I have been involved in a number of discussions where GMs say things like “The players deserved it for being stupid”.
I have never heard a player say anything like “The GM deserved it for being stupid”.
Now, this seems the wrong way round to me. To get to the bottom of why, we need to look at the outcome of the GM capitalising on players’ mistakes vs players capitalising on GM’s mistakes. I’m working on the basis we can take it as given that the purpose of RPGs in general is create a shared narrative of heroic deeds, and that this is what everyone at the table wants.
Players, and in particular PCs are a dense cluster of extremely powerful, but ultimately finite resources in terms of both game mechanics, and storyline progression. Even at low levels they far outstrip average members of the public in power and social capital, and at higher levels are literally the stuff of legend, able to influence the rise and fall of kingdoms or even historical eras.
When a player is “stupid”, this resource is endangered, the resource that keeps the game going above all others. Without the PCs, you do not have story progression, the story halts and ends at its current point, however satisfying a narrative conclusion that is. Or not. Likely not if your players die because they were stupid when they’re level twelve and are really invested in their PCs and the storyline.
Players do need to face consequences, and their PCs being in real jeopardy is a necessary part of that. This doesn’t mean that making a stupid mistake is a good reason to hold a player accountable for that mistake by being a hair-trigger GM and killing their PC or even ending up with a TPK. Players hold the most fragile and precious resources in the campaign, and to punish them harshly for a mistake, or a run of bad luck can leave a sour taste. In particular, it creates a system where the players are punished harshly for a misstep, but the GM is not. This is asymmetrical accountability between the players and GM.
When a GM is “stupid”, the players don’t get to hold the GM accountable by placing every resource they in the firing line. The GM doesn’t have finite resources, the GM has the whole world, and more if they so desire at their disposal. Even the worst mistake by a GM in choosing an NPCs action is only likely to result in the early death of that NPC, and a hastening of the narrative conclusion or advancement. This might even be more satisfying, and it creates opportunities for the story to branch and develop. Players killed the BBEG early? Have his apprentice rise to power. Have him resurrect. Have them realise they killed a double. There are ways out that advance the storyline in satisfying ways.
The results of a GM’s mistake is often an interesting turn in the story. It might be more work for the GM, it might be a bit frustrating for the GM, and it might make a couple of the upcoming things way more improvised than the GM had planned. That last one might even be a good thing. It almost certainly doesn’t result in a potential campaign end or a player leaving the group. If the goal of RPGs is indeed shared narrative outcome, shouldn’t this also be true of players’ mistakes as well? The creation of opportunities for shared narrative should always be the desired outcome.
It isn’t just narrative consequences, it’s also about growth as an RPG gamer. Let’s also consider stupid mistakes as a learning opportunity. When players pay for mistakes with their lives, they might learn a lesson about how the game mechanisms work, but they might also just have a smug GM who says “That taught them a lesson!” when what it actually did was make them consider leaving the campaign now their beloved character is dead. Rolling a new character isn’t a lesson because the player doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of their action, they have to go back to square one. Barely escaping with their life, or with a permanent scar, does teach a player to be more careful next time. It does give them a thing for their character to be afraid of, or bitter about, or determined to revenge.
I don’t by any means that PCs should never die and players should never get into trouble for doing stupid stuff. An RPG world where players have complete immortality and total impunity whatever they do is not satisfying. Accountability in an RPG with a GM is never going to be balanced, because the GM is the mask of god and controls the infinite possibilities of the world.
I will finish up with an example from a very experienced GM, one that I gather the players all left happy with, but I nonetheless believe could have been better handled.
So, low-level party enter cave with a sleeping dragon in it. GM has placed dragon there for the PCs to sneak past and doesn’t imagine that the low-level PCs will attack it. Nevertheless, one of them does. It wakes up and kills them all. He says the players deserved it for being stupid. Apparently everybody left the game happy.
Here’s what I think would have been better. So, low-level party enter cave with a sleeping dragon in it. GM has placed dragon there for the PCs to sneak past and doesn’t imagine that the low-level PCs will attack it. Nevertheless, one of them does. It wakes up and demands to know why it shouldn’t just murder them all, and casts a Hold Person spell (or similar) on all of them. The PCs plead with the dragon to spare them. He says he will spare them if they can accomplish a task for him. He wishes the players to steal a particularly shiny treasure from another rival dragon and he gives them directions and a time limit in which to do this for him. If they succeed, this dragon gives them other tasks and eventually, once they are high enough level, he realises they are a threat to him and then attacks them.
Obviously not every GM will think like this, and I’m sure many of you have ideas to add to this. I’d love to hear about them in the comments, or over on Twitter. If you’ve got stories of how you spared a party and it resulted in a good story, I’d love to hear it. I’d also love to hear some players vent about their harsh DMs, and a million other stories too.