Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Player Agency & Death, Part 2

Death, not just for PCs!
So, last week, I started talking about player agency. Again. Specifically, how the scale between railroading and complete freedom was reflected in how PC deaths are handled by the GM. As I said at the end of that post, and as the title of this post would imply, I'm continuing on in that vein today with the other kinds of death that affect and reflect the agency scale. As before, all real life examples assume the disclaimer.

The second "death" is not necessarily a literal death, but the destruction or removal of an item or piece of gear that the PCs owns. This can include followers, lackeys, or henchmen, who in most RPGs are treated pretty similarly to the PCs' swords and armor, but is most often the inanimate, magical, and/or technological widgets that the players accumulate over the course of a chronicle.

Item death is both less talked about in terms of agency, and more reviled amongst players. This is because, while a PC can be killed by an errant roll in any number of ways, destroying an item typically requires the GM to be attempting to actually destroy it. Often, this technique is employed by GMs who have accidentally allowed the players to have something that is vastly overpowering. Having the item destroyed, lost, or stolen is a smoother course of action than simply retconning it out of existence. Unfortunately, it is usually because the removal is for out-of-game reasons that the players object to it so vehemently.

Add to this the fact that many of the items a PC carries become a part of that character, in the eyes of the player. Sure, Hrun the Barbarian also happens to have a warclub in his gear, but that doesn't mean that the player will be happy if Hrun's ancestral greatsword is sundered. Not to mention the fact that in some games, certain character classes or builds rely on having gear of a certain power or quality. Not only is the GM taking something that is important for roleplaying purposes, they've made the PC less powerful relative to his level and companions as a result.

The second-porniest White Wolf product ever.
Some games explicitly offer protection to PC gear. In one of the supplements to White Wolf's first edition of Exalted, Savant and Sorcerer, the components that made up an artifact's cost were explicitly spelled out so that players and GMs could create new artifacts for their games. One of these components was Plot Invulnerability, which essentially stated that the more valuable an artifact was, the greater protection it had against being permanently removed from the game.

Really though, the agency scale for item death is not simply whether or not to remove these items from play. Neither leaving the PCs gear inviolate to protect their characters' images and stats nor removing items for metagame reasons are furthering player agency. Rather, player agency is served by motivating item death by in-game stimuli instead of for out-of-game reasons. Items are not stolen or destroyed because the GM wants to remove them from the game, but because the NPC and other elements of the world want them to be so, or because the players are not properly caring for or protecting these items. Of course, this won't necessarily stop the players from being upset about losing items or the GM from feeling impotent to remove an overpowered item.

The GM needs to decide how much in- and out-of-game reasoning plays into decisions regarding item death. On one end of the spectrum, items will never be lost, stolen, or destroyed unless the GM needs to remove them for reasons such as balance or story hooks. On the other, items are as safe as the PCs decide to make them and NPCs so motivated may try to steal or destroy them. In the former case, items will not be restored unless the GM deems it proper within the story and game balance. In the later, it is entirely up to the skill, cunning, and luck of the PC.

Obviously, most GMs will try to find some balancing point between these two extremes. In all likelihood, this will coincide pretty closely to where the other types of death land on the agency scale.

The final type of death is the one I've heard the least talk about, but I feel it can be the most telling of how much agency the players have. This is NPC death, specifically, enemy NPC death.

It is the nature of some players to try to find ways to jump "off the rails" of a campaign, and one of the most certain ways to do that is to kill an important NPC before their time. And the most important NPC are the enemies that the game's story revolve around defeating. Killing enemy NPCs before their time can throw everything the GM has set up out the window.

That isn't to say that the only reason NPCs get killed is PC pettiness. Sometimes it's just in character to try to kill an NPC who happens to be plot essential. Sometimes, the PCs were trying to intimidate or subdue them and went too far. Sometimes, they just don't realize that they're not meant to die yet.

Dealing with NPC death is subject to many of the same circumstances and reactions as PC death, so I won't double up on them here. But there are a few possible reactions that are unique to NPC death, so I'll spell them out here:
  • Don't let the PCs get in a position where they can kill important NPCs - This is the most effective, but also the most restrictive, both in terms of what it costs in player agency and the degree to which it restricts what the GM can do with the character.
  • Plot armor - No matter what the PCs try, the NPC has just a few more health levels, or they suddenly have a wand of teleportation, or they have a rare ability that allows survival or escape. Whatever the exact effect, this is essentially a deus ex machina which allows the NPC to fight another day. Done well, the players may never know they'd been had, but if this happens too many times in a game, or across multiple games run by the same GM, the players will begin to notice their lack of agency.
  • Comic book death - The players may think that they've killed the NPC, but one of his underlings was able to resuscitate him, or it was just a decoy, or some other excuse. This is similar to the plot armor above, but allows the players to believe for at least a while that they'd actually succeeded in killing the NPC.
  • Wheels within wheels - Okay, maybe the PCs have killed the evil sorcerer, but maybe he was the servant of an even darker power. This allows the players to feel like they've accomplished something, while still allowing the GM to keep their plot from falling apart.
Or, the GM could just deal with having lost that NPC. This can result in a huge amount of replotting if they weren't ready for this, but it does offer the players the maximum amount of agency.

As I've said before, maximum agency is not necessarily the best thing for a game. Rewriting an entire plot is no small feat, and most players don't expect a GM to go to all that work. Sometimes the logical results of an NPC death change the nature of the game into something that wouldn't be fun for the players. As with the other types of death, the GM should decide beforehand where on the agency scale their game falls.

I've run into these a few times in games I've played in. One time, the game was set in a lost jungle city that was split between warring factions. The PCs decided to kill the leader of one of these factions. We lured him away from his army and confronted him on the top of a tower, which he ultimately plummeted from. Of course, his death would have destabilized the delicate balance of power in the city and plunged the game into chaos, which would have destroyed a lot of the plot that the GM had planned and changed the nature of the game from trying to politic and bargain with the rival powers to just trying to survive the aftermath. So, an agent of another faction worried about maintaining the same balance of power the GM was worried about saved the NPC.

In another game, the PCs were up against a powerful NPC with lots of resources and a brilliant escape plan: opening a gateway into hell (where he was welcome). Unfortunately for him, we managed to kill him after he openned the portal and before he went through it. The GM took this in stride, even though he later admitted to us that that NPC was supposed to come back and become a recurring enemy. Apparently, several future plotlines went out the window because we got lucky.

As with PC death, where a GM draws the line on these issues depends heavily on their own predilections, the style of game they're running, and the preferences of the players. No two games are going to be run on the same point of the agency scale and it's most important not to hew blindly to one extreme or the other, but to be honest and consistent about where these lines are.

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