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Always Give Your Players A Receipt


“The sword of duquesne gets stolen by the naked man…”
Community did an excellent episode where they played Dungeons and Dragons, [1] and it was advanced! One of the things that has always struck me about that episode was the part where the character Neil’s sword gets stolen out of spite by another player . It sets up a ton of plot threads and talks about inter-party conflict, but it has always struck me that the episode could have gone a totally different way had it not ended with them recovering the sword. It would have sucked for Neil, having an heirloom and important part of his concept of his character get stolen and not recovered, and would totally have changed the outcome of the effect of the game on Neil’s mental attitude towards life (a major part of the plot of the episode).

It also struck me how similar that experience of having something taken away from a character is similar to experiences I’ve heard about from people, and how similar it is to experiences I’ve had as a player. The ability to threaten things that are close to characters is an important tool in the GM’s toolbox, as it gives them a way to make the game’s outcomes feel meaningful, but the legacy of adversarial GMing — where it is the players vs the GM and everything victory is hard fought — can totally sink a player’s morale if they suddenly lose some part of their agency in moving the story forward.

There’s an easy way to overcome that though:


Always Give Your Players A Receipt For Things You Take Away

A character losing a valuable item, the party being thrown in jail by the guards, or really anything that removes the players ability to react to the situation or attempt to get out of it, deserves some assurance that you aren’t going to be an asshole and make things horrible for them. Pretty much anything that asks the player to bear with you for a bit deserves a receipt, a promise that you’re not taking their ability to interact with the story away, just putting it on pause and they’ll get it back.

“The Guards apprehend you and demand you go with them to jail! Ok everyone, this is a bit meta, but if you go with them without a fight, this token is my assurance that it won’t stop everything. You’ll get your gear back, you’ll get out of the jail at some point, however you make that happen, but it won’t stop the story. Maybe you’ll break out and have a record, but we’ll keep moving on and I’m not taking anything away, and if you lose something, like a guard steals your magic sword, you will get it back at some point, or something as cool. June, maybe this is how you get that ice sword you were talking about rather than the fire one, I don’t know yet. So, you don’t have to go with the guards, but if you do I’ll make sure you get everything back.”

That’s all a bit meta, but what matters most from the players side of the table is knowing that the things you are doing to move the story along aren’t just out of spite. They may already know that by your play style and have full trust in you, and they may be 100% down for that style of play and won’t get annoyed when you burn up their gear because they didn’t explicitly say they were being super careful around the fire elemental — and if those expectations are set, awesome. No need to change the paradigm you’ve already established. It is never a bad idea to reaffirm that you are on their side though.

 Pretty much anything that asks the player to bear with you for a bit deserves a receipt, a promise that you’re not taking their ability to interact with the story away, just putting it on pause and they’ll get it back. 
I will never forget an early game in my career where I wanted to make use of my characters tanning skills to make some leather while we were camping, and with a gleeful smirk that said “I like screwing with your character” a GM told me that creatures made off with the leathers I was tanning in the night. No real reason, maybe a passing roll to see the likelihood behind the screen, no moving forward of the story or hilarious side quest where we chase down creatures chewing on the leather that was supposed to be my new hand-made armor, just that sense of “Wow, the GM just wants to screw with us if we don’t stay in line.” That was the second to last game I played in that campaign, and I think the third to last game that ever occurred in it. A different take on that situation, a validation that there was a reason for it other than “I’ve had a crappy day and you are my target” might have saved the campaign.


The Other Side

But doesn’t this take away risk? Yes, yes it does if not done correctly, but that is all dependent on your play style. A receipt in a game can take many forms, and it is best used when you are looking at removing something core to a character for a plot reason or asking the players to bear with where the story is headed. If mercenaries sneak on-board the star ship and flush all the cargo out the airlock while the crew is tied up, it is assumed that is part of the story and there is going to be an eventual escape and retaking of the ship. What can the players expect to still have intact after that episode plays out? Whatever moves the story along, or else give the players a receipt. There is still the risk that Jayne dies while fighting off the crew, if that’s your play style, but if he survives and Vera gets flushed out the airlock or broken, the receipt is a promise that he will take a bigger/better gun from one of the mercenaries OR that Vera will pop up in a vendor’s stall and a hilarious fight/kerfuffle will occur that puts Vera back in Jayne’s loving hands.


Final Thoughts

There is a natural power imbalance that comes up in games, when you as the Game Master can say “Rocks fall and you die” whenever a player annoys you. Giving a player a receipt in any type of game you are playing helps counterbalance that effect. You are assuring the player that you’re not just screwing with them, but instead you’re there to help them progress the story along. A receipt isn’t always a necessity, but it’s a token of respect for the players’ agency in the game and the sanctity of their characters. You’re promising you are going to screw with them, but only in the ways that push the story forward. It might not be a tactic that is great for every game, but it’s one that can be super effective, especially during one-shots or when used with a new table.

What experiences have you had that a receipt might have made better? Do you feel this eliminates too much risk from a game? Have you used something like this as a GM?




5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Always Give Your Players A Receipt"

#1 Comment By Svafa On October 9, 2017 @ 7:45 am

I’ve given literal receipts for items in games before, mostly when things are confiscated by guards, held while in the throne room, etc. I’ve never really considered the meta version though. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but personally it does feel like it eliminates too much risk. I’d prefer to build a trust with the players that I am a fan of their characters and want to see them succeed and do awesome things, so won’t just go about ruining their progress or characters.

That said, trust isn’t free and thinking about it, I did do something recently with a new group I’ve been playing with. One of their characters lost an item through no real fault of their own (though it did make for an appropriately dramatic scene). I honestly didn’t realize the item was that important to them (it was the second session), but I assured them they’d be able to replace it once they returned to town without much trouble. I would hope that this initial receipt builds enough trust to assure them I won’t take their toys without reason or a means to recuperate the loss in the future.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On October 9, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Trust and buy in are what it is all about. If you’re running the sort of game where everything that happens is brutal, expecting to lose your items or get a TPK if you (as a player) don’t stay vigilant enough is just the style of play. That has to be established up front. Like you say, using the receipt builds trust to assure the players it’s not just about taking their stuff.

I used this recently with a gremlin trialing the party and stealing stuff from them. They barely noticed until a magic item was taken, but then the group hunted it down and found the rest of its horde. That enabled them to find a few more items, including a plot specific mcguffin. They knew the item was gone unless they did something to get it back, but the receipt let them know that they could get it back, it wasn’t just gone, it was a part of their story.

#3 Comment By Blackjack On October 9, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

I agree it’s about trust and buy in. I prefer establishing these upfront rather than pass out receipts during the play of the game. Giving a metagame hint, like, “If you go with the guards I promise it’ll all work out in the end,” breaks the dramatic tension in the scene. Make the players sweat that tough decision. It should be theirs whether to fight, flee, or fold!

It takes time, though, to build up to the point where the players can make such a decision in character, confidently. It helps to start with a game compact. I like to establish upfront an understanding between the players and the GM about what the game is about– and what it’s NOT about. For example, how frequently will things happen because the plot demands it? That’s a railroad, and my personal preference is use it rarely if ever, though certain game genres involve it more often and some practically assume it. Discussing this upfront gives the players confidence that when they sense a railroad coming it’s because it makes sense in the game and is not the GM seeking a cheap way out of a self-inflicted problem or simply being a jerk.

#4 Comment By Lugh On October 10, 2017 @ 10:19 am

I’m having trouble putting my finger on it, but something about this feels off.

We clearly aren’t talking about a literal, physical receipt. Nor are we giving the receipt any kind of mechanical weight (e.g., “you get a +1 bonus to any roll made to recover your agency/schtick”). We are just talking about the GM pausing to say, “by the way, I’m still following Wheaton’s Law, just trust me”. Which, if your players don’t trust you, doesn’t really help. If your players do trust you, is kind of redundant. At best, it’s a complicated way of raising the flag “I recognize that I am taking your agency right now”.

It feels to me like this would be better served by two related but different pieces of advice. One, whenever you are starting a campaign have a talk about your GM style, genre expectations, etc. That way the players can simply assume that when bad things happen, it’s in the service of the story, and not your ego. Two, as a GM, don’t abuse your players. You are there to serve up 80% of a story, and they are there to provide the finishing 20%. That line between the 80 and the 20 can get very blurry, but you should never be looking at it as an opportunity to take more control.

If someone had a way to incorporate the receipt into the mechanics of the game, I would be all for it. Especially if such a mechanic meant that losing the magic item (or whatever) doesn’t actually make the character less capable. But as vague as this is, it doesn’t feel like it’s a lot of help.

#5 Comment By Solomon Foster On October 11, 2017 @ 10:51 am

In Amber Diceless, the surface question is kind of explicit in the rules. If an item is important to your character concept, you pay points for it. If you pay points for it and it gets lost, you can find it again under normal circumstances, though it may take time and effort. If for some reason the item is destroyed / permanently taken away from you, you get the points back. So if your PC is Elric, you’ve spent 15(of perhaps 100) points on Stormbringer, and you can always get it back. If the GM decides the sword has been unforged or something like that, you get the 15 points back. In my 25 years (gack) experience, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this work out badly.

I’ve also seen a game mechanism (definitely not in the default Amber rules!) which will give you Drama Points if something needs to happen which takes away a bit of agency temporarily. Basically, “I know X getting the drop on the party and throwing you all in jail is kind of railroady, but it needs to happen for the sake of the game. Here’s a Drama Point, allowing you to claim an extra bit of agency back in the future.”

I think the deeper question you’re getting at, though, is a lot harder to answer. What if the GM fries your character concept during play? You’re Elric, the last emperor of a dying kingdom, the doomed servant of Chaos who fights Chaos. And the GM says, eh, actually Law and Chaos have made up, balance rules the multiverse, and everything is so revived by that that your kingdom is no longer dying, it’s actually undergoing a baby boom and expansion! Everything is happiness and sunshine!

I don’t know that I have a good answer for this. Obviously as a GM you shouldn’t be an asshole just for the sake of being an asshole. But sometimes character concepts can butt up hard against each other, or against campaign concepts, and what do you do? How do you convince a player that you’re hosing his concept for the greater good?