GMing craft and Player narrative power

from a forum question elsewhere:

The situation:
Amber is under attack. The enemy is ruthless and inhuman. Amber City is in flames, and one of the PC’s is in the thick of things. He’s hunting through the streets with a company of soldiers looking for the enemy, but not currently engaged in battle.

GM: “A building to your right collapses, sending flaming debris into the alley. The debris falls up against the next building along, an orphanage. You can hear the screams of terrified children inside.”
Player: “To hell with the battle, I go into the burning building and save them.”
GM: “Okay, you’re hunting through the building, but it’s rapidly filling with smoke and you can still hear coughing. You’ve saved some, but there’s still some more here. The danger is increasing.”
Player: “No, you don’t understand. I save them all. End of scene. I don’t want to play in a game where children die on-camera, so I save them all, and we move on.”

What do you, as GM, do?


The very first thing I would do as GM is respond:

“You’ve conflated Player direction with character direction. I’d like to seperate them again and clarify. You don’t want to play in a game with these deaths on-screen, Yes?
Now what does your character want, or do we need to stop the game to discuss Player needs taking precedence?”

So is it a bad thing to conflate player direction and character direction? Is what the character wants more important than what the player wants?

Is it a bad thing for the GM to speak to two people simultaneously? In some genre, it is amusing. In others, merely a stylistic choice that adds some manic.
Generally, it might be considered rude or bad communication to try and address two people asking different questions at the same time.
I don’t think most Players function well at a rping level where what the character wants is more significant than what the Player wants. I’ve seen it done, and very impressive it can be, but most Players break when attempting this.
Sometimes GMs break when attempting the same with significant NPCs. Or sometimes Players break when GMs actually succeed in such levels of interpretation of character.
As GM, I want the Player to be aware of when they issue ‘in-game’ direction versus ‘out-game’ in terms of dictating actions. I want the other Players to also understand how the GM will deal with Player hot-button issues. Such transparency is good for the trust invested, IMHO.
You really should not say, “Hey, it’s just a game.”
If the Player realizes that the game has touched a personal issue that will make them uncomfortable, but wish to proceed in character, then I do that but move quickly through the scene with less detail.
If the Player requests the scene have a specific narrative outcome (avoiding the personal issue and resolving the conflict), that may involve some in-game cost of resource, but there is no out-game issue with making that happen.
If the Player clarifies that they were in-character and misspoke about not “being in a game” with such events, then we re-establish the PC desires to succeed at any cost and move forward.
The same process can work for rule flubs and GM errors. Realize. Request. Clarify. Game on.

One comment

  1. When the player makes a request, it’s the same thing to me as a player putting effort into a NPC, or an in-game item: they want to see more of that “X.” That’s exactly the kind of feedback I want, after all, and that’s what _I_, as GM, play for — why is it so important to me that children die in the fire? I’ve already MADE the emotional point because the player is responding.

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