Introducing Complications Without Forcing Players to Play the "Mother May I?" Game

innerdude

Adventurer
So I've been having a bit of an internal struggle recently over some of the challenges I recently introduced to my players.

One of the players has been clearly signaling throughout the campaign that he'd like to set up his character as a sort of power-behind-the-scenes in the criminal underworld, and as such I've been throwing a bunch of challenges and fictional inputs that fall in line with this intent.

And in some ways this has been a great thing, as this player is normally the one completely obsessed with powergaming/character min-maxing, to the exclusion of creating a workable character persona. He's the type of player when we'd play GURPS with a different GM, he'd take 70 or 80 points of disadvantages (which if you're not familiar with GURPS, basically means you take negative character personality traits in exchange for a 1:1 ratio of character generation stat and skill points). So his GURPS character would end up being a hulking monster two-hand wielding a tetsubo, but would have the "Smells Bad," "Beserker," "Callous," "Blood Thirsty," "Hates Children" disadvantages (these may not in fact be actual GURPS disadvantages, so please GURPS-ophiles, spare me the angst :)).

So don't get me wrong---the fact that he's actively pursuing a character-driven agenda within the fiction is a massive positive.

The issue I'm having is that I feel like, as a GM, I'm letting him off a bit easy when it comes to consequences. It's not that I don't want him to succeed, it's that I don't want him to have an "easy-peasy" skate-on-by without really dealing with some of the "stuff" that goes along with it. But I'm conflicted, because I don't want to turn the game into a game of escalating consequences, for which the player(s) have no recourse other than to cow-tow to what I'm presenting. I want them to have avenues for success, while still balancing the need to present challenges.

So how do I do this better? How do I introduce consequences/complications that are A) interesting, B) have real dramatic heft within the fiction, and C) don't require the party to start finagling with me as the GM?

For example, his character recently set off a chain of gang-related "reorganization" in a run-down city. And I want to allow him his victory, but still bring back in meaningful consequences that are going to challenge the group.

I'm wondering if some of the problem is not being transparent enough with the group about the fallout/reactions of what will happen based on certain choices they make. (Of course, a lot of times the players don't care about the consequences regardless, but that's another story.)

I'm wondering if it would be enough to start saying things like, "Okay, here's what your characters know about the situation, and here's three or four things that are relevant to what's going on, and here's 3 or 4 opportunities that are in front of you to affect what happens next."

Is this enough? Is this too inflexible? Do I need to be more open to player input? Genuinely I have no interest in pre-determining an outcome; I want the player's choices to matter to their fullest, but I do want there to be consequences.

I feel like I'm talking in circles now, so I'll hold my peace and wait for you, my esteemed colleagues, to respond.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A few off-the-cuff thoughts:

First, there's nothing inherently wrong with what some (often dismissively) call "mother-may-I" play. No player is ever going to know everything that's possible or not within any given setting and so is going to have to quite reasonably ask. As long as you-as-GM give consistent answers that are true to your setting, you're gold.

Second, I think you might be trying to be a little too nice to your players/PCs. Take a harder line - let 'em do what they do and then be stern enough to let the consequences fall where and how they may, even to the point of hauling out the smackdown hammer now and then until they realize that actions can and sometimes will have not-always-pleasant consequences. :)

innerdude said:
I'm wondering if some of the problem is not being transparent enough with the group about the fallout/reactions of what will happen based on certain choices they make. (Of course, a lot of times the players don't care about the consequences regardless, but that's another story.)
Depends on the consequences. If it's something the PCs might reasonably foresee then bring it up; but if it's something the PCs don't or can't know about then stay mum.

I'm wondering if it would be enough to start saying things like, "Okay, here's what your characters know about the situation, and here's three or four things that are relevant to what's going on, and here's 3 or 4 opportunities that are in front of you to affect what happens next."
As a framework, yes - this is great.

However, I'd give them the "relevant things" information first without outlining the opportunities to affect stuff, and see what they come up with on their own. Then if they get stuck or can't think of what to do next I'd try to find a way to drop some hints about the "3 or 4 opportunities".
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So, this is a place you can take a page from PbtA, games. First, set up a danger when the players fail at something or if they're waiting on you for something. Then, if they ignoring it or fail at dealing with it, deliver on the danger or set up another one (keeping the first). When you deliver on the danger, go as hard as you want -- they've had their chance already.

So, as an example, if the party messes up dealing with something in front of them, wet up a bew or worsening situation -- failure to wipe out a rival now has that rival gaining power and threatening to tip the cart. Of the party ignores this to do something else, or fails to successfully deal with it, you can up the threat to tge rival suezing important hostages/stealing allies or ho all the way to gang war with a strong rival. Or, add a new problem like raiding orcs so the party has to prioritize and one danger will get worse. This causes a snowball without much effort on your part, and let's the party set their iwn agenda and live (or die) by it.
 

Odysseus

Explorer
I had to do something similar a couple of years ago. The player in question kept alot of his actions , to inbetween game stuff. So it didn't impact the game. The player even did a whole power point presentation. Anyhow it changed when he got a little ambitious. And as a consequence, I had his rivals try and burn down the parties Inn(while the party was sleeping.) Which led the party to helping the player with his underworld domination plans for a little while.
My thinking through out the process was that I didn't worry about meaningful consequences or challenges etc. I just tried to do things that would happen to what the player did. Part of what I did for that campaign was before every session I do a recap. But I would include rumors and newspaper articles. Which might include what the party and player were doing , as seen through other peoples eyes. This enabled them to see certain consequences to their action.
I think most DMs , including myself, can be more transparent. I think gauging the consequences depends on your players , and you know them better.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
I think this can help... but am not quite sure where you see the problem is.

I often have key NPCs that are not power movers and shakers but are good "face of the people" or "guy Friday" types who are great for presenting a voice of consequences and impact. They can keep bringing up what is going on "on the streets" or "the scuttlebutt and root the PCs info flow at the ground level even while they move and shake on larger scales.

Perhaps these are actual number twos or perhaps its a locsl bartender at a dive the PCs frequent or anything else that ties to those complications.
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=85870]innerdude[/MENTION] - I'm not 100% clear what the details are of the game you're describing. Eg what actions are being declared by this player for his PC? How are stakes/what's at risk being established? Etc.

But here's a more general comment that might be relevant or might not: you know how sometimes genre fiction suffers from the eking out of one more series, or one more issue? The same thing can happen in a RPG. At a certain point, the story of the character is done because s/he has achieved his/her goals, and framing more challenges/complications is just dragging things out and basically forcing a shark-jump.

If neither you nor the player knows what is still at stake for the PC given his/her situation, then maybe the PC's story is done.
 

MarkB

Hero
My recommendation would be to personify the opposition. Come up with an NPC who's trying to do the same thing this PC is doing in regard to the criminal underworld. The NPC is less competent than the PC, but has the advantage of being 100% committed to their plans and not having to deal with whatever everyday adventures the group as a whole are pursuing.

Introduce that NPC in a non-confrontational setting, such as having them be a useful potential ally or informant. Let the party get to know them, even like them. Then, once they're safely off-stage again, have the PC find out about this NPC's ambitions.

After that, you don't need to worry about the player feeling like you're blocking their moves or making their life difficult, because they'll just focus on it being this NPC who's causing them trouble. Rather than being frustrated with you, they'll be furious with their rival and even further motivated to out-do them.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm wondering if some of the problem is not being transparent enough with the group about the fallout/reactions of what will happen based on certain choices they make.
My recommendation would be to personify the opposition. Come up with an NPC who's trying to do the same thing this PC is doing in regard to the criminal underworld. The NPC is less competent than the PC, but has the advantage of being 100% committed to their plans and not having to deal with whatever everyday adventures the group as a whole are pursuing.

Introduce that NPC in a non-confrontational setting, such as having them be a useful potential ally or informant. Let the party get to know them, even like them. Then, once they're safely off-stage again, have the PC find out about this NPC's ambitions.

After that, you don't need to worry about the player feeling like you're blocking their moves or making their life difficult, because they'll just focus on it being this NPC who's causing them trouble. Rather than being frustrated with you, they'll be furious with their rival and even further motivated to out-do them.
If innerdude's conjecture - that part of the problem is a lack of clarity about the consequences of choices the players make in the play of their PCs - is correct, then I don't think it will help things to introduce further obscurity in that respect.
 

Sadras

Explorer
My advice is a combination of what others have said on a single cheat sheet.

1. Define Obstacles and Opposition (goals/motives, relationships, influence, might, history if you have time)
2. Establish possible Avenues of Success with Identified Checks Points as well as Risks/Degrees of Failure (gang war, coerced into partnership or ongoing extortion, loss of influence, supplier sabotaged, customer base threatened, exposure and arrest...etc). Some will be known others not, whatever makes sense in the narrative.
3. List Possible Complications that might realistically arise (new threat, shortage of inventory, betrayal, child/ward...etc)
4. Draft a Loose Timeline (how many levels, how much downtime required)
5. Use the above as a Guideline and Inspiration only.

EDIT: As the character climbs the checkpoints of Success and the rewards of those successes start delivering so should the possible result of the Complications, Risks and Degrees of Failure increase.

So at checkpoint 1 say, a Gang War is contained and the loss is some street muscle (minor setback).
At checkpoint 2, the Gang War escalates in duration and violence resulting in innocents being injured and killed in the crossfire, resulting in a severe loss in street muscle (major setback) as well as a Complication (the party is called to investigate, not knowing one of their own is responsible for the event).
 
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MarkB

Hero
If innerdude's conjecture - that part of the problem is a lack of clarity about the consequences of choices the players make in the play of their PCs - is correct, then I don't think it will help things to introduce further obscurity in that respect.
Adding an NPC doesn't have to introduce obscurity, though. They can become a useful conduit to convey information.
 

pemerton

Legend
Establish possible Avenues of Success with Identified Checks Points as well as Risks/Degrees of Failure (gang war, coerced into partnership or ongoing extortion, loss of influence, supplier sabotaged, customer base threatened, exposure and arrest...etc). Some will be known others not, whatever makes sense in the narrative.

<snip?

So at checkpoint 1 say, a Gang War is contained and the loss is some street muscle (minor setback).
At checkpoint 2, the Gang War escalates in duration and violence resulting in innocents being injured and killed in the crossfire, resulting in a severe loss in street muscle (major setback) as well as a Complication (the party is called to investigate, not knowing one of their own is responsible for the event).
It's not clear to me how this is avoiding "Mother May I", which seemed to be something that [MENTION=85870]innerdude[/MENTION] was worried about in the OP.

Adding an NPC doesn't have to introduce obscurity, though. They can become a useful conduit to convey information.
Reading innerdude's OP, and inferring from some of innerdude's previous posts on this board, the worry doesn't seem to be about how, in the fiction, the PCs learn what is resulting from the choices they make. The concern seems to be about how, at the table, the players learn what might result from the actions they declare. (Hence the reference in the thread title to avoiding "Mother May I".) Introducing a NPC to act as an in-fiction lightning rod for at-the-table concerns about how scenes are being framed and potential complications established doens't seem to me to actually address those concerns.

But maybe [MENTION=85870]innerdude[/MENTION] will clarify.
 
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Sadras

Explorer
It's not clear to me how this is avoiding "Mother May I", which seemed to be something that @innerdude was worried about in the OP.
My entire post is essentially the backbone for an extended skill challenge. Do you find 'Mother May I' issues exist within the framework of a skill challenge?
 
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pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=6688277]Sadras[/MENTION], I read your post as setting out an outline for prep, not a sketch of the form that play might take. If I got that wrong, sorry. If I got that right, read on!

I think that any pre-set sequence of events for the game creates "Mother May I" or similar sorts of issues - ie the GM has already decided how things will go, and deviating from that is at the GM's sole discretion.

I may have misunderstood [MENTION=85870]innerdude[/MENTION]'s post, but I took it that he is looking for a method of establishing and signalling consequences as part of the setting up of situations in the game and then resolving the actions that the players declare for their PCs. To me, this is a system problem (using a fairly liberal conception of "system"), but not a planning problem.

I'm focusing especially on this from the OP:

I don't want to turn the game into a game of escalating consequences, for which the player(s) have no recourse other than to cow-tow to what I'm presenting. I want them to have avenues for success, while still balancing the need to present challenges.

So how do I do this better? How do I introduce consequences/complications that are A) interesting, B) have real dramatic heft within the fiction, and C) don't require the party to start finagling with me as the GM?
As I read it, the worry about "kow-towing" to the GM and its close neighbour (c) "finagling with the GM" (= Mother May I, I think) is this: if consequences are set which (i) have heft, but (ii) aren't clearly integrated with player-side action resolution mechanics, then the players (iii) will want to avoid them (because of (i)) but (iv) won't see any player-side/mechanical-type way to do that (because of (ii)). Hence the game will degenerate into kow-towing and Mother May I as the players try and avoid the consequences in the only way that seems possible to them.

If I've got this right, then the solution is to more clearly frame action declaration and the surrounding context in a way that both makes the consequences clear to the players, and makes it clear how they're an outgrowth of play rather than a GM's arbitrary stipulation. DungeonWorld provides a clear model for this that is fairly well-known on these boards; but I'll got to Burning Wheel instead because personally I know it better.

BW actually offers two approaches: the official one; and the one the designer actually uses, which he discusses in the designer notes section of the Adventure Burner.

Official BW: on the player side, an action declaration involves stating task (ie what am I (as my PC) doing) and intent (ie what am I (as my PC) hoping to achieve, given the context of my action declaration). (Note how this contrasts very much with a certain type of classic D&D/wargame-y type play where players delcare tasks while keeping the intent secret from the GM, hoping thereby to establish buffers against GM-narrated consequences.)

On the GM side, an action declaration requires making sure the player is clear about the surrounding fiction, so that intent and task make sense, and so that the appropriate skill can be determined; requires establishing the skill to be checked; and requires making clear to the player what the consequence of failure will be. The GM, in doing the last thing, is advised to focus more on the intent then the task, so that the result of failure will be that the player (and PC) doesn't get what s/he wanted to out of the situation.

The GM has to make the consequences clear before the dice are rolled, so the player has the chance to use player side resources to boos the chances of success that seems warranted to him/her in light of what is at stake.

BW as played by Luke Crane: on the player side it's the same. But on the GM side, the first and third steps are merged: that is, the consequences of failure are taken to be implicit in the GM's narration of the context for the action declaration, which should be drawing heavily on the prior play of the game. This drifts BW closer to DW as far as this particular aspect of play techniques is concerned.

On this approach, the player has to make the decision about committing resources without having any definitive statement of what is at stake, and instead depending on a shared intuition with the GM about how the current situation and its imnplicit stakes fit within the broader and unfolding content and trajectory of play.

Notice how, on this unnoficial approach, if the player and GM come apart in their understanding of the context and trajectory of play, then the player might feel blindsided and/or railroaded by narrated consequences of failure. Which starts to push towards the Mother May I problem [MENTION=85870]innerdude[/MENTION] wants to avoid. And conversely, if I've understood innerdude's problem right, the first step is to improve the degree to which the GM is communicating what is at stake in the way that situations are framed and action declarations resolved.

(For what it's worth, I mosty use the second, non-official approach when I GM Burning Wheel.)

A second thing that has just occurred to me is this: both BW approaches take for granted that once a sittuation is properly described by the GM, and once a task is properly described by a player, the correct mechanical approach will be evident. If that part of action declaration is breaking down, though, then Mother May I problems can arise.

A simple example: if the situation in an AD&D game is that the gang leader wants to kill the hostages, but its known he will be generous if he is given a nice cake for his birthday, then we are heading in a Mother May I direction. Because AD&D has no rules to resolve a player declaring that his/her PC makes a nice birthday cake; and has no rules to resolve a player declaring that his/her PC goes out and buys a nice birthday cake.

So as well as thinking about how framing is conveyed, innerdude may also want to think about how actions and consequences in the situations being presented to the players map onto the range of mechanical options that are available to the players, given the RPG the group is playing.
 

CubicsRube

Explorer
If you're worried about impartiality, then let the dice decide.

It sounds like people would want him dead. Explain there is a bounty on his head and each night he walks around the city have him roll a d20. On a 1 (or whatever number you like) or less then he is attacked by assasins.

Or perhaps less direct, have him roll dice once a week and on a certain result, then part of his operation is hampered by rival gangs.

Establish what consequences his actions would have in game, establish a probability and the use the dice. You might warn them that other actions may increase the number of the roll. Send a clear signal that there us a chance the consequences will come back, but you don't know when.
 

Sadras

Explorer
@Sadras, I read your post as setting out an outline for prep, not a sketch of the form that play might take.
Well it is both, isn't it?
Player informs DM of character's goal. DM does some initial prep work on the factions at play to save time at the table, enter my cheat sheet. Character learns about factions and politics, determines his/her own path towards obtaining goal. DM may provide character insight due to mechanics and/or in-game fiction, depending on style of play. I'm very much for 'hints'
Hints could be additional avenues towards success, possible complications and risks.

The cheat sheet provides guidance and inspiration nothing more, nothing less. It is not a prescribed result, it should not be.

Just like a DM cannot prepare for all eventualities and ideas that the players come up with and decide to pursue, so can the player and character not be aware of all the risks and possible complications that may or may not arise on a failure. That is why I disagree, very strongly, with the idea that risks and complications should all be made transparent to the PC, (well at least at my table).

Imagine that happened in chess, would not make for a thrilling game. :erm:

EDIT: Further thought has me believe we might be disagreeing over the use of secret backstory, which I know is not your preferred style of play, as secret backstory is one thing that may provide unseen/unexpected complications. Although, I'd argue, I can just as easily make a roll on a Complication's table. Both may provide results that may be unexpected to the character and player.

But it need not be that, it might be something creative thought of at the table by the DM which pushes the story in an interesting direction, a complicated fail forward if you will.
 

pemerton

Legend
Just like a DM cannot prepare for all eventualities and ideas that the players come up with and decide to pursue, so can the player and character not be aware of all the risks and possible complications that may or may not arise on a failure. That is why I disagree, very strongly, with the idea that risks and complications should all be made transparent to the PC, (well at least at my table).

Imagine that happened in chess, would not make for a thrilling game. :erm:

EDIT: Further thought has me believe we might be disagreeing over the use of secret backstory, which I know is not your preferred style of play, as secret backstory is one thing that may provide unseen/unexpected complications. Although, I'd argue, I can just as easily make a roll on a Complication's table.
I'm not generally a big fan of a Complications Table either, although I'll accept that - depending on details - such a notion might sit somewhere on a spectrum that bleeds into a damage roll.

You're correct about the "secret backstory" issue. And the comparison to chess is interesting. Playing chess is something like solving a puzzle (shades of [MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION]!), and I regard secret backstory play likewise as a type of puzzle-solving.

Whereas I see the pleasure of RPGs as being fairly different from puzzle-solving.

I see the OP, in its concerns about Mother May I and finangling the GM as pushing away from puzzle-solving and secret-backstory type play. But maybe I'm wrong. We might find out if the OP posts again!
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
So I've been having a bit of an internal struggle recently over some of the challenges I recently introduced to my players.

One of the players has been clearly signaling throughout the campaign that he'd like to set up his character as a sort of power-behind-the-scenes in the criminal underworld, and as such I've been throwing a bunch of challenges and fictional inputs that fall in line with this intent.

And in some ways this has been a great thing, as this player is normally the one completely obsessed with powergaming/character min-maxing, to the exclusion of creating a workable character persona. He's the type of player when we'd play GURPS with a different GM, he'd take 70 or 80 points of disadvantages (which if you're not familiar with GURPS, basically means you take negative character personality traits in exchange for a 1:1 ratio of character generation stat and skill points). So his GURPS character would end up being a hulking monster two-hand wielding a tetsubo, but would have the "Smells Bad," "Beserker," "Callous," "Blood Thirsty," "Hates Children" disadvantages (these may not in fact be actual GURPS disadvantages, so please GURPS-ophiles, spare me the angst :)).

So don't get me wrong---the fact that he's actively pursuing a character-driven agenda within the fiction is a massive positive.

The issue I'm having is that I feel like, as a GM, I'm letting him off a bit easy when it comes to consequences. It's not that I don't want him to succeed, it's that I don't want him to have an "easy-peasy" skate-on-by without really dealing with some of the "stuff" that goes along with it. But I'm conflicted, because I don't want to turn the game into a game of escalating consequences, for which the player(s) have no recourse other than to cow-tow to what I'm presenting. I want them to have avenues for success, while still balancing the need to present challenges.

So how do I do this better? How do I introduce consequences/complications that are A) interesting, B) have real dramatic heft within the fiction, and C) don't require the party to start finagling with me as the GM?

For example, his character recently set off a chain of gang-related "reorganization" in a run-down city. And I want to allow him his victory, but still bring back in meaningful consequences that are going to challenge the group.

I'm wondering if some of the problem is not being transparent enough with the group about the fallout/reactions of what will happen based on certain choices they make. (Of course, a lot of times the players don't care about the consequences regardless, but that's another story.)

I'm wondering if it would be enough to start saying things like, "Okay, here's what your characters know about the situation, and here's three or four things that are relevant to what's going on, and here's 3 or 4 opportunities that are in front of you to affect what happens next."

Is this enough? Is this too inflexible? Do I need to be more open to player input? Genuinely I have no interest in pre-determining an outcome; I want the player's choices to matter to their fullest, but I do want there to be consequences.

I feel like I'm talking in circles now, so I'll hold my peace and wait for you, my esteemed colleagues, to respond.
My gaming style may be different from your style so take what I say with that in mind. But I've run a lot of campaigns like this, and many of them lasted for quite some time. I have GM logs and even some recordings which I'd be happy to link by PM (and some PDFs I can send as well). I call this the "Boxer from Shantung" approach, where the players are on the rise in the underworld. First I recommend watching and rewatching movies like Boxer from Shantung, Godfather, Scarface etc. Anything that depicts people ascending to power where criminal power groups are involved, or where conflict between such groups are found. It does help to get ideas from relevant media if you haven't already.

In terms of running the game, this is my approach: the players are doing character driven stuff, so you should run your campaign that way to (i.e. play the NPCs and their organizations as living breathing characters in the setting). Don't think of setpieces, events, crucial turning points etc. If you map out your organizations, flesh out the characters in them, figure out where all this stuff exists in the world and give the NPCs clear motivations, attachments, desires, etc, that stuff tends to produce the drama you are looking for, and it gives you the information you need to fairly run the organized crime world campaign in a way that is challenging and doesn't become mother may I. If the players confront some low level crime captain for example, if you have the essence of the character in your mind, you will know what approaches might work, even approaches you hadn't thought about before hand--this last part is key to making it not mother may I. Don't go in thinking in terms of "If they offer him the land by the river, he'll agree". Think about what he wants and values at a more fundamental level and that will make the character more open to things the players suggest. All you have to worry about is staying true to the NPCs nature and goals. Any NPC the players meet, no matter how minor, you should be able to answer the question "What does this character want?". Also, it shouldn't be impossible for players to discover before hand, what such a character wants. They are living breathing characters in the setting, sometimes if the players simply go asking around they can glean these kinds of details about a potential foe or ally.

I don't think in such a campaign you have to hand the players their victory. What I would do is explain how much power you intend to exert against the players in advance so they understand. By this I mean, tell them frankly if you are playing with kid gloves, tell them honestly if you are using 100% full power when they face off against NPCs (i.e. you use their most lethal abilities and do so in a way that is tactically sound). But be as fair as you can be in your application. I've had campaigns where player characters die trying to rise to the top of a criminal organization, and that can be just as fun and dramatic as success. I've also had campaigns where they toppled a powerful sect and the focus of the adventures became maintaining their hold over their underworld empire.

One important thing to consider is once the players or player succeed, you still need to think in terms of intrigue within the organization itself. Make sure you know the characters inside the organization and that will help you figure out where the conflicts are.

Some other techniques I have found effective. This kind of campaign works well in urban environments. When you make your cities map them by section and focus on power divisions within the city (i.e. this is Killing Bixie territory, this is the Divine Moon Saber quarter, etc). Then, if you use tables, have different encounter tables for each area. And have a method for determining whether something comes up when players are operating within each area of the city. That will help you apply pressure and introduce conflict naturally. You can also account for specifics to modify the chances. If players walk into a section of town with a retinue of 20 men, and you roll 5 thugs on a table, the thugs are going to back away most likely before any conflict even begins. And table results don't have to be about fighting. Whenever I get a result in these circumstances, I ask myself, why is this NPC, or group of characters, intersecting with the party here? What do they want? I try to come up with the most reasonable and interesting explanation I can, and use that. It also helps, again if you are using tables, to having subtables that give results for specific people in an organization. Of course, you can just decide what happens in these cases. You don't need tables. I just mention them because you seemed to be looking for a method of introducing challenge but in a way that is fair. If the players know you are using a table, they know you are not throwing them a tough challenge just to thwart them (or an easy one to make their time go smooth). I even let my players roll the result much of the time.

Also in this kind of campaign, I strongly advice open dice rolls and letting the dice fall where they may. If the players know you are not fudging and know you are wiling to accept whatever results the dice have, whether it favors what you had in mind, what the players want, or something neither of you expected, I find that helps a lot with building trust.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
First off, thanks to everyone who's responded so far. These are exactly the kinds of ideas and discussion I was hoping to foster. I suppose I should add that despite my recent concerns, the at-the-table gameplay has been very good. The players for the most part are invested in their characters and the fiction. I think I brought this up now, because I've been feeling like that if I establish the next few sets of "fictional framing" wrong, that it could really be problematic for the enjoyment of the group.

Truthfully, I think @pemerton did an excellent job summarizing my trepidations here:

I think that any pre-set sequence of events for the game creates "Mother May I" or similar sorts of issues - ie the GM has already decided how things will go, and deviating from that is at the GM's sole discretion.

. . . .

As I read it, the worry about "kow-towing" to the GM and its close neighbour (c) "finagling with the GM" (= Mother May I, I think) is this: if consequences are set which (i) have heft, but (ii) aren't clearly integrated with player-side action resolution mechanics, then the players (iii) will want to avoid them (because of (i)) but (iv) won't see any player-side/mechanical-type way to do that (because of (ii)). Hence the game will degenerate into kow-towing and Mother May I as the players try and avoid the consequences in the only way that seems possible to them.

If I've got this right, then the solution is to more clearly frame action declaration and the surrounding context in a way that both makes the consequences clear to the players, and makes it clear how they're an outgrowth of play rather than a GM's arbitrary stipulation.
This is spot-on. The goal is very much trying to create complications that carry fictional weight, but can be directly addressed by the players through their current available resources and resolution mechanics.

I actually think that for framing the context as suggested, it would be useful to have open dialogue about how we're each viewing the current state of fiction, and what the players' expectations are. In some respects the fiction is well enough established that we'll have consensus on some things, but there will be distinct differences. I think it would be useful to discuss and negotiate those intersections of how we view the fiction and then look at how their characters can move forward to achieve their stated goals.

I'm also curious, though, about a comment @Lanefan said early on in the thread, which was that some element of "Mother May I?" isn't necessarily a "bad" thing, or that the term is more pejorative than it really need be. To a point I think there's some truth to that. If the players are invested in the game and advocating for the characters within the fiction, I think there's naturally going to arise points along the way where the players want to have their advocacy come to fruition. Denying players the chance to really advocate for their characters generally leads to dysfunctional play.

But I think @pemerton's on to something here with his roman numeral points i - iv above --- it's one thing for the players to ask for stuff, and then have the GM either say "yes" or "no." It's a much different thing to have the players ask, but the GM presents the complications in such a way that they feed in to what the players/characters have available to them mechanically to resolve those complications.

If there's no mechanical/rules-based method to resolve the presented complications, then the end result is nothing more than "direct social negotiation." If there's no way for the game mechanics to enter into the resolution process of the stated complications, than gameplay devolves to little more than the GM answering a series of questions: "Do I like this idea? Does it sound fun in context of the game? From a coherence and plausibility standpoint, will implementing this idea transform the fiction into an acceptable result state? Will the other players also find that result state acceptable?"

As long as the answer to those questions is "yes," then the GM moves forward. If not, the GM says "No, think of something else," and the process repeats.

In this light I think @pemerton's right ---- it really would be better to find a way to let player action declarations influence the result state.

So while "Mother May I?" isn't as pejorative as it seems on the surface, removing players' abilities to influence outcomes through action declaration and mechanical resolution largely defeats the purpose of playing an RPG in the first place.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm also curious, though, about a comment @Lanefan said early on in the thread, which was that some element of "Mother May I?" isn't necessarily a "bad" thing, or that the term is more pejorative than it really need be. To a point I think there's some truth to that. If the players are invested in the game and advocating for the characters within the fiction, I think there's naturally going to arise points along the way where the players want to have their advocacy come to fruition. Denying players the chance to really advocate for their characters generally leads to dysfunctional play.

But I think @pemerton's on to something here with his roman numeral points i - iv above --- it's one thing for the players to ask for stuff, and then have the GM either say "yes" or "no." It's a much different thing to have the players ask, but the GM presents the complications in such a way that they feed in to what the players/characters have available to them mechanically to resolve those complications.

If there's no mechanical/rules-based method to resolve the presented complications, then the end result is nothing more than "direct social negotiation." If there's no way for the game mechanics to enter into the resolution process of the stated complications, than gameplay devolves to little more than the GM answering a series of questions: "Do I like this idea? Does it sound fun in context of the game? From a coherence and plausibility standpoint, will implementing this idea transform the fiction into an acceptable result state? Will the other players also find that result state acceptable?"

As long as the answer to those questions is "yes," then the GM moves forward. If not, the GM says "No, think of something else," and the process repeats.

In this light I think @pemerton's right ---- it really would be better to find a way to let player action declarations influence the result state.

So while "Mother May I?" isn't as pejorative as it seems on the surface, removing players' abilities to influence outcomes through action declaration and mechanical resolution largely defeats the purpose of playing an RPG in the first place.
First off, I'm going to assume that all - and I do mean all - possible outcomes are on the table in your example, and that you don't have anything preconceived in mind. If yes (and from what you've said I believe it is yes) then what the PCs do will lead, eventually, to whatever outcome some combination of they-you-the dice determine.

Put another way, the end result might be one of logical outcomes A to K that you have sort-of foreseen (and thus been able to plan for, at least a bit) or less logical - or outright illogical - outcomes L to infinity that you haven't.

As for "mother may I", the good version of it is often a symptom of something great: that the players are engaged enough to try going beyond the limitations of the mechanics in order to get what they want for their PCs. Typical D&D examples would include finding a creative and-or unexpected use for a spell, or approaching an enemy castle in a manner that neither the DM nor the module writers would have seen coming in a hundred years - that sort of thing. And for these you-as-reasonable-DM really don't have much choice but to assign some off-the-cuff odds of success and roll the dice.

The bad version of "mother may I" - which unfortunately gets all the press - is most often a symptom of players trying to get out from under the bootheel of a DM who works for the railway company as his day job.

From a coherence and plausibility standpoint, will implementing this idea transform the fiction into an acceptable result state?
For what it's worth, I think this question should be top of mind for any DM at all times.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
The goal is very much trying to create complications that carry fictional weight, but can be directly addressed by the players through their current available resources and resolution mechanics.
I think you've answered your own question here - or at least have identified the answer :)

The key is in having resolution mechanics which resolve the situation stipulated by the player, instead of (often a series of) related conflicts which still gives the GM freedom to allow or deny the desired outcome.

To give an example, a thief is in the house of a wizard to obtain a rare vial of demon blood.

Do your resolution mechanics determine:
a) the success of the thief finding the vial?
Or
b) the success of the thief picking locks and cracking safes and sneaking about the place?

Resolution mechanic (a) offers players a concrete way to play for what they are interested in, while (b) offers a clear way for the game to descend into Mother-May-I type play.

Some games have rules which clearly say 'if they make the roll they get the vial'. Others only let them make rolls for individual actions, but leave them completely reliant on the GM to decide whether such rolls are relevant to their objectives.

Your mechanical chassis is either solving the problem, or creating it. It's very rare for system to be neutral in this regard, although it does happen (for example, I'd accept an argument that Traveller can lean in both directions).
 
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