Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Plot immunity - what is it good for?!

... absolutely nothing, as the song goes. Just saw the second season of Stranger Things and for all the good elements it had, the one thing that really threw me off had been the plot immunity the characters got. I thought that bullshit died a horrible death in the nineties. Or at least after the first seasons of Game of Thrones. Not so much, it seems. Well, it is a problem with role playing games, too, so I thought I'd talk about it a bit here on the blog.

Definition Time!

Google it and the best possible definition of Plot Immunity will be at TV Tropes. It is scarcely discussed in rpg circles and more often than not people seem to associate it with games that have a strong emphasis on narratives or storyteller games in general (or whatever you tell that one group of games people are hating about ... it's all bullshit, of course, but more on that later). So understanding is most of the time sketchy at best and you'd think this is a simple topic where you can just as easily decide which side you are on. You'd be wrong. It challenges how we perceive games in a profound way.

First of all, when talking Plot Immunity (or Plot Armor, if you will) in the context of role playing games, you need to know what you are playing. Plot Immunity is only a thing if another mode of play is intended with the set of rules you are using. That means, for Plot Immunity being a problem, it needs to contradict the rules as written (and that's NOT including DM advice how to play a game ... but more on that further below).

So there might be rpgs out there that have a specific arc (like 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, where characters are very likely to get turned into the enemy over time) or where they try to emulate a specific genre (like Castle Falkenstein, where characters don't necessarily die, but will more likely end up as the enemies hostages ... it's a pulp genre thing).

The short of it is, there are instances where the problem does not occur or where not utilizing it one way or another would have a negative impact on the game (if you neglect people in 44 to switch sides, the game is effectively killed and if you start killing off characters in Castle Falkenstein, you'll get a very serious shift in tone).

What we are talking here, is EXPECTATIONS. A good part of that would be proposed in a set of rules, the rest is among the DMs duties when setting up a game. If everyone at the table is clear about, for instance, the grade of mortality in the game, people shouldn't be too surprised if things happen as announced.

In that sense, Plot Immunity is the conflict between the expectations everyone in a specific game is having versus what you can get away with as a DM (suspension of disbelief, again). When those two collide, you'll end up with a disjointed game. To say the least.

That whole battle of the bastards had been a disappointment, btw. [source]

But it's not only that. There's something to be said about how "difficult" a game is perceived to be ...

Detour: What's a challenge, exactly?

There's another misconception. In rpg circles it's widely assumed that games need to be "balanced" to offer a "fair" challenge to players. Actually, there's a long ongoing feud between those who believe it's the way to go and those who say it is bogus. I'm not going to solve this problem here (if you are reading this and know my blog, you probably have a good grasp where I stand on those matters and somewhat agree, since you came back).

What I'm going to say, though, is that among the serious game designers, that is, those writing computer games (forgive the polemics, but that's the impression I get every time I check what designers of computer games say about those things ... they actually do studies and shit), well, those people actually came to the conclusion that the right amout of challenge is not buffing the enemy or scaling him to the skill the characters/players presumably have, but instead offering room for the player to grow in skill while he's facing the challenges a game offers (here is an interesting article about the subject).

In general, what makes a challenge is the thin line between avoiding tedious exercises and giving too difficult/hard tasks, while constantly keeping the player engaged. This includes having fall back mechanisms available for when a character fails. Hit points work like that to an extent, but another rule I like to use in my games, is giving the players the xp they've earned in the session their character died to invest in a new character.

However, although those concepts are all necessary, they are also offered on the system-side of things and don't really address the problem you'll get at the table. Because even if it where possible to include balancing factors into game mechanics that actually work (which I still doubt, tbh), it can't and will never take the player skill into account. Or that players can get better at what they are doing. Or that the rules are not the game but rather one aspect of what transpires at a table.

To make a game challenging means offering players a learning curve and enough tools to measure their own skill level. For that it needs constants, like Monster abilities, the damage ranges you can expect from certain weapons, reward-oriented behavior structures (a fighter gets xp for ..., a thief for ...) or tell-signs in the narrative (one of the more difficult tasks of a DM is offering hints about a potential danger in a way that forces thread-assessment by giving just the right amount of information without giving anything away).

That's what it's all about: encouraging players
to do something ... ill advised [source]
There is a more where that came from. But honestly, there's even more unsaid and unexplored about this subject. How is player skill measured? With computer games it's comparatively easy, you just check your score and your achievements. Online you could even go as far as comparing your skill with others. In rpgs, though? Nobody seems to care enough. For one, you'd need to have comparable base lines to even start an evaluation, which would actually force the industry to come up with standards (DM-badges, maybe ... anyway, it's a hot topic I'm brushing here, so I'm leaving that as an open question).

As a matter of fact, why is the question never asked how we accept so easily that in computer games the score is self evident as a measure of our skill in a game, while it in analogue role playing games is merely reduced to being a metric of how well a character does? Ponder on that for a while.

So ... Plot Immunity

Plot Immunity is when a (non-)player character cannot die because he's/she's important for the/a story, although dying is very much possible (the expectation/suspension thing mentioned above). We have all seen this, I'm sure. In Stranger Things [SLIGHT SPOILER], which is a mystery/horror setting, not one of the main character gets even harmed, while one of the newly introduced characters has to die in the most stupid way one could imagine [SLIGHT SPOILER ENDS HERE]. It's very bad writing and just as bad DMing if it happens at the table. Here is why as a result of the above established argument.

If we can agree on the concept of what a challenge is (that is, a process by which a player gets the opportunity to grow and get better at playing a specific game), then it is obvious that for that to actually happen, a player needs to be able to experiment with a game and assess his chances. This happens by observing success and failure and for that it needs constants. Plot Immunity, obviously, threatens those constants (if you get too much damage, you die ...) and creates false expectations/assertions about how a game works (if you don't die although you should have, you'll keep doing the same mistakes until suspension of disbelief kicks in and the fun of it goes away ... it becomes a tedious exercise).

Not only that, to play it that way will almost always have you ending up bullshit plot devices like deus ex machina events or all kinds of implausible coincident to make it all work. Nothing good will come from this (and here's a list).

It says it all on the card [source]
Furthermore, to expand on this, I'd like to address the argument that this is about telling a story. The thing is, in role playing games we mostly don't know what story we will end up with. The fun is to find that out. And if the story is "promising young hero with prospects of marrying the princess and spoiling the bad wizards ploy dies from a random encounter with goblins in the woods" than that is that particular story.

It needn't end there, too. Other characters may decide to bring his corpse to the princess and avenge the death by purging the goblin pest from the kingdom or looking for a new suitor for that lonely princess. Or the characters brother is trying to fill that dead brothers way too big shoes and there's still that wizard at large. It's about the story all those involved in the game experience, not necessary about one specific character. Or at least not to a point where Plot Immunity is deserved.

Same goes for non-player characters. You telling me the main villain botched and broke his neck falling down some stairs? So what? Embrace it! There is a power vacuum to be filled by someone else now and whatever that villain had planned, might still come to pass, maybe it gets worse, maybe it had been for the better (... not). However, the narrative goes on. No character in a story actually deserves that kind of protection.

A little nuance, please!

Such a thing as a "pointless death" does not exist in role playing games. Actually, if you try to make that argument for anything that transpires at your table, you either failed as a DM or as a player. End of story. There are, however, gray areas in between to explore. Just because it's possible to die in a game, doesn't mean one has to all the time. It's just not for the DM to decide when something like that is to happen or not, it's (and there's your nuance) that the system is used in a way that the possible outcome doesn't have to be death, although it very well might be.

Saving Throws work that way, so do hit points (with rules for dying or dismemberment or what have you), resurrection spells are a possibility (but for that you'd have to die) and the enemy could also always have a motive to keep you alive for some reason or another ... In other words, what player skill can't address should be covered by the system, by the DM and, to some degree (!), by the narrative. As long as you are just exploring where the journey is going instead of trying to get it somewhere specific, you should be okay.

I guess a word to simply cheating with the dice behind the screen to avoid character death. For one, players will catch up sooner or later (especially if they aren't hit often enough although they should have been ...) and when that happens, it hurts the game. However, done in moderation it can help adjusting previous mistakes or judgments a DM did.

I've seen this discussed occasionally and people tend to have strong opinions about the subject (never cheat! it hurts the players/the game/your mother!). As with all things, there is no one answer. There is one thing, though, and it's universally acknowledged to be true: the DM is the last arbiter of the rules. He is the buffer between the game and the players. So if a DM decides that 10d6 damage is too much in a certain case, he's well within his rights to change those results (within reason and considering the caveats above). My 2 cents.

Basically: just don't use it!

Or else ... Just kidding :) [source]
In summary you could say: find ways to avoid plot immunity at all costs. There are many, many legit solutions to protect characters, among them allowing players to learn the game and to get better at it. Just letting something happen, because someone wanted it to happen has nothing to do with stories or role playing, it's just low level impulse satisfaction. In the long run no one gains from behavior like that.

On the contrary, it will most likely hurt the precious pseudo-reasoning leading to decisions like that by diminishing the results once they come to pass. In other words, it doesn't feel like an achievement if getting there didn't really demand anything.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It's enough to chew on, I guess. That whole complex about computer game designers and publishers being way ahead of what happens in our hobby is something I'll never get tired of and will definitely come back to again. For now I hope I was able to show how little things (or the perception of them) can have a huge impact on our game.

I'm also not kidding when I'm saying that all those "balancing" tools that became so popular since 3e (and have existed before, see the Rules Cyclopedia, for instance) are barking at the wrong tree or summon the impression that this (1) is all you need and (2) that games aren't inherently balanced to begin with (which they should be to begin with, if you think about it). It begs the question what those games are lacking that they need those kind of tools to conceal it ... Again, for another post. In some form or another.

As always, comments and impressions are very welcome. How do you guys handle this in your games? What are you doing if you encounter this as players? Do you speak with the DM?


  1. in superhero genre it is normal
    there are lots of exceptions
    new character dying after earning respect activates a form of suffering for main characters that helps them be heroic

    1. "in superhero genre it is normal
      there are lots of exceptions" - it's true, Konsumterra, and I talk about those exceptions in the post.

      "new character dying after earning respect activates a form of suffering for main characters that helps them be heroic" - Good idea (could lead to players killing off their characters to give the others an edge, though ...)!

  2. In a D&D game having a "main villain" is a bad idea. If you end up with a world that requires a certain person to exist that's a red flag.

    Surprisingly, a world where there is no indispensable person feels better and leads to surprising and and fun results.

    That said, there should be some characters that you just can't defeat - but those characters don't need stats and shouldn't end up in combat.

    1. The way I see it, you can have it all, as long as you are willing to let it die. If you have characters or monsters that can't die because they fulfill a function for a "story", you are doing something wrong. Main Villains can be fun! Indispensable persons can be fun, too, but will most likely find a tragic end if they come too close to the characters. In my experience, anyway :)

  3. A storyteller needs to know what has happened before a story can be told about it. Plain and simple. So it really does chafe me chaps to hear people describe the GM as a storyteller. No. A GM is a narrator of events, something more akin to a radio sports announcer, and an adventure is something more like a sporting event than an impromptu theatrical production. And plot immunity? That's like having a crooked referee on the field. Even when your team is the one being given the free pass it just feels like cheating.

    Maybe this is the great divide between OSR and Indie games. I can understand the desire to play in a game that has a great story. It beats being enslaved by orcs and chopped into hamhocks. But that's like winning the world cup without having to worry about the other teams defeating you. It's a false victory.

    I'm not sure if letting characters die is going to remedy the matter. When people fall in love with a character its already too late. If hey are not sacrificing their lives to save the world then you - Storyteller - are a monster for letting them die. I sometimes think that this is why in my fiction I often find myself writing about lovable but obnoxious characters. You want to see what happens next but if it involves a bear trap then that's not the worse thing in the world :-)

    I think failure is a better option than death. Characters need to be allowed to fail, to have some orc knock victory from their fingertips. Maybe the problem is that in D&D, failure is death.

    So yeah, I totally agree. It was a good post. I enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks! Love the distinction between storyteller and sports commentator you make. Very true and I've actually never seen someone put it that way. I'm going old school drama (like, actual Goethe drama theory, not the contemporary bullshit ...) here and say it's all about catharsis. You like it, it dies, get used to it, that's life for ya ... Actually, going there and embracing it is an opportunity to make a story epic. Falling down a tree wouldn't be epic and there's a lesson in there to only test characters if a negative outcome is worth a story. As a matter of fact, to make things count one way or another is another hard duty a DM has to carry. It needs wit and tact and foresight ... Hard to pull off, but when done right, a player will never get the feeling he got short-handed. Dammit, that's another post right there: how to improvise unforgettable moments (well, that's too cheesy, but you get my drift). I will have to say more about this :)

  4. Great post as always.
    I don't allow plot immunity in my D&D games as it is stated above.
    With that said I do allow a bit of plot respect...I suppose. There are characters in my current D&D game who have been in the game for over a decade. I would hate to see one of them die because some readom result says their ship sank and they were in their armor at the time. (silly example I know) I am of the mind that a strong character who has been in a game for a long time deserves a heroic death if that's the way thier sotry is going to end. While I don't allow this to go as far as "plot immunity" I Do go as far as avoiding cheap fatal traps , and obvious death traps. I'm not running "tomb of horrors in my main campaign, even if the players thing they want that.
    However I make it clear, and have recently had to make it clear when the stakes are high. I roll in front of the players so I can't fudge anything making it that much more dangerous. When there is a serious threat to the party I leave a trail of breadcrumbs which will hopefully tip them off and make them take heed. Sometimes it goes so far as me crossing my fingers hoping they won't take certain courses of action that will lead them into nearly unsurvivable situations.
    AS for plot Immunity, no, any character can die. I just hope to make it memorable.

    1. Thanks, Mark! I get what you are saying there, plot respect and all that. I'm not sure I entirely agree, though. In that sense I tend to see it in the tradition of Tarantino or Shane Black (The Nice Guys is soooo damn funny that way). I mean, you are right, if a character has been around for long enough, than his death should be memorable. But Vincent Vega's death in Pulp Fiction was just that, although maybe not as heroic as the guy himself would have wanted it ... It's just like I wrote above, if you manage to make them like their characters, it's not unhealthy to have them experience loss or that things can end without feeling "right" or "finished". However, as I said above, it's a thin line and we might actually mean the same, just coming from different sides. I wouldn't always kill them, either but rather have them fight longer to stay alive (Lost Songs is wired that way, as you know ...). The answer to the question where exactly plot immunity starts, might vary drastically from game to game, is my impression :)

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