Describing Consequences and Resistance Rolls

One thing that I always felt somewhat ambivalent about with PtbA games is how much they stress that the GM isn’t preparing the story for adventures and campaigns, but that everything is collaboratively decided by all the players. Apocalypse World  takes it to the extend that the setting is not defined at the start of the game but procedurally generated as the players get to come up with theit own answers about the world that they ask the GM.

Now I absoutely understand where this approach comes from and the motivation behind it. It is all too easy as a GM to get fixed on a specific idea how things should play out in the campaign, how everything looks and works in the setting, and how characters in the setting talk and behave. Players can’t read the minds of their GMs to understand the setting in the same way they envision it (unless the camapign is set in Fantasyland), and so their characters will never act quite like their culture is supposed to be, and they create backstories for their characters and declare that the do things which include technologies, institutions, and customs that don’t match the GM’s vision. Not getting too attached to the specific details of your setting and adjusting your plans to what the players do is good practice for all GMs. Creating the entire setting collaboratively during play certainly is one way to deal with this, but I consider it overkill. I think even when running a PtbA game, you don’t strictly have to do everything collaboratively and can have a perfectly good game by simply being accomodating  and working with the players’ initiatives instead of shutting them down.

It’s not how these games are supposed to be run, but it’s something where I am putting my foot down and assert that I know better than the writers. Giving the players considerable agency over their characters is important, but letting the players not only see how the sausage is being made, but participate in its production, is detrimental to the experience of discovery and mystery. In the case of Blades in the Dark, I am really not sure when the author intends for a question about a ruling to be considered internally by the GM, or openly discussed among all the players. But many sections make it appear like you’re supposed to discuss with the players the entire consequences that will happen if an action roll comes out as a failure or partial success. That’s collaborative storytelling to me, but seems antithetical to roleplaying. As a player in a roleplaying game, I want to experience the world and events from the perspective of my character, not as a member of the writing team.

I am fully on board with discussing with the players how they imagine things to play out of they succeed on the roll for their action. That’s perhaps my number one favorite piece of advice I like to give new GMs asking for help: “Always make sure you understand what a player is trying to accomplish.” The mental picture of a situation in a player’s head is always somewhat different from the picture in the GM’s head. Almost every stupid, random, and suicidal action that a player announces makes complete sense in the situation that the player envisons. When a player randomly start to fight a gazebo to the death, it’s almost always because the GM did not successfully communicate the situation for the current scene. As GM it’s your job to first solve this confusion before having the players make hopeless rolls that make them upset about being randomly punished by the consequences. That part of the BitD action resolution system I get fully behind.

But the way the game explains the handling of negative consequences seems actually utterly bizarre to me. To quote the game itself:

The purpose of threatening harm is not always to inflict it, it’s to describe it. The threats become manifest in the minds of everyone playing, even if they’re avoided.

The bad outcomes are spoken aloud. They hang there in the room as horrible potential. They’re scary. Then the player gets to roll their resistance, look you in the eye and say, “No. It’s not that bad. I take the stress instead.” It’s empowering.

If you do it like this, then you are already describing the entire scene and stating it as fact. And then you ask the players if they want to use their option to rewind the scene, make a Resistance Roll, and have the scene play out less severely in exchange for taking stress.

That just feels completely wrong. Again, this is collaborative storytelling. This is not putting yourself in the role of a character who is actually experiencing these events. This approach creates distance between players and characters, the opposite of what we want in a roleplaying game.

And it’s completely unnecessary to implement the existing mechanic in actual play. Instead, you can simply phrase it like this:

You slip off the roof and fall down to the street below, crashing onto the stones which causes a terrible pain going through your leg. Is it broken?

Now the player can decide to say “Yes, it’s broken” and take a level 2 injury “broken leg”. Or declare “I roll on my side and check my leg, and realize that fortunately it’s only a twisted ankle” and make a resistance roll to see how much stress he takes and a level 1 injury “twisted ankle”.

Or take this:

He deflects your blade with his shield and you see his sword hitting you right in the hip. Did the blade impale you?

Again, the player can say “Crap, that got me, I am done for” and take a level 3 injury “impaled”. Or he can say “There is a lot of blood and terrible pain, but my armor just deflected it enough to save my life” and take a level 2 injury “slashed side”. (No stress because armor allows you to resist one hit for free.)

You can do this with any consequence that a player can chose to resist. Describe the consequence to just before the “point of impact” and ask the player if it’s really as bad as it looks. You still describe it, you still speak it out loud. You still get the effect of all the players knowing “this is what would have happened if he had not resisted”. But by phrasing it as a question first you don’t need to retcon something that was already described as having happened. Yes, you could have described in gruesome detail how a PC has his head sliced off and fountains of blood cover all the other PCs nearby before asking the player if he wants to resist. But you don’t need that to make the players feel the gravity of what was just avoided. Movie directors and comic artists figured out a century ago that you don’t need to show all the gory details. It is often much more effective to merely imply it and let the audience fill in the blanks. Telling the players “you swing wide and suddenly see the heavy axe blade falling right on your neck” is completely sufficient.

Instead of calling Cut! and winding back the action, you have the player right at that moment where you felt the impact but are not yet sure how bad it is. It’s the moment between your hand getting caught and feeling terrible pain,  but not yet having it pulled back to see the state and remaining number of your fingers. These are the moments where the adrenaline kicks you righr in the chest. It’s the exact moment in a story when the tension is highest. Why would you cheapen this with a tension deflating retcon?

I think it might actually be more memorable to let the players hanging with “what could have been”. It’s up to their own fears and anxieties to fill in that gap with an undefined feeling of dread, which is much more unsettling than telling the players the details of what did not happen.

When it comes to players having the option to use a mechanic to alter the outcome of an event on their characters, simply phrase it as a question. No need to make it a statement and then having to undo it.

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