They’re in it deep, way over their heads. Everything is falling apart around them and they need to figure out what to do to fix the problem, and do it fast. Back at home base, though, there’s someone in charge that could totally save their bacon from the fire, so why not give the boss a call to come bail them out? Why? Because Samuel L. Jackson costs way too much to bring in for more than a couple of cameos.
Wait, what? I can see the look of confusion on your face from here, so bear with me as I explain. As GMs, it can be frustrating to figure out how to handle the players, either purposefully or inadvertently, trying to circumvent plot by calling on a higher power to solve the problem for them. While it can be a viable solution on occasion, it’s not one that makes for a very interesting story. If the PCs are supposed to be the heroes, calling in the cavalry should only be used as a last resort, not a solution to every problem. Unfortunately, in my experience, many players will try for that easy solution way too often. The question for us GMs is how to keep the higher ups out of it without having the players feel like they’re being denied assets they would legitimately have access to.
(Note: I’ll try very hard to avoid spoilers for ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, but everyone has their own tolerance for spoiler information. You have been warned.)
This struck me a couple weeks ago as I watched the season finale of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’. In some ways, the writers of the show have a problem similar to the one we GMs have. As a quick summary for those that haven’t watched the show, it follows a group of S.H.I.E.L.D agents led by Agent Coulson. The show got off to a disappointingly slow start, but after coming back from a mid-season break it quickly grew into its own. Deftly tying its story into the buildup and the fallout related to the events in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, it very quickly went from meh to Must See TV.
If the lead characters of the show were PCs, they should be able to call on S.H.I.E.L.D. for back-up and other resources, right? Heck, if they really run into some major problems, they should be able to contact Agent Coulson’s boss, Nick Fury. He’s only one sat phone call away, right? Unfortunately for the show, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson and while he’s game for a lot of things, he still has a busy schedule and hefty salary requirements. A TV show, no matter its pedigree or success, is not going to be able to afford more than a couple of cameos from the BAMF himself, which is pretty much what the show got. His first cameo was just an amusing extra bit, but his appearance in the finale was just the pivotal type of role a boss figure should play in a game — he helped save the day, but most of the heroics were still up to the main characters.
For those of us running games and not writing television scripts, we need to find a way to make sure the players understand that they can’t turn to their organization’s leader for every little problem. There are several ways to reinforce this idea in character:
Your boss didn’t hire you so he could do all your work! A good boss is there to support the staff he’s hired, but he also hired them to do a job. If the PCs keep pestering him to help them out with things, that’s going to get awfully annoying for him very quickly and he should let them know it’s time for them to step up and pull their own weight.
The hero that cried wolf. Maybe the PCs do call the boss and she does send out reinforcements, but when they get there, the problem is easily something the PCs could have handled on their own. Not only could the PCs get razzed by the team that showed up to help them, the next time they call for help the boss might be less willing to take them seriously.
If they don’t want to do the job, someone else might. If the PCs keep talking about having the boss come help them out, it should be easy enough to convey the idea that there are some other people in the organization who would be happy to take over their job since they obviously don’t want it.
Since they can’t handle the little jobs, they’ll never get the cool missions. If the boss believes they have a history of slacking on the jobs she’s already assigned, it can be made clear to the PCs that they’re being passed over for some of the more interesting jobs.
There are also other creative ways to deal with the situation externally to the players. For example, what if the boss was suddenly out of the picture, either permanently or temporarily? Another alternative would be to have the boss turn on them and turn out to be an enemy. Either one is a good way to shake up the game and the organization the players are part of.
Whether their boss is a titled lord in a high fantasy setting, a high level executive in a power suit, a grizzled cyber mercenary with untold history, or even Nick Fury himself, the PCs can be shown that earning their boss’s respect and trust through initiative and independence is the best way to get what they want out of that job. Being prepared to redirect the PCs’ search for the easy solution is a good way to avoid having to blurt out, “You can’t afford Samuel L. Jackson!”
No, I actually haven’t done it, but there are times that I want to. Have you ever had to find a way to keep your players from relying on an NPC authority figure too much? How did you solve it?
Great Article! I’ve always avoided boss type NPCs for my groups because of these issues. I might stick a GMPC who is a low level whiny grunt with them, that way I can feign his inability to do much to help unless they are in dire need. That or I fall back on meta-tokens to limit players access to resources. They get one “bail your a$$ out of jail” token or something similar, and that is it. They know they can get themselves out of a situation, but they’ve burnt their bridges pulling that favor.
I probably should have added a caveat about avoiding GMPCs regardless, but I know I’d run into several times when the PCs seemed to rely on trying to get their boss to take care of things rather than dealing with it themselves.
I do like that ‘Get out of jail free’ token idea, though. 🙂
Damn, now I want to add a Samuel L Jackson cameo in my game!
Others way to limit boss type character meddling into your campaign, which brings a lot in term of life and continuity, is making sure they have an agenda, as well as things to do. They aren’t turning their thumbs waiting for the heroes to call in that favor they owed them. Maybe he’s off fighting a larger scale battle, or he’s training new heroes in the fold. Maybe he’s lying low, passing for dead, or he is in intensive care after having been blown up.
Sure, the action and story in your game resolves around the heroes, and they should get all that spotlight. Just don’t forget the people lurking are not idle, that goes as well for the good and bad guys NPCs.
I know, right!?
And that is absolutely true about making sure the rest of the world goes along about its business while the PCs are doing their thing. Beyond helping with this type of situation, it also helps add some verisimilitude to the game, helping making the world a bit more real.
Versimilitude, that’s the word I was searching for 🙂
It’s not an easy part of gamemastering. As a player, you only have to manage one agenda, and usually the action of one character. But it’s also the part of “world building” I prefer, since I usually take an existing world, and tweak it via the actions of its NPCs
One way to limit this is to tell the characters what resources are readily available to access for support, and what they don’t have. So that infiltration and evidence collection mission might be in a friendly (ish) nation — no firearms provided for this operation, and zero impact allowed (don’t get seen or caught, don’t kill anyone, minimal or no property damage). They have access to the embassy for evac, but if there is a problem with local law enforcement they have to exfil on their own. They have a certain amount of provided gear (specify) otherwise they off-the-shelf.
Being “unofficial” or deniable means they can’t go asking for help.
This was standard in my espionage games.
Other things you can do are limit communications with the base –either due to time lag, time zones, weather, or other issues (try getting linguistic support from DC on the fly on a holiday weekend.)
With someone like Fury, how many ti es do you thinkyou’d get his secretary? “Sorry, but the director’s on the line with this or that committee, or testifying to Congress today so he’s got 20 minutes to be convinced that a black leather trenchcoat isn’t appropriate attire to deal with the Senate Select on Intelligence…we’ll get back to you. Or call Hill — she LOVES hearing from you…â€
That’s a very good idea, making sure the players know what resources they have at hand and what they don’t. The times I’ve run into this, though, I’m usually unprepared for them to try and use the ‘call the boss’ option. I’m a little wiser about it now, though. 🙂
Also a very good point on the secretary and Hill. 🙂 I know in my Doctor Who game, I’ve resorted to the PCs getting their nominal boss’s voice mail instead of reaching her directly which seems to help. Now I wish I’d invented a secretary, though.
I can think of at least two other ways to handle players who want the cavalry to come save the day:
1) You want to be able to call for help? Well, tomorrow someone else needs help. Guess who gets to be thrown into a dangerous situation with no time to prepare and with no further help coming (because they are that help)? Maybe they will have a little more appreciation for the helpers next time.
2) The players really want the big NPCs to come help them all the time? Maybe the NPCs show up a little too often. How many times have players complained about GM PCs that show up to take all the challenge away and get all the glory? Let that happen once or twice and they won’t want them around so much any more!
I really like your solution 1 — and that can build a feeling of camaraderie. In fact, you can have the people that they run to help be either way too deep… and when the PCs ask why, they can relate a “redeeming our reputation for crying wolf” discussion. Or it can be like the PCs… something that’s trivial once they’re added, due to the group they’re rescuing’s hype.
Meanwhile, then assignment the PCs were going to be able to nip in the bud gets upgraded, which you can relay in the briefing.
That’s a great “show, don’t tell” way of showing why everyone doesn’t scream help at the drop of a hat.
I’d be a little worried about #2 being taken the wrong way by the players, but I really like #1. That’s an excellent way to convey the repercussions of racking up favors owed.
Choosing when and how to get “the boss” involved has been a constant challenge in my long running game. On the one hand, we all want the story to stay focused on the PCs and their heroic actions. The players grumble occasionally when it seems like powerful NPCs are doing the heavy lifting and they (the PCs) are just along for the ride. But on the other hand, there are situations where it’s legitimate for the party to explore the option of getting assistance or even demand it. That’s especially the case in long running campaigns, where they party periodically encounters a story line much bigger than themselves.
It’s important to recognize that, like with many other challenges in RPGs, this a player issue. Some players are simply the type to go begging for help at the first sign of trouble. (Others are the type who won’t ask for help even when their guts are dribbling out a hole in their chest.)
I remember one player I had years ago who was particularly awful about this. He played a druid and he was constantly petitioning his circle to send additional resources to aid in the party’s fight against evil invaders looking to enslave peaceful residents of the forest. I tried various in-game approaches but to no avail. He kept asking for help and copped an attitude that I, as the GM, was making the game unenjoyable by denying his character the resources he should have access to.
Finally I chose to confront the issue directly with him:
Ultimately the right solution was to recognize that this player was a mismatch for the group, the storyline, and my GMing style, and ask him to leave.
You’re absolutely right this is a player issue. Certain players are going to resort to this type of option far more often than others. It’s good as GMs to be prepared how to handle it. I know I’ve had otherwise excellent players try and call the boss well before it’s really an absolute need. They just needed a little guidance in a different direction.
I like your response to your problem player. It’s a shame they didn’t really get it and ended up having to leave the game.
Ha, that’s funny! My players’ boss was, up until recently, actually Nick Fury. (But now they’re secretly working with Tony Stark against S.H.I.E.L.D. Long story.)
Hah! That’s awesome and the change-up of bosses makes me want to hear even more about that game. 🙂
My quick answer:
You want to call in the cavalry? No problem, they’ll get the XP for completing this adventure then. Still want to call them?
I could see my players shrugging that off, even for games that are heavily xp dependent, like D&D or Pathfinder. The other issue comes in with one-shots.
Still, definitely a nice little reminder for the players. 🙂
I have been thinking about this recently. My players aren’t too bad, but they do occasionally press on local organizations (temples, guards, guilds, etc.) for more resources than I want them to get for free. I’ve been thinking recently about having tons of low-level people come to them for help. They will likely kick down a few low-level items to the first few groups, but will probably start getting annoyed when those groups come back or when the requests don’t end.
I’m still not sure if it will work out in play, though. I am hoping that this combined with some of the OP suggestions will help make my point…
I try very hard to ‘say yes’ to my players whenever possible, so it always frustrates me when they pursue something like this and I need to find a way to tell them no.
Good luck on getting the point across to your players. I think your idea of having some come to them for help definitely has merit. 🙂
When the PCs are affiliated with an organization it’s hard to turn down requests for help. Helping out members is one of the things organization are there for! Here are some three techniques I use to manage help from temples and guilds my PCs belong to:
1. The big boss favors your request but delegates someone lower in the organization to help. This person is roughly the PCs’ level and so is like a henchman, incrementally adding to the party’s capability without significantly changing its power level.
2. Members of the organization have heard about the great things the affiliated PCs have done and are eager to join them on their adventure!! But these people are at least a few levels lower than the PCs. If they party accepts their help they’ll have to manage them carefully so they don’t die facing a threat that’s beyond them. Letting loyal followers die on your mission is, of course, terrible for one’s relationship with the organization. And seeing requests for help filled with lower level NPCs often curbs the PCs’ desire to keep asking for help.
3. Whenever the organization answers a request for help, it expects a cut of the treasure. Not just a cut for the people who actually joined the mission but also a cut (or tithe) to the organization for being there to provide the helpers. Even a religious organization providing help for a mission that aligns with its faith needs financial support.
Great post, Angela! Our GM read this last week and actually told us on Friday, “You can’t afford Samuel L. Jackson,” when we started taking every tidbit of information back to the big boss for further instruction.
@dstillwa, making sure it’s not “for free” is one fix I use in my Shadowrun campaign. The boss can get that personnel or equipment, but it’s coming out of the PC’s pay. If the PCs are relying too much on the boss to procure things instead of making their own contacts, the boss’s markup increases until the PCs shop elsewhere.
When money doesn’t work, time can. The boss can offer that assistance, but the timeframe is so delayed that the players realize they need to do it on their own. In a fantasy setting, perhaps the soldiers are ten days’ march from the PCs, and the bad guys are going to summon the demon tomorrow night.
Sometimes I’m hoping the players will come up with an alternate plan that doesn’t rely on the boss’s resources, but it doesn’t make sense for the boss to deny them. Then I use the voicemail ploy to avoid saying yes or no right away. Once they have a more independent plan, the boss calls back and offers resources that won’t unbalance the mission.
Wonderful article, Angela! This is a great issue to address and I think you covered many of the bases very well.
One alternative approach I would suggest is what I call the ‘anime boss effect’. Have you ever noticed that in many anime, when a major league hitter is brought onto the field, they are often taken out (usually temporarily) by a significant attack that would have otherwise destroyed the rank-and-file?
I use the same principle when players start calling in the cavalry; sure, the guild master might take the field at the behest of the PCs, but that’s just an opportunity to pull out one of the enemy’s most powerful attacks to deal with this new threat. Said guild master gets laid low by the attack, removing them from the conflict but also using up the enemy’s massive attack.
This reinforces the perception of the antagonist’s power and ups the stakes of the conflict despite the fact that, unbeknownst to the players, the antagonist is now substantially weakened having expended their most powerful attack. As the conflict continues, the PCs slowly gain the upper hand and defeat the enemy, their confidence bolstered all the more by being able to defeat what was originally thought to be an insurmountable foe. This has the added benefit of temporarily (or permanently) removing the cavalry as a fall-back since they now have to recover for a prolonged period (or have been killed outright).
Of course, everyone’s mileage may vary, but I find this is a way to stay true to the ‘say yes’ philosophy without giving the players a deus ex machina they can invoke when the going gets a little tough.
I’ve generally set up the boss/employer style NPC’s to fill a similar role that James Lester filled in Primeval. ( http://primeval.wikia.com/wiki/James_Lester )
In short while the boss may hold the purse strings, and be the one who controls policies and helps set the goals of the group, he (or she) is usually not the “go to” man for serious butt kicking salvation. (Either due to their profession, or they are past their prime/to crippled for field duty.)
It also helps that generally I try to make it clear the players team is the best the company/group has, so any reinforcements will be markedly weaker, making them more useful in a support capacity or as a distraction.
Another handy solution is to allow the group to have a limited use summons/distress beacon that will conjure up a group of golems, or auto target a collection of combat droids to land at their position via orbital drop pod.
This lets them have a emergency calvary on call when desperately needed, but said calvary will be of a disposable nature and require a fair bit of micro managing from the team to still be effective, letting the PC’s remain in the spotlight rather then a stack of NPC saviors.
This is really something that needs to be made clear to the PCs through the storytelling and world-building. Most times the PCs just assume they’re on their own, but it only takes one clever player. But I’ve found that its not malicious, that, when the players try to call Samuel L. Jackson they’re trying to engage your world. The GM can’t just shut it down and say there’s no backup to call. Then the players aren’t going to take your world seriously which has even worse implications for your game.
Most games I’ve run or played the players are in a rural or uncivilized environment which prevents them from calling Samuel L. Jackson. The worst game I ever played, the DM ran a great combat but his storytelling was practically non-existent. And it started when we tried to call Samuel L. Jackson. We got the typical hook, bandits be raiding. But, the setting had been established as, “The King wants to pay you to take out the bandits.” And we asked how many knights he was willing to send to help. And the DM flat out said, I’ll have to increase the challenge if you guys get help. Right there he’s just broken the immersion. Rarely are players asking to be malicious or make the game easy. They want to understand why the world is like it is to engage with it.
If the PCs are asking for help, turn that around. They’re asking for help because they don’t understand why that can’t happen. Because if you establish that the Kingdom is armed and at peace, there should be an expectation of help. If Samuel L. Jackson is sitting on his chair, he should be on call. Maybe the Druid Circle can’t send help because they’re under attack. Right there you’ve got an adventure hook.