Friday, June 11, 2010

Playing Chicken

So just a couple of things as I transition into some other topics and away from more Star Wars stuff. Some rough thoughts.

So over the years in tabletop games I've seen players “Play Chicken” with the GM. By this I mean the player does something that dares the GM to bring down ultimate sanction: killing the PC, killing other PCs, or causing some other kind of shift which can't be recovered from. In some cases it comes from the GM pushing the player into a corner such that they have only one reasonable and/or survivable way out. And the player reacts in another way. In some cases it is more of a mental reaction by the player to the situation: they have options but something has made them only see bad ones. It can be a meta-issue where a player has decided to act out, wants to disrupt the game, or punish other players.

So the situation comes up and the player pushes forward, leaving the GM with few good options. Depending on the situation The GM can kill the player which can cause ill-will, especially if the player seems to have made the situation personal. It may be that the player is looking for an excuse to quit-- and wants to seem the winner. If the game's a long term or deep one, killing a PC may cause huge pain for the GM, forcing the GM to rework many threads. The player may be counting a little on that. Depending on the social dynamic of the table, killing the player in that situation may create resentment for the other players.

Sidebar: I've said this before, but generally my feeling about PC deaths is that I want them fall into one of two types. First, killing the PC at a dramatically appropriate moment. That means the climax of the story or when the character has is striving to settle a major character detail or making a sacrifice for something they've invested in. Second, if the player(s) have walked into a situation with eyes wide open. They've made their choices voluntarily to go to this place and do this thing. There should be no sense that I as a GM have railroaded them. I've they've freely and of their own will, without my pressure, decided to tangle with something, well then the gloves ought to be off.

I do think there are other reasonable options for the GM, but sometimes those can breed even more resentment, unless the player agrees with the logic of something. Crippling or loss of resources can upset a player just as badly as death, so a GM has to be careful. My druthers is for non-lethal consequences. (end Sidebar)

The whole playing chicken situation becomes more problematic if the player is actually risking consequences for the group as a whole. I've often found that bad players will make these kinds of calculated moves, figuring that the GM will give in to their decisions rather than penalizing the group as a whole. And I'll admit I'm fairly vulnerable to that kind of hostage taking. I've run and played in a fair number of games where the other players had to deal with the ramifications of one stupid, bad or deliberately unpleasant player's actions.

The flip side comes if the GM blinks and opts not to impose final consequences. The GM may give in and allow the player to do what they'd intended. Or, more often, the GM may impose softer consequences, knocking the player out or causing some temporary loss of autonomy. That can be an easy way out-- but can shift the dynamic of the table. If the problem's already a meta-issue, then this may deepen it-- requiring the GM to speak with the player about what's going on. Unfortunately such interventions can often result in player claims of “not knowing what the GM's talking about” or “I was just playing my character.” So the situation can end up where it began.

The other problem with the GM blinking comes from the reaction of other players. On the one hand, they may see such treatment as license for attempting the same tactic themselves-- back to the game encourages what it rewards principle. That may restrict the GM's later options. On the other hand, the other players at the table may resent the GM not imposing severe consequences on the player. It may be that they see that as a suspension of the reality of the situation. Or more likely they may want to see bad or stupid behavior punished, especially behavior which disrupts the play of the the game.

Another dimension to this arises from defining the situation: there may be cases where the player honestly does not believe or recognize that they are, in effect, playing chicken. Or a GM may perceive an action as challenging them-- causing them to react (or overreact) to the situation. Again, we're pointing at meta-structures of the table play here.

I think generally situations where players play chicken with the GM ought to be taken as a warning sign of something being wrong with the table-- something the GM needs to address.

I do have one additional thought on this I want to consider: I've talked here about the Player instigating the game of Chicken with the GM. Is it possible for the GM to start this kind of confrontation-- can the GM play chicken with the players? What does that look like?


  1. Interesting topic, Lowell. Have you thought of publishing this blog as an online or magazine article? It's a great topic for both new and seasoned GMs.

  2. I second Lori. Heck, it'd even fit into an academic article: game theory on gaming. Where are the points of equilibrium, and which ones won't drive the GM insane?

    Tho I guess you're still gaming out the answer to that.

  3. I'd say the GM playing chicken would most often be perceived as "picking on the player." Yet, at the same time, I could see it as the GM saying, "Hey, you said your character was heavily invested in this topic, here's a plot point for you. If you don't go after it, no whining that I don't give you threads."

    Your comments about dealing with the players plyaing chicken remind me of things I've read about management in regards to holding your workers accountable. As a manager, I don't want to write you up for low end performance. I want to inspire you to do better. However, if I don't hold you accountable to the set standards, then everyone else does one of two things. They either lower their standards to the new perceived standards or they lose respect for everyone involved. In most well-run businesses, this second one hurts more. You are more likely to lose good employees for not being a "dick" as needed.

    Now, how do we apply that to rpgs? I would say you have to call them out. Depending on your group and players, you may be able to do this with everyone at the table and play it innocently. If you have to do it privately, I would imagine you would have to be careful as to not come across as angry or condescending. "Hey, what were you trying to accomplish with that ? I was confused and not sure what you were trying to accoplish and why? It really through me off."