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Old 03-05-2007, 12:13 PM   #1
Ogo
 
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Default Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

It's kind of a cliche that players are a little paranoid. their characters are always over-prepared and overly cautious. You know the story: "the old gentleman invites you to take a seat--" "I check the couch for curses/spikes/landmines etc!!"

The problem is, if the GM tries to set a scene as innocuous, it always looks like a trap. The more innocuous it is, the more it seems like an excuse to strip characters of their resources: "You're at the grocery store one morning after a night out--" and the player thinks "oh great, something is going to happen, and I've got no gear, and he'll probably tell me I'm hung over, too. No fair!"

There are tons of examples in fiction of heroes being caught off guard in a crummy situation and having to suffer through. "Die Hard" comes to mind; can you imagine as a GM, announcing "ok there's broken glass everywhere. Wait, did I mention you don't have shoes on?"

Similarly, there are tons of great stories where the protagonists walk into a trap. Not just a simple ambush, but that they follow the wrong clues for a long time, or someone is lying to them, or promising something to them, and they end up being suckered into something really terrible or dangerous. In the latest James Bond film, his contact sells him out. He ends up being drugged, wrecks his Bondmobile, and gets tortured. It's good cinema, but losses like that are frustrating to players who are generally happier detecting or resisting poisons, using their gear rather than destroying it accidentally, and escaping from bonds. It's hard to GM this kind of unfair situation without just looking like an unfair GM. It's hard to have an important NPC do something sleazy and not have your players treat every NPC as sleazy: every bartender is an enemy agent, every messenger is a spy, every local priest is an underground cultist.

So how do you do it?

A few thoughts: for the unprepared situation, "terror at the grocery store" scenario, I think GMs just have to make clear that if players are caught with their pants down, s/he still, as GM, has their interests at heart. It might be rough but the situation is designed for them to get through it. I can't think of another way of doing it.

For situations of betrayal or entrapment I think GMs should allow some chance, however remote, for the players to figure out the ruse as it's going along. Preferably this should be something beyond a secret check, so that when the sh*t hits the fan, the GM doesn't just say "oh well you failed a [something] roll 3 hours/months ago." S/he should be able to point to some turn in the plot where they went wrong.

Additionally, GMs could be extra generous whenever players have survived something particularly harrowing. We tend to reward success (discovering a plot) but some consideration should be given to dealing with suffering and failure as well! (getting caught in a plot and extricating oneself at great cost).

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thought on this, and how you've played with situations like these.

[EDIT: apologies for the use of "he" for GM's.]

Last edited by Ogo; 03-05-2007 at 12:51 PM.
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Old 03-05-2007, 12:42 PM   #2
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

In general I tend to avoid situations or scenarios where the PC's are required to be placed in a situation like this.

As you pointed out, the players tend to become frustrated and angry with a loss of control.

Having the PC's being captured is always terribly tricky and I've found that most PC's become violently opposed to incarceration.

BUT you asked, "How to handle these situations."

First, condition the players.

If they head out to the grocery store armed to the teeth and wearing full armor, they are likely to incite panic and a local SWAT team.

Once they get the picture that messing with a SWAT team is no fun, they'll eventually begin to be more circumspect in crossing the law.

Other things that you can do, is to require a high level of detail when it comes to your transitions. (ie: GM: "Let me get this straight, You're wearing Improved Body Armor under a Tank top? While carrying your lance, a PS1 Sniper Rifle, and how are you holding the SMG?!?")

Unfortunately a LOT of players don't like this level of detail, but in demanding this level of detail it also helps you avoid the "I pull out my 2-handed battle-axe! Oh yeah? From where?" syndrom.

Ironically in demanding this level of detail, you're also going to tip off the players that something's up.
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Old 03-05-2007, 12:49 PM   #3
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ogo
So how do you do it?
For the most part, I don't. Some linked reasons:

1) I've been on the receiving end of a few "take all the toys away" adventures. They've mostly felt like something designed to be fun for GMs of a certain mindset but with little or no consideration of what the players might enjoy. I certainly didn't have any fun with any of them, and I doubt my players would either. So be sure that your own motives are pure and that you're not falling for the false logic that "to be interesting, an adventure must be challenging, therefore any challenge must be interesting."

2) When I've been in such adventures, it's also been set up in a blatant, contrived fashion, where the GM imposes strange new limitations without preamble or logic, or simply declares that the PCs are without their stuff. If you, the GM, can't start a story any better than that, I don't see why the part which involves me, the player, should be any more interesting.

3) For most players, there's a strong element of wish fulfillment in their desire to play these games. They like playing PCs who are powerful. I don't necessarily mean that in a munchkin-y way, but simply that they like playing characters who have a range of options and definite ways of making an impact on the world around them. They do not, therefore, usually enjoy situations where that ability is artificially reduced. Even ignoring the power issue, there are questions of being allowed to play out the character concept. I know that if I'm playing a wizard or a mechanic or a swashbuckler, it's because I like playing a wizard or a mechanic or a swashbuckler. What my character's abilities are, frequently, are a significant part of what makes that character interesting to me. If I'm in a situation where I can't cast spells, fix stuff, or swing from chandeliers, well, that's a pretty dull evening for me.

4) Players also like stuff. There's a grand tradition in RPGs of acquiring stuff, and sorta using the aquisition of stuff as a marker of progress. Taking stuff away, for many players, is contrary to the point.

5) While we might like, say, watching movies where Bond gets captured and beaten up along the way, those aren't the moments we want to emulate. We want the moments where he's using his gadgets, blowing away the opposition with an array of guns, and getting the girl. Those bloody-and-tied-to-a-chair scenes, with their complete lack of glamor, tend to be less than fun.

The few times I have intentionally set out to put PCs in a situation where they're held captive, deprived of stuff, or what have you, have been in situations where it's appropriate to a genre and puts them in an advantaged position. My most notable success was in a cliffhanger action campaign. Unlike relatively gritty campaigns, where sensible captors would have just shot the prisoners in the head, there's a long tradition in cliffhangers of prisoners being captured and taunted, but then escaping. It's easier to get players to go along with it if they've got assurances that any disabilities you saddle them with are very likely to be temporary. Moreover, in this particular case, where some PCs were captured by evil Nazis and held captive on a submarine, that put the PCs in a situation where, once they escaped from their cell, they were in a very good position where they could sabotage the submarine and foil the Nazis. Capture wasn't just something they could recover from; it ended up putting them in a more effective position.
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Old 03-05-2007, 12:52 PM   #4
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

In general my PCs have slowly become less like the hyper-paranoid stereotype you refer to. This has happened over time as they've gotten used to my GMing style. Now, when I have a really nasty trick to spring on them, they enjoy every second of it. One key is to use these double-cross or secret-bad-guy scenarios sparringly. If the PCs have been taught through experience that innocent situations are the most dangerous, they will react that way. If, instead, most NPCs are what they appear to be, the PCs will relax this paranoia reflex. This will make those times when the PCs are double-crossed that much more exciting and memorable. My PCs still talk about the 'healer' that traveled with the party for 3 sessions (about 3 weeks in game-time) while 'curing' the party leader. In fact the healer was not a healer at all, but an agent of the Big Bad Guy. He had the party leader wrapped head to toe in bandages and his tounge cut out as he drained his attributes slowly over days and days. This was so memorable because in that 'reveal' moment, the PCs suddenly connected the dots and saw all those subtle clues. The party leader did a good job of keeping his mouth shut between sessions and was virtually bursting at the seems as the party came closer and closer to their realization.
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Old 03-05-2007, 12:53 PM   #5
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mark Caliber
(ie: GM: "Let me get this straight, You're wearing Improved Body Armor under a Tank top? While carrying your lance, a PS1 Sniper Rifle, and how are you holding the SMG?!?")
Or are you just happy to see me?
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Old 03-05-2007, 01:16 PM   #6
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

My game style is one that avoids most situations like those. I'm a GM who really does want his players to have fun and have the PCs succeed.

So, if a player checks the cushions for mines, I tell him that it's odd for him to do that. Most of the time I let them know ahead of time if something seems innocent it probably is... 99% of the time it is.

If they get captured, I usually have it done for a reason and by that time they realize there's always a way out. In fact, there's usually several ways out, though I rarely reveal all the escape possibilities. Usually I work with their skills and let them figure it out and give them hints on the way. It's not life-and-death with me, it's more like a puzzle to be figured out.
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Old 03-05-2007, 01:53 PM   #7
Mark Caliber
 
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

I just thought of another piece of good advice that I got from an ancient issue of Dragon magazine.

In short before you throw ANY trap or situation at your players, make certain that YOU can think of at least two successful methods for escape/avoidance.

The reasoning behind that is that if YOU as the GM can't think of an appropriate way out, neither will the players, and your campaign will come to a quick and painful end.

On the contrary if YOU can concieve of two weaknesses, then the players are likely to come up with their own ingenious methods as well.
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Old 03-05-2007, 01:55 PM   #8
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mark Caliber
In short before you throw ANY trap or situation at your players, make certain that YOU can think of at least two successful methods for escape/avoidance.
That's a good suggestion.
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Old 03-05-2007, 01:56 PM   #9
Mark Caliber
 
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

<thread jack>

Quote:
Originally Posted by Turhan's Bey Company

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mark Caliber
Originally Posted by Mark Caliber
(ie: GM: "Let me get this straight, You're wearing Improved Body Armor under a Tank top? While carrying your lance, a PS1 Sniper Rifle, and how are you holding the SMG?!?")
Or are you just happy to see me?
N-no! I swear! That's just my IBA!

Besides, just why are you so preoccupied with my bragart?

</threadjack>
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Old 03-05-2007, 02:36 PM   #10
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Default Re: Player Paranoia and Character Surprise: How to GM

I know your couch example was a gross exaggeration, but players like that do exist. I see no other option than confronting them about it. If their character's weren't originally meant to be paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wackos, tell them to stop ruining the game. It would be fine if they played variations of Adrian Monk, but a normal person doesn't second-guess everything. IT could be that the player's motives are elsewhere and he doesn't value immersion, story and setting that much. I hope this is not the case, though.
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