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Hot Button: Tragic Twists of Fate

Back in May I shared how my gaming hobby was impacted by my being laid-off [1] from my former job of 13 years. I am happy to let all of you know that I have a new position, and that it is both more challenging and better paying than my previous role was.

Having my job taken away from me was a rough but overall positive learning experience. I was considering how a similar scenario of the PCs being dismissed from a patron’s service might impact a game. The adventuring party being asked to leave the kingdom for some reason by the royal family with very little foreshadowing, or if the game were taking place in a more modern setting having the PCs downsized unexpectedly. Would such a surprise make the game more fun in the long run?

What about other events like an unexpected death (not a PC’s, but an NPC ally)? A natural disaster that destroys a landmark of importance? Things can go unexpectedly wrong in so many ways!

Every story benefits from healthy portions of both comedy and tragedy. A story with both ups and downs leads to great character development. But some players might perceive such a twist as an act of GM fiat that exploits the players’ inability to control certain aspects of the setting. After all, it is not like the GM has to roll for a stroke of bad luck to befall the PCs. Is it alright for the GM to pull the rug out from under the PCs every once in a while?

I am inclined to think that such events are perfectly fine to include in a game. Such events happen in real life everyday to various people in various ways. One day everything is fine, the next your world is turned upside down. Tragedy can happen without warning. My former company was doing well with sales, but a change in upper management and strategy resulted in lay-offs. Sometimes you get blindsided, so why shouldn’t such events happen to the PCs?

For the record I also believe that random events of good luck should befall the PCs as well, since I have had plenty of negative and positive things come into my life unexpectedly.

The flip side though is that real life is composed of many variables outside of our control, but a GM is very much in control of what he or she introduces into the game world. RPGs are attempts to share an imagined reality, but they are also games with rules and limitations. Sure the GM has control of the setting, but the players are allowed to choose how their characters interact with that setting. If the setting becomes “hostile” to the PCs and works against the players’ expectations, does that not defeat the purpose of playing a game?

The answer is probably in the middle of the two extremes, but what do you the readers think? Are tragic twists of fate fair? Do they enhance or diminish the fun of a game? Leave your comments below and let us know how you feel about the matter.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Hot Button: Tragic Twists of Fate"

#1 Comment By Riklurt On June 29, 2012 @ 4:58 am

I’ve actually constructed my own “encounter” table which includes things like tragic twists of fate. It has three columns, one for classical travel encounters like bandits, one for plot seeds and discoveries like treasure maps, and finally a drama column.

The drama column is something I whip out for just such events. It has entries ranging from minor (e.g. “Someone spills wine on a PC, ruining his fine clothes”) to medium (“A close NPC friend is challenged to a duel”) to absolute disasters (“A plague tears across the land!”). These are meant to represent just the ebb and flow of life and serve chiefly to make the game world more immersive, but more than once I’ve gotten a plot hook out of them. Most of them are taken out of soap operas and sit-coms – such shows often have very universal problems that can apply in any setting.

#2 Comment By JackOfAllGeeks On June 29, 2012 @ 5:33 am

I think the answer to the question really depends on what the focus of your game is.

For most people, the focus seems to be on playing a game, with the PCs as their pieces and their success or failure based mostly on their choices and the roll of dice. In this case, random tragedies probably feel more onerous because they offend the basic assumption (that players’ success is in their own hands). I can see players getting upset of you randomly fire them, or kill their horse, or whatever.

An alternate focus is on role playing in the classic sense, where the DM presents a situation and the players react based on who their character is. I’m not saying the two are diametrically opposed (you can have plenty of good role playing even if your “focus” is on the game), but shifting the focus changes assumptions. In this case, any situation the DM presents is (more or less) equally valid, because the assumption is “he’ll give me a situation and I’ll decide how my character acts.” The scenario of being laid off or losing a beloved companion is just as valid as an orc siege or discovering ancient ruins.

To answer your question, it’s probably not “fair,” but how much that matters depends on where the focus of your group and your game lies.

#3 Comment By Noumenon On June 29, 2012 @ 5:45 am

“If the setting becomes “hostile” to the PCs and works against the players’ expectations, does that not defeat the purpose of playing a game?”

A friend once said, “In D&D you get experience from hitting things. In real life you get experience from things hitting you.” I’ll stick to the first one.

#4 Comment By mcmanlypants On June 29, 2012 @ 7:32 am

@Noumenon, that is some awesome phrasing. Totally stealing that one. 🙂

Speaking personally, I view tabletop RPGs as one part collaborative storytelling, one part performance and one part puzzle-solving. If I were to find out that the intricate web of relationships I’d helped to construct could be taken out in a second because there’s a random “encounter” table out there with “97-98: close ally suffers massive cardiac arrest, dies,” on it, I’d be pretty disappointed. I’d much rather the tragedies be used to deploy some important component of the story than to remind me that real life is capricious. The caprice of real life is, in fact, why I’m playing a game.

That said, if the tragedy advanced the story rather than hinder it then I would be A-OK with it. I think it’s the possibility of randomness that I would find bothersome.

#5 Comment By JackOfAllGeeks On June 29, 2012 @ 9:30 am

@McManlyPants that’s a good point — if you’re writing a collaborative story then randomness like this actively disrupts your intent; you can’t write a meaningful story if you can’t count on some measure of consistency. The same thing goes if you’re playing a game with set goals and a notion of “winning”; you can’t play a game if you can’t rely on it functioning in (semi-)predictable ways. The randomness and unfairness bothers me less, personally, because I’m not as interested in telling a story (though that’s part of the fun) or winning a game (also there) as I am with determining how my character would react in any given situation. The capriciousness of life is part of what I’m interested in.

#6 Comment By danroth On June 29, 2012 @ 10:42 am

That sounds like a great idea. Most recently, I had players (in a fantasy setting) employed as protectors. Perhaps I could have them come back from an adventure to find their employers have been ambushed, or the HQ burned down.

#7 Comment By drummy On June 29, 2012 @ 11:46 am

This is all cool stuff…I’m struggling with whether to have my PC’s come back to their world from a necrotic city to find that the Queen of that world has cursed them to find that “their world is not their world”…mulling over whether to move them forward in time about three years and have to catch up on all that’s happened. Most notably, to find their place in the war that’s raging between two major countries.

Is that fair? Dunno…but it sounds kind of cool! (No major family members, etc., have died in the three year interim.)

Nice post — and congratulations on your new job!


#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 29, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

[2] – Thanks! Today was actually my first day at the new job, and it was a good day indeed! 🙂

@Everyone – The comments are all good, and cover a lot of different perspectives. I agree that the events that a GM throws into the game should be for the purpose of advancing the characters forward. A random tragedy does just that, because it requires action to overcome.

I keep thinking of how FDR was struck down in his prime by polio. A completely random event stole the use of his legs from him, and yet he persevered. I would not suggest crippling a PC in that manner, but the point is that FDR’s personal story would be completely different if he had not faced that difficult path that completely blindsided him.

The same could be said of Lance Armstrong, Beethoven, and James Braddock. What they did with their lives after tragic events that might have ended their careers turned them into legends of sorts.

Any GM using a tragic twist of fate should limit it to things close to the PCs that influence their roles in the game, and not the PCs themselves. Losing a job or title is external to the PC, but losing a limb or use of one of the senses is too extreme for this tactic the way that I would use it.

But I am still unconvinced that this tactic is “unfair” to use if balanced out with random acts of good luck.

And when I use the term random I mean that these events happen randomly to the PCs, and not that the GM should roll on a chart for these events to occur in the game (although some GMs might like that approach).

#9 Comment By Razjah On June 29, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

I think this idea has merit, but needs to be used sparingly. I would hate to have some NPC that my character has been investing some kind of game currency ( [3]) suddenly die, get captured, removed from the story. However, once loose threads with that character have been resolve, it would be an excellent method of bringing excitement back to the NPC.

Having an allied NPC assassinated is one way to motivate the party. But it can also infuriate the party having “cut scene” events ruin beloved NPCs. This is why I think it must be used sparingly, and only used fro great effect.

#10 Comment By E-l337 On July 4, 2012 @ 7:37 am

One of the greatest things I’ve ever done was to kidnap one of the PCs siblings in my post-apoc game. It allowed me to bring to the front an organization that had really only ever been mentioned since the start, and only encountered a couple of times in the past (such as an initiation ritual for the PC whose sister in question was kidnapped). To say that it was a resounding success, both in terms of my PCs reactions and story-wise, would be an understatement, I think.

The key is always balance. Yes, things outside the control of your PCs have to happen – they don’t decide that the villain is going to set bombs throughout the town, mount an attack force against the city, or to burn down a building in a fit of rage. The key is to work that blindsiding into the overall narrative. Totally random events that do nothing for your game are only detracting. An important NPC having a stroke without any sort of foreshadowing in the past lets you gain nothing. That same NPC finally passing away after battling for months against an illness, who passes on his entire estate to one of the PCs, on the other hand, gains you everything, and helps shift the story in a new direction.

Yes, sometimes your players will get blindsided. The key to it is, however, to expect them to want to do something about it. There has to be some sort of gain to result from it – an inheritance from a family member passing on, a quest for vengeance, or even just giving the players access to something that was denied to them previously. Tragedy is best utilized when it gives us something. In my eyes, it is best used when it gives our PCs motivation.

In my example, once the PC learned his sister had been kidnapped by evil slaving bandits, everyone immediately jumped on board for rescuing her, because they knew what kind of abuse those poor souls would go through, having rescued many in the past. Once they got in, and made with killing every single bandit they could find, the found his sister, so hopped up on drugs she had no idea where she was. To add insult to injury, once they retrieved her, they met face-to-face with one of the commanders of this organization, who really didn’t want to fight, but was fully prepared to.

Instead, they chose to go with the smart route, avoid the fight, and get back to base so they could help the PC’s sister. She did make a full recovery thanks to their medic, but it left a burning hatred for that group that I don’t think will ever go away – and that is precisely what I wanted to instill in my players.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 6, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

It’s fair, as long as you’re not being a jerk about it.

My take-away from this is to use modern incidents to flavor the game.

Royal Advisor: “Thank you for finding the lost treasures of Clan MacGuffin. Here’s your agreed-upon payment. However, we no longer have need of your services. The Kingdom has decided to contract with the Elves for all future artifact-retrieval services.”

Party: “Wait. We’ve been outsourced?”