The GM is Not There to Entertain You

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm kind of sort of only "drive by thread-skimming", but PC capture is universally unfun.

Had a GM who did it twice, once running 3.5, once running GURPS. Both times we banged our heads against the wall for 90 minutes or so, trying to read his mind about how we were going to get out.

If it follows from general principles of play, I don't mind at all. Mind controlled as the result of an NPC casting a Domination spell and I fail my save? No problem. Compelled to act by a vow / background that's part of my character, and the principles of the system demand my character to act? (This is Ironsworn's bread and butter, by the way.) Almost always okay, as long as it's not someone abusing the "Lawful Stupid" or "Chaotic Doofus" character traits.

Unilateral imposition of a GM declaration of "You're captured" with no option for the PCs to declare their own actions?

"Okay. So can we skip to the part where the PCs get out, or should I go home now?"
Curious what you'd think of some PCs being captured by falling into a chute trap that spits them out in a locked cage, where climbing back up the chute is difficult if not impossible.

I did this once. Low-level party of seven. The first PC in the marching order fell down the chute and came out in a cage, and was knocked out by guards clubbing through the bars. A second PC went down on a rope to find the first one and also got knocked out. Realizing there's now nothing on the end of the rope, four more dive in leaving one up top holding said rope. Three of those also get captured, the fourth manages to scurry back up the rope. The prisoners, meanwhile, were tended but left in cages and - much to their surprise - occasionally updated on the progress of their remaining companions!

The two remaining characters carried on as best they could but eventually also got caught, on which all learned the whole dungeon* was an elaborate test set by a potential (and, later, in fact) mentor.

* - of which maybe 15% actually saw play; a lot of prep went by the boards on that one as I-as-DM never thought that silly early-on trap would end up catching 5 out of 7 of them! :)
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In most games, you can't really say "lol I take a dump on the table", even if it's something that your character would do and it's something you want your character to do (damn, this gets complicated).
Sure you can, the way I see it; and the game-world will react as one might expect just like it reacts to any other action.

If your character wants to take a dump on the Duke's dinner table, I say have at it. Just be aware (and odds are extremely high you already would be) the Duke probably has tough and powerful guards who will doubtless take extreme exception to this, never mind it's quite possible the rest of the PCs won't exactly come running to your aid and might even help the guards take you down.....
What I see as violation of agency is when you're given a choice, but then it gets ignored. That I hate with burning passion.
On this we largely agree.
 

pemerton

Legend
PC capture is universally unfun.

Had a GM who did it twice, once running 3.5, once running GURPS. Both times we banged our heads against the wall for 90 minutes or so, trying to read his mind about how we were going to get out.

<snip>

Unilateral imposition of a GM declaration of "You're captured" with no option for the PCs to declare their own actions?

"Okay. So can we skip to the part where the PCs get out, or should I go home now?"
Setting the "unilateral" to one side, I think what you're identifying here is a limitation of 3.5 and GURPS as resolution frameworks.

In my Classic Traveller game there have been 3 PC escapes: in one, they took control of the ship onto which they had been taken; in one, they overpowered their captors (though one PC died in the firefight that resulted, after a series of failed checks to escape from the sick bay gurney where he was strapped down); in one, the PC in question was on trial but blew up everyone else with a well-timed grenade. A fourth time, that same PC was arrested, tried and banished.

In principle, capture doesn't have to pose any greater problems than any other scene-framing. If the GM treats the fictional position of being captured as a reason to declare that most attempts to escape fail, that's a problem but one that flows from a poor system, not the fictional position as such. This example came into the discussion out of @Campbell's reflections on Apocalypse World, and Apocalypse World never allows the GM to declare a hard move simply on the basis of fictional position that exists only in their imagination. It has to either follow from a failed throw, or from a previous soft move that opens a door through which a player has their PC walk.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
For me it depends on the enemy and how said enemy has been set up and-or presented.
Of course. But I'm talking about in the game as a whole. If ALL enemies fight to the death, as DMs (especially ones who are unaware of Morale mechanics and don't come up with their own substitute), we're training the player that the stakes of combat always = death. If every conflict and confrontation results in combat, then again, we're training our players that loss in a confrontation = likely death.

Part of it might also be reluctance to split the party, as fleeing often works best if only some do it while the rest (often sacrificially) cover their flight.
Sure. This is why I specifically referenced mechanics. I'm using the B/X mechanics for fleeing in my current old-school game, and I am likely to import a modified version of them into 5E if/when I run that again. At the top of the round, the PCs can declare that they are fleeing as a group. None of this awful person-by-person "Let's get out of here!" "Fine; I'll attack and move backwards." "No, wait, Jimdar is going to be surrounded!" "Ok, I'll attack and half move." (Jimdar's initiative rolls around) "Screw it, I want to make a full attack." Ugh. Fleeing is another thing a lot of editions of D&D do badly.

But if you have a mechanic where they all can declare it together, then resolve the escape and possible pursuit for the whole group instead of stranding anyone (unless someone has to be left behind for some reason, or insists on it), it can work a lot better. I made a small handout specifically for the fleeing rules, titled "Fleeing for Fun and Profit" in my game.

Because you're the referee, not the player. You have an infinite supply of characters to play. In most games, your players will only have one at a time. If their one character loses agency...that play now doesn't get to play the game. Until you give them back control of their character. But, often, in capture scenarios referees will steal their agency...steal all their gear...then lock them in a cell. So they go from being powerful characters with agency...to weak characters with none. It's fine for you as the referee, because you haven't lost agency. Give that trick a try at a table with real players and see how it goes. Ask them what they think.
I am writing both as a player and GM. Some of what you're writing is responsive to my points, but enough of it just doesn't seem to be hearing me that it seems like we're mostly talking past each other.
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
The WotC published adventure “Out of the Abyss” begins with the PCs as prisoners of the drow. That’s it, that’s how the adventure is intended to start. You’re prisoners and forced to work alongside several other captive NPCs.

I think it’s likely the easiest way for this scenario to work. Just boom, okay you’re captured, what are you gonna do? I do think it can work as a result of play, let’s say in place of a TPK you just have the PCs captured by the bad guys. It just likely needs to be handled with more care.

I think if you do this, though, it’s best of you give the players a lot of leeway about how to escape. Like offer then opportunities or be very cooperative with ideas they come up with on how to escape. Set aside concerns about what’s “realistic” or “verisimilitude” and go with what they come up with.

The more collaborative a given game tends to be (whether by rules design or by the way the group approaches the game) the less of an issue this tends to be.

As for player agency, I don’t think it’s generally helpful to consider any restriction at all on choice to be the removal of agency. If the natural consequence of the PCs’ actions and players’ decisions is that the PCs get captured, then following through on that is honoring their choice. That their actions are restricted by the fictional situation of being captured is not really any different from the other fictional constraints present in other situations.

I think it also helps if the players have other avenues of agency beyond just their character’s spatial freedom. When agency is limited to that, then yes, taking that away may be problematic.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
The WotC published adventure “Out of the Abyss” begins with the PCs as prisoners of the drow. That’s it, that’s how the adventure is intended to start. You’re prisoners and forced to work alongside several other captive NPCs.

I think it’s likely the easiest way for this scenario to work. Just boom, okay you’re captured, what are you gonna do? I do think it can work as a result of play, let’s say in place of a TPK you just have the PCs captured by the bad guys. It just likely needs to be handled with more care.
One also expects that this is covered as part of character generation for the adventure - at least I hope so. Since it's a starting condition for the adventure, the DM should be up front about it.

As for player agency, I don’t think it’s generally helpful to consider any restriction at all on choice to be the removal of agency. If the natural consequence of the PCs’ actions and players’ decisions is that the PCs get captured, then following through on that is honoring their choice. That their actions are restricted by the fictional situation of being captured is not really any different from the other fictional constraints present in other situations.

I think it also helps if the players have other avenues of agency beyond just their character’s spatial freedom. When agency is limited to that, then yes, taking that away may be problematic.
The question comes up about whether or not the natural consequence is achieved by fiat or playing things out. It may be a natural consequence that they be captured, but as online discussions have shown, there are a lot of players who will insist on playing that out and will fight like hell, even to the point of TPKing, to avoid capture. It's like a widespread psychosis in the community. And I'm not entirely sure that other avenues of agency remedies that.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
In principle, capture doesn't have to pose any greater problems than any other scene-framing. If the GM treats the fictional position of being captured as a reason to declare that most attempts to escape fail, that's a problem but one that flows from a poor system, not the fictional position as such.

I don't think it has anything to do with the system so much as the GM essentially viewing the situation as such with very limited options. He's not obliged to do that with any system. He may consider the situation in and of itself a failure state, in which case recovery from same may be also viewed as difficult, but again, that's not required.
 

Arilyn

Hero
The WotC published adventure “Out of the Abyss” begins with the PCs as prisoners of the drow. That’s it, that’s how the adventure is intended to start. You’re prisoners and forced to work alongside several other captive NPCs.

I think it’s likely the easiest way for this scenario to work. Just boom, okay you’re captured, what are you gonna do? I do think it can work as a result of play, let’s say in place of a TPK you just have the PCs captured by the bad guys. It just likely needs to be handled with more care.

I think if you do this, though, it’s best of you give the players a lot of leeway about how to escape. Like offer then opportunities or be very cooperative with ideas they come up with on how to escape. Set aside concerns about what’s “realistic” or “verisimilitude” and go with what they come up with.

The more collaborative a given game tends to be (whether by rules design or by the way the group approaches the game) the less of an issue this tends to be.

As for player agency, I don’t think it’s generally helpful to consider any restriction at all on choice to be the removal of agency. If the natural consequence of the PCs’ actions and players’ decisions is that the PCs get captured, then following through on that is honoring their choice. That their actions are restricted by the fictional situation of being captured is not really any different from the other fictional constraints present in other situations.

I think it also helps if the players have other avenues of agency beyond just their character’s spatial freedom. When agency is limited to that, then yes, taking that away may be problematic.
I think you've got to the heart of the issues. Players reacting badly to being captured may stem from GMs who curtail the characters escape plans over and over again, forcing long stretches of time with the heroes just sitting in a cell or forced into slave labour. If nothing much happens until the GM decides it's time or the characters get rescued by NPCs, (shudder) there is going to be game problems. Big bold escapes or leading a successful slave revolt and getting revenge on the baddies, on the other hand, can make for exciting sessions.

Years ago, I had a GM who did not hesitate to have our characters captured. It didn't happen frequently, but when it did it led to fantastic gaming. As players, we still fought tooth and nail to avoid it, but we never felt cheated, and then we had the exciting and (to our minds) brilliant escape.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Hardly - it's the most clear and factual refutation to your absurd assertion that the GM is the sole element of game.
D&D doesn't do a lack of DM well, and that you can force a DMless D&D game doesn't mean that it's worthwhile to do, or that the exception disproves the rule. Rules can be broken. They're still rules.

In D&D generally when the DM leaves the game is over. In D&D generally when the player(s) leave it's not over as the DM can get new players. The authority is very one sided.

If you want a game where the DM doesn't hold absolute authority or there isn't a DM, there are other games out there that are designed around that idea and are a much better fit than D&D is.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Setting the "unilateral" to one side, I think what you're identifying here is a limitation of 3.5 and GURPS as resolution frameworks.

There's no such thing as a general resolution framework. You must resolve something specific - tasks, conflicts, scenes, or the like. 3.5E and GURPS have decent task resolution frameworks - many games that focus instead on conflict or scene resolution are crummy at task resolution.

There is nothing generally superior about the design choice to focus on resolving one or the other of these. They are simply different, and offload different things to the players/GM.

So, in the capture scenario in D&D, the task resolution framework offloads the question of resolving the overall conflict to the GM, and not all GMs handle that well. If the GM has a very narrow idea for how to resolve the situation, and does not communicate that well to the players, there's trouble.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
One also expects that this is covered as part of character generation for the adventure - at least I hope so. Since it's a starting condition for the adventure, the DM should be up front about it.

Sure, if you're starting the game this way, I'd expect that to be known. At the very least, the GM can help save some time by letting the players know not to bother selecting starting gear (unless the gear can be recovered or what have you).

I think that being up front and open is a huge part of this. I think a lot of the time, players have been conditioned to think of a "capture" state as being a loss of some sort. Which I can understand and even agree with to an extent, but I don't think that having a loss here or there in a game is a bad thing.

The question comes up about whether or not the natural consequence is achieved by fiat or playing things out. It may be a natural consequence that they be captured, but as online discussions have shown, there are a lot of players who will insist on playing that out and will fight like hell, even to the point of TPKing, to avoid capture. It's like a widespread psychosis in the community.

Well, as a consequence I meant like a direct consequence such as instead of a TPK, the PCs are captured, or similar.

Also, I think calling it a "widespread psychosis" implies widespread brain damage among the community....and we all know how everyone thinks about that!

But I do think it speaks to players being conditioned in certain ways. Many will often assume the worst will happen if they're captured... they'll lose all their cool gear and they'll be subjected to scenes of punishment or torture and humiliation. If that's what's on the menu, I can understand people not wanting to sit down to eat.

But if instead, it's just the new situation, the new challenge to overcome, and the players are allowed to come up with ways to escape, or negotiate, or otherwise get themselves out of this predicament... if players expect this rather than losing their gear and being humbled.... then I think it can work just fine. It's a matter of how the GM presents such situations, and how the players are allowed to deal with them.

In other words, if players can be conditioned to think of capture as being something to avoid at all costs with even PC death being preferrable, then they can also be conditioned to think of it differently. Very often the idea of "trust" is mentioned in these discussions. I think this is about trends that have been in place for some time that promote distrust of the GM by the players... that this is the default stance for many players when faced with PC capture. If that's to change, I think it has to start with the GM showing that things don't need to go according to those preconceived notions.

Just last night, I was a player in a 5e game where this came up. We're playing through the Temple of Elemental Evil. The PCs are second level and we'd just entered the moathouse. We dealt with the bandits, and then foolishly rushed into battle against the ogre, Lugash. With most of our abilities and spells spent, we barely managed to beat him. Our paladin was down, and the other four members of the party (a rogue, a warlock, a cleric, and my wizard) were banged up, with 6 HP or less for each of us.

At this point, five bugbears arrived and told us to come with them to meet with Lareth, a cleric we'd heard of that dwells beneath the moathouse.

A pretty dire situation. There was a natural inclination to fight, even though it likely would have led to disaster. We attempted to Persuade them to let us go, and the rogue even attempted to trick them with a Deception check, but the rolls went poorly, and the bugbears insisted we go with them. Cooler heads prevailed and we went with them, and met with Lareth, who basically offered us some information pointing us elsewhere in exchange for leaving him alone. We agreed to do so, and we were allowed to leave the moathouse.

So although not a full on capture scenario, I think it's a pretty useful example. We trusted that the GM introduced the situation not to force our capture, but to see how we would navigate the situation, and how that would inform our relationship with the NPC Lareth. Had we not trusted the GM and given in to our initial urge to only and always fight, the characters would have almost assuredly been killed.

And I'm not entirely sure that other avenues of agency remedies that.

I would say that they must. If I know that as a player I have the ability to shape the trajectory of play... I can influence how things go in the fictional world of the game... then I know I'll always have some input on how things play out.

So if I'm captured, I won't expect the game to become a case of "be humbled until we guess the one way the GM has devised for us to escape". I can trust in my ability to introduce my own solution to the problem.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
There's no such thing as a general resolution framework. You must resolve something specific - tasks, conflicts, scenes, or the like. 3.5E and GURPS have decent task resolution frameworks - many games that focus instead on conflict or scene resolution are crummy at task resolution.

There is nothing generally superior about the design choice to focus on resolving one or the other of these. They are simply different, and offload different things to the players/GM.

So, in the capture scenario in D&D, the task resolution framework offloads the question of resolving the overall conflict to the GM, and not all GMs handle that well. If the GM has a very narrow idea for how to resolve the situation, and does not communicate that well to the players, there's trouble.
So, it's a limitation of the framework because it requires expert usage to even make it work? Excellent point!

I mean, you spend time saying "different" but then try to minimize one of the differences. When I run 5e, I absolutely try to avoid capture scenarios because the system makes them hard to do well. I've managed a few times, but always on the back of some other houserule that helps enable it. I have no such problems in quite a few of the conflict resolution systems because capture is just another conflict. This is a difference.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I think you've got to the heart of the issues. Players reacting badly to being captured may stem from GMs who curtail the characters escape plans over and over again, forcing long stretches of time with the heroes just sitting in a cell or forced into slave labour. If nothing much happens until the GM decides it's time or the characters get rescued by NPCs, (shudder) there is going to be game problems. Big bold escapes or leading a successful slave revolt and getting revenge on the baddies, on the other hand, can make for exciting sessions.

While that can absolutely make the problem worse, I think its more simple: players hate any loss of control, and anything non-transient is worse.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The WotC published adventure “Out of the Abyss” begins with the PCs as prisoners of the drow. That’s it, that’s how the adventure is intended to start. You’re prisoners and forced to work alongside several other captive NPCs.

I think it’s likely the easiest way for this scenario to work. Just boom, okay you’re captured, what are you gonna do? I do think it can work as a result of play, let’s say in place of a TPK you just have the PCs captured by the bad guys. It just likely needs to be handled with more care.
Fine so far.
I think if you do this, though, it’s best of you give the players a lot of leeway about how to escape. Like offer then opportunities or be very cooperative with ideas they come up with on how to escape. Set aside concerns about what’s “realistic” or “verisimilitude” and go with what they come up with.
The bolded is for me a complete non-starter. If what they come up with makes sense (e.g. we try sweet-talking the guards, or we make makeshift weapons out of our food trays) then it'll have a chance; if what they come up with is hopeless (e.g. we beat down the prison's stone walls with our fists) then no way.
As for player agency, I don’t think it’s generally helpful to consider any restriction at all on choice to be the removal of agency. If the natural consequence of the PCs’ actions and players’ decisions is that the PCs get captured, then following through on that is honoring their choice. That their actions are restricted by the fictional situation of being captured is not really any different from the other fictional constraints present in other situations.
Agreed on this - if by their own free choice going badly they've put themselves in a position to deny themselves free choice then so be it.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Fine so far.

The bolded is for me a complete non-starter. If what they come up with makes sense (e.g. we try sweet-talking the guards, or we make makeshift weapons out of our food trays) then it'll have a chance; if what they come up with is hopeless (e.g. we beat down the prison's stone walls with our fists) then no way.

But does that happen? Do your players offer some absurd plan like that and then look to you with hopeful eyes?

My point is more about plausible versus probable.

From what I’ve seen in play, and in discussion here, many GMs with a more traditional approach tend to feel far more strongly about verisimilitude than the players ever will.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't think it has anything to do with the system so much as the GM essentially viewing the situation as such with very limited options.
That is a system thing, because "limited options" here really means declaring hard moves on the basis of stuff that is part of the GM's imagination but nothing more than that.

He's not obliged to do that with any system.
Maybe so. My point is that, in some systems, the GM isn't permitted to do so, and that seems more significant to me.
 

pemerton

Legend
I do think it can work as a result of play, let’s say in place of a TPK you just have the PCs captured by the bad guys. It just likely needs to be handled with more care.

I think if you do this, though, it’s best of you give the players a lot of leeway about how to escape. Like offer then opportunities or be very cooperative with ideas they come up with on how to escape. Set aside concerns about what’s “realistic” or “verisimilitude” and go with what they come up with.
This is what I'm saying about hard moves on the basis of fiction that exists only in the GM's imagination.

The more collaborative a given game tends to be (whether by rules design or by the way the group approaches the game) the less of an issue this tends to be.
Yes, this would be one way of reducing the likelihood of the GM making hard moves on the basis of fiction that exists only in their imagination!

I think it also helps if the players have other avenues of agency beyond just their character’s spatial freedom.
In Burning Wheel, for instance, one response to being captured would be to make a Circles check. Another would be to make some sort of Wises check.

In Apocalypse World, reading the situation, or reading a person (ie one of the PC's captors) would be fairly obvious things to do.
 

pemerton

Legend
There's no such thing as a general resolution framework. You must resolve something specific - tasks, conflicts, scenes, or the like. 3.5E and GURPS have decent task resolution frameworks

<snip>

So, in the capture scenario in D&D, the task resolution framework offloads the question of resolving the overall conflict to the GM, and not all GMs handle that well. If the GM has a very narrow idea for how to resolve the situation, and does not communicate that well to the players, there's trouble.
To somewhat echo @Ovinomancer: this reads to me like you're agreeing that the problem with capture scenarios that @innerdude experienced seems like it is referable to the limitations of the systems, rather than to problems with capture scenarios as such.
 


Thomas Shey

Legend
That is a system thing, because "limited options" here really means declaring hard moves on the basis of stuff that is part of the GM's imagination but nothing more than that.

Still don't buy it. PbtA may make it more difficult to limit options than other games, but it can still be done simply by someone not playing to the system's strengths, and there's no requirement for people to limit options with other games just because the system doesn't force it.

Maybe so. My point is that, in some systems, the GM isn't permitted to do so, and that seems more significant to me.

As I noted, at best that's only true if you assume people will use the tool as intended, and even then says that its somehow impossible or something a GM can't see as a good idea elsewhere. PbtA may be a useful learning tool for people to get out of that habit, but its in no way necessary, and people who lean in too strongly to that will find their way around the structure of PbtA to do it. Its not like people don't ignore parts of systems that are inconvenient to them when a GM (for good reasons or ill) all the time.
 

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