Paying Your Dues

I had an dissatisfying experience in a roleplaying game session a bit ago that may be familiar to you gaming veterans: one player directed his character to kill another player’s character, a supposed ally. I directed my character to try and stop him. He succeeded. I was frustrated. But that’s not the whole story.

So the situation in a nutshell was this: The perpetrator was M, a longtime member of our roleplaying group but new to this particular game. So his character was introduced in the midst of a frantic rescue mission into this lair of vampires and cultists. He’s a monk and a cleric from some order that hunts vampires, and comes along to help. Well, we rescue our friends (one of them the character of a player, S), but they’ve been turned into Vampires! They’re still in they’re right mind though, and it’s not too late to cure them. M’s vampire-fighting guy agrees to not kill the vampires until next sunrise, to give us a chance to turn them back, right? So we’re all escaping, the group gets split up, and my character, M’s character, and S’s character, plus some supporting cast, are all fleeing together.

Some new information came to light that M chose to interpret as meaning he had to kill the vampires right away before they became super-powerful. Despite the GM clarifying that this wasn’t necessarily the case, M declared he was attacking S’s character. I declared that my character, who had been covering M suspiciously with a crossbow, tried to shoot him down first. S’s character, already weak and severely wounded, went down quickly, and M, despite being shot several times by me, fled through the city.

There are several interplaying factors here. There’s an absolutely poisonous social dynamic present based on bitter past history, for one thing. And I also experienced a lack of the “traction” I discussed earlier in the rules, which prevented me from being able to meaningfully affect the conflict. But I’d like to set those aside and talk about why the incident bothered me from the standpoint of the story.

I was immensely dissatisfied with our story taking that turn. Why? It wasn’t the fact of a main character dying in itself. It wasn’t even the factor of player-characters (let’s say “protagonists”) having deadly conflict. Those are both things that, traditionally, some roleplayers take issue with–in the first case, dying equates with “losing,” and in the second, internal conflict is seen as a player being a dick, by definition. But I don’t feel that way, in either case. I can accept a protagonist death, and the inter-protagonist strife that might lead to such. . .if it’s a sufficiently satisfying development in the story.

But what does that mean? Let’s unpack the sample case a bit. We’ve got an established situation with established characters moving to a climax. A pair of characters has gone through hell at the hands of their captors, and their friends make a desperate effort to rescue them. They all make their escape, but all hell has broken loose outside the lair. In the chaos, one of the captives is struck down just when freedom was in his grasp.

All sounds pretty potentially cool, right? But wait–the character was slain, not by a hated enemy, or by a force unleashed by the protagonists, or betrayal by a friend-in short, not by any previously established element of the story. No, he’s killed by some guy who just wandered into the situation, offered to help, casually killed one of the people he was “helping” rescue, based on a flimsy justification, then fled the scene.

This is not a chain of events that would produce satisfaction in any narrative medium. And it did not produce satisfaction here. The real-people reactions ranged from bummed to annoyed to outraged. Why? M was within his rights to declare that his character was opposing, even attacking, another character, and even had an “in-character” reason to do so. But the fact is, he hadn’t paid his dues.

It seems to me that for any major development in a story to be satisfying, you’ve got to pay your dues, to lay a proper foundation and establish your right to introduce that development. Otherwise your narrative reads like this one:

Frodo: Hi, Gandalf!
Gandalf: Bilbo, give him your ring.
Bilbo: Okay. Bye!
Gandalf: See you at the pub, Frodo.

. . .etc.

S’s death at the hands of M was a huge letdown because M hadn’t put in the work. He didn’t do any work to ground his character’s actions in the established fiction we’d been creating, off and on, for several years. He didn’t do any work to strengthen his character’s motivation and drive, and invite us to buy into that. His contribution fell flat because he didn’t earn it.

While this seems like a simple aesthetic issue, I submit that it really boils down to trust. A movie audience trusts the writer, director and cast to “pay their dues” to create a satisfying film that holds together and is authentic to itself. And much, much more so does a roleplaying group depend on trust, because the creative contributions flow in all directions, and the material involved is not someone else’s but your own. A group that can’t trust each other to pay their dues, is a group where any member might at any time catastrophically and arbitrarily disrupt the shared fiction that we are carefully building together–which is as this incident illustrates, a recipe for dysfunction.

This is why a roleplaying group, much like any other intimate and vulnerable gathering for a dedicated purpose (marriage, church, etc.), can embody both the best and worst of human interaction. I’m continuing to seek more of the “best” side of the equation.



9 Responses to “Paying Your Dues”

  1. 1 Jake Richmond
    December 5, 2008 at 1:29 am

    I wrote a really long response to this the other day, but decided not to post it because it felt a little dickish. The cor of what I wanted to say (which I think is valid) is that while the player in question was out of line (and obviously aware of it), you or any of the other participants should have been able to stop the scene and express that you didn’t like the way it was going. That you weren’t comfortable with the likely outcome and that you would like to explore different ways in which the situation might progress. If the player wasn’t willing to do that, if he wasn’t at least willing to have that conversation, the he shouldn’t be part of your game I think. I don’t want to say this is your fault (because it’s not), but if you saw this coming then you should have stopped it. If you’re group doesn’t currently have a method for stopping these things then you should really develop one.

    I hope that wasn’t too preachy. Sorry.


  2. 2 storybythethroat
    December 5, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Oh, totally, Jake. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially after this incident. You’re right that our group doesn’t have a social framework for calling a halt when things go wrong-it would just never occur to us! Even me, who think about it ALL THE TIME away from the group–when something happens in the game I just freeze up. But yeah. I should just speak up and say “hey, can we talk about this?” In fact I’m planning to do just that the next time we play.

    This of course all goes back to the trust issue. We need that solid bedrock of trust to know that we’ll be mutually supported in our endeavor, both creatively and socially. Trust to treat each others’ contributions with respect, and trust to work out our differences when we clash. I don’t see either happening here, and we’ve got to establish that for this game to continue, or at least for me to continue with it.

    So–is that all the Asshole you got? C’mon, you can try harder than that!

  3. 3 Eldir
    December 6, 2008 at 12:36 am

    I totally hear ya. The way that happened was just lame. If this had been the culmination of long-simmering rivalry or enmity between M and S, for instance, or the resolution to profound differences in ideology, just to name two possibilities, it would have been awesome. But for M to just wander on stage and finish off a longstanding character must have been a letdown. To continue the LotR analogy, that’s like the Mouth of Sauron or a random orc, not Gollum, stealing the ring from Frodo. No buildup. Bad form. (I’ve been reading Houses of the Blooded lately. :)

    Of course the death could be a basis for a whole new set of issues from M’s botched response and how the other characters will feel about it. My issue is that the death of a PC of long standing is way too high a price to achieve that effect. A minor NPC’s death and maybe M wounding S in the process could have set up that conflict just as well, and furthermore set up much more rewarding conflicts like emotional fallout between M and S–which could have resulted in a far more satisfying death of S at the hands of M further down the line. It just seems like bad dramatic economy to have a major character die with so little buildup. Without the dues being paid, as you said.

  4. December 15, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I wrote a post about killing characters on my blog. I agree that this sounds like an enthusiastically crappy situation, and communication is the only way out.

    Have you considered having a chat as a group about killing PCs, when it’s ok and when it’s not? Most of my gaming is done with a spoken agreement of “I won’t kill your character without talking to you first so you can have a say in the ending of this narrative in a way that you find compelling,” and so far it’s worked for me.

  5. 5 storybythethroat
    December 17, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Yes, actually. That’s my very next step in this process. I plan on explaining my feelings to the group and getting some input on what kinds of expectations we all have in this area of the game. I haven’t had a chance to yet because the holiday season has put a hiatus on most of our gaming.

    It’s not so much a matter of “ask me if it’s OK before I kill your character,” though. I don’t want a solution that destroys the flow of the moment or produces a timidity or hesitation to reach for bold, proactive character actions. This is Story by the *Throat*, after all! I just think we need to talk about our expectations in general, get our unspoken assumptions out in the air, and promote a safe environment in the sense that A) we all trust each other not to be deliberately manipulative or casually dismissive, and B) someone can actually speak up IF they have a problem-not turtle up beneath an iron-clad guarantee that no problems will occur.

  6. 6 Josh W
    December 23, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Who says it’s over? That narrative jar your feeling would be even more for your character! You can track him down, and spill that pain back at him. “Who gives you the right?” If you can answer that in yourself, and don’t like the answer, then that means change.

    To be honest, I’m thinking this could be existential gold!

    That interruption of flow is something that happens quite a lot in a certain kind of book; from no-where chaos comes and spins things out, but the characters try to hold their narrative together. All very post-modern and stuff.

  7. 7 storybythethroat
    December 23, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Well, sure. If we do continue this game with all the existing players, they you better believe when our characters next meet it’s ON. And I would have no problem with the result of “the cleric escapes” in the above scenario if the procedures had suitable “traction” to afford both of us a reasonable chance of winning through with our advocated outcomes. As it was, M invoked an “I escape for free with no risk whatever” rules loophole (a tenuous one at best, but which was accepted by the group), so there was no real contest.

    Thing is, the events only present satisfying story grist if we have a healthy trust-relationship between the players in the first place. If there is distrust, manipulation or antagonism (as there very much was in this case), that has to be resolved first before the real people can functionally collaborate on story, or roleplaying of any kind. Sure, a result of meaning and weight can be “salvaged” by an individual participant even when others aren’t collaborating, but that’s hardly healthy or very much fun. It is, in fact, what I learned to “settle” for most of the time in my roleplaying history before I realized that it was reasonable to expect actual, respectful collaboration.

    Now that I’ve realized it, though, the trick is figuring out how to actually get it. Talking to my group, soon, is a good step.

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