Can Players Be Responsible?

As a GM, I’m often annoyed at my players’ lack of attachment. Like a first person shooter, they only care about what lies in their narrow forward vision and feel if it cannot be stabbed or shot at, it should be disregarded, and unless the undeniable noise of a demon-mecha-zombie is skulking behind them, they’ve no desire to turn around. Like so many open-sandbox games, they do what they like, when they like, how they like, content and comfortable that at no point will their normal lives be affected by what happens.

Certain emotion reactions are popular in games-—anger, laughter, the satisfaction of drilling a bowie knife into said demon-mecha-zombie—-but trying to evoke an emotional reaction like sadness or, heaven forbid, guilt is like trying to convince Hannibal Lecter to cut down his intake of human spleens.

My Amethyst campaign, which had been running nearly uninterrupted for ten years, has recently ground to a close, and three sessions before the curtain, I revealed to one character/player that he had been responsible for everything that had occurred until then, but simply couldn’t recall the acts in which he committed. And these weren’t like “everyone was late for work because he forgot to set the alarm”, or “clicking on a link for the latest Kardashian side-boob shot allowed the network to be infected with the latest monkey poop-flying virus” but a rather serious case of planetary genocide. Once I’d managed to make my case that the player couldn’t absolve himself from being a clone, my player turned around and took the amnesia defense—-that his lack of remembering the event equated his innocence, that since he couldn’t remember either committing a crime or remembering his motivations for committing it, actually committing the crime was incidental. He wasn’t like that person and as such was not responsible. The player immediately followed up (backed by no objection by the very fellow PCs the player had in fact screwed over) by claiming that there had been precedent in our modern criminal justice system.

Without pausing the game to immediate call on this player’s bullshit, I let the moment pass, re-affirming publicly my joy this was my last Amethyst game. Just to heed warning to those of you out there which enjoy being a DM/GM: Don’t populate your game group entirely with tabletop war-game aficionados. Anywho, the next day, a five-minute search on Google and Wikipedia revealed that unless your amnesia was a side effect of the same condition that committed the crime, you can’t use amnesia as your defense, even if you’re able to prove the memory loss. This is backed up by numerous cases. Proof that you committed a crime has no bearing if you can’t remember it. If you pile-drive an elderly lady into the Starbucks because you had a few too many long-island ice-t’s but can’t remember the evening, it doesn’t change the fact you pile-drove an elderly lady into a Starbucks. About the only time this ever worked was that famous sleepwalking case and the guy that stabbed his buddy to death because he hadn’t enjoyed a Snickers bar the hour before.

The bankrupt ethics of my players notwithstanding, I came to realize that most players, mine most of all, would never accept personal responsibility for anything their characters ever did, even if they had a hand in the creation of their characters. This is why if I ever plan on finishing my novel on Amethyst, the player characters would be replaced with my own creations, because who wants to read about a bunch of shallow glory hounds who only care about themselves and spend the whole of their time in the obviously lucrative profession of gut-punching puppies until they spit out gold.

I’ve already stated that the argument of amnesia is no way to absolve one’s guilt, but apparently it also absolves someone of responsibility. Even when I made the argument that even if the player may not be guilty, he was still responsible, the player instead got upset. Why? Because by his claim it wasn’t his job to fix the very problem that an earlier version of himself had committed. As a GM of approaching 25 years experience, I’ve seldom been able to evoke a negative emotional reaction other than anger. Players rarely have been affected by the loss of an NPC, unless that NPC granted some insight bonus for being in combat, and players rarely weigh the consequences of seemingly foolish acts.

Two years ago, the same group of players imprudently tried to disrupt a bunch of terrorists with hostages firmly clasped in hand and firearms brushing their temples (the temples of the hostages, not the terrorists, as that would be silly). The plan was incredibly irrational and short sighted and when it failed, several terrorists escaped and all but one of the hostages was killed. Instead of being angry at themselves or sad at the loss of the hostages, the players initially became hostile to me—-for not allowing them the capacity of solving every crisis with bullets-—and then later at the families of the victims because the players were being blamed for the loss of their loved ones. One player absolved himself with the psychic assumption that the hostages would have been killed regardless while another one simply countered that the family should have done more to help.

Heroes, I say.

And after a quarter of century of telling stories, I realized that rarely do players evoke anything close to realistic expected human emotions. But this could be a consequence of that same period of electronic gaming, where if you can’t solve a problem by eviscerating a target with a chainsaw sword, you give up. I should have known better since the iconic symbol of heroism paraded by so many people is a seven-foot tall space marine with no name and a personality duller than Snake Plissken. Thankfully certain electronic games force guilt and remorse, but then go about it so poorly that we don’t question why the character we play suddenly leaps back into sawing Nazis in half with an improvised lawnmower.

Nowadays, you can’t include morality or accountability without also including some reward system outside of doing something because it’s the right thing to do. Mass Effect was the only one that never included a mechanical reward system to its morality outside of simply offering you more opportunities to select that same morality later in the game. That worked brilliantly until the end, where the game decided to not only ignore your morality but also render the choices your morality made during the course of the game irrelevant.

I’ll conclude with my own experience in jarring uneven accountability. I play numerous characters in Star Wars: The Old Republic. One is a sith warrior I’m leaning healthily on the light side, offering leniency and mercy among those that ask for it. The game has done an admirable job trying to explain why I’d kill jedis with spiteful vigor in my spare time, then get praised by my non-player companions about my compassion. It actually doesn’t make sense why I’d be a champion of the light while decapitating passing jawas whose only crime was asking for a hand in gathering droid parts. And this is not just in the disparage between conversations and grinding battles. Even in cut scenes, my character is often not given the choice of being a complete asshole (three choices—all variations of asshole), despite having spared enemy soldiers not five minutes earlier. What does it say about the psychological state of a man that chums through fifty republic soldiers only to offer the hand of peace to the ultimate targets of his mission? But then again, if you’re looking for ethics in a sandbox filled with George Lucas’s beard droppings, you’d best absolve yourself from any other responsibility.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

8 thoughts on “Can Players Be Responsible?

  • April 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Perhaps there’s more to blame than just electronic gaming (and there usually is). It’s a lot harder to be a hero than your average person thinks and it’s what SHOULD make a hero so heroic. It’s an overused label in gaming. Even in a fictionalized RPG, some can never be truly heroic.

    My own groups have struggled with their own heroics at times and taken a cowardly approach when there’s really no risk to the players at all. And these are characters eager to point fingers at who are cowards, yet when they faced the possibility of getting their characters killed willingly to save the masses, some of them reconsidered.

    As far as RPGs go, maybe we can blame modern trends to make PC death rare and difficult to pull off. While you’d expect it would instill a sense of “bravery” in players, it makes the idea of placing them in a situation outside their comfort zone too risky to follow through with their original objective: to be a hero.

  • April 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I can understand your frustration on this, but first off I think that your type of group is going to be the primary factor in determining how they respond to things like this.

    First off, a lot of gamers are out there to have fun. For some of us, having gripping and moving plots will fir that bill; for others, hacking and slashing a lot of monsters is all the release they’re looking for. If you want to do something more than that, you’re going to need players that are looking for the same.

    Second of all, very few people are going to like being blamed for anything, least of all a genocide. When people start getting blamed for things they tend to either get defensive or evasive, and it sounded like that was the exact reaction you got. Try and make sure the players feel comfortable with the negative turns a story will take and get them to understand that it’s not personal.

    Key is, play to the strengths of your group and try to mix in the other stuff when they’re feeling openminded. You’re in for a lot of grief otherwise.

  • April 3, 2012 at 7:56 am

    This is a problem of communication and audience.

    I don’t know the situation, but a lot of people play RPG’s to blow off steam and kill bad guys. To suddenly be told “you are the cause of this and I expect you to be an angst-monkey” is a bit uncool if that’s not what they want out of the game. I’ve met a lot of GM’s that want something specific in a game without working with the players to get what he wants. It leaves both sides unhappy.

    You need to sit down with your players and have a talk about what they want to see and what you want to see. If you want emotion and angst, find players that want that and are willing to be told they screwed up the universe. I know a bunch of players that would jump at that, and a bunch that would run screaming (and one or two that would draw real-world weapons on you for this).

    What’s more, your actions involved messing with somebody’s character’s past. Some players are sensitive about their characters, and something like this would piss them off.

    You don’t have to get involved in details, but asking people at the beginning if they would be okay with having dark secrets in the background of the character would be a good way to do it.

  • April 3, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Yes, my group is made aware of the details of how I run games beforehand. The issue is that too many of them don’t seem to care that I run games for their story. Further, one has said outright that he plays for the social atmosphere and not the story I run.

    Before this specific game started, the player mentioned in the article was made aware of his larger role in the story. It was a decision made in the preparation that we would have a central character the story revolved around and that it would be a PC rather than an NPC. The campaign had been leading to this point for some time, even to the extent of players constantly accusing the player of being responsible before it was finally confirmed. And yet, when it was confirmed, he decided to opt out of the responsibility.

  • April 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    I actually think your players’ responses were at least partially realistic: “One player absolved himself with the psychic assumption that the hostages would have been killed regardless while another one simply countered that the family should have done more to help.” Don’t people do this in the real world? It’s a little similar to Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian in Vietnam in the Watchmen too.

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  • April 6, 2012 at 9:37 am

    It’s easy to see how this would get frustrating; not only does the PLAYER ignore the ramifications of the story, so do the CHARACTERS in the story. I’ve seen this off and on in our group too, where a player’s strongly held conviction or response has adverse effects on his PC or even the rest of the party.

    Even more frustrating is the feeling that any conversations that take place regarding these adverse effects will ultimately be ignored, whether in or out of the game. I’ve always been lucky to have a player or two who sees the potential harm on the horizon, and who tries to bring the rest of the players ‘back into the fold,’ so to speak.

    At some point, one may just have to decide that a player’s reaction (or lack of it) to events is now the reality of the story, and make the consequences come to them. Angry survivors of the obliterated world may pop up exact vengeance, or some universal legal entity might arrest the party for crimes against ‘humanity.’

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