I assume most people interested in RPGs have probably played a video game RPG at one point or another. During this time you might have come across some off occurrences. Things like locks that cannot be picked despite having lock picking and NPCs that cannot be killed. At least in my experience the former situation is usually relayed by the game in obvious terms. The latter, not so much. Really the only way to find out if an NPC is immortal is to attack them and savagely cut them to ribbons. If they are immortal they might drop to a knee and breathe heavily for a minute as though they just completed a moderately intense run. They will then stand up no worse the wear. But your avatar is, because modern games have fun reactive temperament they program for NPCs. So now the immortal NPC is angry at you and with all his friends will attempt to murder you if you come within their line of sight… FOREVER. Great, you incurred the ire of an NPC you cannot kill. Eventually those dagger stabs will kill your epic champion PC; eventually. And until then you’ll be damned if the shopkeeper will stop frothing at the mouth with blood lust long enough to process your transaction.
You expect some of this chicanery from video games. They have to be programmed for all events to happen. If an NPC is going to be and important link in the game’s narrative you can’t have some level one PC break into their house in the night and murder them, unaware the later plot hinges on that NPC you know… being alive and stuff. It’s a necessary evil. The super-locked door is a bit more irksome when lock picking is a thing in games. There are some coy ways of sidestepping the issue. The door is sealed in some other way, barred from the other side, stuck in a way that would require two people to open, etc. The problem is it rips the player out of the immersion. If the PC’s skills at thievery are so high people commonly refer to him as the ‘Tumbler Whisperer’ this door with the same lock on it as every other door being somehow beyond your bountiful knowledge of locking mechanisms seems well, stupid.
Now if you play table top RPGs these sort of things seem like a non-issue. Some of it is because a human behind the screen running the game can handle things not going according to plan. The other bit is group dynamics and the lack of anonymity. In video games people there is a GTA syndrome. By that I mean, without having to adhere to any morals and their consequences or the disapproval of peers, players are free to exert their will and desire in its entirety. Do some of those same, socioopathic Id-driven behaviors in a table top game and you are bound to catch a few looks across the table at the least.
Still you would be surprised how much of this still leaks into table top RPGs. Have you ever played a JRPG? If you have you are probably no stranger to the no-win battle. This is an event that usually occurs early in a game where the protagonist and allies are dragged into a battle with a clearly superior foe. The battle typically lasts one to two exchanges and ends with the protagonist being shown in-game just how outclassed he is by the bad guy. Why this is a thing is beyond me, it’s a waste of time and my input as a player is irrelevant as the conclusion has been clearly scripted. Just show me a cut scene of the protagonist getting slapped with the back of a hand and trying not to cry. The exercise itself is silly but I find it only more aggravating later when fighting the bad guy, this time with the ability to actually defeat him. All I can think of is my protagonist’s journey, the hundreds of animals, monsters, and people he’s ruthlessly murdered as sacks of XP to get to this point. The Big Bad Evil Guy has instead of doing anything productive, spent the last 100 in-game hours playing Candy Crush on Facebook.
I have actually had the displeasure of being a player in the aforementioned scenario in a table top session. The frustration and futility of rolling attacks and damage knowing it was meaningless because the encounter starting with the first enemy action was clearly designed for party to be run over roughshod. What was the point? It is possible to have fulfilling combat encounters where the PCs cannot win. But the goal of the scene needs to be established. Suffering a technical TPK is not an acceptable goal. Did I have fun, no. I actually had anti-fun, the opposite of fun, which if you were wondering is not boredom. Did I gain more insight by combat than I would have by a simple narration of the events, no. It wasted time for a scene that ended in trite fade-to-black fashion of everyone in the party passing out.
An extreme example perhaps. What about NPCs working with the party. We have all encountered helper NPCs serving as guides and allies. Or even in the worst cases to be the moral compass of the group. When the occasion happens the helper does not suddenly but inevitably betray the party at a crucial moment they come off strange. When running a game behind the screen you may know the death of the guide NPC will leave the party lost. So you avoid it, make sure he doesn’t get attacked as often or mitigate his damage so he’s still around. You certainly can’t trust that rabid pack of wolves masquerading as heroes to protect the NPC’s well being. They will fall on a weak link like a stuffed turkey. Instead we put water wings on the NPCs because they’re integral to the story. An invisible, yet perceivable, safety net to make sure nothing too bad happens to the NPC and wrecks the whole progression of the story.
When we build worlds we write stories. We write stories about characters and plots before and beyond the scope of the actual game we will run. By the virtue of what makes the world special, us breathing creative life into it, we also hinder it. To us these worlds are precarious matchstick structures. A slight bump by a clumsy, idiotic player in the wrong way and it all falls apart. So we put up the velvet ropes and clearly mark the intended paths and how to interact with the world and before you know it the world we built to be used as a setting for the players to interact with has become a museum for the players to experience passively. We want them to pass by with their helicoptering NPC tour guide and say ‘that’s a lovely piece’, take a few photographs (don’t worry no flash), and move forward to the next delight provided for their gawking and praise. Somewhere along the line our design superseded the function.
Perfection is not the goal. A perfect world is a boring world and it feels plastic. Because perfection is unachievable. Any time people get involved nothing goes according to plan. Instead of being frustrated by it try to embrace it. Being behind the screen gives us all a unique perspective. It’s not so much a failing of our plan as an opportunity to do something new and exciting. Which, if you’re anything like me is good. Don’t throw all your plans away preemptively but do go off script. That precious NPC guide for the party, the one they would be hopelessly lost without? Throw the enemies at him with reckless abandon. From behind the screen I know this NPC is important but often enough parties will completely ignore the NPC. The NPC regularly escaping unavoidable harm by the invisible intercession of god does not endear the NPC to the party. If you want to have the things in your world be meaningful it means they have to be vulnerable to being obliterated. No Mary Sue characters and no untouchables. To make the setting seem real and dangerous we have to cock the hammer and sometimes squeeze the trigger. NPCs and PCs have to be able to die or the threat of death is meaningless.
We must however apply some elasticity because this is a game not a straight simulation. If you kill the NPC guide let the party be lost for a time. But no one is going to enjoy becoming the lost party who died because of a few bad forage rolls and eventually ate each other. That’s not a good ending as there’s no resolution to the plot or even a failing at the main plot. They just died in the wilderness somewhere. Conversely such an idea can be a great start to a campaign if the group was carrying an item of importance and some PCs need to be hired to retrieve the item.
We create game settings to be interactive, not to be coddled with gloves and then stowed away in a climate controlled vault. Everyone is done a disservice when we force the hand to keep things from going off the rails. The worst part is when we do this behind the screen we are unintentionally, subversively telling our players they have no impact on the plot and the greater world. It steals agency from the player and as I can say from the perspective of a player it becomes very difficult to care about a campaign setting when my actions and decisions are inconsequential. It acutely makes me feel I am not the real protagonist. Like playing LOTR: War in the North; it’s a fine game, slicing up orcs and goblins in story mode with local multiplayer is killer fun, but you always know there is this Fellowship to the south on the real adventure.
As an exercise to help remove the sacredness of our own creations try this. Write something about your campaign setting. Seriously, write it by hand, no typing. Pull out the spiral notebook and pen. It can be a prominent location, an influential NPC, a full adventure plot. Brainstorm until you find that mote of inspiration and follow it to its natural conclusion. Read back through it noting the good bits and the parts lacking. Pull out your red pen for corrections. Throw your red pen in the trash. Then throw your new idea in the trash. Now light the trash on fire and make this face.
But in all seriousness, rip up whatever you just spent time meticulously crafting and toss it. Our ideas are not sacrosanct, they’re not even original.
Think about it, try it out, let me know how it goes. A dozen decent, unblemished ideas locked away in cabinet is worth less than one raw, mediocre idea run its course completely at the table.