Killing Protagonists

By | November 18, 2017

Today’s question and answer is about something multiple readers have found weird with the game:

Why does a player have to agree to their Protagonist being killed?

This rule stands at the heart of Forthright, and is the culmination of multiple design decisions made during development:

  • The story played through the game is the story of the Protagonists, not the story of the Guide and the Gamescape. Indiana Jones doesn’t die randomly in the middle of his movie; neither should the Protagonists in a game of Forthright.
  • When a Protagonist does die, it should be meaningful and dramatic. Because the player owns their Protagonist, the only individual at the table who can decide if a death is meaningful or dramatic enough is the player.
  • Forthright is designed to not require “dice fudging,” which we are rather famously opposed to. When fudging is on the table, Guides decide when rolls matter and when they do not – so there will be times when a Guide decides that a roll doesn’t count when it would kill a character, because it’s “not the right time.” We stand by our line in the sand that fudging is crap, and we dispense with crap.

Now, what does this mean for Guides? Does it mean that their hands are tied and they can never meaningfully threaten Protagonists, because players know their Protagonists won’t die? Well, couple of things:

  • That’s metagaming – taking player knowledge and imposing it within the game world. Every table has to decide for themselves how much metagaming they’re willing to tolerate and how much they’re not. We’re not fans of it, personally (see “Protagonist vs. Player Knowledge,” pg 133).
  • The stakes, in Forthright, are set up front. So if a Protagonist says, “I’m going to go into the nuclear reactor,” the Guide is free to say “If you go into the nuclear reactor, you will die.” If the Protagonist then goes into the nuclear reactor, this is implicit agreement to the stakes laid out by the Guide. And the Protagonist dies. This style of stakes-setting should be used for major events or dangers only, not for every single fight with back-alley thugs.

Finally, this is an opportunity for Guides to be creative, to create different and more clever stakes than the basic, and obvious, “ooh, you might die!” Let’s take a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example:

  • Is Indy going to escape the trap, or will he be injured?
  • Will Indy risk being injured again, or will he surrender the idol?
  • Will Indy be able to purchase the headpiece, or will he have to find some other way to get it – perhaps even breaking in and stealing it later?
  • All these, in a single scene:
    • Will Indy be able to prevent the Nazis from getting the headpiece?
    • Will Indy be able to save Marion?
    • Will Indy be able to acquire the headpiece?
    • Will Marion agree to help Indy, now that his enemies have torched her place?
  • Will Indy be able to save Marion from the Nazis (redux)?
  • Will Indy and Sallah be able to infiltrate the dig site without being captured?
  • Will Indy risk discovery by freeing Marion?
  • Will Indy and Marion be able to escape the snake chamber in time to prevent the Nazis from leaving with the Ark?
  • Will Indy be able to steal or stop the flying wing?
  • Will Indy be able to stop the convoy?
  • Will Indy destroy the Ark to prevent the Nazis from using it (a crisis of Principles)?

All of these threats and stakes aren’t strictly to Indy’s life (the risk of injury is there, yes, but not strictly death). Instead, all of these threats are to Indy’s goals in the movie: get the Ark, stop the Nazis. Likewise, the Nazis are vastly more interested in getting the Ark for themselves than they are in slaughtering a lone American action-archaeologist. And in this way, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of the kind of story and the structure of threats that Protagonists are expected to face in Forthright Open Roleplay (see “Plot vs. Story”, pg 169 and “Opposition”, pg 173).

It may still seem weird that Protagonists are pretty close to death-immune from the Guide’s standpoint in the game. But keep in mind also that Forthright is not designed to tell stories where player characters randomly die and are replaced – there are better games on the market for that, and we’re not trying to be those games.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone, and we’ll see you next week!