Briar Patches

Credit goes to my wife for this, for summing up an idea that I’d always thought of as incredibly important to play having teeth in four small words: IC Punishment, OOC Reward.

(For those unfamiliar with the terms, IC means In Character and OOC mean Out of Character, a distinction that comes up enough online that it’s useful to have a shortcut for referencing them.)

The idea is a pretty simple one. When you need to make bad things happen to another character – either as a GM or as another player in a large game like a LARp or MUSH – the responsible thing is to find a way for the thing which is bad for the character to be fun for the player. This comes up most commonly when the issue is punishment. One character has committed some sort of offense, and the decision regarding how to deal with it is in the hands of another player.

In this situation, the common response tends to be a “What would this character do?” sort of approach, and that usually means something like tossing someone in prison, killing or maiming them or otherwise putting them in a position where they won’t be able to play.

Now, in contrast, consider stories that begin with punishments. There have been plenty of them, and they follow a certain formula. Either the prison is someplace dramatic (and of course inescapable) or the punishment is a task which is impossible, and what follows is the adventure of overcoming these things.

I like to call these “briar patches”, after the famed story, and they’re what to look for in these situations. Something undesirable to the character that will be lot of fun for the player. Characters are brought before the king for stealing, and they’re punished by being sent to rescue the king’s daughter. Sure, it’s dangerous, and IC, the characters are in a terrible, undesirable situation – get killed by this king or get killed on this fool mission. That just sucks for them. But for the players? That’s adventure right there. If that’s not what they’re looking for, then something else is wrong.

They’re easy to spot because they have a clear course of action. If a prison’s story is that it’s inescapable, then obviously it’s there for the players to escape. If a task is impossible, then it’s clear it must be done – isn’t that rather the point? In contrast, tossing someone in a cell and walking away to play somewhere else means they go nowhere.

The alternative, which is frankly more work, demands that the imprisoned character receive more attention. They’re being a good sport to play something that is not fun, so you need to step up an make it more fun. It works, sure, but isn’t it easier just to make the situation fun in the first place?

This idea applies to more than just punishment. Really, it’s a backdrop for any game where you’re going to do things the players love but the which the characters would hate. And it’s not universal – some players will not enjoy any kind of bad thing happening to their characters, but I think those are few and far between. More often, you will have players whose experience suggests that bad things happening to the character means that they won’t have any fun. If you can demonstrate otherwise, you may be surprised how willing they are to engage.

Give it some thought. Just keep an eye out for briar patches, and see how well they work for your game.

I’m off at Origins this week, so I’m posting som old articles. This one’s from 2007, and the original and some discussion can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Briar Patches

  1. Reverance Pavane

    I’ve almost always taken the “Call to Adventure” approach to adventuring. Which is usually a case of something bad happening to knock the player characters out of their normal, and hopefully rather staid, lives. So I suppose my entire games are based on the briar patch philosophy.

    [Of course it helps that my fantasy campaign has tended to be more episodic in nature rather than continuous, which gives the chance for the characters to reestablish ordinary lives. Especially since I also consider “The Return” to be an important part of the Hero’s journey, so it is vitally important to me that there is an end or resolution to the episode. As in “and they lived happily ever after. Until next time.”]

  2. Mel


    It can be a matter of people practicing moving into “author stance” versus “character stance”. Some people are fantastic at that, and want to line up a bunch of angst-provoking Bad Things and Obstacles that they then have to overcome. They can see that “Life Runs Smoothly, As Per Usual” play can tend toward flavourlessness, and mountainising molehills to pass the time.

    If everyone around you is similarly in Author Stance it’s easier to get some give and take with consequences. It’s also good if people are upfront about what their briar patch IS, versus there ‘I hate this but will go along with it so as to be a good sport’.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *