It’s accepted convention that the loss of player agency is demotivating and to be avoided whenever possible. It’s just not fun, be it mind control, alien parasites, or plain GM fiat. But what can you do as a GM when the rules themselves deprive a player of agency?
Hold Me Now
I personally had the misfortune to find myself in this role quite recently as my character was grappled with no chance of escape. And when I say “no chance of escape” I’m being quite literal. While there was an escape mechanic, it was statistically improbable of ever making the roll.
Okay, that’s fine, I guess. A stronger person can grapple a weaker person for essentially in perpetuity? The issue being the wording of the rules, leaving no room for interpretation (emphasis mine):
The victim can try to escape the clinch with his action. Neither may perform any other type of action until the victim breaks free or is released.
My character was unable to draw a dagger, attempt an acrobatic or contortionist maneuver to escape, or even use a reflexive, non-targeting power. In short, there was no point in even being at the table or rolling initiative as I completely lacked agency. As you can imagine, extremely frustrating.
As an aside, what is it with grappling rules that they all universally suck? Seriously!
My issue isn’t with the escape mechanic: that’s fairly well codified and makes sense within the context of the rules. My issue is with the ironclad verbiage that deprives a character of the ability to do anything but make a meaningless roll.
Therein sits the problem, where a GM may be inclined–as in this case–to follow the letter of the rules rather than the spirit of them.
We’re all familiar with the concept of Rule 0 but the solution goes deeper than that. As a GM part of your role should be to work with your players to say “yes,” not to shut them down. Because the more often you find yourself blocking their actions the faster the players themselves will shut down at your table. It’s a lose-lose situation.
In this case, there is the rule that serves as the foundation but a player should have the opportunity–via a clever idea or whatnot–to propose a solution to the GM. The GM weighs the request, be it against realism, storytelling, or just plain coolness. Whatever that metric may be at least the player AND the GM are working together.
The second, and more complex issue, is just fixing the rule outright. As a designer, this is the place where my head goes, to encompass the spirt of what was intended but provide alternative mechanics that make sense. Perhaps it’s as simple as applying a flat penalty to all attempts until the grapple is broken? A simple, 5 second solution that doesn’t require much scrutiny to implement and keeps the flow of the game going.
When faced with an issue of depriving a player of agency, what is your go-to solution? (Also, bonus points if you can name the game this problematic rule comes from.)
Just about anyone that has run games has to face this regularly. I attempt to mitigate the irritation by using such mechanics (1) sparingly, (2) briefly and (3) flexibly. Special care should be given when the situation affects only one character, leaving the rest to continue play as normal.
I always view game rules as merely guidelines and not laws written in stone. I bend, break or ignore them whenever they get in the way of fun.
Those are both good bits of advice for new GMs that may find themselves in this position. The “is it fun?” litmus test is also one to consider.
I hear you about grapple mechanics being bad across so many game systems. And in fact I think this is a very major problem, because grappling (along with unarmed, limited-stakes bar-brawling combat) is important for RP. How many times have you wanted to basically just stop a bad guy from getting away, to arrest him or suchlike? But the rules in many game systems then basically force you to either beat him senseless (risking killing him), or engage in the horror of the Grappling rules.
And grappling combat is often extraordinarily complex. It’s almost its own combat system.
In the situation you describe, I’d say that the rule itself is plain broken. There are so many things you can imagine that you should be able to at least try while grappled, that this rule is just bad.
In the general case, I do think it’s better if the GM sees the written rules as a starting point for other rules – a testing stone – rather than as the end-all-be-all. They’re a guideline and base of comparison for difficulties of other things that players might want to try. That’s why I really like reading developer commentary about what they tried to do with the rules they wrote.
I’ve seen some crazy stuff in real life and I know that anything is possible, even if it is unlikely.
I’ve long been a fan of “If the rule isn’t fun, take it out or change it.”
Savage Worlds actually has grappling rules that are fairly simple, easy to use, and allow grappled characters to at least attempt to do something other than be a floor mat.
Sometimes depriving a player of agency can be worked around; with Dominate and Charm you can leave the choices in some players’ hands. [It’s still torture, but the player has a reason to remain engaged at the table.]
Walk away from the table powers are frustrating; I think a promising sign was the acknowledgement in 4e’s design that these are effects to avoid. It’s tricky, because a lot of interesting things (like being turned to stone) are interesting effects to see in the world… if not experience as a player.
I view ‘turn to stone’ or anything similar the same as killing a character – and treat it appropriately. As with a dead character, there are avenues to remove the condition, but lacking access or ability to them, the character is essentially removed from the game permanently.
I feel like there’s an elephant in this room: unconsciousness.
Forget grappling, domination, or exoctic insta-kill abilities like petrification; in most game systems, PCs in a fight run the risk of simply getting knocked out. Often there are death-saves to be made or bleeding-out checks or something similar to keep the player busy, but there’s not much justification for a downed character to actually DO anything.
Any tips for how to retain player agency in such a situation? Is it even important to do so, or is such a life-or-death encounter already engaging enough?
Having sat on both sides of the screen, I will say that I react to being unconscious differently than having my character’s free will or mobility taken away.
I typically see the one (unconscious) as either (1) springing from my own foolishness or (2) consequences of an act of heroism on my part or (3) a normal matter of course that will happen from time-to-time. Contrarily, having my character idled through a manner that circumvents the games core mechanic (hit points) can be extremely frustrating.
Having said that, it is important for GMs to take care with how long a character remains out of commission. Usually the players themselves take care of this through healing magic, but if that isn’t going to happen I have in the past done a few things to try to help including:
(1) giving the player some monsters to run
(2) turning over control of henchmen (if any) to the player
(3) ‘helping’ them roll to wake up and rejoin the fray
(4) reminding other players of healing potions
(5) treating them as disabled but allowing them to do some things (like quaff a potion)
Paranoia, at least is great for this. While a clone is down I can hand the player forms to fill out to activate the next clone. There are some (minor) consequences and the player has something to keep them occupied while their PC is out of the fight.
I wonder is asking an unconscious player to write up some character background would be worthwhile?
“Steve, your character Glorfbadger falls unconscious from the poisoned blade. He’s having a hell of a dream. Here’s an index card, If you give me at least 3 bullet points about something prophetic he sees while dreaming you’ll get an XP bonus.”
I like that, Dustin. There’s nothing more I love than giving players little rewards for involvement here and there, and the less I have to pull said rewards from the loot/treasure tables, the better!
My irritation with grappling mechanics comes mainly from how often it’s confusing, unfeasible, or just plain unworkable.
I remember in old D&D 3.5, I’d gotten my hands on a PDF of “The Book of All Feats”. I had made this nifty 20th-level Fighter that opted for unarmed and improvised combat. With the right feats and the right environment – there’s nothing like being able to pick up a bookcase and beat the snot out of a group of opponents – he could outclass even most other monks (although not Vow of Poverty monks, but that just goes without saying).
Anyway. The grappling mechanic for 3.5 was just… annoying. It didn’t take into account many unique situations and most of the time the character with the highest strength won out. Grappling also damned long between grappling, contesting the grapple, maintaining the grapple, and then actually doing anything useful with it (God forbid you lost grapple superiority, in which case you repeat the same steps). Meanwhile, everyone else is getting normal action while you do the contortion dance with your ill-suited partner.
I would give my eyeteeth for a grappling system – legit, house rules, anything – where it didn’t suck so badly. Dare I say, I’d even like it to be useful – such as a Judo master that throws players to the ground rather than strikes them directly, or a minotaur that could pick up players and smash/throw/crush them instead of just gore or attack with a melee weapon.
I view the ultimate-grapple scenario in the OP to be railroading… and as a guy that HATES railroading, I don’t like it. _HOWEVER_, it MAY have been a plot device, a situation that HAD to happen to set up the next scenario or campaign arc – OR to impress upon the group that you do NOT want to let the bad guys close to you. I can sympathize with the GM for that, but let me repeat myself.
I HATE RAILROADING!!