I recently played a game of Dead of Winter, which I often play with an RPG mindset. After making sure it was impossible for me to be exiled for a couple of rounds, I pulled my people out of the base, let several innocent bystanders die, and then started a vote to exile another player. Hopefully that all makes sense to you, whether you’ve played the game before or not.
It did not make sense to my fellow players. Sure we all won in the end (unnecessary Redemption for the Exiled player), but everyone seemed confused and a little frustrated by my actions. I tried to explain myself during and after from a logical, strategic, and even mechanical point of view. But it didn’t seem to be going through, and I felt like it was my fault that no one had enjoyed the hard-earned victory we all contributed to.
When I finally said “I thought it would all make for a better story,” the player I had caused exile to said, “Dude, you just should have said so.” Like that was all I needed to say.
Everyone Cares About the Story
I like to think that if I were in a zombie apocalypse story I would not last long because I am the sort of person that does not easily let others go. But as a GM, I respect that stories need hard decisions and tragedy to reach a depth. And somehow, I seem to keep on forgetting that my players feel the same way.
Players may or may not like hearing that NPCs died or horrible things happened to their characters, and sometimes they take those sorts of things personally. This is why communication is so important. When you explain to the players that what you are doing is for the sake of the story, many players will get over that hostility because they get it. Its why they do some of the crazy things they do, too.
Better to Ask Permission than Forgiveness
There are lines that should never be crossed, of course. Especially when it comes to taking control of PCs from the actual players. When a player feels like their say in their characters no longer matter, they will quit playing.
So if you want a mother to leave an area so she does not have to witness the death of someone else’s children, just explain that to the player ahead of time. You can be vague about it if you are worried about it. “Trust me, it will make for a great story,” makes that player feel special rather than picked on. They know you are planning something for the story and have their character in mind as a part of that.
Sometimes you may even want to work with the player to make the story moment. After all, they know their character better than anyone else. They may be excited to have their character be put in a tough position. We do this all the time with player secrets at the start of a campaign. No reason not to keep doing it as you think of things!
I know that none of this is big news to most of you, but it struck me as surprising how easy it is to forget. RPGs are a cooperative game. Everyone wants to enjoy the story! And everyone, players and GMs, understand that a good story is full of highs and lows. That is something worth remembering.
Share some great story moments with us if you have a chance. We’d love to hear about them!