October 1, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing

When I run a game I like to have the players identify with their characters. I want the characters to be more than numbers on a character sheet. I want them to play their characters as if they are real people reacting to situations beyond the normal.

I like to do slow buildups of anxiety and tension. I use a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of “showing how the monster works” by having the bad guys use their abilities and powers on someone other than the player characters. I do this to show my players the threat they are facing, to add some fear. I have been trying to make the players feel isolated within the campaign world to add to the feeling of overwhelming odds and to get them to bond together better.

However, I may have done my job too well. At last night’s game we started with the knowledge that one of the character’s mothers (she may have been an adoptive mother) is going to be burned at the stake at noon the next day. I prepared for a sneak mission into the keep where she is being held; I was happy I was finally able to use my MageKnight castle walls. I prepared for a daring midday rescue as she was being moved from the keep to the city square. I was not prepared for the characters decision to let her die and walk, no run, in fear from the city, but that is what they did.

Did I instill too much fear and anxiety into the players? Have I turned them into fearful store clerks? They have had some debate amongst themselves about whether or not they should find a hiding spot in some far away corner of the world and stay there. Only the fear of being discovered has put that idea to the side, since they feel they are being hunted until the end of their days.

I guess I have to retool and show them they can buck the odds and prevail as heroes. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too good at what you are trying to do.


Philo Pharynx said...

It's probably a combination of things. It's hard to tell without having been there and knowing your group and play style. I'm going to just list of factors that I think may or may not had something to do with it. A lot of it may have to do with campaign styles and possibly a split between how you see the campaign going and how they see it. I hope you don't take offense at any of these. Without knowing your group, it's just a thought exercise.

1) Yes, you instilled the fear in them. They accepted your descriptions as being that the BBEG was too powerful for them to take. If the players think you have no compunction against putting them up against a foe that can and will kill them all with little effort, it doesn't make much sense to go after him. Even if the BBEG wasn't supposed to attend the execution, it might be enough to convince them not to risk it. This might be amplified if they see the BBEG using something that clearly outclasses the players. It also depends on what they've seen of you and your BBEG's. I've seen GM's who have been so attached to their BBEG's and wanting them to be recurring villains that they make them too powerful or they give them unrealistic (within the game) ways to escape justice. It can end up being a strong demotivator. "Why should we fight Dr Doom? It's always a robot anyway. Or he teleports away. Or he gets out of jail because he has diplomatic immunity."

2) They might not be invested. A lot of players limit the backgrounds on their characters because they've had GM's abuse their NPC's too much. If they don't have a strong connection to their NPC mother, it won't be any more motivating than them killing a random citizen. It can be truly moving when you have characters who have a strong in-game motivation. But it can sometimes be too moving. Some players don't like the feelings that brings up and it drives them out of touch with their characters.

3) It might not be the campaign they want to play in. There are two elements I'm thinking of specifically. One is the "hunted rebel" part. Fighting a guerilla war means starting of hiding like scared rats and knowing you have a lot less power than the BBEG's forces. If they want to play big damn heroes, this is in conflict. The second part is "planning the caper". People who like puzzles and tactics often love this part of the game. Gathering intelligence, figuring out a plan based on the available resources, handling the inevitable glitches. But if you don't have a Nathan Ford or Hannibal Smith in your group, then it's a lot like work. Work they haven't been trained to do. Another limit is if they don't feel they have enough information from you as the GM to develop a good plan.

I think that maybe some talk about what people like and what type sof game they want to play might help with some of them.

The Red DM said...

I'll chime in and add

4. They may not have realized that was the hook. Players with some experience often get in the habit of starting out sessions looking for the adventure hook. If your players didn't recognize that you were expecting them to rescue the mother, they may well have just ignored the event while looking for the "real" hook.

Oz said...

It's one thing to feel like the underdog, it's another to feel hopeless.

I had a GM who liked to have bad guys that totally out-classed us. He ran mostly sci-fi campaigns and we came to use the term uber-tech to refer to the awesome gear that the bad guys had that made them virtually unbeatable, whether it was Star Trek, Battletech, or Traveller. It wasn't uncommon for us to get captured then have to endure hours (in game time) of captivity where we were helpless. Not fun.

On the flip-side, in a recent Star Wars campaign, my players got captured by a Hutt that put most of them in his gladiator pits, except for the team techie, who was put to work in the repair shop. The players learned some chinks in the Hutt's set up, the techie found an ally on the inside, and a lot of their captivity happened between sessions in bluebooks and write-ups. When it was said and done and they made their escape, they got cookies for being good sports and role-players.

The point being, it makes a huge difference if the players know they have a chance and aren't just punching bags to show how awesome the bad guys are.

Callin said...

I've been running 4E and keeping to writing balaned encounters, Thus far the players have not lost a fight yet.
I think this is a case of the players asking "If this was real what would I do?" and usually the "sensible" response is "Do not put yourself at risk".