Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Problem With Assassination in Role Playing Games

This is mirrored from a discussion the GH forums, but I thought I'd throw it up here as well. The discussion is specific to the way Band of Bastards works, but it applies to any game with moderate-to-high potential lethality.
As I've been hammering out the rules for 'Bastards, a topic has been eating me for a while. Since Higgins and I were unable to come up with a good solution, I thought I would offer it up for discussion here.

We are going to define the word assassination in this discussion to mean "a situation in which the target is dead without a meaningful chance to prevent or react to it." The primary examples to be discussed are sniper shots and poison.

Both of these things are extremely effective in killing people. That is why they exist. It's realistic and good simulation that they should kill people pretty effortlessly when they happen, and it's fitting that the rules should encourage players to make use of them (if it is the sort of thing their character would do). After all, getting in a fair fight is usually a very poor tactic utilized by the foolish, idealistic, or desperate.

The problem is that this blade that should cut both ways, but in practice doesn't. Mechanically speaking, there's nothing stopping me as a GM from rolling some dice and announcing "Your conversation is cut short when the window shatters. Blood and brains fly out the back of your skull and splatter the wall behind you. A half-second later, your friends hear the report of a high-caliber rifle some distance away." The rules support it just like they do if it were a player character doing the same to an NPC.

The problem is that any GM who would actually do that out of the blue is ..well.. probably an asshole. For a game like 'Bastards to work, you have to have some kind of trust in your GM and killing a PC off without any meaningful chance to prevent it is a gross abuse of that trust. Poison is the same way. An option is always some kind of perception test to spot the sniper or detect the poison first, but even that seems grossly unfair when the fail-state of the test is "you die."

Thus in practice, this becomes an extremely strong tool for the PCs to use, but one that they are essentially plot-armored from ever receiving. At best, the GM is going to have to either intentionally miss the first shot, or an NPC winds up eating a bullet to alert the players to the danger.

In our discussion, Higgins did point out that we are primarily simulating fiction - not reality - and that protagonists very rarely die suddenly and without warning from assassination attempts (George R. R. Martin notwithstanding). This is a good point, but the counterpoint I offered was that the protagonists in fiction aren't aware of their own plot-armor. By contrast, players can generally trust that their GM isn't just going to kill them without a warning or a chance to prevent it - which has a strong tendency to translate into player-characters operating under the same assumption.

So the question we are forced to grapple with is "how does one balance assassination as a useful and effective tool for the PCs without making it so effective that it can never be used against them?"
Following this up with some broader-applicability to other games - I find this isn't an issue in OSR games specifically, or D&D games in general. After first the first couple levels, you generally have enough HP that a single crossbow bolt to the face isn't going to kill you, and even then in most D&D games death isn't permanent. Poisons lose a lot of their efficacy, because you can still try to make saves for them. In general, dungeon-crawling also usually means the characters are always on the lookout for something trying to kill them anyway.