When a Bad Idea is the Right Idea 10

Often in gaming, characters are faced with options that are Obviously Bad Ideas, whether in terms of a plot hook, a magic item, a bargain of some kind, or a button that just begs to be pushed. Some characters are rational and cautious, and avoid such involvement; probably the most classic case of this is Call of Cthulhu investigators burning every book they find, unread, in a laughable attempt to forestall their doom. In my experience, such characters generally also can’t understand why another character would make the opposite choice to investigate, to push buttons, to make deals. The most extreme cases of this type have little option but to retire from adventuring, as total non-involvement is rational, safe, and boring.
On the other hand, every game has button-pushin’ apple-biters (as we called them in King’s Gate); these characters vary widely by degrees. Sometimes they’re doing this because they don’t care about the consequences (a significant subset of these are outright evil characters making dark bargains). Sometimes they’re bored and looking for excitement. Sometimes they think they’ve got a handle on the situation (sometimes they’re right).
On the gripping hand, you have the GM’s view of the whole situation. Because the GM is equipped with perfect knowledge of the situation, this view is both nuanced and necessarily correct, and that leads to a new set of conflicts and problems. GMs can fall into thinking of something Obviously Bad as Obviously To Be Avoided. From this stance, it logically follows that the character is foolish to get involved with whatever it is, and then that foolishness should be punished so as to teach a lesson. (Sometimes this is the correct response on the GM’s part, so that characters won’t do increasingly ridiculous or obnoxious shit.) GMs can also be baffled by the character’s conclusion that Obviously Bad means Obviously To Be Avoided – these GMs quickly become frustrated with the PCs’ refusal to pursue any of their delicious plot hooks, especially those hooks that the GM has dressed up with evocative, creepy stories. From the GM’s perspective, this can look like the player doesn’t trust the GM not to use every choice as a chance to screw the character and wreck the player’s fun.
The consequences of these differences in view can be problematic, leading to more bickering and recrimination than engaging conflict. The thing is, narrative structure demands that consequences involve conflict and problems, and the nature of non-solo roleplaying is that one character’s problems splash onto other characters as well. The character saying I told you so! is also suffering some of the brunt of the conflict, and as often as not this only heightens the bickering.
When players are sufficiently afraid of the weird things the GM puts into the world, survival instinct trumps curiosity. Characters stop engaging with the world, because they believe that only bad things can happen to them as a result. Years of gaming with rat-bastard GMs of many stripes has bred a very strong strain of this approach into gamers. This response is well-supported in fiction – it’s called “refusing the call to adventure,” and in gaming it’s a roadblock to actually getting to the fun.
At the other extreme, there are players who have no fear whatsoever of consequences to their characters… or anyone else’s character. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” is a general guideline to this school of thought, and taken to its extreme it is a very selfish playstyle, bringing down consequences on everyone around them – consequences the GM must carry out, because actions without consequences ruin games in yet another, different way. Those consequences are a key part of the social contract between GMs and players.
There is, in short, a very difficult balance to strike here. The most important thing is variety, and making sure that that variety reaches all of the characters. You want players to have to think, consider, and possibly look for more information when they come across a mystery, a magic item, or a button to push – if they don’t have to think about it one way or the other, it wasn’t really a choice, and the essence of all roleplaying games is choice and consequence. The balance, then, is between trust and fear – trust that there are good things out there, and it’s okay to explore the world and see what happens; and fear for your character’s safety. It’s the same kind of trust that readers put in writers when they bother to become invested in characters, and the same kind of fear for the characters we care about that gives tension to the conflicts. (Pro tip: if you’re reading A Song of Ice and Fire, you should trust GRRM to create an interesting ride along the way, and trust that he is going to murder several of your favorite characters in the most horrible ways possible by the end, while still enjoying the tension along the way. The demise of your favorite character is a foregone conclusion.)
Sometimes, too, I think it’s important to write plotlines such that curiosity and investigation are not only rewarded, but prove to be the way forward when other avenues have been exhausted. If it convinced players to look for a new path rather than continuing in a course that is frustrating them, that would be a great victory for almost any game.

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10 thoughts on “When a Bad Idea is the Right Idea

  • Kainenchen

    I appreciate that 'Refusing the Call to Adventure' was not a link to TV tropes, as long experience has taught me that pushing that particular button is a trip into a brain-sucking abyss of doom and really, only the most button-pushy of apple-biters would click on such a link and…

    …and I like this post very much.

  • Talk-Fast

    You make a good assessment of the "balance" I think. I tend to lean somewhat in the direction of "button pushing" myself, and when I find myself in a game full of fear-the-GM types, I marvel at how little they actually ever DO. Luckily for me, most of the LARPs I play seem to have a nice mix with only a few players that strike me as extreme on either end of the spectrum.

  • veaya

    I love this post and agree with the trickiness – both from player and plottie standpoint. From player standpoint (obvious this is coming from a more cautious stance) sometimes the only way to move forward is through risks.

    The button pushers with no real fear, do drive me completely mad – unless its no fear that feels like an aspect of their character rather than a no fear that is meant as a dare to the gm. I sigh at that a great deal.

    I've found that a great deal of lack of gm trust is not caused by the actions of a gm, but the bravado/bullshit. It is fun to make jokes about getting people for being stupid, it's also a really common occurrence. I was constantly surprised at the huge level of mistrust for the KG gang, when clearly there had been both tricks and treats from following ones curiosity, but at long last realized that it was the between games jokes that did us/them in. People took it seriously, and not as the fun it was meant to be.

    Apologies for length – this is a fun topic 🙂

  • Shieldhaven


    You may well be right about the smack-talk causing (or just contributing to) the problem. At the same time, I'm hardly going to insist on doing away with pre-game smack talk completely, since sometimes I think it's fun on the player side. (I don't enjoy it as much from the Plot side, just because I worry that people will take me too seriously.) But then I've seen people get bent out of shape over pre-game smack talk between PCs of different game cultures, too.

    The Lesson? Plot's here to make the game fun, even players on other teams are really your friends, chill out, eat some fruit. 😉 Even when it's hard to remember to do that.

  • veaya

    To be frank, there aren't a great many people that take the smack talk seriously, so I really wouldn't worry about it – it might be better just to tell those people not to take it seriously!

  • Talk-Fast

    Another factor that came up in a conversation I had recently is the players' understanding of risk level.

    Plot-writers have to keep in mind that it is sometimes hard for players to accurately assess the level of risk in a plot element, and might try to find subtle ways to convey the information (assuming the uncertainty and dispute are not the intended outcome).

    Both extremes of this are bad:

    If you send out an important item or NPC with important information, and the PCs decide it looks too risky, they might bury the item, hide it, destroy it, and in some cases kill the NPC without any conversation. Plot is left with a dead end to hooking whatever they had planned.

    On the other hand, if a player takes a risk and it blows up in his face, there is nothing more disheartening than being told (by fellow players or staff) that "of course" that was an obvious terrible risk to take and the ensuing disaster is just the consequence of "being stupid."

    I've seen both of these things happen (from both sides of the curtain).
    What seems clear to the person writing the plotline is not always at all clear to the player.

  • veaya

    I think that plot ever telling people that something was obviously a stupid thing to do is an epic fail.

    However, I know that the most difficult thing I had to deal with from players is pc's looking very hard for the out of play clue on what they should do in an encounter. So many tiny nuances were lost just by failing to actually think like a person instead of a player.

    Granted, sometimes that makes it even harder to take risks, but that seems preferable to missing out on the story itself because you are trying to see behind the curtain.

    Hmm – this may be a tangent – sorry!

  • Kainenchen

    I think that that gets even harder when one has been a plot person, and so is used to seeing the other side of the curtain. But yes– there's a lot of context that plot has that a player _can't_… and sometimes the people involved just don't speak the same language. So what looks like a risk to one is obviously the safe route to someone else, and vice versa.

  • seaofstarsrpg

    All good points.

    It must be more of a challenge to balance such things in LARPs over tabletops. In my games, I know I can change things on the fly to fit the mood and temperament at the table. Things are more structured in a LARP, yes?

  • Shieldhaven

    In general, rewriting on the fly has to occur a little earlier in the process in LARPing than it does in tabletop gaming, just because the Plot committee has to cast the NPC or include the information in the briefings of other NPCs, and last-minute changes can really screw up consistency between characters. As long as those requirements are met, though, LARP committees can and do engage in panicked last-minute adjustment of an encounter, plotline, or whole event. It can take some getting used to, though, if you're accustomed to tabletop GMing only.