Monday, 21 September 2020

What Counts as a F*** You Moment?

If there is one principle upon which I submit almost RPGs agree, it is that 'fuck you' moments are weak DMing. They belong in the realm of bad fantasy game books, in which you are regularly faced with binary choices in which one option leads to death without any fair warning whatsoever. 

The devil, as always, is in the detail. What is a 'fuck you' moment? It is one in which a PC blamelessly dies or suffers serious harm. But that definition needs teasing out. We all know that if the PCs simply enter a room and the ceiling falls on their heads, and there was absolutely no way of them discovering this in advance or avoiding the result, then the DM is fucking them over. It's the edge cases, that are much more common, which need careful thought.

Here are some guidelines I think are appropriate:

1. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to make adequate preparation in advance and suffer harm as a result. If they fail to bring adequate light sources in to the dungeon and get trapped in the dark, for instance, then that is just a natural consequence of their own actions. 

2. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs simply get out of their depth in a dangerous environment as the result of a roll of the dice. The wilderness is dangerous. If they randomly encounter a red dragon in the mountains, and it kills them, it is not a 'fuck you' moment. (The analysis would be different if the DM simply inflicted a red dragon on them deliberately, on a whim.)

3. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to perform proper reconnaissance. This could be as simple as having a scout tapping the ground with a 10' pole in a dungeon, or as complex as sending an invisible servant into an orc den to establish its contents. If the ceiling falls on the PCs but they could have discovered it was unstable by just stopping and looking or listening, or tapping it with a spear, then the results are fair.

4. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is poisoned or paralysed by a monster or dungeon 'scenery' or similar. These are expected risks. 

5. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is made a target for revenge. If a PC makes enemies, then those enemies might attempt to assassinate, steal from, injure, or inconvenience him or her - and the results of this may be a complete surprise to the PC/player concerned. As long as the DM makes the appropriate rolls for those enemies fairly, then the results are also fair. 

Can we add any others, or nuance the above?


  1. One potential nuance: It might be a good idea, with any new group, to run a dungeon or hexcrawl or what-have-you which establishes where your expectations are.

    Some GMs may expect e.g. more explicit/detailed searching than other GMs, and it's probably a Fuck You to kill the players because they misjudged your expectations.

    Even if you think that your expectations are standard, the OSR is big enough that I'm not sure there really *is* a universal "standard," and, for that matter, the players might've, just by happenstance, lucked into the only five GMs who have [different expectations] and now think that's the standard, through no fault of their own.

    So: an adventure which establishes what you expect, but punishes *lightly* so that the players can actually survive their mistakes.

    (It would also be good to explicitly state your expectations, but "make sure that the players know what that's like in practice" is the more important of the two, in my opinion)

  2. All of your examples are predicated on the idea that rolls are final, done openly and with clear intentions, some or all of which are often under the discretion of GMs (which i think is where the snag comes from).

    To clarify, many problems that players have with a game situation arent mechanical but social, oftentimes because a GM doesnt understand what game they are running, what group they are playing with, or what experience will arise with the direction of deicisions they are making within that game. In my experience, the fuck you moments arent the ones above but the journey in reaching those decisions and seeing that the game or GM not following a consistent calculus of cause and effect (at least, where the outcomes affect players negatively, oftentimes players will wave away fiat decisions if they gain from them)

    1. Yes, you're quite right, which is why I always advocate all rolls being final and open, and generally transparent in terms of the reason why they are being done.

  3. While f..k you moments might be considered bad DM work, they happen when people make fatal mistakes. Just watched an mxr youtube video where some girl goes to smash a watermelon on the ground and when it doesnt smash she reaches down to pick it up for a retry only for it to explode in her face with a two and a half foot blast radius, a fragment literally smacking her in the head causing her to stumble away.

    Add it to your WTF? List.

    1. You are right in principle, of course, but I think this is one of those areas which which games should not model life too closely. Real life can, and *will*, screw you over through no fault of your own. Games, ideally, should not do.

  4. I think you need to be careful in #2 that you don't end up with a "fuck you for playing the game" situation. If the point is to go into the dangerous place (i.e. go adventuring), there can't just be a 1-in-whatever chance of a game over encounter.

    There always needs to have been something you could have done to spot or avoid or defuse the danger, besides "you should stuck to dirt farming".

    1. I'm not sure I agree with that. At least, I am not sure there is ever a situation in which the players can do *nothing* to spot/avoid/defuse a random encounter. They can always just surrender.

  5. The exact same event (let's say a wandering monster nearly TPKs the party) can happen at two different tables, and at one the players are fine ("ah well, we knew we were delving too deep") while at the other they're resentful and fractious ("what the hell, dude, we were just trying to get to the mithril vein"). The only difference is that the first group trusts the GM to have produced a fair consequence (and understands that the consequence might be dire) and the second, apparently, does not.

    If you're trying to define what a 'fuck you' moment is, I think you're taking the wrong tack with your guidelines. To me those sound like (reasonable and enjoyable) table expectations, but at a different table they might be met with consternation and despair.

    A 'fuck you' moment, to me, is defined nearly exclusively by how it came about. If it's a gotcha, it's a 'fuck you' moment. If it's a reasonable and consistent ruling, but the players didn't realize that was the game they were playing, it's a 'fuck you' moment. Otherwise, everything's golden.

    From a slightly different angle: A vindictive DM is an out-of-game problem. Players and GM thinking they're playing different games is an out-of-game problem. Don't we handle out-of-game problems by just talking through them out-of-game?

    (I'm not suggesting players need their hands held all the time. Signposting threats is plenty. But they do need to know that signposts in general mean something.)

    1. Yes, but I think trust is something that builds up over time through consistent and fair rulings, and open dice rolling. You can in other words produce a culture of trust at your table, so that the group's expectations will ultimately align. The trick is in achieving that, obviously.

    2. Oh, absolutely. Trust has to be built or earned.

      In tables I've played at this seems to be less of an issue for games with storygame-like elements like Blades in the Dark (oh boy am I not trying to start a holy war here, just pointing out that different games are different). I think this is because there are so many more words expended between GM and players as an event gets adjudicated - you've got action choice, position, effect, devil's bargain, assisting someone, partial successes, resisting consequences. More back-and-forth means more opportunities for the GM to demonstrate that they are trying to be fair, and therefore worthy of the players' trust.

      Within a game clade like D&D, where adjudication usually involves less back-and-forth and many fewer words, the GM has fewer opportunities to really show that they merit that trust. I think Callmesalticidae's point about using a "starter" adventure to introduce what consequences players can expect and what signposts they should look for is spot on - showing how expectations will play at the table will reinforce stating them abstractly.

      Isn't this one of the functions of starting with a funnel? Players aren't invested in roll-3d6-in-order level-0s, so it doesn't feel like a screwjob to use their deaths (and miraculous near-misses) to point out just how deadly traps/poison/darkness/whatever can be.