Games of late have given GMs a lot of new tools; rules that allow us to interfere with the narrative. Whether it’s a GM Intrusion or a Despair dice roll we now have a codified reason to declare the player’s dropped his sword, slipped in the mud, accidentally insulted the princess, and ran out of ammo. Lately, I have seen a lot of GM’s go mad with this power. Myself included.
Recently I was talking with the GM of a Worlds in Peril game I was in and we were talking about these new mechanics. He told me that he always tries to make sure to describe complications in a Heroic way. In the movies Captain America’s shield doesn’t accidentally fall off his back as he’s running for cover in an ‘oops’ kind of way; instead it gets blasted out of his hand by an enemy he didn’t notice, this causes him to dive after it, grab it and launch it at this new enemy.
This line of thinking open my eyes. Too many times I would hold up 2XP in a Cypher Game and describe how the character “misjudges the weight of the grenade she’s about to throw, it hits the door jam and bounces back landing a few feet away from another PC,” only for that player to instead Hand Me an XP denying the intrusion. I realize now that it wasn’t that the complication was bad per say, instead the problem the player had was with how I narrated it. I made their Heroic character seem inept, or unheroic. The Intrusion description did not fit with how the Player saw their character. Intrusions are great in the way that players can buy them off if they don’t like how it paints their character, but in other systems, the player isn’t so lucky, so be mindful.
If I instead described: “you grab the grenade, yank out the pin, wind up, and as you are in the processes of throwing it down the hallway a sudden hail of blaster fire erupts from the far end of the hall, knocking the grenade from your hand, you watch in horror as it hits the ground and rolls next to Roselyn,” the odds are better the player will take that intrusion. The PC wasn’t made to look like a fool, instead, something unexpected happened and caused the same result.
When you are describing the complication that is about the befall your player, make sure you take the character in mind. Don’t have the sneaky thief accidentally knock over a metal candlestick, instead have a cat unexpectedly round the corner and hiss at the intruder. Same result but the catalyst doesn’t make the PC look bad.
There are of course exceptions. The generally pacifistic hacker who doesn’t use guns is, of course, going to have the safety on the first time they go to fire the strange new weapon they are handed and odds are they don’t know where the safety is to turn it off. That’s a humous beat that fits the character, and can lead to some great inter-party exchanges. That same Hacker however isn’t going to fail to get the computer up and running because he forgot what he changed the password to.
So in closing, I will say: When you as a GM are interfering with the narrative of the game, know your players and make sure your descriptions aren’t at odds with how they see their characters. Do that too many times and you’ll have disgruntled players. Instead, if you can, make them seem more heroic.