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You Are Forbidden To Say This

Posted By Patrick Benson On July 14, 2009 @ 11:56 pm In GMing Advice | 52 Comments

Recently a GM gave me the role playing kiss of death in a game in which I was a player. It was a science fiction one shot. The society of the game world was dystopian, and the player characters were trying to overthrow the oppressive government. My character was a techie and when we came across a door locked by a computer system I said that my character would attempt to circumvent the security system using one of his skills. That is when the GM uttered these six words that you must never utter yourself:

“Your character would not do that.”

The GM then went on to explain how my character would know of other ways to access the room that would be less risky. That my character recognized the security system as being out of his league. That my character would find it impossible to accomplish the task at his skill level.

I do not care how you justify it. If you as a GM say these words to one of your players you should not be a GM.

For one, all of those reasons given could have been discovered through role playing, and in this particular game system with skill checks. Second, by not allowing my character to make an attempt the GM not only took away my chance to succeed but also to fail. With RPGs a failure can be even more fun than a success if handled well.

Yet the ultimate sin here is that a GM never has the right to tell a player what his or her PC does in the game. No GM can deny a player’s choice to attempt an action or to say something of the player’s choosing. It just removes all reason for the player to have even shown up for the game. Never do this to a player.

It does not matter if you are right. It does not matter if the player is being a jerk on purpose. It does not matter if the consequences of the player’s action results in the death of the entire party. The character is a player character, and that means that you as the GM have no say in the matter.

Afterwards I tried to explain this to the GM. He was not interested. He defended his decision and that was that. The result? I will not play in one of his games again. Will this change his GMing style? I do not know, but I would rather play with a GM who understands the difference between a PC and an NPC. Perhaps others playing in his games will do the same for similar reasons.

For once I do not believe that there is much to discuss here, but as always feel free to leave your comments and share your own experiences with the rest of us. And remember that the GM is a player too. Have fun with it!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




52 Comments (Open | Close)

52 Comments To "You Are Forbidden To Say This"

#1 Comment By TerraNova On July 15, 2009 @ 1:14 am

I am not forbidden from doing anything ;)

More seriously, though: This rant is a bit off target IMHO. While of course “your character would not do that” is worded pretty harshly, the reasoning behind that statement is sound and actually quite honorable. I see such reminders as the hallmarks of a good GM rather than a bad one.

Let me explain. At least in my GM time, I have found that usually, I know the part of the world my game is set in best. Heck, in homebrew worlds, I would actually claim none can know it better, since it is my own invention. Plus, most people (me included) suck at transfering info to players and have them remember minutae. So the players usually have much less information about the world than their characters, which in turn have less than the GM.

This imbalance of knowledge can quickly result in positively comical scenes (think “trying to stomp out a fire if a sprinkler system is just the push of a big red button away”). These usually result in resentments player side for “tricking” them, or for “making” them behave like idiots. A quick callout to explain why a certain course of action is probably a result of limited player knowledge is actually something a good GM does for the sake of allowing the players to act organically in the world.

If the player, after being actively made aware of other options, still chooses to do what he originally intended, well… not your fault anymore.

Side note: I take it you absolutely despise games with “universal damage” where social attacks can and frequently do force you to take actions, shift viewpoints and sometimes act out of what you consider to be in character? They are out there, and some say they are spreading.

#2 Comment By Bercilac On July 15, 2009 @ 1:26 am

While I’m generally in agreement with this article, there are a lot of things GMs say routinely in gaming sessions which are really meant to accomplish the same thing:
1. Agent Spite would be well aware…
2. Why does Grugnar want to…?
3. Are you sure? (hint: you’re not)

That’s essentially the GM saying “Your character wouldn’t do that” but giving the player veto power to say, “Actually, yes, she would.”

The reverse of this is players using “My character wouldn’t do that” to get out of messing up. The most difficult example is when the GM prepares the perfect trap, but it results on a little bit of PC carelessness.
“You foolishly left the door open, so you don’t hear…”
“No, we closed it.”
“You didn’t SAY you closed it.”
“Well, my character doesn’t just leave doors open.”
“What?!”

Burning Wheel looks like an interesting system with its Instincts, so you can actually say “Look, my character always closes doors, and bars them if the party is resting.” Otherwise, you’re in a bit more trouble. This example crosses over a bit with retroactively changing things, but in general when the GM is narrating along and a PC interrupts with the MCWNDT, it gets frustrating. Can anyone think of times that this can be abused, or is it just like how a GM never gets to take control of a player’s character, a player ALWAYS has control of their character?

#3 Comment By MaW On July 15, 2009 @ 3:30 am

Really that’s not the way to go when there are so many ways to ensure characters fail at things which are supposed to be impossible.

“You don’t recognise the lock design, and have no idea how to go about opening it safely.”

“Sure, roll lockpicking… oh dear. You failed.”

If something’s supposed to be impossible, make it look impossible to the character. If they still want to try, give it an insanely hard DC and let them deal with the consequences of failure.

Amazing how such a small thing can ruin an entire game, but it’s that fine line where GMs become tyrants and players eat all the pizza.

#4 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 15, 2009 @ 6:06 am

I think MaW is on the right track. Were I the DM, I’d be inclined to try something like “As you look more closely at the lock (or whatever) you realize that it is of an advanced design that you have never seen before. It’s going to be tougher than you first thought.”

Still, I agree in principle with your main point. The DM doesn’t get to dictate the players choices. Results, yes — but not choices.

#5 Comment By neobolts On July 15, 2009 @ 6:30 am

TwoShedsJackson has the correct method. There’s a subtle difference between “steering” the player and “railroading” them.

Lets look at the original post…

“The GM then went on to explain how my character would know of other ways to access the room that would be less risky. That my character recognized the security system as being out of his league. That my character would find it impossible to accomplish the task at his skill level.” <–This should have been the roleplay wording. The same three sentences, reworked below:

"As you begin to work on the system, you recognize that you might be out of your league. This system may well be impossible at your skill level." “However, your skill in these matters brings to mind other ways to access the room that would be less risky.”

#6 Comment By Rafe On July 15, 2009 @ 7:16 am

MaW and TwoShedsJackson have it. It isn’t so much an issue of the PC being stopped so much as the player being stopped. The GM (a player) should not be able to affect the PC. Only the player can do that. The GM can elaborate on the situation (as TwoShedsJackson wrote out) by informing the player of things the PC would now be able to deduce.

“Your character wouldn’t do that.” is a sudden stop in the game and an interference in the player’s domain; the PC belongs to the player. However, “As you look more closely at the lock (or whatever) you realize that it is of an advanced design that you have never seen before. It’s going to be tougher than you first thought.” is an opportunity and enhances the scene without the GM directly stopping the PC which, again, is something only the player should be able to do.

#7 Comment By Knight of Roses On July 15, 2009 @ 7:36 am

Just adding my support, it was how it was said that was the problem. The GM was thinking along the right lines, he just communicated it very poorly. Possibly a case of his vision of the game world getting in the way of GMing.

#8 Comment By gustavovp On July 15, 2009 @ 8:21 am

I do not agree completely with this article. While saying the words “Your character would not do that” is terrible, saying “I don`t think your character would do that.” is not so bad. If you deal with extreme circunstances, it may be a necessary thing to say.

In my D&D group we have a crappy player that only sticks with us because he is a childhood friend from the group. This guy often does things that leads the entire group (not only the GM) to say: “I don`t think your character would do that.”

While we don`t forbid him completely to proceed with his course of actions, we (the whole group, except him, the crappy player) strongly suggest that he reviews his actions.

It is not the greatest thing that can happen in a game, but it may be the player’s fault and not the GM`s if it eventually happens. In my D&D game, it is usually this crappy player who makes the others say: “I don`t think your character would do that.”

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 9:18 am

I’m just going to address this debate, and not any post in particular accept for one. From the article:

“For one, all of those reasons given could have been discovered through role playing, and in this particular game system with skill checks.”

Why use GM fiat when you can role play the situation out, or play the game? The whole point behind an RPG is that we as a group all have input into a shared reality. The system and the role playing can be used to resolve conflicts between different sources of input. The GM saying “Your character would not do that.” is the negation of the player’s input. Once you negate anyone’s input there is no reason to play an RPG.

If your game world is so detailed that the players might make a “mistake” with a PC’s actions you as the GM need to get those details across through the role playing of a person within that game world. Don’t address the player, address the PC. The GM in questions easily could have said “You are about to go to work on the system when you recognize a Mylar Stobecksen Mach 8 sensor array! They are nearly impossible to circumvent without a nano-frame, and those take up an entire room. Too bad you only have what is in your pockets! What do you do?”

Note that I never said that the PC would not do anything. I simply added more detail to the scene, and also increased the tension. Now the player can make a better decision.

And what if the player says “My PC still attempts to disarm the system.”? Let them roll the dice, pull a card, spend the points, or whatever the system’s mechanic is for the situation. If it fails the player knows exactly why, but if it succeeds (that wonderful “I rolled a 20 in D&D!” moment) you have a great moment within the game. Why kill that sort of thing before it even has a chance?

And what is at stake? For the GM nothing. You can always recycle your material into another session. For the player? Everything! You just took control away from their PC. You negated the need for a player at the table to play that character.

@gustavovp – That is not a “Your character would not do that.” situation. You said that you and the group are asking the player to review their decision, and you are not negating the decision. If the player insists on taking that action would you say “No, I won’t allow it.”? If so, then you are negating the player’s purpose for being at the table. Asking a player to reconsider is something completely different.

The other thing that stands out about your comment is that the player is “crappy”. If the player is so “crappy” and you don’t boot him from your group that is another issue. So what if he is a childhood friend? If a childhood friend is a dick to you in certain situations why tolerate that? I’m sure you have your reasons, but the issue is I see it is that you have a problem player and how you handle his PC in the game is never going to resolve the issue. You need to talk to deal with the player.

#10 Comment By Cole On July 15, 2009 @ 9:28 am

You can view it this way. In the GM’s version of this world, your character would not do it and you wouldn’t have a choice in the matter. If because of this issue, a lot of people are not having fun, you should change GM’s.

Unless there were some other great aspects to this campaign, I don’t think I would enjoy playing in it either.

#11 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 15, 2009 @ 9:29 am

To clarify: My problem with the expression used by the DM is that it implies something about the character’s motivations or tendencies.

Describe the situation, not the character.

#12 Comment By bradiation On July 15, 2009 @ 9:42 am

The clear response is to start telling the GM what his/her NPCs would and wouldn’t do.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 9:52 am

@bradiation – LOL! Yep. Spot on!

And just to be clear, the title of the article plays on that aspect of the situation. Obviously no one is forbidden from saying “Your character would not do that.”, but TerraNova’s first comment on the article was “I am not forbidden from doing anything.” (granted it was a humorous comment).

If the GM is not forbidden from doing anything, why is the player not allowed to control his or her character’s actions? The truth is that you as a GM can say these words, but you should not. Let the player play the character, and you as the GM play the rest of the game world.

#14 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 11:36 am

@TerraNova – Regarding “universal damage”, no I do not despise them at all. In the scenarios that you described there are game mechanics involved that are probably part of the reason that I am playing the game. If I fail a resistance check of some sort and an NPC convinces my PC to take another action via a skill such as “persuasion” the GM has not told me what my character would or would not do. My PC has interacted with the game world and that interaction has changed my PC. In that sort of scenario the rules of the game have been applied. There is no negation of my role as a player.

#15 Comment By Sewicked On July 15, 2009 @ 11:42 am

Question, if the GM had said, “um, your character would be aware that X, Y or Z would be less risky. And that the security system is a really complex one, probably outside his capabilities? Do you want to do X, Y, Z or try something else?” would it have been better perceived? In other words, was this a problem of a bad GM approach or another problem?

I have never thought about it but the ‘your character wouldn’t do that’ line gives me the heebie-jeebies. Is there a problem with my course of action because of something that I, the player, have forgotten or that was not clear in the situation description? Then make that clear.

I have, on occasion, said, ‘your character would be aware of X'; something that would influence whatever action was just declared – like, race aleph responds very badly to threats, with the implied ‘are you sure you want to try intimidation?’. If the player still chooses that course of action, then let the consequences fall where they may.

#16 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

@Sewicked – Very good point.

“Question, if the GM had said, “um, your character would be aware that X, Y or Z would be less risky. And that the security system is a really complex one, probably outside his capabilities? Do you want to do X, Y, Z or try something else?” would it have been better perceived? In other words, was this a problem of a bad GM approach or another problem?”

Your question presents a completely different situation from the “Your character would not do that.” scenario. For one, the GM is presenting more details to help the player make a decision with in response to the player’s attempt. Second, in the example you gave the GM still gave the player the choice to continue.

“Your character would not do that.” is not a GMing technique. It is a bullying technique. A GM that resorts to these methods should be writing a novel instead of running an RPG IMO. They are taking the player’s one source of input away from him or her.

#17 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 15, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

I’m completely with you. There’s a world of difference between, “Your character wouldn’t do that,” and, “Your character knows much easier and safer ways to accomplish ‘X’.” Sort of like the difference between, “Hand me that plate already!” and “Please pass the cookies.” It all comes down to basic manners — the little, understated things we do to assure the people we deal with that we respect them and their autonomy.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 15, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

I gotta side with Patrick on this one. There are many ways to remind, question, verify, confirm, expound upon, and re-explain, and none of them involve the sentence “Your character wouldn’t do that.”

Which is why it is something that a GM shouldn’t say.

#19 Comment By John Arcadian On July 15, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

I’m a big fan of shared narrative in situations like this. If a player tried something like that and failed, I give them the parameters I want (you didn’t make it, but didn’t set off the security alarms) and let them tell me how it goes from there. They might come back with “My character didn’t try”, but that is them telling me and not me telling them what their character would do. I’ve quit games over GMs trying to tell me what my character would do, when it was taken to excessive levels.

#20 Comment By BryanB On July 15, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

I don’t like being told “Your PC wouldn’t do or say X.”

I do like a GM saying, “Your PC is a highly trained security hacker with years of experience. You have never even heard of a security system this complicated before, let alone hacked into something like it. Hacking it is theoretically possible, but very risky. There may be better options. What do you do?”

I once had a Star Wars GM (convention) tell me that my “PC wouldn’t say what my PC said” to one of his NPCs. My response was that I wouldn’t have said what my PC had said if my PC hadn’t intended to say it. I reaffirmed what my PC had said.

The GM seemed annoyed that I would have my own take on what my Smuggler PC would want to say to an Imperial Moff (incredible I know) and so proceeded to take out that frustration on my PC for the rest of the game, which was thankfully a fairly short experience.

I’d never put up with that sort of thing in a regular game.

#21 Comment By Havukin On July 15, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

@Patrick Benson – I wasn’t there so I have only your description of the situation, but it looks to me you are quite hard on the GM. It’s true that “Your character would not do that” is something that a GM shoudn’t say but I can’t remember if I have ever GM’ed a session without some kind of a slip.

In my opinion the big thing here was that you couldn’t work it out after the session. (Again I’d really like to hear your GMs point of view of the discussion). If it really went like you described the ultimate sin of the GM was not being interested in his players opinion. That might even be described as The Ultimate Sin of a GM.

#22 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On July 15, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

As I see it there are at least two different situations discussed here:
There is the situation where the GM says something along the lines of “You seem to have missed some major points and are going to make a big mistake” phrased more or less tactfully.

And then there’s the situation where a GM flat out refuses the decision of a player by saying something like “Your character wouldn’t do that”, really meaning “You can’t do that”.
The first situation is most often the result of the GM leaving out some vital bit of information by mistake and trying to correct this error. Very commendable but it should be done with tact and not as bluntly as saying “Your character wouldn’t do that”.

The second one is more of a problem as the GM is telling the player how to run his character. This should not ever be done in my opinion. However I have been tempted to do exactly this in cases where a player maxed out his fighter to the point where he was as stupid as a very stupid rock and then suddenly solved complex puzzles. In this case I feel that the GM should intervene in some way because the players decisions are preventing the other players from having fun.

#23 Comment By Lee Hanna On July 15, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

I have to agree, if it’s a case when the player seems to be missing information that is about to lead him into a mistake, it’s the GM’s duty to point out the bald reality. One of my friends/DMs still seems to like this kind of “gotcha” game, but I ignore it. Most of the time.

OTOH, I used to insert an NPC in groups when I ran Twilight:2000– players were leary of the very lethal setting, and wanted “expert” advice.

#24 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 15, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

@Lee Hanna – If it’s a case of restating the obvious, then you can do it without The Phrase That Must Not Be Spoken. ;-)

#25 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

In some of the comments use of the term “Your character would not do that.” has been defended as a way to keep the player from making a mistake. This does not justify the use of the term. Why? Simple – you are the GM not the player judge. You are not there to judge the player’s actions. You are not there to prevent player “mistakes”. You are there to interpret rules, to run the NPCs, and to manage the events in the game world. The players are there to run the PCs, who are the protagonists in the shared story. You react to their decisions, not make their decisions for them (even when you are “right”).

If a player has his or her PC do something that the system states is out of bounds with their character type then let the action happen in game and then have the PC suffer the consequences of that action in game. If you feel that the player was not provided enough information by you as a GM then interrupt the player and give the additional information, but do not tell the player what his or her character would do.

Yes, you are getting my biased version of the events in this article. Keep this in mind though – I don’t care if the GM had run a great game or not. You never as the GM negate the role of the player by taking over his or her PC in any form. At that point you are removing the player from the game and pushing your will upon them.

Let the player fail, and learn to communicate relevant information effectively to the players when needed. These skills will make you a better GM, not taking over PCs. Recognize and keep that distinction between PCs and NPCs and you will improve your GMing skills a great deal more.

Negate the player’s role at the table and you are fooling yourself into thinking that you are GMing. What you are really doing is imposing your vision of what should happen in the game onto everyone else at the table instead of adding your own input for everyone else to build upon.

And if you do catch yourself doing this, stop, apologize to the player, give more information if needed, and ask them what their PC does.

#26 Comment By DocRyder On July 15, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

I think the “Oh, yeah, here’s some knowledge you don’t have that would prevent your character from doing that” state is necessary. Players who don’t get the setting deserve the right to be informed of a potentially deadly error based on their lack of knowledge.

For example, the Medieval/Renaissance mindset is very different, and most players don’t really grasp it. Modern Americans are used to our democracy, which allows us to speak to important people with the familiarity of an equal.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people say something like “F**k you, Your Highness.” Uh, no. The appropriate response to the character that does such a thing is the pronouncement of summary execution. Such a statement would be unthinkable to a character from historical eras. At that point, saying “Your character wouldn’t say that because…” is very appropriate. There are insults that can be hurled that get the same idea across without getting the character killed, that play well to the court surrounding said monarch.

If someone did that in my game, I’d give them the explanation of the Great Chain of Being (as we call it in Ren Faires), and give them the opportunity to rephrase their statement. If they persisted, I’d do as the GM did with BryanB, and make the rest of his game a living hell, as he is chased out of town by the royal guard and declared an outlaw, and if captured, summarily executed (including the chance that allies might aid the character’s escape). That’s the way royals operated, and if you are so stupid as to do something that will get you killed, suffer the consequences. Of course, that just means the PC has created a mess of adventures as his PC is harassed and chased around the countryside.

On the other hand, I agree that the instance described in this article was not an appropriate use of such a GM fiat. Something like picking a lock is not appropriate. The situation sounds like something I read in one of the Save My Game articles on WotC’s site. The writer commented on a player and DM he spoke with at a con, who both independently described the same game event from different POVs. Basically, the DM refused to allow the PCs to enter the not-so-secret entrance into the local Thieves’ Guild, which was a backdoor in an inn. The writer asked the DM why he put the door in the back of the inn if the PCs couldn’t use it. The PC responded that he did it because it was realistic for there to be a backdoor.

So really, what happened in this one-shot was that the GM put in something for realism that he didn’t want used, then compounded the error by inappropriately using GM Fiat. He further compounded it by defending the decision in private. I’d likely never play with such a person again.

#27 Comment By TerraNova On July 15, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

@Patrick Benson – That comment is the crux of the issue. Mostly when I saw the “you wouldn’t do that” line, the heart of the issue was the difference in information I was talking about.

Maybe I am too jaded, but I doubt that lack of communication is really fixable. There will always be situations where a player just plain doesn’t pay attention, just as there are situations when a GM is unclear, inconsistent or erronously believes to have given some piece of info. So my personal lesson was to grow a thicker skin, and take these kinds of comments in the spirit they were probably given, rather than harping on the insensitive nature you can read into them.

As long as there is a “because X, Y and Z make that much more sense” attached, I really don’t need to have some faux playing out to fix an out of game problem. It doesn’t impinge on my characters “free will” anymore than the universal damage – it is just part of the playing process, a stop sign for me, the player. I fully agree that if the “because…” doesn’t follow up, or a “well, I try anyway” is ignored, that is a different beast. But I fully maintain that the original scenario is benign – if poorly phrased.

#28 Comment By Nicholas On July 16, 2009 @ 9:21 am

I actually winced when I read the line. Then my GMing instincts kicked in and I started thinking of all the better ways to handle that situation.

I’ve never had a GM say that to me, but I have had similar bullying. I would not be allowed to use relevant skills with no explanation and the NPCs would always interrupt the PC’s actions and then outside. Only the GM didn’t get it when I started killing NPC’s. Of course, my first target dodged my surprise attack from behind him and then killed me.

#29 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 16, 2009 @ 9:44 am

If a player wants his character to say “Fuck you your highness.” and that is something that will get the PC killed let it happen. You could have the player make a roll to see if their character understands that they will be put to death if they say such a thing, but once they know this ask “So, are you going to say it?” not “Your character would not do that.”

Seriously, if your players are saying such things then you as the GM need to kill a couple of PCs to validate the game world and increase the sense of immersion. If the player is doing it just to be a dick then ask the player to leave the group.

The definition of a game is an activity in which all of the participants have a form of input. The moment you negate someone’s input you stopped playing a game.

My position is still that no GM should ever say “Your character would not do that.” It is a crutch and a cop out. Let the players fail, let the players screw up, let the players surprise you. Most important of all though is to let the players play.

#30 Comment By BryanB On July 16, 2009 @ 11:08 am

What about situations where a player’s knowledge is not up to par with his PC’s knowledge? Especially when this is cultural in nature.

Example: The game is set in a psuedo-Japanese setting with Samurai and Daimyo’s. The PC walks into the Daimyo’s audience hall and loudly says, “So were here for that job. What’s it pay?” Instead, he should have waited for the Daimyo to address him and then responded with something like, “We are pleased to serve you in this matter my lord. May we have the details?”

The first response would be considered to be rude and insulting to the lord of the province, indeed a samurai might cut him down on the spot. The second response would be more appropriate. But the player may not understand the realities of the setting’s culture and social protocols. The player lives in 21st century America afterall.

So how should a GM handle these sorts of situtations?

#31 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 16, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

@BryanB – You could describe it as part of the scene.

“You enter the Daimyo’s audience hall. The silence of the room is a testament to the strict adherence to the traditions of feudal Japan. You see samurai ready to strike down those who fail to observe the rituals of the land. Proper etiquette says that none are allowed to speak until addressed by the Daimyo himself, and the smug look upon his face suggests that he is going to make you wait for his own amusement. What do you do?”

You have enlightened the player to the situation without telling him what to do. You have added tension to the scene where normally there is none. Yet you have not told the player what his or her character would do.

You could also have an NPC remind the PCs of proper etiquette before they meet the Daimyo. You can prepare a handout for the players that they can reference and tell them right before they act that this kind of thing is mentioned on the handout. You can reassure the players that out of character you will coach them on the rituals if they ask for help. You can have the Daimyo break from tradition and halt his samurai because he is in a dire situation and needs the PCs to help him, but he will also let the PCs know that he will not be so lenient next time. You can forego historical accuracy, because your players might not care about it and that is why they don’t observe it in the game. You can have a scene right before the PCs enter where another NPC fucks up and the PCs see the results giving you a moment to explain what happened.

None of these require you telling the player what his or here character would do. They require more work on your part, or more skill as a GM, but I would rather develop a style that doesn’t rely on negating the player’s input. As I have commented earlier, once I do that I have gone from GMing to bullying.

#32 Comment By Havukin On July 16, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

@Patrick Benson – I completely agree with you that no GM should ever say “your character would not do that” but sometimes you botch your diplomacy roll and say stupid things, especially when under pressure while, for example, GMing. If you dump a GM for a single mistake you are going to run out of GMs quite fast.

He could have let you roll and then tell you that you recognize the system as something that will certainly set the alarm if you tamper with it using the tools and skills you have available. Just as well you could have told him that you are still going to try the task even if it seems impossible. However you didn’t, probably because of some of the things he told you about the situation, not because he told your character wouldn’t do it. So actually he just guessed what your decision would be. That is something that he shouldn’t have done but in my opinion it is not a reason to leave a GM unless he does it costantly.

“Afterwards I tried to explain this to the GM. He was not interested.” This is a reason to dump a GM even mid-session if this actually is the case but I think the GM just didn’t get your point because he didn’t think he was preventing you from doing a thing but merely stating something obvious. Unless your group has some kind of policy that GMs word shall not be questioned during a session you always had the option of telling him that you would carry on with the task even if he said that your character wouldn’t do it. So he was not really taking away your options (and probably not even trying to) even if he phrased it like he was.

I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself but I think my point was missed and tried to make it clearer.

#33 Comment By Joyd On July 16, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

I’m a player, primarily, and I seriously can’t see “your character wouldn’t do that” as anything but a not especially tactful way of saying “wait, really?” It’s just the way it is that a player might not picture a scene the way the DM does, or might space out for a second and make a decision that – literally – his character wouldn’t make because his character can tell that it’s probably impossible or suicidal. It’s not grabbing the reins from the player or anything to tell them that their character is unlikely to make a terrible decision when options that the player and the character are likely to find much more attractive are evident.

That’s not to say tact isn’t important; it is. It’s easy to imagine the following scenarios –

DM: “Your character wouldn’t do that.”
Player: “Screw you, hijacking railroader, I’m doing it.”

DM: “As you begin to examine the device, you realize that disabling it is likely too great a challenge even for your considerable abilities. You do suspect, however, that tinkering with it is likely to set off alarms.”
Player: “Hmmm, maybe we should look for another way.”

#34 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 16, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

More info about the situation I described:

* It was a one shot event at a gmae store.
* Several players commented that the game sucked after it the event ended.
* I had never played a game with this GM before.
* The combination of a bad game, this technique being used, and the GMs refusal to even hear my input all resulted in my decision to not play in his future games (but this technique is what carried the most weight with me).

I believe in working with others at the table. This GM did not seem to have the same belief. Now forget all of that, because it is still irrelevant to the idea that you as a GM can tell a player what their character can and cannot do.

If you say “Your character would not do that.” for the purpose of preventing a mistake you are for all intents and purposes pulling a retcon on the game. The player declared whatever, and after the fact you as the GM want to change that. The way you enact this retcon is through player negation. You are telling the player what the character is doing, and have removed all purpose from the player having that PC even if only for a moment.

Now if you retcon by saying “Wait a minute. Your PC knows that doing X will probably result in Y. Are you sure that you still want your PC to do that?” you still achieve the desired effect, without negating the player’s input.

Here is the other thing that negating the player’s input will result in: if the player still wants that action to take place it can only take place by the player negating your input. “No, my PC does do X. I don’t care what you as the GM say that the PC does.”

Perhaps that player wants his PC attacked. Maybe the player has a plan that by provoking an attack he or she will have the PC gain some sort of advantage. Maybe the player sees his PC as a rebel who wants to provoke dangerous attacks.

You as the GM still should let these things happen. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that this technique “works”. It isn’t GMing. It is bullying.

#35 Comment By BryanB On July 16, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

@Patrick Benson – Adding the information as part of the description or scene framing is a good choice. Hopefully the message is received and the GM and players are on the same wavelength. :D

#36 Comment By Bandersnatch On July 19, 2009 @ 8:21 am

To break it down to its most simple terms:

Player: I will do X, Y and Z
GM: Your character would not do that
Player: Why not?
GM: Because he would fail.

A GM who cannot allow his players to fail is simply playing with himself.

#37 Comment By Maccara On July 20, 2009 @ 12:58 am

I mostly agree with the article (without going into further details). But this brings a question of how to handle “reflex” actions fairly and realistically?

For example: Two people on the ledge of a building and one of them slips. Normal reaction is to grab hold of the nearest thing you find (the other person in this case) and there’s a chance both go tumbling down.

GM: (rolling some dice) You slip and start to fall, instinctively grasping to hold on to something…
PC: (thinking rationally) No I won’t! I have a ring of “smooth landing” so I just let myself fall, no worries at all!

I can explain that’s not how humans react and even offer to roll for it (with some mighty odds) but I know I will get objections (many PCs HAVE difficulties to forget rational thinking and to think what would be the proper action on impulse) and if the PC has read this blog might even point to this article: “You shouldn’t do that, see, I should have a choice”. :)

I know this is a bit simplistic example, but how would you handle similar situations and how would you present it to the PC so he “gets it” and doesn’t feel hurt afterwards?

#38 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 20, 2009 @ 8:37 am

@Maccara – For one, what is the benefit of being highly realistic in the game? Question your motive first. Just like all other forms of fiction you need to understand when the suspension of disbelief is in place and work with it.

And to address your example, if the item is magical and it allows a person to fall without harm why can’t it also induce a calming effect upon the bearer in situations where it may be needed? Wouldn’t the crafters of the magic item take into account human instincts and make sure that those instincts would not screw up the use of the item?

Plus, just as it is realistic for a falling person to grab for a nearby object, it is also realistic for someone in a dangerous situation to avoid such dangers. In other words, why wouldn’t the second PC avoid being grabbed by scooting over a little and dodging as much as possible the attempt to grab him or her?

I find that “Realistically, this is what would hapen…” RPG arguments rarely hold up to scrutiny. Whatever can be applied from the real world can be trumped with a game world exception. You have elves and dwarves runnign around, vampires and magic, 50 ton mecha and aliens, so it takes very little stretching of the imagination to see how a PC would not always do instinctively in the game world what you and I would do in the real world.

Don’t play into that kind of trap, because a good GM will realize that is the imposing of your view of how things work upon the game world instead of collaboratively defining that game world as a group. Maybe the player thinks that after using his “smooth landing” a few times the PC was used to the effect and has been conditioned to expect it and will not grab at objects when falling, and that is just as valid a scene as your description is.

#39 Comment By Maccara On July 21, 2009 @ 1:41 am

@Patrick – Thanks for the response. As I said, that example was a bit simplistic, but you raised very good points for the context still and gave much food for thought.

In retrospect, I should’ve not given an example with something magical, as then there’s always an easy out of every situation. …especially, since many games I play(/played) do not involve magic…

Also, I would like to point out that I didn’t bring this up to go for realism, although it might seem so, but to question how this kind of situation (forget the _specific_ example – and just right now I can’t think of a good one for an alternative, as I haven’t really found myself in this situation (yet)) might be presented for the PCs without appearing as a simple “you wouldn’t do that” situation and still not allowing the PC to negate the whole concept.

Of course, this kind of situation would be best avoided in the first place, but sometimes similar concepts can make good story-telling or plot device and I just would like to be able to avoid the kind of pit-fall described without having to alter the plot too much on the spot (well, for the given example it would be easy to get the same end-result without resorting to reflexes at all).

I hope I was able to clarify my question… :)

Next is just presenting alternatives to the examples you gave how to counter that specific example.

Note that I do agree with your resolutions, they’re all good and valid points, but they do not get the end result I want for story telling purposes, so I’m “negating the negations” as an exercise. ;)

Please do not dismiss the whole premise (read my clarifications above) on the grounds that these present examples of bad/bully GM behaviour (because I agree they do! just want address them anyway, how they might be countered).

First of all, suspension of disbelief is not an issue – the purpose of this was not to bring realism into game, but to have a plot device (admitted, poor example).

The crafters of the magic item might have not taken into account the instincts simply because the intended use was for the base-jumpers for recreational use and not protection for falls in general – therefore the calming effect would be counterproductive.

And yes, the second PC definitely probably would try to avoid grabbing (and would be a subject to a roll – and from experience I can say that it is pretty easy to avoid sudden grabs) but the point was, the the first PC immediately negated the whole concept.

You’re perfectly right about “realistically, this is what would happen…” argument – even in “realistic” game settings.

Basically, this is partly the core of the question: how can I present the situation where PC just negated something I thought was “neat”?

(well, for one, personally I would not likely end up with the specific example situation unless I forgot PC had the ring and would have altered the setting to begin with so that it might happen when the PCs are drunk, for example, but I’m looking for various ways in case I blunder and end up in this kind of situation where I did not see PC possibly negating my storytelling – although usually this kind of situation wouldn’t be critical for the story and I would have alternatives)

#40 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

I agree with the original article.

Example:

Last weekend was the start of a two-weekend adventure in a sandbox underground city kind of thing. They began imprisoned by one of the children of the recently-dead overlord. So sitting in the jail they had to come up with an escape plan, which actually worked out really well. Out of four players we have two good plans with no real input from me – they would ask me questions and try things, and I would tell them the outcome.

My system: Player says “I want to do this thing” and I decide if that’s impossible, possible, or guaranteed. If it’s possible he rolls. Otherwise he just succeeds or fails.

So when I described the prison bars one of the players said he was going to try to bend them. I said they look pretty thick, but he wanted to try anyway. So cool, he tries, and fails. Some things are simply impossible. If you balk at that, and think there should be at least a small chance of success for any action, consider the halfling who tries to jump to the moon for half an hour and eventually rolls a 20.

Point is, part of your job as a DM is to describe the world and the NPCs. You’re providing much of the background and the objects of the players’ activities. The PCs are the subjects of the game, and the actions, hopes, desires, and intentions of each PC are the exclusive domain of that PC’s player.

Exceptions that I include are things like Charm, Paralysis, Death, etc. You can’t just decide that your character survived if the dice say he didn’t – we aren’t playing Cowboys and Indians here. But I rarely use Charm and have never used Geas because they (especially the latter) are effectively puppet strings. I’m cool with the players puppeteering a few of my NPCs and monsters, but it sucks when it happens to PCs.

Best advice I’ve heard: The DM gets to play all those characters. Each player gets just one. So if you’re going to play his character for him, why is he even there?

#41 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 21, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

@Maccara

“Basically, this is partly the core of the question: how can I present the situation where PC just negated something I thought was “neat”?”

The player did not negate anything. You can still say “Yes, your smooth landing ring will protect you. Yet it does not prevent a reflex reaction that everyone in this game world has. Please roll to see if you attempt to grab your comrade out of panic.”

Now you haven’t taken control of the PC if you are consistent with this aspect of the game world. Every time some character falls in your game be prepared for the players to request a roll for the NPC to reach out in a panic even when it is not in the NPC’s best interest. In fact, you shouldn’t even need to be reminded of it because it is your ruling that started this (and you should have applied it to appropriate situations before the ring incident as well).

The game world does limit/decide what all of the characters in the setting do. Both PCs and NPCs. Fire burns because of the game world’s physics (or maybe it doesn’t because of the physics :) ). Bullets kill characters because the game world says so, not because the GM ruled that certain characters die from bullets and others do not. The GM has a great deal of influence on the game world, and can create a “bullet-proof” type of character, but the GM better have an explanation for that new character type that the players accept in their perception of the game world. If not, well your players may not enjoy your game.

Now if your player argues the ruling explain that all characters are subject to this ruling. If the players say “That sucks./I don’t like that./Seems a bit much too me.” or whatever ask yourself if your neat idea is actually good for this type of game. If you still feel the ruling is appropriate and are prepared for the potential fallout then ask for that roll.

But if you don’t apply that ruling to every character in the game world. If you just pulled it out of your ass for a single incident because you thought it would be neat then you are imposing your will upon the player and that is wrong. You are changing the rules to suit your whim, and that is not GMing but bullying.

#42 Comment By Maccara On July 22, 2009 @ 4:10 am

@Patrick

Thank you very much for the further input. And I agree wholeheartedly.

In short what I gathered here as the main points for me (when dealing with this kind of situation):

1. Be consistent

2. Not really a “your character wouldn’t do that” -situation in the strictest sense, given that at least 1st point holds true (especially if there’s a precedent already)

3. Think if these kind of rulings are appropriate for the setting in the first place (players’ input welcome also, of course).

We reviewed this discussion (with the GM who brought this up to me – we’re co-GMing a couple of settings) and we’re now in agreement about this topic (I.e. we’re not allowed to “take control” of the PCs but “reflex actions” can be allowed, if they make sense, and we make a note for further reference so we remain consistent and we should discuss these rules with the PCs also when introduced so they’re clear on the reasoning).

Again, thank you very much for your well-thought input on this matter.

#43 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 22, 2009 @ 10:21 am

@Maccara – Glad to have been able to help.

The only thing that dictates what a PC can and cannot do is the game world. If we are playing a modern investigation game and a player says “My character starts flying.” I as the GM can respond with “Your PC does not fly on his own power. This game world does not allow for it.” I as the GM have not dictated what the PC has done, but I have kept the setting of the game world intact. That is a big part of the GM’s job.

Now if the player says “My character attempts to fly.” I as the GM can only describe the results. “Your character is still firmly planted on the ground.” It does not matter what I think the character should be doing, the player can have his PC make the attempt.

The problem is when a PC might do something as a natural reaction. The PC is hiding from a killer, is barefoot, and steps on a thumbtack. Does the PC make a noise? Most people when injured make a sound as a reflex. Making a sound in this case would give away the PCs position.

You can dictate the PC’s action, but that is wrong. The player can voluntarily have the PC make a sound because he or she believes that is what the PC would do. You can hand wave the whole thing and say that the PC remains quiet, but then why have the thumbtack in the first place?

Or you can have the player make a roll using the appropriate rules to see if the PC will remain quiet. There is nothing wrong with this approach if you apply those rules consistently and fairly.

When in doubt side with the players. If you are not sure then why oppose them? Note the incident and address how you will handle it later when you have time to think it through. If you decide to introduce a new rule write it down and explain why you are introducing that rule to your group.

Again it takes more work on the GM’s part, but you will become a better GM because of it.

#44 Comment By Aramax On July 23, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

I am going to be brave and disagree.I have DMed for many pinheads and am not willing to have a TPK or a derailed plot due to very poor roleplaying.This is different than poor judgement,which I would always allow for.

This is very true for a four color supers game and the player of Superman says “I rip his head off”.

#45 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 24, 2009 @ 9:49 am

@Aramax – If the player wants Superman to kill a mugger in an ultra-violent way you still should not dictate what the PC does.

For one, if you call your players pinheads then you obviously have another issue at the table. Second, since you allowed your player to play Superman you gave that player permission to “rip heads off” with the character. Third, the game world is not the established comic universe. It is your group’s interpretation of that universe and in that interpretation Superman rips people’s heads off (more like Ultraman from the Earth 2 graphic novel).

So let the players do what they will with their PCs. Your story and plot will probably get fucked over, but as a GM you know that happens even with the best of groups that try to cooperate with you. Give Lobo the kryptonite bullet, and have Lex Luthor get a hold of a Green Lantern Corps ring to even the playing field against Supes. :)

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#47 Comment By goonalan On July 26, 2009 @ 8:12 am

I had one of these on friday night, sorta, chamber ahead with a large hiole in the floor- hundreds of feet deep. The PCs are being chased through a Chasm Fort by a Shadow Dragon and a bunch of Gnolls/Hyenas (Thunderspire Labyrinth with some Orcus related flavourings). The Dwarven Priest of Moradin- Farkill, who’s been having a crisis of faith- he went two sessions (5 hours each) and never hit once (in eight combat encounters), he’s starting to think that Kord might be worth a look.

Anyway Dwarf, and other PCs are in the mire- big nasty Gnolls ahead, Shadow Dragon et al behind, bottled up in this chamber with a hole in the floor.

Farkill “I call on Moradin and then smash my hammer into the floor in an attempt to enlarge the hole, crack the stone and sunder the chamber/floor completely…” The rest of the players laugh like drains- the Fort is massive, the entire redoubt is balanced on a huge stalgtite, stalagmite formation.

In my brain I’m scrabbling around for answers- I want to say “you can’t do that”; or rather, “What? One Hammer blow isn’t going to… Particularly with your roles.”- I blurt out instead “natural 20 only.”

You know what happens next.

Farkill Fortress Destroyer is born, as a good third of the ancient redoubt peels itself away, after a few rounds for the PCs to get clear, and hurtles down into the mile or more deep chasm- sending Gnolls and Hyena’s tumbling to their doom. The Shadow Dragon takes flight.

Here’s the upside- Frakill’s player thinks he’s ace, and he’s back with Moradin for good; the Shadow Dragon is their new found recurring villain (shhh- don’t tell the PCs yet). The rest of the players who had gone five encounters without a short rest, and are on at wills only, are suddenly buoyed and ready for more- and laughing like drains again.

I didn’t want it to happen, I had plot related plans; it shouldn’t have happened, one hammer blow to a piece of flagged stone floor is not enough to destroy a third of the fortress, and yet…

Opportunities arise as a DM, the narrative in the moment is all that matters, to make a better story- more memorable, good DMs, or lucky DMs (I’m in the latter group), grab these opporunities and run with them.

The lesson is never say never, tell the players how difficult it would be sure, but let them try anyway, let them try anything they like- it works better that way, IMHO.

Cheers

PS The players above have in fact cut off their only known route for retreat, they don’t know this yet, actually nor did I- I’ve only just made it up. Must dash I’ve got a huge Skill Challenge to write to get them through the next area of the Labyrinth, and a mini dungeon to populate with nasty creatures- payback time. Bloody dwarves and their bloody hammers.

#48 Comment By argokirby On July 29, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

So to resurrect this conversation a bit I want to segueway to another similar DM power, and get some ideas on who thinks its okay or not and why.

Emotion

Is the DM allowed to tell a player the emotions that his character is feeling?

We had a big row in our group recently over what seems like the slightest story build but turned into a major dispute.

The GM stated to a Player that since his dwarf character’s hair was on fire, that he was getting pretty angry at the goblins. There was no additional fiat like “so your character then does this…” It was just a statement of how the character was feeling. The player took major offense at this and insisted that the DM was not allowed to do such a thing.

Does the GM have the right to express emotion of a character to the character’s player?

#49 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 29, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

@argokirby – I think this is enough topic for one article, and multiple replies.

Could you post the “emotion question” in the Suggestion Pot?

Thanks.

#50 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 29, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

@argokirby – For me the GM is not allowed to dictate a PC’s emotions either. It is better to describe a scene that will evoke an emotional response, but emotions are unpredictable aspects that are better left in the hands of the players when it comes to the PCs.

That said, I agree with Telas and would be happy to see this posted to the Suggestion Pot article.

I may in the future work on a PDF for this topic, so if you have questions or comments feel free to send them to VV_GM@comcast.net.

#51 Comment By Storyteller On July 30, 2009 @ 6:12 am

Brilliant article. I have been on the receiving end of those words many times, and have heard them said to other players, and also between players! I’m actually writing up a post that will probably be posted on my blog later this evening about just such a topic. I’ll make sure to send a link this way :)

#52 Comment By Chris McDaniel On July 30, 2013 @ 1:10 am

Nothing like posting long after something is dead, but I’m working my way through the archives and I feel the need to share. I have done something similiar to this to a fellow player.

We were playing a sci-fi game in Savage Worlds, and the player in question was playing a Doctor with the Pacifist (major) hindrance. For those of you unfamiliar with the setting that means exactly what you would expect, he was supposed to avoid combat like the plague, not even defending himself unless it was against inorganic or unquestionably evil beings (robots or demons basically). Through a series of events our group was on a ship full of mass-murdering, cannibalistic cultist pirates (and those were their good traits) with the mission of keeping an eye on them and reporting their coordinates to the military. The doctor slipped up (ordered a salad while amongst cannibals) got thrown into a gladiatorial arena (five stories or spiked chains crawling with slaves attempting to reach the top level and earn membership into the pirates). The GM forgot to have the guards disarm him though, but that shouldn’t have mattered right?

Well, after tossing his grenade in the thickest clump of slaves he then took his beam rifle and systematically destroyed the chain nets sending around 100 slaves plummeting to their deaths… and he was supposed to be a pacifist. I didn’t call him on it then, it was actually a few sessions later when he absolutely destroyed a man’s skull (this was a very violent game) for killing his pet bat that I sent him an e-mail essentially saying “Your character shouldn’t be acting this way”. I gave him options, switch out Pacifist for Vengeful and allow his Hippocratic oath to stand for his “respect” for life, and I also sent a copy of the e-mail to the GM so he knew about my concerns, and, for all I know, he took my advice (he was playing over skype so we never saw his sheet or his dice rolls), but I feel like the GM should have stepped up much sooner and said “Your character wouldn’t do that” not because of some other situation, but from the very restrictions the player had placed upon themselves during character creation.


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