Why the Punitive Model of GMing Doesn’t Work

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about why it’s vital for GMs to get the consent and collaboration of their players. By far the most controversial point in that post was the idea that character death shouldn’t be forced, either by GM fiat or by random dice rolls. A number of readers commented that without character-death on the table, they had no means to prevent their PCs from performing irrational, suicidal, or otherwise disruptive actions in the game. If the players know their characters won’t die, what’s to stop them from trying to steal the King’s scepter in the middle of an audience?

I’ve written before on the topic of character death, but this week I wanted to address the broader idea of using in-character consequences to prevent disruptive player action. Death is just one of the possible consequences. Many GMs employ equipment loss, damage, wound penalties, and many other options for same effect. I call this the punitive model of GMing, because it treats in-character consequences as a punishment that will prevent further bad behavior. It doesn’t work, and here’s why.

Punishment Doesn’t Deter Disruptive Players…

In my years as a GM, I’ve dealt with my fair share of disruptive players, and I’ve learned that punishing their characters rarely works. That doesn’t mean I’ve never tried it.

Once I had a player who we’ll call Brenda.* They tried to pick King Goodguy’s pocket during the big victory celebration. This action made no sense, because Brenda’s party was allied with King Goodguy. It was also obviously impossible since every square of the audience chamber was covered in guards. I decided to teach Brenda a lesson by throwing their character in jail when they were caught. That would teach them to try something so nonsensical.

And yet, Brenda’s behavior didn’t stop. In jail, they brazenly stole everything, from the guard’s keys to the warden’s paperweight. When I finally let them out to rejoin the group, Brenda’s thievery continued. No matter how many consequences I threw their way, it never stopped. What happened?

The trick is that most of the time, players like Brenda aren’t disruptive because they think there won’t be any consequences. In my experience, the most common cause of disruptive behavior is boredom. If a player hasn’t had any cool content for a while, they’re likely to act out just for something to do. Dissatisfaction is another big motivator. If a player is unhappy with something that happened earlier, they might act disruptively as a form of payback. There’s also confusion to consider. Sometimes players don’t have the same idea of what’s happening as the GM, and so an action seems reasonable to them while you see it as impossible. Or the player might just enjoy being disruptive.

No matter the exact source of the disruptive behavior, punitive consequences will not address it. The behavior will return, perhaps after a short respite if you’re lucky. Trying to deal with disruptive-player behavior through in-game consequences is like playing whack a mole at an impossible difficulty.

…It Eggs Them On

My troubles with Brenda did not end after I tried to punish them. Their thievery got worse! Eventually, Brenda spent as much time on impossible heists as they did on adventuring. In one town, they tried to steal an entire item shop! Every consequence I gave only made them push further. What did I ever do to deserve this?

Remember, players usually have some reason of their own for their behavior. They think their behavior is justified. That’s why punitive consequences are not only ineffective in most cases but also they can make the player double down and be even more disruptive.

Put yourself in the shoes of such a player. This shouldn’t be hard – we’ve all been them at some point or another. You’ve had nothing to do for hours, so you decide to make your own entertainment by picking a fight with a cyborg Imperial Guard. For your trouble, the GM declares that you’ve now lost your favorite laser-sword. Are you going to take that lying down? Of course not, you’ll up the ante until the GM begs for mercy!

While it might not be as dramatic as all that, punitive consequences have a way of escalating until things are truly out of hand. Even killing a disruptive player’s character won’t stop the problem, because the player will be even madder when they roll up a new one. Eventually, you’ll either have to give in and let the PC act as they like or boot the player from your game. After the back and forth you’ve already had, this final option is likely to be an angry affair with hurt feelings all around, exactly the sort of thing to completely ruin a game.

Consequences Are Not Meant to Be a Punishment

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that in-character consequences don’t work as punishment, because they were never intended to be used that way. From Torchbearer’s conditions to D&D’s hit points to Legend of the Elements’ tags, in-character consequences are designed to make the game more immersive and thus more fun.

In narrative-heavy games like Mouse Guard or Fate, consequences are designed to put characters in a tough spot, thus making everything more dramatic. Everyone knows that a prose story is at its most exciting when the protagonist is broken down and unsure if they can go on, and it’s the same with roleplaying games. In more tactically oriented games like Pathfinder or Anima Prime, consequences exist to make the game challenging, so victory will mean something.

A PC who fails their Scout test and thus becomes Afraid, or fails a Reflex Save and takes full damage, hasn’t done anything wrong. Those consequences don’t exist to prevent players from trying to do things; they exist to keep the game interesting. That doesn’t mean players will always enjoy getting them,* but they are not intended to decrease anyone’s enjoyment, which is the primary purpose of punishment.

Players need to buy into the game’s system of rewards and consequences in order for a campaign to function. The more they can accept that consequences are not a bad thing, the more fun everyone can have. Using consequences as a punishment undermines this entire dynamic. It teaches players that they should avoid failure at all costs, because it means they, as players, have done something wrong.

There’s a Better Way to Prevent Disruptive Behavior

It’s understandable that so many GMs want a means of dealing with disruptive behavior at the table. Talking to a problem player between sessions can only accomplish so much; you need something to quash disruptions in the moment.

The best option in my experience is to simply say no. If a player says they want to do something so bizarre it would damage the game’s integrity, tell the player that they can’t. Depending on the situation, you can provide an in-character explanation or simply go by fiat. In the case of PC Brenda, I should’ve just said “sorry, the King has too many guards for you to possibly steal his shoes.”

Once you’ve said no, move on as quickly as you can. Don’t let it turn into an argument. This option is far less likely to escalate because you haven’t given the player any immediate cause for grievance. They might be annoyed that their brilliant action was not allowed, but they don’t have an in-character consequence to focus their annoyance on. Without a material wrong for the player to latch onto, your social authority as the GM should allow you to push on without much fuss. If a player is so argumentative that they escalate the situation anyway, your only option is to remove them from the game, but you’d have had to do that anyway. At least this way you’ve reduced the drama.

This is a tool that must be used carefully, because it’s easy to slide from shutting down disruptive actions into shutting down any action that’s a little inconvenient. You should only refuse actions that are clearly going to hinder other players’ fun. That includes disrupting an important victory ceremony that the party earned, but it would not extend to solving a puzzle more easily than you had planned.

After you’ve gotten past the initial incident, it’s critical that you do everything you can to prevent it from happening again. If a player is bored, give them more to do. If they’re upset, see if you can make amends. Shutting someone down at the table is a last resort, and you should do everything you can to make sure it isn’t necessary.

I said it a few weeks ago, and I’ll continue saying it: GMs are stewards of the group. We facilitate the players’ fun, which means we have a great deal of power. We must treat that power with respect and only use it for the good of the group. Punishing players with in-character consequences isn’t a good use of our authority. It doesn’t work, it builds resentment, and it can even make disruptive behavior worse.

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  1. d100mechanic

    It seems to me this is really the deeper problem that PCs and GMs can have of *not knowing when to meta-game* Instead of punishing a character in-game a GM needs to step out of the game and say, “hey man, what’s going on here?” Likewise the bored PC needs to step OOC and say that they’re bored, heck even volunteer to go get munchies so the party can move on to a more “interesting” situation/encounter. You’re right that fighting in-game will never solve an out-of-game problem.

  2. Dave P

    I think a lot here depends on the culture of the particular gaming group and the style of game you’re going for. In certain kinds of games, an in-game consequence can be something that’s acceptable. Usually, however, the buy-in has to do with not taking the game too seriously, generally the games where I’ve seen that work have been not particularly serious so the consequences didn’t feel like anything really negative.

    An example of this would be the game, Paranoia, where if a player admits to knowing any of the rules their character is punished for it (by death). However you can’t play that straight, since it wouldn’t be much fun. A beer-and-pretzels game likewise could have in-game consequences for out of game disruption, ‘Ed forgot to bring the beer, so now he has a lethal assassin chasing him’, see in a serious game that would be very inappropriate and counter-productive, but in a less serious game, that’s fun and funny.

    I just think that’s something to consider in this case.

  3. Joshua

    Absolutely! It makes no sense to use in game punishment as a deterrent for player behavior, for all the reasons listed. I think d100mechanic’s sollution is going to solve the problem most completely, but if things are in full swing and a break isn’t really possible then just saying “no” is the best you can do.

    The GM shouldn’t be Zeus throwing lightning bolts down at players that aren’t “following the rules” but the continuation of the narrative is mainly the GM’s responsibility so they need to step up and call out someone who is disrupting the game for everyone.

    RPGs are a collaborative storytelling experience so the GM and the players need to agree, to some extent, on the buy-in. If every one isn’t on the same page (or even in the same genre) then there are going to be clashes, and when the anvils start falling out of the clear blue sky then the GM will, rightly, be accused of abusing his power.

    There is still the issue of consequences though.

    Yes, they should NOT be a form of punishment for player behavior, but neither should they be ignored to allow a player to do whatever they want. In the “Brenda” scenario if the player steals something, and gets caught, then they need to go to jail. If they murder an innocent person there needs to be an investigation and, if they get caught, they need to be imprisoned and tried. Not as a punishment for the player but as a logical flow of events from cause to effect. I understand the example was semi-ridiculous, but the precedent is dangerous.

    The GM is not being mean-spirited when following the rules of the system/setting. As long as all parties understand that logical consequences will follow action (if that is how you want to play) then no one should be surprised or hurt when their character’s life of reckless behavior produces natural consequences. If you follow Order of the Stick, Belkar’s character during his Mark of Justice arc is a great example of this.

    But what do you do if all but one player wants deep RP encounters or vice versa? How do you keep the odd man out engaged so they don’t get bored and start eyeing the king’s slippers?

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