The Princess Is In Another Castle

A couple of people asked in comments yesterday what I mean by unfairness. I started to reply, but it ran long enough to turn into today’s post. Now, while it would be easy to turn to fiction for examples, the simple truth is that most any good example of unfair from fiction would be a spoiler, so I must tread carefully.

At its heart, unfairness hinges on expectations, in this case player expectations. They did X, so they deserve Y. They Killed the dragon so they deserve the reward. They broke into the vault, so they deserve the treasure. When they don’t get it, it’s easy to be pissed or to feel the GM pulled a bait and switch. The players had a reasonable expectation of outcome (both mechanically and within the fiction) and the GM is explicitly defying that expectation, usually through simple expedience of the GM narrating the world (which someone will insist on calling fiat because, hey, what’s a good discussion without fighting words?)

A very bad example of unfairness would be the player’s rescuing the king from assassins, but he then dies falling down the stairs. That’s kind of random and capricious, and it makes a useful example because of the reasons it doesn’t work. It definitely violates the player’s expectations of outcome (they saved the king, he should damn well stay saved), so why is it a bad example? It’s because the reversal is too neutral. It’s bad, sure, but it’s not BAD. In contrast, consider the example of the heroes saving the king only to have him believe that THEY were the assassins, and call for their heads. That’s unfair, but it’s the right kind of unfair.

Good unfairness can be found throughout darker fiction (Martin, Morgan and Abercrombie spring to mind). Heroes are reviled and villains exalted. No good deed goes unpunished. You know the drill.

Dramatically speaking, it’s all about the emotional charge. Mckee and Snyder both talk about this, but I’ll sum up: in fiction, a good scene starts at one emotional state (positive or negative, + or -) and changes state over the course of the scene (or beat, depending). Sometimes those go to double positive (++) or double negative (–) for great victory or terribly defeat, but the general idea is pretty easy to grasp. In almost every interestingly unfair situation, the players are expecting a big payout (++) and the GM instead hands them a ticking time bomb (–). That’s a huge emotional jump, going from the high of the expectation to the abrupt low. This is why the king falling down the stairs is kind of lame. It’s bad (maybe – at worse) but it’s got no real punch for the players. The emotional level doesn’t make as big a jump, so it’s just kind of annoying.

But here’s the rub – the power of the event is all about that unexpected reversal. The bigger the gap, the more powerful the moment, and that’s what demands unfairness. Specifically, it must be unexpected, and under any kind of measure of fairness, that big a jump would simply not be possible. It requires disempowerment, opacity and surprise, all of which are INSANELY abusable things. But they do the job.

Now, I want to note that unfairness is not necessary for the _events_ to occur. A fair table populated by players with a good sense of drama are fully capable of inviting outcomes on themselves every bit as brutal as the dramatically unfair GM is going to do, perhaps even moreso. But I am saying that unfairness (or more aptly, the surprise and dramatic shift which only unfairness can allow) is the only way to deliver the real gut punch.

Obviously, this is only one sort of payout. I don’t expect every table to prioritize it the way that I do, nor would I want them to. Games offer a huge array of emotional rewards, and it’s well worth going towards those you value most. But it’s an important one for me, and I consider it a tricky one to do well, so I figure it was worth some air time.

18 thoughts on “The Princess Is In Another Castle

  1. Stuart

    The GM might believe they were being unfair in the “good way” because they were making the story more dramatic / exciting and “better”, but I would feel it was unfair in the bad way if the GM was putting their idea about the story ahead of the choices of the players. Just like the Truman Show example from yesterday.

  2. Greg Christopher

    I actually had a player quit on a game I was GMing because I kept foiling him.

    He was a lawful good paladin type of character. I put a scenario in where another knight is accused of rape, challenged to a duel by the fiance of the raped woman, and the fiance is horrifically wounded in the duel. So the player fixated on this knight as his bad guy.

    Then when he goes to the evil knight to try to figure out how to get revenge for the raped woman and the fiance, I have the knight’s father invite him on a hunting trip. Out of social grace, he has to accept and play nice. On the trip, they are attacked by Gnolls and the evil knight is dragged off as a prisoner. The knight’s father pleads for the player’s help to rescue his son. Again, the player is torn and must bend to social grace.

    He rescues the evil knight, who is horribly maimed, and brings him back. Then he is approached by the raped woman who thanks him for saving the evil knight and reveals that he was actually her secret lover and that she was sleeping with him to get back at her controlling fiance.

    At this point, the player’s head exploded and he quit. Everyone else loved it though.

    Different kinds of fun, I guess. He wanted a clearly evil villain to depose.

  3. Stuart

    @Greg: Did you have that all setup ahead of time – meaning at the outset before the Paladin made any choices you knew the accusation of rape was false and he was her secret lover? Or did you add that to the game after the Paladin started making choices to oppose the Knight?

  4. Rob Donoghue

    This really highlights two things: first, that it is not easy to do, and second, that even if done well, it’s not suitable for every table.

    That second is critically important, because there are a _range_ of reasons it might be a bad match. To illustrate, Stuart’s objection is structural (it’s the mode more than the content which is a problem, and apologies if I’m mischaracterizating) while the angry Paladin was responding more to the fiction – powerful unfairness is almost always dark, muddled stuff, and that’s just not going to be a taste match for every player.

    (and, as an aside to greg, that sounds awesome to me, though I also sympathize, as I’ve wrestled with similar disconnects)

  5. Greg Christopher

    @ Stu

    I knew ahead of time. I even had an encounter planned at a secret rendevous point that had to be scrapped, where the woman killed her fiance in a moment of argument and needed help covering it up. unfortunately, it didn’t work with how the other players reacted to the situation, so I tossed it.

  6. Stuart

    Sure, you can have a bad match if you present a dark, gritty, brutal game world and your players want light, heroic, adventure.

    In good fiction when there’s a “twist” added to the story it makes you reflect back over the story and the things you missed earlier that had you known about the twist you would have viewed quite differently. The Sixth Sense is a great movie example of this sort of thing.

    It’s not good fiction when these twist are added after the fact with no foreshadowing and feel very artificial like they weren’t originally part of the story (because they weren’t). The X-Files ran into this problem in it’s later seasons when the writers were trying to stretch things out and adding story elements that had never been there in the early seasons.

    For our Paladin example if the accused Knight had been described as always wearing a scarf and has a carnation on his armour, and at the end of the adventure after the reveal we discover it’s because his neck is covered in hickies and carnations are the woman’s favourite flowers — that’s so very different from the arbitrary “oh yeah, they were really lovers all along”. When the twist is discovered we realize there were things we should have noticed all along. If we had followed the knight more closely we might have learned more about the situation.

    The flip side of that is if the players DO follow the knight and find out about the scarf and the armour then they SHOULD be able to affect the outcome of the story. This lets them be active protagonists instead of passive observers to the plot.


    @Greg I applaud interesting, detailed scenarios like that. 🙂 I don’t think that’s an example of being “unfair” in the change things around to make them more interesting sort of way. I think that’s the better way to plan your gaming sessions. 🙂

  7. buzz

    The king mistaking his rescuers for assassins is an interesting one. What I’m curious about is that here are plenty of RPGs where this sort of outcome can be produced by the dice, e.g., the “failure as success, but…” that we see in Dresden Files, Mouse Guard, and other RPGs.

    But, to me, that’s not unfair, as everyone is still working within the rules. It’s a given that there will be “twists”.

    I guess that when I hear “unfair”, my imagination leaps to the GM pre-determining an outcome and overriding the rules to get there. A perfect example of this might be an example comic I saw in the Exalted 2e book. The PCs are sent by villagers to defeat a godling who is flooding their town. The PCs go an have a few panels of kick-ass fighting, but then the godling says that the flooding is simply his tears; the villagers refused their season offering to him, and now he’s sad. The PCs then go back to the villagers and confront them for lying.

    See, to me that’s completely unfair. The combat was meaningless, as the whole scenario was rigged. That it’s given as an example of play is even more sad to me.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @buzz Obviously, I’m a huge proponent of “success, but” and the kind of complications that dice can generate. I Love them. But they still exist within a certain band of expectations, so there are limits on how dramatic they can be. The occasional journey past those limits is really the unfairness I’m thinking of.

  9. buzz

    @Rob: Understood. Would maybe a less perilous way to word your sentiment be to simply say that you enjoy high-trust games? I.e., it’s not so much unfairness, but simply the idea that the group is trusting that, whatever happens, it’s happening because they all know they are working towards some really awesome outcome.

  10. Rob Donoghue

    @stuart One point I want to get ahead of: I am utterly agnostic regarding whether or not this upset of player expectation was planned from day one or is simple opportunism on the GM’s part. My sole interest in pre-planning vs ad hoc is in how it helps or doesn’t help the scene itself be well done.

    I get that the GM making stuff up vs. sticking to a plan is another possible subject under the umbrella of fairness and unfairness, but mixing the two muddles both topics.

  11. Rob Donoghue

    @buzz Yes, I totally prefer high trust games.

    That said, there’s an additional element here, one of technique. Many GMs, very good GMs who I trust, could not pull this off. To really make this happen take a combination of table trust and GM skill that’s non-trivial to pull together.

  12. Mike

    @buzz I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Exalted, but I’m not sure I understand the assertion that the encounter you described was meaningless. In a game situation, so long as the players had the capability to investigate and determine their course of actions, either through avoiding combat or by embracing it, it seems like the players are making meaningful choices. If the godling only described the ruse based on the PC’s combat prowess, then I could see it, but the combat itself could reveal something about the players.

    That might be at the heart of what it means to be unfair in the game sense: limiting player options to only undesirable options, with no ability to anticipate the consequences of their actions. Disconnecting the action from its outcome is the unfairness. In most of the examples I see here, the consequences make sense, even if they are not desirable, and the actions taken by the players show agency is still possible.

  13. buzz

    @Mike I can’t speak to the Exalted creators’ intent, but reading the comic (i.e., example of play) I was under the impression that the hypothetical GM planned the bait-and-switch from the get-go. I imagine the players getting all excited about using all the crunchy combat in Exalted (e.g., charms or whatever), spending who knows how long engaging the mechanics… and then the GM basically nullifies the whole experience. “He wasn’t even the villain all long!”

    Just seemed kinda lame to me.

  14. Jim

    @buzz: I think it reinforces Rob’s point that I disagree with you strongly about the Exalted comic. I get the impression you see it as about playing Solars (PCs) for fools. I see it as about the power of Solars (PCs) to respond to treachery. Because at the end of the cartoon, the hero circle is in complete control and justice is pending for the real malefactor. It shows Solars as mighty, good-hearted, impetuous and fallible but, when all is said and done, to be fucked with at your own peril.

    I thought it was a tremendously appealing gameplay promise, though not appealing enough to get me to read the whole book. But our divergent reactions just underscore the risks that Rob highlights.

  15. Jim

    Addending: To me, the bad-touch version of the Exalted cartoon would be, the hero circle kills the river god outright, and when they go to punish the guy who lied them into doing so, he turns out to be untouchable – a bigger badass or at least one with a foolproof escape plan. This latter is my impression of how classic cyberpunk-game scenarios go. The sudden but inevitable betrayal comes, and the PCs can’t do anything about it. High-Wujcikian Amber GMs might use elders this way too.

  16. Ezra Bradford

    This emotional gut punch is discussed at some small length in one episode of the Dresden Files TV series.

    “For the working magician, the best tool in his toolbox is a little thing we like to call the false expectation. If played right, it can stun an audience into total submission.”

  17. Reverance Pavane

    @Ezra Bradford has the right of it. The way to do it properly is by playing with the false expectations of the player. But to do this it has to be the player that has the false expectation, and they have to come by it honestly. The gamemaster can’t intentionally slant the information they give to the player to purposefully provide this false expectation. That breaks the bond of trust between player and gamemaster. After all, if you can’t trust what the gamemaster tells you to be true…

    Ideally when the moment of denouement comes and everything falls into place, the player must be able to look back and see how everything actually slots into place (with the benefit of hindsight), or he or she will feel cheated.

    It is really hard to walk this tightrope successfully, but the look on the player’s faces when the penny drops is marvelous. [My measure of successfully doing this is when the player chases me around the room/building/block in sheer frustration and I’m laughing so hard I can’t run fast enough to get away. (It’s also fun to count to see how long it takes players to realise that they’ve been had).]

  18. Stuart

    @Rob: I don’t think you can separate them in this example. As Reverance Pavane just mentioned it only works if the player can look back and see how everything falls into place. If it was done ad hoc they’ll feel cheated because, really, they were.

    I had great fun when we played Fiasco which was completely ad hoc, but we all understood that’s how the game worked and there we didn’t approach any plot twists from the POV that we had previously been mistaken about something — rather it was something new being added at that point and we all worked with it from there forward.


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