How to punish a character and make the player love it
Many times, as a GM we tend to feel that we are there to simply keep score. We sit back and respond to the players and everything becomes reactive to them. The world literally revolves around them. Now, I’m not saying that we should abandon the concept of entertaining our players. Instead, I advocate enjoying yourself as a GM and making the world a little less reactive and more proactive. But, a proactive world is one where bad things may happen to the players. It’s a world where the players may have to run from a conflict. Where they may simply fail. It’s a world where a character may be put in an uncomfortable position.
All conflict is built upon overcoming a bad situation. Whether that situation is social, ethical or physical it is such that when the character beats it, they are stronger because of it. In literature, film and the stage, characters are hurt, they languish in pain and eventually, most of them overcome their conflict.
Take Desperado, I happen to love that film because it was one of the first stylish films that I can remember watching. That isn’t why I bring it up now. In Desperado, the main character is attempting to find and get revenge upon “Bucho”, the man behind the man that killed his beloved and took away his ability to play guitar properly. In his search for Bucho, he gets shot a couple times and passes out. Making it so that he has to be helped by Selma Hyack. He gets stabbed a bunch of times and nearly dies then. Finally, he discovers that Bucho is his brother and must face the dilemma of killing his brother or never getting revenge. This is a lot of pain for our leading character. Yet without all the pain, his victory would be less sweet.
Start slow and build up
First, it is important to start slowly. Conflict should build over time and get gradually more intense until it reaches a peak. This may be as simple as having to figure out where to sleep for the night to toppling a corrupt government. No matter what, it is integral that the challenge be slow to build. It’s very easy for our players to think of the world as simply a playground of statistics and loot. In order to break through that, we must slowly chip away at their emotional armor. This isn’t saying that we should railroad our characters into feeling things. Instead, what I’m saying is that we should develop the world and create situations where our characters can build up distress.
Don’t throw the corrupt government in their face. Have them live within the corrupt regime. Have them experience it as a background thing. Have them watch bad things happen to strangers and friends. Eventually, the characters will either take action on their own or they will attempt to resist. Either action means that the characters are now reacting to the world rather than the other way around. In order to make the character feel it, you have to hurt them. They have to feel the pain of living within the corrupt regime and be unable to respond to it directly. This is where world creation becomes important. The character must not be able to confront the problem right away. Maybe the seats of government are filled with wards or the head of state has multiple look-a-likes. Either way, they can’t easily solve the issue.
Allow an out as you hurt the character
Secondly, always allow the player a way to get out. Going back to Desperado, our hero could always leave town and give up his quest for revenge. Eventually, he wants to but, by then he is too invested in the well being of it’s people to just walk away. In our format, we must allow the player to “tap out” so to speak. They could make the decision to walk away from the conflict and simply ignore it all.
In the example of the corrupt government, the character could always sneak their way out of the reach of the government. They could always just go on ignoring the excesses of the government as they go about their business. They could even join in on the corrupt government. As GM you don’t get to choose what they do. What you can do is spark situations and allow the player to respond. No one likes to be forced all the time. Not only does that remove all hope from the player, it does something even worse. It bores them and makes them not care anymore.
Bring the pain but avoid punishing the player
The player is not the character and vice-versa. That means that while, as GM, you shouldn’t avoid punishing the character for their misdeeds or throwing some pain their way; you should never punish the player. They’re playing a game and giving you their time. Respect them and they will respect you. Too many stories are told of evil GMs that think that their job is to attack the players and make them “lose.” This couldn’t be further from the case. In reality, you are crafting a group experience with your players. You come together to craft a world. As such, it is up to you to play referee as well as “the world” for your players.
celebrate successes, celebrate failures
Lastly, there is never a need to dwell on failure. Not in life and not as a GM. Game play should be fun, it should be enjoyable and most of all treat it like a celebration. When your characters succeed at things, make them feel amazing. When they fail at things, they should still feel pretty darn good. So the evil overlord beat them down and left them for dead. The fact that he was injured at all means that he can be beaten. He isn’t nearly as immortal as he claims to be or he wouldn’t have run away. His funding may be able to be cut off. You may have “lost a battle but, won the war.” Your players are giving you their time and they have faith that you’ll provide them with an experience worth having. That means that failure is just as much part of the equation as success. So let your characters fail.