The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules. -Gary Gygax
That quote from Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax has almost become axiomatic across the hobby, a mantra for the avid homebrewer, house ruler, and just about anyone who’s ever read a wonky rule and thought, “That could be better.” Unfortunately, while The Godfather nailed many things in his career, this quote wasn’t one of them.
Gygax’s point is intuitively pleasing: roleplaying is really just a form of shared storytelling, and no one needs rules to enjoy the less collaborative forms of narration, such as fiction writing. This view overlooks an important contribution of the rules, and perhaps the only one that matters: rules provide a way for the GM to kill players.
What’s in a Game?
It’s often said that RPGs don’t have winners and losers, because the experience is more important than the outcome. While this is true overall–the story is the reward for both the players and GM–there are still very real feelings of winning and losing within that context.
In any dramatic story, there must be a credible threat of failure in order to create tension before the heroes’ inevitable success. Great GMs who maximize dramatic tension will push their players right to the edge, creating powerful “Will the heroes live or will they die?” moments.
The players know how heroic stories work; they know they are meant to “win,” that good should triumph over evil, that–to some degree–they are protected by “plot armor.” They know that GMs aren’t really hoping to kill the party, but that sometimes a PC will die. This, of course, is little consolation to a player who has just watched his character die, and who has suffered a very real loss.
The Right Way to Kill PCs
Obviously, as final arbitrator, the GM has Rule 0 power to kill off any character–PC or otherwise–on a whim. Jump in a vat of acid? Dead. Fail to escape the nuclear bombardment? Dead. Players accept these cause-and-effect deaths without mechanical support.
But what if a player challenges the King’s Champion to a duel? However overmatched the challenger may be, will the players accept the GM simply informing them of the result of the duel? Is there any amount of narrative description that will satisfy the players in such a case? Of course not. The result may be a foregone conclusion and the GM may have decided for any variety of reasons to Rule 0 the outcome, but the players still require justification for the GM’s decision.
This is the value that the rules provide: they take the sense of GM fiat out of the equation. They impose the chance–however minuscule–of success so that the GM doesn’t have to make a decision that risks feeling arbitrary to the players.
The Big Picture
Good players are invested in their characters; they spend time writing them and building them and playing them. They revel in their successes and wallow in their failures, and the death of a character should feel like a loss. The rules allow the GM to deflect the blame from himself (“You challenge him and lose”) to the system, the rules, or the dice (“Does a 37 hit your AC? OK, take 62 damage.”)
Of course, death isn’t the only way for a character to “lose.” The party’s most pathological liar can fail a routine bluff because of a low roll. The party’s most heavily armored tank can still suffer damage from a critical hit. Even the most acrobatic rogue will sometimes get singed by a fireball. The rules provide a framework for characters to fail, even for tasks they are designed to trivialize, without the GM shoehorning the failure into his game.
As a GM, it can be difficult to leave important outcomes up to chance, especially when the stakes are high. But remember: risk of failure is the source of dramatic tension, and you bought a collection of sourcebooks to justify that failure. Make sure you take advantage of it.