Game Mastery

Disappointing the characters while keeping your players happy

by on Sep.29, 2008, under player management

I’ve always been a big proponent of beating up the characters a little just to make their victories more meaningful. Okay, so I’m a big proponent of beating up players a lot. It’s how I make the game personal. If a bad guy kicks their collective ass, but the players narrowly escape, they will both respect and hate that bad guy. The next time they get to fight him they’ll be really into it because this fight is personal.

This kind of storytelling (as opposed to “you just killed the bad guy, but wait! His daddy is here and he’s got 10 more barbarian levels. Now kill him instead!”) has served me well for creating meaningful villains in my stories. I recently took it a step further and it backfired spectacularly. I know why the game session failed, but I’m still at a loss for how it should have been run.

The story was that the players were entered into an adventurer’s tournament, with fabulous cash prizes. Groups would ante up their best loot, and the winning team got first pick of the pot. But, one of the other groups involved cheated. They coerced the person in charge to rig the final event in their favor.

It was a story about getting cheated and seeking revenge. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable story to run in a fantasy game. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. It helped tie some other plots together and established a group of enemies. On paper it looked great.

The final event of the tourney was a big fight on top of a platform 20 feet high. The object was to knock the other team entirely from the platform. Below was a swamp (half movement), but there were ladders leading back up. Some areas of the platform were trap doors. Nobody was supposed to know the stipulations of the event until the day of the fight.

The bad guys didn’t even cheat all that much. They knew where the trap doors were and they prepared a few spells that could push people off the platform. I had to make sure that all the cheating they did was in game cheating, as opposed to GM fiat cheating.

Over the course of the fight it became apparent what was going on. One of them noticed a map of trapdoors written on the hand of one of the enemies. The PCs kept fighting and came incredibly close to overcoming the odds.  I even would have let them win the match.  They’d have been disqualified from the tournament of course, after the other team accused the PCs of cheating and showed the judges the trapdoor map.  But the bad guys won.

At this point the session came to a screeching halt.  The two dominant players were pissed.  I somehow wrangled them back to the game so they could get revenge.  But after that point the fun was over even if they won in the end.
It’s been months since that game and I’m still not sure how I could have run it better.  I can see how the story works from a birds eye view, but from a player’s perspective it plays out as a bait and switch.  I mean, they’re running through this tournament, kicking summoned monster ass, and then they get cheated, their prizes stolen, and it’s time for revenge.  The story had momentum and then took a 180.  It was clear that the players cared about the first plot, but after taking that away, how could they get into the second?

I’m wondering if the format of the game had an effect.  We were playing modules that were usually two or three sessions long.  This gives time to set up the game, run some plot, and conclude.  We were in the third session when the platform fight happened.  Maybe if they didn’t know the game was ending soon they wouldn’t have settled on the bait plot.  I like to surprise players and I’m more than happy to make them change horses mid stream, but this wasn’t mid stream, it was on the opposite bank as they were pulling in to shore. In an indefinitely long game, players are ready for longer term plots that use smaller plots for a jump start.

I probably should have given them better warning too.  If they were aware that the winning group was suspect when they started the last fight, they would have been prepared.  I did establish that the NPCs were sleazy (they offered to throw the fight), but I guess that part didn’t carry over into the tournament proper.  That part needed more bludgeoning (some NPC who’d already lost complaining about how unfair his fight was, or something).

I’m even wondering if it might make sense to run the tournament on fast forward and only bringing the players in for the start of the cheating story.  I don’t think this would be my preferred method for handling a disappointing story, but it may be necessary for certain players.

I still think this type of storyline should be valid in a game.  The characters should suffer setbacks that they later overcome.  I’d be a bored GM running a game for a party of Supermen, and I hope my players would find that boring as well.  I’ve always made sure the players won’t win every battle, but this is the first time I went too far with it.  Maybe it’s just a matter of figuring out how much I can beat them up, and coming a breath away from that.  As much as I like crossing lines, I think this is one line I’ll have to locate and approach, but never step over.  I’m going to have to if my upcoming GRRM game is going to work out.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Taylor

    It may have been wise to give them something, even if the big jackpot was taken. This is what the GM says:

    “They Cheated! Disqualify them! Kill them all, and then escape with the loot!”

    This is what players hear:

    “HA! You fell for my elaborate deux ex machina! I know you wasted GP and time to get this far, but not only do you get nothing, but we get everything, you get robbed, and you die! HAHAHA!”

    The problem was, they feel time and money was invested in the fight, they worked hard, and you pulled the rug out from under them. Kick their ass, but give them something.

    I had a similar plot that I pulled off well, an empty walled riverside city was holding the macguffin, guarded only by a group of two elite illusionists. The city was old, and only looked so grand because an illusionist was preserving it, it was really falling to pieces. The villian flew in, killed one of the illusionists, took the macguffin, and broke the floodgates, causing a massive flood in the old decrepit city.

    Before I flooded the city, I had a plan for loot though. Even though it was old, all the shops were stocked with old, but not unusable items and equips, and plenty of stores had money only a successful lockpick away. I let them freely raid, but once the illusionist was dead, they had to roll to see if the items were real. I gave each one of the players a chance to keep none, some or all of the loot.

    The villain kicked their ass, they lost control of the important macguffin, the good illusionist had to die to release the defensive seal, and the city, and most of their illusion items, disappeared. But everyone was happy. Why? They were rewarded for their efforts, they figured out the villains plan, and they had a location where to go.

    If I was in your shoes, you shouldn’t have taken absolutely everything from them. You could have had the villains begin to make an escape, injured and slow, but an escape, where the players could follow. To add stress, let the fastest player make a roll to chase after the villain to get their gold back. Make the Clear number high, but give them hope. If it is crushed, they know they had a chance and are filled with fury. If it succeeds, their time was rewarded. Never not give players something. Its bad form.

  2. Heatwizard

    Wait, wait.

    “They’d have been disqualified from the tournament of course, after the other team accused the PCs of cheating and showed the judges the trapdoor map.”

    Huh? I thought the other guys had the map…

    On a slightly different note, what was stopping the PCs from calling shenanigans when they noticed the NPCs were cheating?

  3. sagotsky

    > Huh? I thought the other guys had the map…

    The cheaters showed off the map and blamed the PCs for having it. They had it all along, but tried to shift the blame.

    The PCs did attempt to call shenanigans, but everyone they talked to thought they were just being sore losers because they were whining instead of providing evidence.

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