Posted by on Feb 17, 2012 in Design, RPGs | 10 Comments

This post has been sitting unfinished in the drafts folder for years, waiting for a breakthrough to finish it. You are that breakthrough.

You know that overused moment in film and television where someone levels a gun on someone else and issues an ultimatum? “Do what I say or I pull the trigger,” she says. “Talk or die,” goes the gunman. That sort of thing?

Does that decision arise in your roleplaying-game play? How about the variation where two serious people brandishing guns face off at gunpoint? How does your campaign (not necessarily your game mechanics) handle that?

This is fun stuff. It’s about designing a situation and not an outcome. It’s a pared down, high-stakes decision point. Would your character rather die than do this thing?

One important feature of this situation is clear: this is not a part of combat. This may be a statement, by the players or their characters, that they want to resolve the situation, that they want the stakes to be high (or are at least willing to accept high stakes), and that they want a single dramatic choice to reign, rather than a chaotic battle.

It is a pretty clear decision point, and potentially a classic impasse. One participant says “Do X or die” and the other says “Do Y or die.” It’s a dilemma.

Except, of course, the actual circumstance is often much more complicated, and that complication is essential to making the decision interesting. An actual “Do X or die” situation is simple and tense, but can be terribly un-fun—the target’s decision may hardly be decision at all. Is “take this forced action or stop playing” a good dramatic choice? No. So, “Do X or die” is actually “Do X or accept a risk of death,” which is more interesting, but also muddier, more complicated, and less predictable.

That muddy, complicated, unpredictable option might be more interesting, but those factors may also make it less desirable for the gunman, who must find the option more interesting than (and at least as easy to understand as) regular combat, or else the gunman’s player is unlikely to exercise that option.

Have you ever seen this next thing happen? A player says “I’ll go for his gun!” and then, when confronted with the grappling rules, says “Nevermind, I’ll just cooperate.” I have.

The reasons for beginning a standoff, as a player, must include simplicity, I think. Standoffs are staples of thrillers because they are bold, clear dramatizations. One or more characters demand, and one or more characters make defining choices. Simple, effective. If the setup and outcomes of this act are complex in gameplay terms, they are unlikely to be attempted much, if at all. That’s good if you’re trying to avoid them, but less good if you want your campaign to include these moments. (Whether you just like them or you’re trying to include them are touchstones of the genre or for some other reason is, for now, a separate issue.)

When I’ve done this, it’s with the understanding that a level gunshot to the head is not combat. Such a weapon is unlikely to deal 1d8+Dex damage, or whatever, and is more likely to propel the plot forward at muzzle velocity. Either someone ends up dead, and we deal with the consequences, or someone ends up an unlikely survivor (perhaps in a bloody chop-shop or underground hospital or remote monastic sanctuary) and the story is loaded up with revised or renewed stakes and motives.

A couple of other particular, iconic, and dramatic outcomes spring to mind:

  • One participant relents and puts down his gun, as instructed. On film, almost never does the remaining gunman then fire anyway. (If he did, he’s a villain.) This is practically a rule—but should it actually be a rule in play? This is, essentially, a decision to forgo combat, at least for now.
  • Both participants choose to abandon the standoff and enter combat as usual. (See Face/Off: “Plan B. Let’s just kill each other.”) This may be an attempt to settle things through dialogue followed by a revelation that neither side is willing to die, right then, to settle things. So we settle it not just with dice but with a sequence of tactical decisions and randomization, possibly with escape hatches and lots of new inputs to consider.
  • Everyone shoots, (almost?) everyone dies. Call this the Reservoir Dogs outcome.

How have you handled it? What game has mechanics for this that you’ve appreciated, hacked, or paid homage to?


  1. Kit
    February 17, 2012

    I totally had a moment in a game once where, at the climax of the heist, as my collaborator had just finished removing the valuable painting from the frame, I put the screwdriver that I’d used to remove the vitrine to their head, and demanded the painting all for myself.

    The collaborator was an NPC, though, so all the “stop playing” parts weren’t there. It was still a pretty clear “um, ack, OK” choice, though. The Gm was really into it, too—I was a demon of factionalism, but I had lulled her into forgetting that as I cooperated with her NPC.

    But it was completely absent mechanics. It was driven entirely by narrative logic. The screwdriver, by combat rules, wouldn’t have done much. If the NPC had rolled willpower, or whatever, it probably would have panned out differently. But we had to engage the trope, and so we ignored the mechanics.

  2. Jeremy Kostiew
    February 17, 2012

    In an early game of White Wolf’s Exalted, when I was still very new to running my own game, a player and an NPC had a stand off that I was ill prepared to deal with. It ended with frustration on all sides, and left such a bad taste in my mouth that the next game was very gunshy.

    Your examples are excellent. Any of those would’ve been better than the tremendous horrorshow we struggled through those many years ago.

    These days I’m a little more prepared for player unpredictability. And I think, to a degree, so are modern games. FATE in particular (my current gaming soapbox) is wonderfully capable of taking care of these situations with elegance. Consequential conflicts and sticky Aspects are wonderful things to influence a dramatic moment with light and flavorful crunch.

  3. J. Walton
    February 20, 2012

    This happens in Dogs in the Vineyard all the time, as a normal part of the conflict resolution rules, and things seamlessly keep on rolling, for the most part.

    Like, you’re “just talking” for a bit and then somebody escalates to and pulls a gun on somebody else. The Dogs rules say that, essentially, in order to Raise on somebody, you have to do something they can’t ignore, and pointing your gun while giving an ultimatum is a great way to do that.

    Often times too, the person refuses and gets shot. Because, in Dogs, you only determine the mechanical consequences of the conflict after it’s over (when you roll for Fallout), during the conflict itself you just focus on fictional consequences. No no need to worry about damage or whatever. Now, someone’s shot, and you keep playing from there until the conflict is over. This means that a bunch of people can end up shot, so it’s not like ultimatum + gun is really the end of the road, just an escalatory step in the events of the fiction. That’s what gives it some of its Reservoir Dogs-esque feel.

    The same kind of thing happens in The Mountain Witch too, but with katanas, so it’s a bit different. Typically it’s an ultimatum, followed by some swordplay in which someone is injured or killed. Most often this is PVP, but it can happen with some monsters too, or the mountain witch himself.

    I’ve seen it happen in Apocalypse World too. And sometimes people refuse and get shot. Sometimes this is harm, as per the harm rules, and sometimes they’re just dead, as per the “look through crosshairs” guidelines for GMing.

    Interestingly, all of these games have space for these things to happen PVP, which is pretty cool. Often, in Dogs, it’s one of the PCs trying to prevent another PC from killing somone (“Don’t you do it!”). In the Mountain Witch it comes from the mutually incompatible PC goals that derive from the Dark Fates. In Apocalypse World it comes from incompatible PC desires, desperation and scarcity, and the GM instructions to “create PC-NPC-PC triangles” and otherwise nurse some degree of antagonism between the PCs.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    February 20, 2012

    Great examples, everyone.

    Spycraft 2.0 has a mechanism for this situation, too, as I recall—in which characters have a certain amount of time to sweat and make their decisions before someone (determined by Will save, maybe? Where is my copy of Spycraft 2.0?) buckles. It interacts with initiative in a way, I think, and makes the locked-at-gunpoint situation a thing that players can invoke as an action (like a move) to trigger that dramatic moment.

    One thing I’ve been hoping that this discussion would lead to, though, is the question of why we do this when we do it and whether we use a single mechanism to resolve it or not.

    TV and film use this device a lot; do you feel it comes up in your RPG play a lot? Too much? Not enough?

  5. Will Hindmarch
    February 20, 2012

    For example, can you point a gun at the head of a character with full Health or hit points and circumvent all their combat abilities by invoking this situation in play? Or do you have to get someone into some kind of special position via social dynamics or non-combat moves to make this happen? It varies by game, I’m sure, but I’d love to hear some tales.

  6. John Harper
    February 21, 2012

    Somewhere along the line this concept was dubbed “fictional positioning” (by Eero Tuovinen, maybe?) and I’ve always liked that term.

    Basically, “how do we come to consensus about the distribution of fictional stuff in the fictional spaces we’re imagining together?” This is a deep and thorny issue, all told, and many tens of thousands of words have been spilled over it on the various forums and blogs. Eero is having a great conversation about it right now on Story Games, in fact. (Read that whole thread, it’s wonderful.)

    One key thing for my own experience (which Eero also talks about), is how much easier it all is when every player is fully invested in getting the fictional space right (as opposed to getting it worked out in their favor).

    Oh, the many bitter arguments we had playing Gamma World in 1984 about how my guy was totally up on the rock the whole time nuh uh he was over by the car blah blah blah. Everyone jockeying for advantage, with a healthy dose of alpha-male dominance ritual thrown in on top. Yeesh.

    Later, I discovered different games that had tools to plainly resolve that kind of thing, and handle fictional positioning in an overt mechanical way, and that was a huge relief. I played games like that almost exclusively for a long time, and sneered at those “old games” like Basic D&D (ha!) that I thought were so vague and hand-wavey on the subject.

    Even later, I learned that I had been an ignorant young lad, and utterly failed to understand the true roles, responsibilities, and agenda of the players and GM in those earlier games. And, having finally grokked it, how rich and amazing the fictional positioning tools of those games truly are — especially Basic D&D. It was like learning French and then going back to read L’Étranger and finally understanding what all the fuss was about.

    So. Um, yeah! Gun-to-head showdowns are cool.

  7. Will Hindmarch
    February 22, 2012

    The depth and the thorns are one reason why I try to tackle this issue via specific situations, personally. Rather than broach the thousands of words on “fictional positioning,” I was curious to explore specific examples of specific situations in specific instances of play. It’s more manageable, I hope.

    Even that seems difficult. People seem to prefer to explode the issue into theory and full-scale practices or to say, simply, “Apocalypse World handles this well,” without explaining what that means out of the gate.

    I continue to muse.

  8. Josh W
    March 9, 2012

    For me this is a part of combat, how often do you actually want to kill someone? You generally want to just get them out of the way/stop them doing something etc.

    So I’ve been trying to build games focusing the combat on incapacitation, standoffs, showing off and rough and tumble, where combat fades out all the time, depending on the investment of the characters involved.

    It’s all got so integrated and tangled up together in my head I’m a little shy of revealing it until I reveal it all, which will have to wait for more playtesting, but part of how I solve this problem is by automatically allowing anyone to pull their blows.

    Aiming a gun at someone is basically an attack/damage roll, but you can choose to hold it. If you do, releasing it is a second but very fast action. The way this interplays with conversation allows people to set themselves up in situations where obviously dangerous attacks are cued up and ready to go, and they then play brinkmanship/manoeuvre closer/talk people down based on that situation.

    This covers hostage situations, “my finger is on the button” and other stuff too.

  9. Will Hindmarch
    March 9, 2012

    Right on, Josh. I’ve done the thing in a few games where a player rolls their damage (or their attack, when that coincides with damage, like in nWoD) but keeps it hidden from the target. If the target refuses to cooperate, the one with the gun can reveal and thereby deal their damage. This is a classic poker-style call and has worked great in games where the damage from a single firearm blast is scary.

    Likewise, I let players pull their punches in all sorts of games—depending on the lethal intent I see and what I want to reinforce—just by asking, “Is he dead?” (I find, as I get older, I get more skittish about the gratuitous killing of supporting characters all over the place.) This allows for the situation where a damage roll is too high (or is an unwanted critical, or whatever) and NPCs end up dead by accident (say the standing rule was something like “when damage = Con or greater drops the character, they die”) which is a hallmark of some genres.

    I have an RPG on my workbench where the player and the PC have differing reasons to answer that question, “is he dead?”, in different ways, so the player-as-writer may want to say “yes” and the player-as-character may want to say “no.” So you know I dig the approach. Good luck with your game! Ping us here when it’s done.

  10. Rickard
    March 29, 2012

    Two examples:

    The GM: “The other guy draws his gun.”
    * initiative check. The player wins. *
    * combat roll. The PC kills the other guy. *
    The player: “I put my gun to his forehead and says: Drop it, creep … or you die.”

    * combat rolls. Both combatants miss. *
    The GM: “You stand there with your guns pointed at each other.”


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