you don’t find out how far your own capabilities can grow, and if you constantly make deals with aliens, you may find it screws you over in ways you didn’t expect, because the creature you made the deal with doesn’t care about or even understand your priorities. I don’t expect or even want the PCs to embrace the Lion philosophy in toto; after all, I told my players to make Owl Clan samurai for this campaign, because I wanted to explore their way of doing things. But I like the idea of tempering their Owl-ness with some understanding of its shortcomings and vulnerabilities — of showing that sometimes, the Lion have a good point.

This is dead simple to do. The difficulty lies in doing it fairly.

No one person controls an RPG narrative, but there’s no denying that in the traditional setup, the GM holds a lot more power than the players. They control their characters; I control everybody else, and the environment they move through. I could, for example, say that the bakeneko they made a promise to way back at the beginning of the campaign shows up to say “I want you to help my kitten now,” and when they don’t agree (they’re busy with their duty on the other side of the Empire), the bakeneko becomes their implacable enemy, because it doesn’t make allowances for things like “my duty to my lord comes before that promise I made to you.” I could say that the dream spirit one of them took into her head in order to gain greater control in the Realm of Dreams becomes an increasing distraction to that PC, so that she has to make Willpower rolls to focus even in the middle of combat. I could put them in situations where they can’t use magic and have no other way to solve their problems — though admittedly that one’s hard; the campaign’s been going on long enough that their sheets are pretty huge. I can engineer a scenario that makes pretty much any point I want it to.

I don’t feel like that’s me playing fair, though. When one of my players decided she wanted to pursue the “Realm of Dreams” angle as a way of finding and helping her kidnapped love interest, I’m the one who told her that putting that spirit in her head was a good idea. Should I now turn around and use it to screw her over? Should I be looking at all the PCs’ past interactions and searching for ways to turn those interactions against them?

Some players and GMs would say, “why not?” In games where it’s possible for PCs to get some kind of wish (from a spell or a genie or whatever), a lot of groups operate on the principle that it’s up to the players to figure out how to phrase their wish in an airtight fashion. If they fail to do so — if, for example, they wish to instantly be in the place they need to go, but they fail to specify that they should arrive safely or with all of their current belongings — then there’s nothing wrong with the GM exploiting that loophole. For such groups, the question of responsible exercise of GM power is less of a concern. After all, there’s a G in RPG: this is a game, and part of playing it well is making sure you don’t leave yourself vulnerable, any more than you would leave yourself vulnerable in combat. If you fall short of that, you take your lumps and keep going.

We’ll talk more about that mentality next week, but for my own part, I’ll say that I feel like approaching this particular issue in that fashion would defeat the purpose. If I forcibly arrange situations in a fashion meant to show the merits of Lion philosophy, my players are not going to feel persuaded of anything; they’re going to feel more defensive of their own approach. Which is why, as with so many other things I do as a GM, I prefer to get player input. I recently had an idea for an NPC moment (different NPC) that could only take place if one of the other PCs screwed up, doing something dishonorable or inglorious. Rather than trying to engineer that in secret, I went to one of the players and asked for suggestions of ways that PC would plausibly step wrong. Because of that, when the NPC shouldered full responsibility for his superior’s error, the player’s attention wasn’t on feeling like she’d been set up; it was on the in-character moment, and what it meant for the story.

In the end, it works better if we work together. Just because I can hammer something home by GM fiat, doesn’t mean I should.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: With Great Power — 4 Comments

  1. There are GMs who seem to think the point of wishes to figure out some absurd way to find a loophole in the most airtight and reasonable wish. . . .

  2. Wishes and Decks of Many Things: the only winning move is not to play…

    I’m always down more for collaboration than confrontation, so… y’know… speaking to the choir. And I think many players will be far happier to screw over their own character in worse ways than any but the cruelest GMs will ever attempt. It has a lot to do with consent and control. If my character fails at something big because of GM fiat (or even because I missed — or was never given — crucial information), then chances are I’m going to walk away from that situation feeling duped and dissatisfied. However, if a GM hands me some rope, I will enthusiastically help make the noose. At that point, I have control over my story and can enjoy failing rather than feel bad about it.

    I’m reminded of a major final battle I once ran (ahem, that you were part of) where it was expected to be a pyrrhic victory with a lot of character death. We did a few pre-rolls to determine basic outcomes, and then ran it mostly narratively. You guys were WAY harder on your characters than I ever would have been. And one of the biggest combat twinks I have ever run for (who got to be awesome and then died) said it was the most fun battle he’d ever played through.

    This opens up some interesting thoughts on GM/Player psychological dynamics. For things going wrong, it’s most satisfying when the players have some control. For things going right, it’s more satisfying when the players don’t have control (i.e., it is more competitive) because that creates a greater feeling of victory than pure narration would.

    • And I think many players will be far happier to screw over their own character in worse ways than any but the cruelest GMs will ever attempt.

      For some kinds of players, yes. But I think this is true mostly of people who view RPGs primarily as a story — and possibly I could further refine that to “writers who play RPGs.” <g> Professional or otherwise, anybody who writes fiction has good odds of appreciating the enjoyment that can come from putting a character in a bad situation.

      This opens up some interesting thoughts on GM/Player psychological dynamics. For things going wrong, it’s most satisfying when the players have some control. For things going right, it’s more satisfying when the players don’t have control (i.e., it is more competitive) because that creates a greater feeling of victory than pure narration would.

      Oh, that’s a fascinating point. Yes — a victory I narrate for myself is not nearly as satisfying as a victory I feel like I earned in the face of adversity. But I’m much happier if I’m the author of my own defeats. I’ll have to see if I can work that into a future post . . . .