So, here’s a quote from Your Story:
If the damage exceeds the characterâ€™s stress track, or occupied boxes â€œpushâ€ the stress off the right side of the stress track, the character is taken out, meaning the character has decisively lost the conflict. His fate is in the hands of the opponent, who may decide how the character loses.
I found this really interesting, from a GM point of view, and I’ve been looking at it in play for some time now. I even played with the idea in Night Fears, where I set the default condition for the characters being taken out by Mental Stress to be that they flee the haunted house.
It was this last thing that prompted me to start thinking about this post – I saw some comments somewhere online1 talking about how Mental consequences represent deep psychological trauma, and that using to represent scared kids was out of scope. And that is, indeed, how the rulebook describes Mental Stress and consequences, on page 217 of Your Story. Based on the logic applied there, getting taken out by Mental Stress means your mind is broken. And, further, that getting taken out by Physical Stress means you’re dead. And getting taken out by Social Stress means you get ostracized.
But I look back at that quote, and I think about all the other things it could mean.
Now, in most RPGs, losing all your hit points2 means you’re dead. Games with Sanity systems have you go insane if you lose all your Sanity points. This makes it very easy to view being taken out in DFRPG in the same way, but really, that’s pretty limiting. Sure, the game has a pretty deadly conflict system, but it’s also cinematic. It’s designed to represent the kinds of things you see in the books – conflicts that have real consequences, and the threat of terrible things happening, but don’t always lead to death. Sometimes, it’s more interesting for the character to get taken hostage, or stuck with the cheque at the restaurant, or – for example – scared out of the haunted house.
I find it tough to remember this in play, though. It is a very different outlook from most other games3, and one that takes some getting used to. As GM, I have to make sure that I show the broad range options inherent in the idea of being taken out, so that the players will absorb the idea that Stress is not the same as hit points, and that losing a fight doesn’t necessarily mean dying.
What it comes down to is that the Stress tracks and consequences and being taken out mean whatever you want them to mean in the current situation. That’s right. They’re situational. Want a drinking contest? Physical, with consequences representing greater degrees of drunkenness and when you’re taken out, you pass out. Want to steal the crowd from a rival busker? Social, with the consequences representing lost tips, and when you’re taken out, your guitar strings break. Want to try and stay the night in the haunted house4? Mental, with consequences showing how scared you are, and when you’re taken out, you bolt.
So, how do we get the players contributing their own creativity to it? We all know that players hate losing conflicts. It makes them feel that the whole game has gone to hell, and that’s a valid sentiment in a lot of RPGs. But if they don’t lose some conflicts in DFRPG, they won’t learn how to do so in interesting and creative ways. I think that, to make it work, you can do a few things:
- Talk to them about it. This is always the best first step in helping to change attitudes and behaviours in a game. Use a little communication to lay out expectations and options, and make sure that everyone knows what’s available.
- Throw them into some low-stakes conflicts. So often, conflicts in games are life and death situations. Toss in some contests that are interesting, but without much on the line. That way, win or lose, you can show alternate results for being taken out. And, if they happen to lose, they don’t mind so much.
- Bigfoot them. Throw some opposition at them that they just can’t overcome. Yeah, in other games, that’s a big no-no, but in a game like this, where losing a fight doesn’t always mean dying, it’s not as big a dick move5.
- Teach them to concede by having NPCs concede. Show them what it looks like, and how it can be cool, and how it can earn them some extra Fate Points. Teach by example.
- Teach them to concede by having NPCs prey mercilessly on their consequences. This is the stick to point 4’s carrot. Let the characters know that consequences can be a big deal, and they’ll be more apt to concede – and snag any extra Fate Points – than to risk having everyone for the next two sessions punching them in their cracked ribs.
- Compel them. Compel them to concede a contest if that works with their Aspects. If they’ve already sucked up a consequence, point out how they get more Fate Points for that.
- Reward the behaviour you want to see more of. Positive reinforcement works. This means you really need to be sure that you have a cool idea of what failure looks like in the situation, where losing is as interesting – or even more interesting – than winning.
- Never, ever, ever screw them over. Sure, when a character is taken out or concedes, he or she loses the conflict. But they own the defeat scene. Even if the opponent gets to determine how they’re taken out, get the player’s input and buy-in. Negotiate a scene that will make everyone else jealous they didn’t take a blast of fire to the face. Because if you screw over a character with this, even once, you can lose the trust of the whole group for the rest of the campaign, and you can write this little bit of the system off. It’s too big a risk. Don’t do it6.
The key to it all, of course, is using both success and failure to advance the story you’re telling in the game. When you set up a conflict, think about what the consequences mean in context – a footrace is a Physical conflict, for example, but it’s unlike to result in a broken arm or pierced lung, and taken out probably just means losing the race or collapsing in exhaustion. You can even scale the severity of the consequences – maybe even a severe consequence from a drinking contest is erased after a day of rest. Make the consequences fit the conflict, and that includes adjusting recovery times if appropriate.
Also think about interesting ways to fail, both for the PCs and the NPCs. Maybe look at little subplots that can give a character the spotlight for a little bit if they lose, or that kick off new B storylines in the background. If someone goes to the hospital, maybe they encounter something strange there, or if someone is outmaneuvered socially and lose their job, they might get an interesting – and dangerous – offer of new employment. Make some of your ideas specific to the current scene, but try and keep a few more generic ideas in your back pocket for when the players surprise you.
Just remember that the cool of the failure must at least equal the direness of the situation it puts the character (or party) in. With enough cool layered on it, the players will go along with pretty much anything. Because they’re looking for cool in the game – that’s why we all play.
Help them find it somewhere they didn’t expect – on the losing side.
- I don’t remember where, and I wouldn’t point to it if I did. My objective here is not to argue. The comment just helped crystallize some thoughts about the system and the way I was using it that I want to write about. Honestly, the fact that I saw those comments almost made me not want to post this; authors of any sort, but especially game authors, really have no call telling people how they’re supposed engage with what they write. But it gave me the basics of my premise here, and it highlighted an outlook I’ve seen – and shared – in play, so I figure I should disclose that. There. I think that’s enough whining about that.
- Or filling up your wound levels, or whatever that game equivalent is.
- Except maybe Toon, where you fall down if you lose all your hit points.
- Yeah, I keep coming back to that. What can I say? I think it shows off how to model these things pretty well, if I do say so myself.
- Note that it is still something of a dick move – there’s no getting away from that. But if you make the outcome cool enough, no one will mind. So, that’s what you need to do.
- And if you do it unintentionally, own up, apologize, and explain what you were trying to do. You’re human, and your players will understand if you screw up. But once you’ve apologized and explained, make it right, preferably with input from your players. That should earn you a pass on the mistake.