The Problem With Murder Isn’t The XP Awards

Over at Unofficial Games: Murder gets boring, Zzarchov writes:

This one deals with the problem of wholesale slaughter of your enemies. In this particular post I’ll deal with murdering opposing villains, the big villain or at least the stalwart dark lieutenant. Many GM’s are frustrated that they cannot have a recurring villain because PC’s will not stop until they murder them. Its like a party of Terminators.

This is a mechanically based flaw. You either get the same XP for killing, or its the only way you get killing added to the fact that dead villains can’t trouble you later.

I disagree. In my experience, this is a story-based flaw, not a mechanical one. Players will make sure that villains, particularly major villains, are truly most completely dead even in games where there’s full XP for defeating a villain without killing him, and even in games where there is no character advancement at all.  What players are really interested in is that dead villains can’t trouble you later; tweaking the XP awards so that they have a reason to “farm” the villain for XP isn’t likely to work, particularly on any players that take the distinction between in-character and out-of-character motivation at all seriously.

GMs compound this situation by “teaching” the players that if they show any mercy towards villains the villain will return again later and only be stopped once something dear to the PCs has been destroyed (The Joker Syndrome) .   If you want a recurring villain, you have to think harder about what’s in it for the players and the PCs.  Some possible answers:

  • Recurring villains and the PCs showing mercy to villains (and vice-versa) is part of the genre, and the players and GM agree that they’re playing according to genre.  E.g., a standard “four-color” superhero game.   For this to work, it’s likely the GM and the players should agree in advance that they aren’t going to try and push the envelope: once the Joker starts murdering scores of people every time he escapes from Arkham, it takes a special kind of player to still be satisfied with merely capturing and turning him over to the authorities that run the revolving-door asylum.  The Joker may steal or threaten mass destruction, but Batman has to be able to avert it in the nick of time.
  • The villains are “frenemies“: they don’t (yet) threaten the PCs with the loss of something that they find unacceptable, while sometimes providing the PCs with help or something they value.  Perhaps they’re rivals, but not yet outright enemies.
  • Villains often reform if shown mercy.  This is a staple of certain genres, and can answer the need for recurring characters, though not necessarily recurring antagonists.  Again, the GM has to stick to the genre and make almost all the conversions sincere or risk teaching the players that they’ll regret sticking to the genre conventions themselves.
  • The setting has antagonists, but few real villains.  Mature players are generally reluctant to murder well-meaning NPCs, even if they’re dangerously misguided and frequently in the way;  immature players probably don’t appreciate any effort put into not rewarding them for slaughtering anyone who gets in the way.
  • Along similar lines, mature players are usually reluctant to escalate.  If the villain’s plans always involve theft but not murder, the PCs won’t (usually) respond with lethal force.  If the villain keeps trying to kill the players, why exactly should they be reluctant to respond in kind?  Just because it would be convenient for the GM?
  • The setting is fraught with consequences for murdering villains.  If the PCs are members of a Homicide Unit in a modern police force, killing criminals out-of-hand is likely to result in Internal Affairs investigations, suspension, or even jail.  It’s not a genre convention, it’s the law.  The problem with this is that if the players perceive the GM is exploiting this to frustrate them and undermine their success, they can lose their desire to play that setting.  The course of action dictated by the setting needs to feel like a victory to the players.  E.g. despite complaints about revolving-door justice and certain kinds of criminals being hard to keep incarcerated due to their clever lawyers, the modern justice system is quite successful at keeping serial-killers off the streets if they can be captured in the first place.  If the GM starts using the “Joker always gets out” convention on the killers the PCs arrest while still holding them to realistic standards on the consequences of vigilante justice, that’s just asking for trouble.
  • The recurring villain is out of reach of the PCs, literally or figuratively.  You can prevent the PCs from killing the villain if you can prevent them from engaging the villain in combat.  Perhaps the villain is a mastermind who operates from the shadows, never directly.  Or maybe the villain is just  a supernatural creature that can only be harmed by the Dread McGuffin of Uberness (to avoid TPK after TPK you probably need to make the villain have limited ability to affect the PCs in turn, or have its body/host be defeatable but final victory be elusive). This risks turning the entire campaign into a quest to get the villain, but that may be what you’re looking for.

In any event, as the GM what you should be thinking about is why do you want a recurring villain in the first place?  What do the players and PCs get out of it?  If the answer is just a bonus to XP if they play it right, you probably need to do some more thinking.  Recurring villains work best when the stakes aren’t life-or-death, and when you can keep the players from feeling “I…have had…enough…of you!” Recurring characters are a lot easer than recurring villains in most genres, and I think you can generally get a lot more mileage out of former enemies, now rivals or allies (but are they really trustworthy? dun-dun-DUN) than having the villains all “Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn’t matter where you go… or how far you fly, I will hunt you down… and the last thing you see will be my blade.” unless you want the PCs to go emulating Mal Reynolds.

Karma Points, or Payback is a Botch

There’s a discussion over at Robertson Games about using Luck points or the like to reduce the impact of a series of bad rolls resulting in character death.  I’m not a big fan of them, preferring explicit script immunity if the game isn’t going to just let the dice fall where they may.  I totally get why not every game needs to challenge the players and have character death or significant defeat be a live option, or at least give the players veto power to avoid stupid or anticlimactic deaths, but I think that Luck Points in the sense of a small finite resource than can be spent to reroll or force a roll to a certain outcome aren’t an adequate response.  On the one hand, they’re too little: they don’t actually guarantee that unacceptable outcomes never occur.  Eventually the party runs out of do-overs, and then they’re stuck even if another unacceptable outcome occurs.   On the other hand, they do too much, since the players will almost certainly come to consider their presence (or absence if they’re running low) when evaluating their options.  If you don’t want a TPK when the party foolishly attacks a sleeping dragon they happen across while on some unrelated quest, giving them Luck Points may actually encourage them to attack it; in effect Luck Points subsidize them making game-mechanically foolish choices.

Generally I prefer that the GM and players either agree in advance that they have script immunity, or they take up situations where a run of bad luck has derailed the game or killed a character on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether to live with the outcome or retcon it as an extraordinary measure.   I’ve long felt it to be a mistake to roll for something if you’re not willing to abide by the roll; if I really don’t want characters to die as a result of bad rolls in combat, I take the option off the table, for instance by making less than 0 HP mean incapacitated, fate to be determined.   It occurs to me, though, that it might be possible to craft a mechanic that answers my objections.

Suppose instead of a pre-figured supply of Luck Points which could be used to overrule or reroll a bad situation, you had an unlimited supply…but each time you invoked the rule you gained one Karma Point.  The GM could then spend one Karma Point to overrule or force a reroll some time down the line, negating some good result you had rolled.  That clearly solves the problem of a finite supply just kicking the can of reckoning down the road, giving the players a form of script immunity when it was just notably bad luck that screwed them over.  It might also address the problem of the players counting on their immunity to let them try dumb things, since they would know it would cause them potentially serious trouble down the line.  Yes, they could know in advance that whatever happens they can survive the dragon’s first breath attack…but at the risk of turning an otherwise easy situation later on into a fiasco.  It wouldn’t anwer for players who really need script immunity so their fun isn’t all bashed out of shape by random die rolls, but it might do for players who were generally interested/willing to subject their character’s fate to the dice but wanted some measure of veto power over extremely inopportune rolls.

Huzzah! It is Mine!

Starships & Spacemen (via that is.  This was one of the earliest SF roleplaying games, and I remember enjoying the heck out of it with my brothers and sister.  It was basically an unlicensed Star Trek game, with the PCs serving as crew on a “Confederation” starship.  Classes represented various branches of the service, and there were various races that were analogs of the races of Star Trek: the logical emotionless Taurans, the telepathic Andromedans, the space-mercenary Rigelians, or the boring old Humans.

I was tempted to pick up Space Opera while I was at it, but my recollection of that was that it was so complex that by the time we had finished rolling up characters we had pretty much exhausted our interest in the game.  I think we made it through a couple of sessions before giving up and going back to Traveller.

Chgowiz Quiz

These were the answers I gave:

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I play in three different groups, which meet with varying frequency, one of which has rotating referees, so my answers are somewhat complicated.

1. What are you doing with an original edition/retroclone D&D?

I’m a player in an AD&D+homebrew campaign, and I GM two retroclone-inspired homebrew campaigns, and play in a 3rd edition campaign that’s switching to a homebrew 3e variant.

2. What type of roleplaying game were you playing (or are still playing) before you became interested/involved in an original edition/retroclone?

So I’ve always played in one AD&D campaign, and one 3 campaign

3. If you were playing 3E, why did you decide to investigate/play an original edition game or retroclone?

I still play in a heavily 3e inspired campaign, though I mostly hate the mechanics.

4. If you were playing 4E, why did you decide to investigate/play an original edition game or retroclone?

Don’t play 4e

5. What attracted you to investigate/play an original edition/retroclone D&D?

Always played in one, decided to GM one in honor of Gary Gygax when he died, and decided to continue it w/more homebrew rules.

6. How did you learn about the original editions/retroclones?

The one GM has always had AD&D 1e books, learned about retroclones when searching the web for original edition for Gygax tribute game.

To elaborate a little more:

My friend Mac has always been running an AD&D plus houserules campaign for the past twenty-seven years or so, and I’ve been a player for the past…elevenish?  Russell was a player in the same campaign back in college, though he only gets to play now when he’s visiting.

After Gary Gygax died I wanted to GM an homage game for my other group, which I did (though I used Mentzer’s Basic, so technically not Gary’s actual rules).  I was hoping to turn that game into a “back-up” game for when we didn’t have a quorum of our regular group, something that happens a bit more frequently now that so many of the players have young children.  I wasn’t very satisfied with how it went, mostly because I wasn’t fully back in the mind-set of “rulings not rules.”

I shelved the idea of actually running some kind of retro-clone for a while, but when Mac’s kids started playing D&D we discussed my running a game for them sometimes, because she didn’t want them to develop the bad habit of thinking there was only one way to play D&D based on the way she ran it.  At that point I’d read a lot more of the old school renaissance blogs and thought more about what I liked and disliked about D&D in the old says, so I set out to create house rules that would let me run something along the lines of what Mac was doing (straight ahead dungeon bashing) but that I’d be comfortable with.  I’ve been describing what’s been going on in that game as they explore Amityville Mike’s Stonehell in this blog.

I’ve also started to use that homebrew and setting as the backup game in the regular Rambling Bumblers group.

Quick Thoughts on Risus

We tried Risus for the first time last Sunday, for another round of the episodic space horror game I run when the mood hits me.  Even though Risus is officially a humorous game (Risus being Latin for laughter), it’s still a reasonably good fit.  Humor and horror have a good deal in common as far as RPGs go: they both de-emphasize realism and tactical play in favor of evoking certain emotional responses, and are well-served by games with simple resolution that emphasize description over game mechanics.

I think the experiment was largely successful, but there are some things that I want to do differently when we resume the game in two weeks.  In particular, I want to encourage the players to be more assertive over the applicability of their Cliches.    There was a bit too much “mother may I?” in our session, with the players asking whether their Cliches cover certain actions they want to take, and too much peering at the super-simple character sheets as if an appropriate Cliche would suddenly jump out at them.  Does Deep-Space Scoutship Captain cover firing a pistol?  It does if you say so, Captain.

As GM I think I need to be more generous with setting target numbers according to the Cliche being used.  I’m used to setting a target and then everybody just sees if they can beat it, but Risus doesn’t exactly work that way.  Making a tricky pistol shot should probably be something like TN 10 for Deep-Space Scoutship Captain, and only 7 for Gold-Medallist Pistol Champion.

Hand-waving Dungeon Travel

The party that’s been exploring Stonehell has reached a point where getting back to the yet-unexplored part of the dungeon and then out again is taking too much of the play-session, at least if I roll for wandering monsters as they travel and restock the likely places like the Orc’s guard-post.  In the old days, we used to freeze time in-between sessions… the party wouldn’t overnight in the dungeon, but we’d break in the middle of things and resume there next time.  This was pretty much a necessity when you were squeezing a few minutes play in at lunch-time or in study hall, but it carried over into our Friday night games as well.

I’m a little reluctant to go that route with the current game, preferring the party to start and end outside the dungeon–both because the line-up of characters changes when one kid or the other has a sleep-over or Elyssa is away performing or something, and because even if we froze, so far every session at least one character has been knocked around enough to require rest and recuperation even if nobody except Revenge has been injured  beyond the ability of one of Horatia’s miracles to revive.  So I’m considering just hand-waving their entrances and exits unless they’ve got monsters in hot pursuit.  For one thing, now that most of them are second level and considering the damage they’ve caused, the number of times the Orcs’ morale checks have sent them fleeing, and the psychological warfare they’ve been employing (they’ve actually taken the time to gut many of the Orcs they’ve killed in order to reinforce the impression that Horatia’s god regularly does this to their opponents)  it would be fairly easy to justify the Orcs starting to give them a wide berth.

If you run dungeoneering expeditions, how do you handle this?  Do you let parties camp overnight in the dungeon?  Do you make sure there are shortcuts so they don’t have to traverse lots of explored areas?  Or do you just do what I’m contemplating and say, ok, twenty minutes later you’re back at the closed portcullis…what do you do now?