Let Your Sins Be Strong

A guest post from my husband and favorite GM, Clark Valentine. You can follow him on Twitter @clarkvalentine.

When you intersect a good GM with a well crafted PC, you sometimes get situations where the obligations and responsibilities of the PC require a tough choice. Maybe it’s a situation like this:

The situation: The royal guards think that Colin, a noble NPC that the player’s character is supposed to protect, stole goods from some merchants. They’re here to get the stuff back and drag Colin off to the dungeon.

GM: So the two guards point at Colin. “He stole a three bottles of wine and twenty gold coins from the marketplace!” Their halberds are at the ready. “The thief needs to come with us.”

Player: What does Colin say?

GM: Colin looks at you and shakes his head. “Wasn’t me. Don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Player: Do I believe him? *Clattering dice* I got a fifteen.

GM: Pants. On. Fire. One of the guards grabs Colin’s arm. “Hey, let go of me!” he says. What do you do?

And that’s gold, right? Are you willing to provoke a fight to protect this guy who doesn’t really deserve it, but you’re duty-bound to protect anyway? Or is it time for this spoiled, overgrown brat to get what’s coming to him?

But then this happens:

GM: Pants. On. Fire. One of the guards grabs Colin’s arm. “Hey, let go of me!” he says. What do you do?

Player: Uh… I… I step between the guards and Colin and gently try to separate them. “Now, hang on a minute, I’m sure we can get to the bottom of this.”

GM: Wait, what do you mean, try to separate them? Do you lay hands on the guards?

Player: Yeah, well, I mean, in a non-threatening way, I try to pull them apart, you know, hand on shoulder, guide them away. You know.

GM: So, you’re pushing them away from each other, but… Gently.

Player: Right. Don’t want to pick a fight, right?

GM: Sigh.

We’ve all been there at some point. You want to give the “right” answer. You want to fulfill all your obligations. But when your character’s between the devil and the deep blue sea, you can’t easily do both. So you hedge your bets. You try to play to both sides, hoping to dodge the train wreck you see coming at you.

Problem is you’ve just torpedoed your own character. You gave this character an obligation, presumably to put some drama hooks in there, some handles the GM can grab and pull around to generate conflict. That’s great character design. But then hedging and waffling in play shuts it down like a cold shower.

Almost every RPG and game group encourages creating characters with some depth; even highly tactical-focused dungeon delvers talk about backstories. Many systems these days give mechanical weight to those decisions, creating levers and incentives to bring those background details into play. But that just leads you to the water; it’s up to you, the player, to drink.

When those details come up in play, don’t short-circuit them. Don’t equivocate and try to weasel out of the tough situation. Embrace it. Relish it. Punch that drama llama right in the nose. Let your sins be strong.

GM: Pants. On. Fire. One of the guards grabs Colin’s arm. “Hey, let go of me!” he says. What do you do?

Player: I try to deck the guard nearest to me, draw my sword, and tell Colin to run like hell.

GM: Roll for initiative!

Player: Colin owes me big for this…

That’s more like it.

You could also go all in the other way. The important thing is to choose one path, then do it. Even if it’s a slightly weaker choice, it’s still stronger than equivocating.

GM: Pants. On. Fire. One of the guards grabs Colin’s arm. “Hey, let go of me!” he says. What do you do?

Player: I look at Colin and say, “I’m tired of your thieving. You made your bed, go lie in it.”

GM: OK. As the guards drag Colin away, he yells back at you, “My father the Duke will hear of this, you coward!”

Player: I need to start watching my back, don’t I?

In both of these cases, the drama is amped up, the consequences (New Enemy: The Guards, or New Enemy: Duke Highandmighty) are lasting, and the plot thickens. You’ve used elements of your character to get some spotlight time, and made trouble to dig yourself out of. That’s the sort of personal investment that makes for fun, memorable campaigns.

Let your sins be strong.

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9 Responses to Let Your Sins Be Strong

  1. Cam Banks says:

    Great article! You’re absolutely right, many players really feel the need to play it safe. I agree with you completely—go all in. You don’t even have to be a dick about it (it’s not like you have to wipe out all the guards everywhere), because it’s a game with dramatic stuff going on. Protecting your protagonist just leads to mediocre outcomes.

    • Clark Valentine says:

      The more I thnk about this, the more I wonder if it’s an instinct to protect the status quo. Hm.

  2. Leonard Balsera says:

    \m/

  3. Paul Tevis says:

    This is 100% how I roll (in games). I heartily endorse this plan!

  4. That is spot on advice right there. Play Unsafe. It’s more fun.

    • Clark Valentine says:

      I like that – Play Unsafe. I think sometimes players get in a mindset that any situation has a Correct Solution that the GM is looking for, that negative narrative consequences are a punishment for not finding it.

      Play unsafe. The status quo will change, and that’s a good thing.

  5. Arcane Springboard says:

    And interestingly enough, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying explicitly has a system to avoid this problem in Milestones.

    • Clark Valentine says:

      Good observation; it seems specifically designed to encourage players to make meaningful choices, especially at the 3 and 10 XP levels.

      In my limited observation, it does work. Sometimes all you need to do to get players to Play Unsafe is a reminder, and Marvel RPG milestones accomplish that.

  6. PK Sullivan says:

    Playing unsafe (or as I like to call it, playing Darkwing Duck style: “Let’s get dangerous!”) means pushing boundaries and taking firm action. In my experience, people who hedge their bets in these situations are older gamers with a history of antagonistic game masters. This sort of hemming and hawing is a reaction to things like the Temple of Elemental Evil. Arguably, the point was not to get through the dungeon but to see how few characters it took you to get through the dungeon.

    If you are playing for the story then you have to embrace the story fully. The narrative in an RPG comes from the players. To get to the good stuff (drama, betrayal, gut-wrenching decisions, and all the other juicy fodder) players must put those in themselves. The game Fiasco says it best: “…powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” That is the stuff of great stories. Most RPGs add in the facet of unique abilities and empowered heroes.

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