Player Expectations, Game Reality and Killing Characters

22 July, 2018

So, about every four weeks I GM a Learn to Play D&D (Fifth Ed) session as part of Tyche’s Games‘, our local game store, Friday Night Initiative program to teach RPGs to people.  This last Friday was one such session, it had four players, three of whom had played in my games before and one new player to D&D as well as my games.

What happened?Everyone generated starting characters and it was decided that everyone knew each other, so they were starting as a group,  The initial adventure had them following up on a mystery in the town they were in, two teenagers had disappeared in recent nights.  They set a trap and they managed to lure out the creature and then chase down to its lair in the basement of a house.  That all went well and the monster was dispatched in a brutal and noisy battle that, in usually D&D fashion only took about thirty second in the game world and the kidnapped teenagers were found and recovered.  However, the house owner had no idea what was happening and shouted down “what is going on down there?” after the fight ended.

One player at first made a jokey reply (“We’re naked don’t come down.”) and then when the house owner showed up at the top of the stairs, tried to use a Persuasion skill roll to get him to come down.  Note that this was just after sounds of combat and the player character was holding a battle axe, so even though the player rolled well for the Persuasion skill, the house owner would not come down but was willing to keep talking.  When the house owner said that they would go to the authorities, the player tried Intimidation and the house holder ran, again even though the player rolled well (17ish) because that what you do when someone with a weapon threatens to preform violence against you.  The player seems annoyed that his “good” rolls did not allow him to control the situation (i.e. the actions of the NPC).  Now, it did not matter as the the important part was the rescue and everything else was glossed over in the glow of saving the teenagers and the monster being defeated, as it should be.  Escalating the situation with the house owner was an unnecessary digression, I just tossed him in for color, and no reason to have it distract from the game as a whole.

Aside, Game Reality, Charisma-Based Skills and People.  I try to have the people in a game react to the world according to my understanding of reality and people, sure you can have a really charming character who is amazing at taking, he can say the sky is purple convincingly and the non-players characters will look to see, but they will not just accept the character’s word on everything as truth just because the character has a big skill bonus.  So, if you threaten someone with an axe, and they are at the top of a stairway away from you, they are probably going to run; the player could roll high enough to paralyze the non-player character with fear, but it is going to be tough when they know they can escape.  Fear, admittedly, in a non-rational response and harder to fairly judge but I stick with my choice here.  In short, high bonuses and even high rolls will Charisma-based skills will not override the basic reality of a situation: a loyal servant will not flip allegiance on one Persuade roll, but they might give you a break, a jailer will not be so Intimidated by an unarmed prisoner that they will cower and let that prisoner out, but they might leave them alone, and so on.

Later in the adventure, they follow a fallen star, find that it has landed on a island owned by an insane dragon and go to acquire it, convincing a local smuggler to use his ship to take them for a cut of the profits.  They venture into the jungle, get the chunk of meteoric iron with a little bit of difficulty, and on their way back see two flying serpents with riders looking for something, probably the fallen star, it is mentioned that they are agents of the dragon who own the island.  The characters keep to cover and are unseen but arriving back on the smuggler’s ship they find one of the serpent rider’s is already there and its serpent is coiled around the main mast of the ship.  The serpent rider is described as being a knight in full plate armor who says that they believe that the player characters have something in their bags that does not belong to them, not directly accusing them of theft because that would initiate a confrontation and giving the characters a chance to come clean without admitting guilt.

Now, I expected some debate, maybe an attempt to conceal some of the meteor fragments, but it was a fair cop, they had been caught stealing but a superior force, so they would give it over and in return, the knight would have given them a chuck in return as a finder’s fee.  Yes, I know, you should not expect the players to do the reasonable thing but in the past, players in my games have looked at overwhelming force and said “how do we negotiate?”  In this case, the player, the same one that threatened the house owner, tried to misdirect and then bribe the knight (“here is what I have in my bag.” laying out a small pile of coin).  The knight was getting pretty fed up and again demanded to be given what was taken.  Again, the player dissembled, so the knight click his fingers and the serpent shattered the mast of the ship.  So, the one player character attacked with his axe, and the other characters joined in.  In the second round, the instigator was down and the knight asked the rest of the characters if they wishes to continue.  They decided to fight.  They were all killed, the end.  The first total party kill I have GMed in years that was not scripted as part of the adventure.

The player who started the ultimately doomed confrontation continued to argue, even after the game had ended, that: the knight should have let them have their way, that they were inches from winning the battle, that killing his character (who by backstory was a small time merchant/smuggler) the knight had ruined the economy of his homeland, and more all trying to justify his choices and make me in the wrong.  It got rather ugly and heated and I frankly admit I eventually snapped at the player.  It was just a mess and I still cannot see where the player thought they had any justification to how they acted.

There was an obvious clash with what the player expected his character to be able to do and how the game played out.  But it was a first level D&D character, they simply are not that important on the food chain, so why did he think he could pressure a knight, a direct representative of the ruler, in abandoning their duty?  I remain confused and slightly frustrated but the whole matter.

I have spoken directly to two of the other players to make sure they understood my viewpoint and confusion and apologized for any unpleasantness in the aftermath.  But I remain unsure how to move on or what I will say to the one confrontational player who triggered the messy end to the night’s adventuring.

Have you ever had to deal with a situation like this?  How did you resolve it?



  1. Most of the time, players like this simply wants to get things their way; any rationalizations are just that, convenient post-fact explanations on why they think they’re right.

    Of course, “most of the time” is key here. There are lot of jerkass GMs who pull players along their failed fantasy novel plan. And sometimes we have both. And rarely, none, just a bunch of misundertandings and flaring tempers.

    But, in the way you describe this, it seems to be the first case: player see PCs as protagonists, so the world moves around them. When that doesn’t happen, they just

    It annoyingly stressful when this happens (and happens a lot; this hobby allows so much of this, it beings so insular…). My suggestion is to keep your ground and stand by your principles. It won’t correct bad behavior by itself, but helps unsure players to take sides, and opens the way to discussion.

    This is a social, cooperative game. To keep allowing sessions to become shouting matches is something to be stamped out.

    (Also, you gave a good lesson to them in the distinction between player-knowledge and character-knowledge: after all, numerical bonuses are just probability modifiers; if the situation is impossible/trivial, the numbers don’t matter.)

    • Usually he is a good player, likes the spotlight, but many players do. He has been in at least half a dozen games I have DMed so I am not sure what happened. Admittedly, I have never confronted him with an superior opponent before.

      I like to occasionally remind players that their character’s are part of a world and their are dangers they cannot face, yet. This is the first time someone has actually challenged an agent of a draconic house.

      • I read your first article on this blog, where you describe ways to dissuade players from taking on opponents off their scale, and it makes me think: how about trying the techniques (dissuade, redirect, work with), but from the point of view of their foes?

        Like, if the players aren’t working on dissuade a superior foe from attacking them, at least they should misdirect the foe’s actions off them; failing that, they should work directly with the superior opponent, hoping to be spared.

        If they fail to do this, they better have expectations about TPKs happening along the way (usually, happening very fast).

        Of course, presenting them with such options is par de course – either off-game, directly to the players, or nudging them in-game, if finesse permits. This a great way to break from the mold of “everything in the way is defeatable”.

        Of course the player from the example will not like this…but the others maybe more partial to such approach.

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