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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?