Three weeks ago I ran a session that was part of the campaign I have been running for some time now. That day the player characters had wound up in a dangerous situation hunting an elemental dragon in his lair. The plan was to sneak up on it and kill it while it slept. It was working fine until one player rolled four minuses and already had a negative one penalty.
As we had been playing for some time I had already told the players they were out of "tutorial mode" and I would not be assisting them with reminders for Fudge points and so forth. I wanted them to think and plan for themselves instead of using me as a fall back. It might sound cruel, but I'll explain farther down in this article.
Suffice to say, our unlucky player forgot to spend the fudge points to change the collective negative five and the beast awoke. What followed was fifteen rounds of pure chaos and adrenalin as the PCs and NPCs tried to stay alive.
By the end of the next two hours all, but one, was incapacitated or near death. The other only survived because I took pity on the whole situation and had the dragon leave. I did not have happy players on my hands and I was shunned by my wife (who was a player) for a few hours.
This is what got me thinking about an article. Luckily these sets of PCs did not die when there was a great chance that it could happen. I spent the next few hours poring over my notes thinking what could have gone better and if I was in the right to allow the situation to go the way it did. Here is what I came up with.
The situation was player generated. Bad rolls and forgotten fudge points allowed the situation to come to be. Instead of disengaging all the PCs decided to stay and try to complete the quest and kill the dragon. They did do well the first rounds, but as soon as their healer fell to a swift dragon kick, the battle went south fast.
The dice were unfair and miraculously everyone continued to forget about their fudge points!
So, what is this article about? Well, dealing with the major causes of player anger.
1) Players are angry at the situation because their character did not perform the way they had hoped. This is true in the case of one player who had great agility skill to climb the dragon, but every time she rolled at a crucial time to get to its neck, she rolled bad and fell down a few yards from her goal. This was the case through the whole game.
2) Players have a strong attachment to their characters. A good RPer knows that this does happen and to try to remind themselves that it's just a character, but in the case of my wife, she loves characters and her little assassin especially. She was angry at me for allowing harm to come to her character. She was not angry as in fuming, but understood that's how the game goes, but still upset how close death came.
3) Player who don't like losing. Gratefully, I did not have any of these types of players in my game. When everybody went to lick their wounds, the conversation was how they were all lucky to be alive instead of what had gone horribly wrong. I wasn't held for to much except not reminding them about fudge points.
What should you do if you have a situation like this? First of all, the best thing to do is remember that though the players are upset, they are most likely upset at you because you're the only one they can be. It's usually never personal. I got a lot of thank you's and “it was a fun game” after the fact (like three or four days.)
Another is to do what I should have done in hind sight. I should have let the situation arise, but helped in the area of fudge points. Being silent had them really panicky and it's not good to put your players through that too much. A good life and death game does put some effort in to their characters and imagination, but now I fear that they will be timid in all their actions in later sessions.
It's a very fine line and balance between helping your players avoid certain death and being so helpful that there is no danger for the characters anymore because they think they have the "GM Safety net".
Like any other advice I have given in this blog: It really depends on knowing your players and what they really feel in situations like this. A good GM will know when his players are getting upset and why they are. Upset because the situation is getting bad is better then upset at you because they think you are being cruel.
All parties need to remember that it is just a game and that's what will keep everybody happy in the end.