First a disclaimer of sorts. There are many kinds of RP, the one I am focused on here is open-world MMO rp as found on for example gw2, swtor, wow, eso etc. How applicable this discussion is to other forms of RP has not been considered at all. Also realize that while I may sound like a complete know-it-all here this is not an attempt at laying down the law, but rather just sharing my view on it all, based on a combination of my own experiences, the experiences of friends of mine, preferences of mine and a bit of common sense. Feel free to disagree, and if you do you are more than welcome to post a comment to let me see it and respond!
This was originally meant to be a blog post about the relationship between criminal and law enforcement RP. After having written a page or two on that topic I realized however that before even venturing into that territory there is something else that should be looked at.
That little thing called… consequences.
It’s a word frequently tossed around by RPers, you’ve probably heard it too. Hands everyone who has ever in frustration yelled ( or… typed angrily ) “IC actions have IC consequences!” Everyone knows this already, don’t they? Then why is it still an issue that keeps coming back and causing problems?
First thing’s first. What are these mysterious consequences people keep talking about? I would guess that you know what the word itself means, if not then have a look at the definition here. There are other uses for the word as well but this is the one relevant to the RP discussion; because of A, B happens.
In the world of roleplay, this might for example be that because Aaron the thief stole a loaf of bread the merchant reports him for theft, and thus Aaron gets in trouble with the law. Simple consequences, right?
This is a recurring issue that anyone involved in law enforcement RP especially will have traumatic memories surrounding, I am sure. The classic example of dodging consequences is the criminal who never gets caught, even when he actually is caught. It usually goes something like this:
Character A, let’s call her Gemma, gets caught by the long arm of the law after having been found out as a murderer. Once caught, the logical consequence is that Gemma gets put in jail for a long, long while. She was after all found out as a murderer and caught. But here, Gemma’s player doesn’t want that. She wants Gemma to be free, so that she can keep roleplaying her! Gemma’s player thus tells the other players no, sorry but I don’t want to accept jailtime as a consequence, I want her released. And thus, since the player has the ultimate right to decide what happens to his/her character, the law enforcers have no choice but to let Gemma go. And there you have it, Gemma’s player has just done some standard consequence dodging.
It happens a lot in criminal/law enforcement RP. Really, a lot. You have characters mysteriously being let out of jail a few days after committing serious crime, for no IC reason whatsoever. You have characters who inexplicably manage to escape from prison against overwhelming odds. Or characters who just decide to not acknowledge getting caught in the first place and carrying on as if nothing happened. No surprise it drives law enforcement players insane, frustrates victims and puts witnesses at risk (“What do you mean you let him go?! He’ll kill me!“) but unlike the Real World, IC law enforcement have no actual way of forcing legal consequences onto a character.
The example above is from the crime/punishment field, but of course consequence dodging is just as common in other contexts. Crime/punishment is just the most obvious example, and then we have this…
Consequences vs Punishment
There is an interesting misconception of the “IC actions lead to IC consequences” concept that continually comes back to cause trouble. It might stem from the fact that the word consequences also is used in reference to punishment, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that in most fictional stories the bad guy is the one to bite the dust in the end. Either way, it has clearly nestled its way into RP – the idea that in the end, the good guys will win and the bad guys will loose. The concept of “IC actions lead to IC consequences” becomes instead “IC crime leads to IC punishment”.
What is wrong with that then? If a character commits a crime, should he then not be punished for it? No. While we might want to think that in the end the good guys always win, that is not the case. There isn’t even a reason to think the “criminals” are the bad guys, good and bad are subjective and will depend on your point of view anyway.
As a result of this misconception, that IC criminals in the end should get caught, you end up with players thinking themselves entitled to go victorious from IC conflicts for the sole reason that they are the good guys. You end up with players using unfair methods to make it so without even realizing it. You end up with law enforcement players who chase criminals not because it furthers the roleplay, but because they don’t only think it an IC duty to get the criminals caught, but also an OOC one.
The consequence of crime might not always be the criminal getting caught.
Tied to this issue is the notion that consequences would be connected with what is fair. Take the following scene as an example.
Gemma kills John and frames Sandra for the murder. The police fall for it and arrest Sandra. Sandra’s player refuses to accept IC punishment because it’s not fair – her character was in fact innocent and shouldn’t be punished for a crime she didn’t commit.
First let’s of course acknowledge that yes, Sandra’s player has every right to refuse punishment, it’s her character and her choice, yada yada. But beyond that, what is really right here? You should accept consequences for your actions yes, but should you accept consequences for someone else’s actions? If that is your line of thinking – as common as it may be – you are falling for the misconception that consequences = punishment, and indeed that consequences are/should be fair. In reality, they are not. Why did Sandra get framed for the murder in the first place? That in turn is the consequence of something. It might be the consequence of belittling Gemma earlier on, or the consequence of being naive. Or it might even be the consequence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Consequences are not necessarily fair.
Justified consequence dodging
Is there such a thing? Many would say yes. There are a number of reasons why one might want to dodge certain consequences, and some of them are very reasonable.
- If the logical consequence of a situation is for a character to die, it may cause the player actual emotional pain. It hurts to lose a beloved character, it really does.
- If the logical consequence of a situation is for a character to get locked up for an extended period, that means that the player won’t actually be able to roleplay that character for that long a time. Is it fair to try to hinder players from carrying on having fun? They might not enjoy playing any other character!
- Logical consequences of a certain action may be wildly different from the story planned by the player. We wouldn’t accept the super villain of a movie to get caught already in the first scene, would we? Isn’t it best to tweak the consequences to create a better story?
At the core of them all lies the fact that RP is just a form of gaming, and as such it is meant to be enjoyable for those who take part. If a player does not find it enjoyable to accept certain consequences, why should they?
There is a point, a very good point, to this. The point of RP is ultimately to enjoy ourselves after all. So perhaps a bit of consequence dodging isn’t so bad? Well technically no. But then there is this…
Consequences don’t disappear
This is what makes consequence dodging seriously complicated: unless the RP is within a limited and controlled environment consequences don’t go away just because you dodge them. They just get pushed on to the next person.
What do I mean by that? Well, here’s a simple example:
Anna is about to tell the police that Gemma killed someone. To stop this, Gemma orchestrates a murder, trying to get rid of Anna before she can testify. It would have worked too, but Anna’s player doesn’t want to accept it and thus dodges the attack. She goes on to testify against Gemma, and Gemma gets lifetime in jail for murder.
Simplistic example. Anna dodged the consequence coming her way (getting killed for ratting someone out) and instead the consequence landed on Gemma, who ended up sentenced to prison for the rest of her life.
But hold on, nothing says Gemma has to accept the punishment either! Her player can dodge it to, right?
Inexplicably, Gemma gets released after two days despite being convicted for murder. Someone must have thought a fine would be enough punishment. Two weeks later, Gemma gets in a bar brawl and ends up shivving a guy. The guy doesn’t die but gets terribly injured and has to spend weeks at the hospital. And even after that the poor guy may be too scared to go out drinking again!
And so Gemma dodged the consequences. It instead crashed down on the poor bloke who got shivved in the bar. Oh yes, he can dodge the consequences too! And pass it on to the next person. Perhaps it’s Gemma’s friend who will suffer in the end, even though she was innocent? Or perhaps it’ll go full circle and come back to Anna? There is not telling. But one thing is clear: Consequences. Don’t. Disappear. They will crash down like a ton of bricks on the first innocent player who doesn’t jump out of the way.
And that is bad how?
It’s up to each and every one if they want to accept things after all, so why should we care?
We should care because it leads us to situations where the enjoyment of one comes at the expense of others. Think of only your own enjoyment, and you will hurt those around you. And even if you honestly don’t care for their well being, consider the fact that the more people you hurt, the fewer will want to be around you. Do it enough, and you won’t have RP to enjoy any more, because people won’t actually play with you.
So, it’s a balancing act. Under some circumstances consequence dodging may be justified. But in most cases it probably isn’t, all things considered.
How do you do then, if you want action packed RP full of danger without risking the IC consequences? My advice would be to steer away from open world RP and head for GMed territory. In a closed setting, with a group of players who agree, anything can be done. There, you can have the eternal battle between good and evil without anyone ever getting hurt. There you can skip that jail sentence without anyone actually suffering from it. Because there, you have complete control. In an open MMO setting you don’t have that. No one has full control, and even if you don’t wish it, your actions will have consequences. If not for your own characters, then for others.
An exercise in consequence spotting. Take the following scene, spotted on an entirely normal evening in a tavern somewhere in the fictional world of Tyria… What might the consequences be for those involved? Leave a comment with your suggestion! (Click to make the image larger. Slightly NSFW, slightly!)