When a GM Says, “Are You Sure You Want to do That?”
By Cape Rust
I have an amazing gaming group; we get along and have a good time enjoying our hobby. Sure we all do things differently in game, but that is part of the fun of gaming after all. It would be no fun if we all approached a problem set in game the same way, each weekly session would be a stencil of the weeks before. As a group we sometimes make very bad decisions, I mean really bad, like TPK decisions. Knowing this, some of us have adjusted our GMing style so that we don’t place our players in too many situations where we can make these choices, however those situations do come up and when they do….
That brings us to a few weeks ago. We were in the middle of a Pathfinder Campaign, when one of those decision points came and we didn’t listen. At the beginning of the campaign our GM had warned us that dying and failure were both options. I took this to heart as he is one of those guys who doesn’t go out of his way to kill characters, but if a player wants to do something stupid he will only go so far to stop them. He was also kind enough to warn us that he would be throwing very tough creatures at us and that running from those nasty beasties was part of our option package as well. There was no malice in his proclamations, fair warning was given.
Yes, you could argue that if he knows how our group plays he should have avoided throwing creatures that we might have to run away from or not place us in situations that could lead to the dreaded TPK or the words end of campaign. In his defense, as much as I advocate designing your game around your players wants, a GM has to insert a bit of themselves and do a few things they want to do. So warnings were clearly stated and low and behold a few sessions into the game in a dungeon, sitting in the middle of a bridge was a chest just sitting there all alone. So what do you think two of my party members want to do? And what do you think happens?
Our GM set it up with plenty of warnings; he said it is just sitting there in the middle of a bridge, underground… He issued several subtle and not so subtle hints and they still opened the chest; lost two party members. He was nice and allowed them to be resurrected; I wouldn’t have. Then about five or six sessions later, while waiting to head out into the wilderness, members of the party, two of which are chest openers, decided they wanted to search the building that had been occupied by a cult that we had discovered and brought to the attention of the much more powerful authorities.
All was going well until we found a single door that we couldn’t open. The door’s magical aura was overwhelming and even a very high lock pick check couldn’t get it open. But my fellow party members just had to get it open. They called in favors; they went into debt all to open this door. I told them it was a bad idea, I reminded them about the chest, the GM reminded them about the chest. Several times during the course of them making deals with the devil, he kept asking if they really wanted to open that door. I told them we shouldn’t, but they would not be dissuaded. After spending at least two or three hours, thousands of gold pieces and sacrificing a year of each of their lives, our GM asked one last time are you sure you want to do this? The answer as you can guess was a resounding yes from the suicide squad. The opening of that door and the few minutes afterwards resulted in hearing the dreaded end of campaign.
Our GM applauded the party’s determination and even with subtle, but frequent, hints could not dissuade those players from doing the wrong thing. This situation brings up several questions, should the door have been as important as it was? Should he just have made the door something that could not be opened? Could he have dropped more hints to the party, should he have dropped more hints to the party and finally when as a GM do you just let the party kill itself? First question, yes the door should have been as important as it was. When you come up with material for a campaign you have to have items and locations that are important to the plot. There will often be locations that fall into the ‘we’d better come back to this at some point’ (low DC Wis or Int check later in the game to remember it). Sure it would be nice if every locked door had something behind it that was just the right challenge rating for the players, but then people start using words like linear and railroading. A balance needs to be struck, but there comes a point where players need to learn to walk away or run from things that they can’t handle at the moment. By including things like this, it gives the players a goal, something to work for. Instant gratification doesn’t make you a good GM, it just makes you an enabler.
When you say someone shouldn’t do something their first impulse is to do it. As players of RPGs, we all should know not to follow those impulses; note I said should know… I think in the case of our party, the door should have been more painful and had no hope of us being able to open it, no matter how creative we got, even touching it should have led to level loss, and characters being knocked down to below 0 HP. Every additional time someone touched the door the stakes should have escalated, or we could have just listened to our GM. Hindsight is 20/20 but the hints were given. Could more less subtle hints have been given? Sure, but part of RPGs is figuring things out, for a few members of our party cranial rectal separation was not achieved.
Finally, I think the most important question is when do you as a GM just let the party kill itself? From a Darwinian perspective, strong parties full of strong players will survive. Strong, well made characters combined with players who can overcome their human impulses to play the stalwart Dwarf or the ponderous Elf who isn’t in a hurry, because they know they have several hundred years to make the right choice. Our GM dropped the hints and even with the amazing means of circumvention that those characters devised he had to step back and let stupid run its course. A GM can flat out say the door won’t open, there is nothing you can do to open it, and even if you could you could not handle what is on the other side. A GM could say that, but even then would every player listen or would they take that statement as a challenge? As GM you can do anything, but it doesn’t mean you should. One thing the GM could have done was stop the game, pull everyone aside, and said “Look, your characters can’t open this door right now. It might or will come into play later, but as players you should just walk away.” I know that this kills the mood, but unless you are just tired of running the game you are running, you might have to have a metagame meeting to keep the characters from killing themselves.
Mistakes were made, warnings were given. As a player I should have fought harder to not open the door. Sure that isn’t what my character would have done, but I should have been willing to step away from that to avoid the dreaded end of campaign. The other players should have been willing to walk away from the door. The GM could have dropped more blatant hints or had a metagame discussion about the door with the party. But in the end subtle hints, stubborn players, and a lack of willingness to step into the Meta resulted in not only a TPK, but the dreaded end of campaign; Just think how different things would have been if we had just listened to our GM.