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Fair or Foul: Death by Fiat

Have you ever killed a PC through fiat?

A while back I was running a street-level superheroes game. Realism (in as much as any game is “realistic”) was emphasized, to the point that no one wore spandex and vigilante activity would get you arrested if caught. We also started with none of the PCs knowing each other, as relationships were supposed to be forged in game.

In what was going to be our last session, sloppy play on the part of one PC, Ryder, turned him into a fugitive from justice. Sullivan, a PC connected with the FBI, arranged a meeting with Ryder in a roadside diner. Sullivan previously alerted the authorities and while he met Ryder the diner was surrounded by the police and SWAT.

Most of Ryder’s “superpowers” were invested in his motorcycle that sat out front. When Ryder noticed the cops outside, he wanted to make a break for it. I told Ryder’s player that there was simply no way that he’d survive running out the front door and getting to his bike. Ryder’s player insisted on trying.

As he opened the door, I asked Ryder’s player if he just wanted to give me the sheet or have me narrate the epic “blaze of glory” death scene. He still insisted that I make the rolls and I told him that even if I rolled for the two dozen or so cops, which included sharpshooters, he wouldn’t stand a chance anyway. Fiat simply saved session time.

This scene effectively ended the campaign, as Ryder’s player was angry at the PC “betrayal” as well as the fact that I didn’t give him a real chance of escape.

So fair or foul? Is it okay to use fiat in situations where chances of survival are nil?

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67 Comments To "Fair or Foul: Death by Fiat"

#1 Comment By Tharsis On June 11, 2011 @ 9:50 am

[1] – Funny you should mention traditional CoC, as it has so many deaths by fiat built into the game.

One that always bothered me was Cthulhu himself automatically grabbing and killing X number of players each round. I realize this fits well within the story setting, but I much preferred d20 CoC’s solution of giving him something like +100 to grab and a huge damage bonus. Functionally it did the same thing, but it looked like you had the smallest chance of enough natural 20s saving you from the grab — probably to be stepped on and killed immediately after during any one of Cthulhu’s extra attacks, but still…

#2 Comment By Sarlax On June 12, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

Foul. First, “realism” cuts both ways. Good guys don’t wear spandex, and cops don’t kill people at the drop of a hat. The situation described, as others note, sounds like nonsense – his fate was sealed the moment he opened the door? Dozens of cops and SWAT are just going to shoot the guy, not only risking their own lives, but the lives of their contact inside?

Second, by refusing to let the player roll, you were refusing to let him play. Sure, it saves time, but that’s only because you stop playing the game when you take choice from a player. It’s important to remember that in most games, a player’s entire interaction with the game is through his character, so simply deciding “You’re dead” entirely kills the game for him.

Third, impossible means two things from the GM’s perspective. Many have discussed statistical impossibility, and knowing nothing about the system you were using, I’m willing to accept that there was less than a 1 in 100,000 chance that Ryder would live. Fine, but let the player roll.

However, I suspect that his survival would also have been made by you to be constructively impossible – even if his dice went nuclear and Ryder started dodging bullets, you’d just keep summoning police until the character was dead, knowing that, eventually, his luck would run out. I think this is a pretty foul move, too, but if you want to kill off a PC, at least try this out: It might at least create the illusion that the PC had a chance, and that the player’s preferences mattered.

#3 Comment By Clawfoot On June 13, 2011 @ 10:18 am

I’m still not sure I call foul. I believe it is absolutely possible for a player character to make choices and take actions that lead to an impossible situation.

Yes, it’s true that police don’t usually shoot to kill under normal circumstances, but what was this “sloppy playing” that led to such a situation? Did he kill a van full of cops? Has he been labelled (justly or unjustly) as a dangerous terrorist? I think there are situations in which the police would take someone down in a hail of bullets, especially if the target in question refused to surrender and instead of emerging calmly with his hands on his head, made a break for his most dangerous weapon.

I don’t think you need to give your players a roll in every situation. If a character becomes convinced he can fly (when he can’t) and jumps out of a plane at 30,000 feet with no parachute, I’m not going to give him a roll to see if he miraculously survives, especially not if I’ve clearly outlined to the player the consequences of those actions.

If I’ve said “If you do this, you will die,” and they do it anyway, I assume that they’ve made the choice to die.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 13, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

[2] – I don’t see the example of the PC jumping out of an airplane as death by GM fiat. There are probably rules for falling damage in many games, and the PC jumping out of the plane is an example of death by the player choosing only one possible outcome. The character will take X amount of damage no matter what from the 30,000 foot fall. The character can only survive so much damage and the rules state that the minimum amount of damage is greater than the PC’s maximum damage capacity. There is no fiat in that situation.

The PC choosing to try and survive several attacks where it is possible, no matter how unlikely, and the GM foregoing those dice rolls is fiat.

In the airplane example there is no chance for survival. In the example Walt gave there was an unlikely chance of survival. The player in your example is choosing to kill the PC outright, while the player in Walt’s example was choosing to try and escape in a situation where he perceived a chance of his PC surviving.

The fiat was not in the outcome, but in the manner in which the outcome was reached. Declaring the PC dead because the scene is unlikely to be survived is fiat, while the declaring the PC instantly dead because the situation has no other outcome is not fiat.

What I see people defending or attacking here is whether or not the situation only had one possible outcome. If the situation has only one possible outcome it cannot be fiat, because in such cases even the GM has no choice.

#5 Comment By Clawfoot On June 13, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

[3] – I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think I agree that there was a chance the character could have survived a takedown like the one described. I still think it’s entirely possible for characters to get themselves into unwinnable situations, and in those cases, I don’t think rolling is necessary.

So considering your clarification on what is or is not Death By Fiat, I guess I don’t see the situation described as fitting the criteria for it. I can see it as a “there is no other outcome possible” situation, not just a “survival is unlikely” one.

#6 Comment By This Gnome On June 13, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

[3] – “in such cases even the GM has no choice”

He always has, see rule #0 😉

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On June 14, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

[4] – “Except that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and lived, his mission a success. Which is slightly different than this decision.”

Not really, because when he said it his victory was anything but certain and he was doing something the “game rules” said was insanely dangerous – bringing troops within a certain distance of Rome while still in a warmaking profile.

Your assessment, while valid, is taken from the viewpoint of someone in hindsight. Mine was intended to convey the sentiment “in the moment”.

#8 Comment By Tsenn On June 14, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

I don’t recall ever executing a PC in this way, though gods know I’ve wanted to at times. I would play it by the dice. That’s my gut feeling. Live by the dice, die by the dice. But.

Apocalypse World asks the MC (GM) to be a fan of the characters. With that advice in mind, I’d want to make sure, given the stakes of the situation, that the player had taken the time to consider the options at his character’s disposal before committing to a course of action that has a high chance of maximum cost, i.e. death. From an outside perspective, I would say the player was mindful of the “last session”, perhaps overly so. A situation had developed that maybe he hadn’t anticipated. Things weren’t going his way, and he couldn’t see a clear path since getting caught out by a sudden onset of player versus player conflict. But it’s the last session, so heck, blaze of glory it is!

Death by fiat is pretty final. What about cripple, capture, humiliate, drive off? Offer me a hard choice or a bad deal that avoids death at a cost, or show me some dice before you take away my character.

#9 Comment By DireBadger On June 15, 2011 @ 6:09 am


I try to go by the maxim “don’t say no, but determine difficulty”. And I prefer to give them choices.

I’m not really sure what he did to become a fugitive, or why police would shoot with intent to kill, but since apparently his motorcycle gave him superpowers, I’ll assume they had some good reason for that.

So he gets lured to the diner. At that point it’s fair to give him a roll to notice the other character is setting him up (contested; the other PC may be a really good liar). Then when the SWAT team is moving into place, another roll to notice something is happening. Those helicopters are noisy, after all.

If all that fails (quite possible; I assume the police are competent), lay out the situation for the player:

A) You can surrender; you’ll be put in a cell somewhere and eventually face prosecution. That’s not the end of your character, but it’s a big setback. You might escape or try to get acquitted, or do the time (play another character for a few sessions, or the DM institutes some downtime) and maybe get released early. Anyway, there’s a whole lot of options remaining if you go that way.

B) You can storm out to your motorcycle. “But as you peer out the door, you see the glint of rifles, barricades, helicopters and so forth. This looks like suicide-by-cop.” Tell the player what he needs to roll, and what he needs to survive. If he still goes for it, roll everything openly on the table.

So, my point is: you should have laid out his chances, however bad, and gave him a chance to back down in the face of those odds. And if he went for it, then you should have rolled it. Because it sounds like PC death is a big thing, and you shouldn’t give the player the idea he didn’t give a chance, _just because you wanted to save time_. This escape attempt is the main thing of the session; you don’t try to cut corners on the main act!

On the other hand, I think often players lack the flexibility to know when to back down. They tend to assume that getting captured is practically suicide (character in jail for years, all valuable equipment lost), so they don’t consider it a realistic option. As a GM, you might want to change their mind about that. Bend realism a bit; make capture a little less harsh. There should be an opportunity to prove his innocence (or mitigating circumstances) in court, or to escape (and then to break in to get back his motorcycle).
If the PC gets a jail sentence, give the player a different character to play for a couple of sessions, followed by some downtime, followed by early release of the main PC for good behavior. Or run a prison break scenario.
But in all cases, inform the player that you won’t try to castrate the character if they surrender.

#10 Comment By Kosh On June 15, 2011 @ 7:47 am

As a DM, I would never kill a PC through fiat unless the player wanted it to happen (prearranged death).

As a player, I would be infuriated if a DM killed my character through fiat. I completely understand your player who felt betrayed and cheated.

#11 Comment By This Gnome On June 15, 2011 @ 8:10 am

If my GM said “if you do that, you’ll die”, and if it did not seem reasonable to the players, we’d discuss it before deciding of the characters’ actions. (A discussion that might go “you’ll die for reasons I don’t want to disclose now, just trust me”.) Now, if the statement was left standing, and I decided to proceed anyway, I would certainly not feel neither betrayed nor cheated.

#12 Comment By Thought On June 19, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

Fair or Foul? Both!

The most common objection from those who have cried foul is that even if Ryder surviving was incredibly improbably, he still could have made it with the right rolls. As Benson said, “Sometimes that one-in-a-million event occurs.” The problem here is, sometimes things just aren’t possible. For example, I suspect that if a player said they wanted to jump into a black hole, few GM’s would waste the time rolling to see if the PC was able to resist the crush of gravity. If something is impossible, it does player’s a disservice to pretend that it isn’t, especially if the system being used doesn’t allow for wild successes.

But if it is madness to pretend that a player has a chance as an impossible task, why did I say that this situation was both fair and foul? Because while it is madness, the player is the one who is nutters and as GMs we have to play with the players. If the impossibility of the situation had been clearly explained to the player and they still want rolls, then it is the proper political thing to do to roll for it. It will be less interesting than pure narration, but that is the player’s choice. It isn’t logical, it isn’t reasonable, but it is still necessary.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 19, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

[5] – But your example is comparing a situation with an unlikely yet possible outcome to an impossible situation. You can survive a shootout, but nothing can survive entering a black hole and remaining in its current state. I don’t see how this situation can be both fair and foul based upon your example. It is the same as what Clawfoot suggested in its logic, and I just do not see the comparisons as being of like situations.

#14 Comment By Thought On June 21, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

@Benson – Both situations are entirely survivable given the right context. For my ridiculous black-hole supposition, one just needs to be playing a game in the right sci-fi setting. The Doctor Who RPG, perhaps. For Walt’s example, one would need to be playing something not-gritty real-world-esq. Alas, that wasn’t the game they were playing, from the sound of it. People do survive shoot-outs in gritty settings, true enough, but the situation wasn’t a shoot-out, it was a mad-dash through a wall of bullets. Even if the player got lucky and the dice were on his side, surviving would have been a loophole in the rules that would have broken the setting. With 24+ cops firing modern guns at a specific area, aiming isn’t important anymore. It is a matter of random bullets and Ryder being forced to occupy the same limited space: Ryder is no longer dodging bullets but an environment.

But as noted, fiat killing still wasn’t the proper way to go regardless.

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 11:40 am

[6] – Please call me Patrick. We’re not that formal here. 🙂

In your original post you said –

“The problem here is, sometimes things just aren’t possible. For example, I suspect that if a player said they wanted to jump into a black hole, few GM’s would waste the time rolling to see if the PC was able to resist the crush of gravity.”

But then you replied to me with –

“Both situations are entirely survivable given the right context. For my ridiculous black-hole supposition, one just needs to be playing a game in the right sci-fi setting. The Doctor Who RPG, perhaps.”

These seem to contradict each other, because one example implies that the game is realistic and the other says the genre determines what is acceptable. In a hard sci-fi setting a player choosing to jump into a blackhole would be killed. The GM is not using fiat because in keeping with the tone of the game the GM only has to follow the rules for damage.

“Your character has 10 hit points total and black holes cause 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 points of damage at minimum. Your character jumped into the black hole so that is an automatic hit. The character dies.”

That is not fiat. You don’t need to roll the dice. The player chose to kill their character. No way to save the character unless the GM use rule #0 as previously mentioned and doing that would destroy the realism of the setting. The example isn’t fiat because the GM’s hands are pretty much tied. End of story.

But if we start applying the “reality” of Doctor Who then the example is completely different. The guy flies around the entire known universe in a Police box defying both time and space. Yeah, in that situation I would probably allow some rolls by the player to see what happens to the character because its Doctor Who. The rules of reality do not apply. Your examples are two completely different ones IMO.

In the second example (blackhole plus a Doctor Who setting) I would allow the player to roll, because the genre and setting have numerous examples of “certain death” being avoided. To kill the PC for jumping into a blackhole in that case would be fiat.

#16 Comment By Thought On July 1, 2011 @ 9:40 am

@Patrick – Sorry for the delay in responding. Anywho, the contradiction from the two statements comes from two different perspectives. That is, certain situations in a game can be possible or not depending on the sort of game being played. If we look at something from a high-fiction perspective, it could be possible, while if we look at it from a low-fiction perspective, it is not. There tend to be two setting errors that players (and GMs) make in regard to what is and is not possible in a game: the first, probably less common, is that something is possible in real life but not in a game. The second is that something is possible in a different game but not in the one currently being played. My examples are different because the settings are different, but I would argue that the same basic premise lies behind both: certain things are only possible if the settings are appropriate. In the present situation, where individuals are playing a gritty setting, even though a hailstorm of bullets might be able to be survived in a different game, it is a question of if it can be survived in this game. My examples were intended (though I selected them poorly, it seems) to highlight this question: the situation, from a mechanical aspect, could only be foul if the setting allows for individuals to survive bullet storms.

I suspect part of our disagreement comes from how we are looking at the in-game situation. I suspect (though forgive me if I am assuming too much) that you view the situation as a series of rolls with individual instances of the police firing. It is entirely reasonable to roll against a single bullet to see if a character survives, even in the most gritty of settings. But this reduces the situation to an unreasonable event. Since the black hole example wasn’t as effective as I had intended, I won’t return to it. Instead, consider rain. It is very reasonable for a character is almost any setting to dodge a single drop of water, but it is very unreasonable for even a character in a superhero setting to dodge a downpour, even though we could still break it down to a series of single droplets for the character to dodge. Hence, as I concluded previously, Ryder wasn’t trying to dodge bullets so much as to dodge an environment. Because of this, the rules that allow him to dodge bullets can’t be applied. Rather, we have to take the situation as a whole. I suspect the system used didn’t have rules for dodging bullet storms, just as most games don’t have rules for surviving black holes (okay, apparently I lied and I did return to this): it isn’t possible, so the games don’t waste the time trying to create rules for it.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 1, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

[7] – I see your point, but I still believe that your argument is flawed and that GM fiat in this situation was wrong. Furthermore, I do not think that your examples are appropriate ones. Impossible according to the genre and impossible according to GM fiat are very different things.

The game is a supers game. Sure it is a dark, realistic and gritty supers game, but a supers game nonetheless. There are many dark and gritty supers comics where the perfectly normal human being still survives against insurmountable odds. I am not concerned if the rolls are many or a single roll. The issue here is if the genre supports what the player attempted, and it does.

And there are real life examples, albeit very rare ones, where a person survived being shot several times and escaped (or even was victorious):


So with real life examples of this amazing extreme and the genre having examples of a character surviving such a situation to kill the PC outright is ridiculous. Let the player roll. Make it a one in one thousand chance of surviving. Let the PC be hit multiple times and if the PC should survive the damage there is nothing wrong with that, just as it is fine if the PC dies by the rolls (which can be the most likely outcome as long as it is not preordained as the only outcome).

Your example of the rain is just as easy to rebuke by the genre. In a realistic game where dodging the rain is impossible the PC failing to dodge the rain is not fiat but genre. What if the genre is Kung-Fu fantasy with superhuman abilities? The wise old master says “Only a warrior who can dodge the rain can defeat the evil seven blades ninja clan.” Now you have something where maybe a PC can dodge the rain. What is possible in the example given of the gritty supers game includes surviving, if not dodging, bullets even if it is a large hail of bullets like the scene described. GM fiat killing the PC is wrong in that situation. The proof being that the player clearly saw that situation as being something that the PC could survive in the context of the genre.

If something is clearly impossible in a game an invested player does not have his or her PC attempt that action and expect it to suddenly be possible, because that player wants to keep the PC alive (unless the situation is one where the player believes that the PC would sacrifice him or herself) without disturbing the verisimilitude of the game world. The GM in the situation given in the article should have taken that as a big red flag – why does an invested player see this as being possible? That right there was enough proof that fiat was the wrong move.