In-Character Action and In-Character Consequences

by Christopher LaHaise
“An in-character action will have in-character consequences”. A simple rule, but how often is it used in a game, and to what degree?  Essentially, what it means is that when a character performs an action, there will be consequences related to this action, and the player should accept that such consequences are part and parcel of the game. On the flipside, it also means that a game master should accept that the characters will respond to actions performed by non-player characters as well, and the game master should accept that such actions are a part of the game.

The question that comes to mind is, how much does a game master abide by this kind of rule? In my current, classic D&D game, this rule is enforced strongly – and has led to a number of character deaths (though thank goodness for raise dead, or this would be really horrible). We’ve had one character die mid-air from a black dragon’s breath weapon, we’ve had three characters die from the breath weapon of a green dragon, we’ve had two characters die from spinning the Wheel of Fortune, and we had one character decapitated in a duel against Warduke. I enjoy running Classic D&D, and playing it has brought me back to my teenage years of gaming – any dungeon crawl could result in the complete and utter wipe of a party, and barring the cleric surviving, there’s little chance of the group coming back from the event.

Death, of course, is the “big consequence”, but there can be other consequences as well. If your character flaunts the law, he could be imprisoned, effectively removing him from the game.  In some settings, there’s a weregild, causing a character to pay a price for the harm he’s inflicted. This could be the loss of property, land, or goods. It could mean having to serve for a period of time, and while this could be good for the start of a campaign, in the middle of one that can be a different story as well. In my Shadowrun campaign, one character had a conversation with his totem involving one of the BTL factories they’ve encountered. Me, playing his totem, informed him the totem sees the addicts as lost causes, and a drain on society (his totem is the Dark Lady). The final choice, of course, was his – he could disagree and try to save them, or not. He chose instead to try to kill them all by putting a virus into the BTL programs they were running. This got stopped by one of the other PCs, and has added some in-character tension to the mix. The consequences of his murder attempt are going to carry through for a number of sessions.

Earlier in the Shadowrun campaign, the PCs worked with Ares to deal with a mixed-bug hive that was under a lake. They decided they couldn’t deal with it, and called Ares. The result was a rock drop from orbit – obliterating the lake and killing possibly hundreds or more. The PCs still have this on their consciences, and it has ripples in the game even years later.
The question is – how hard should the hammer fall? If the PCs do something, and your mind clicks on the ‘this would make sense as a reaction’, do you go with it? I get the feeling in a lot of games lately, the ICC is rarely as bad as it could be – something that would qualify as a “game ender”. TPK is not nearly as common as it used to be, and there seems to be an aversion to events which would cause a deep trauma to the characters, or that would effectively damn one or more members of the group. I had one character get caught up in a plot between two rival clans in my Legend of the Five Rings campaign – and he tried to throw a shuriken at a daimyo, which got him decapitated in an instant. A different character decided to willingly succumb to the Shadowlands Taint, and got ripped apart as a dark god erupted from him. A third character of his had his horse turned into mincemeat when he brought it into one of the most lethal dungeons I’d ever seen, and then willingly became the lover of an oni, entering the Shadowlands and coming back later as a rather twisted anti-hero NPC. I’ve had other characters pulled screaming into the underworld by demons, others sucked into the void by a bad draw of a Deck of Many Things, and others have horrific breakups (or have their companions butchered as part of a dark occult ritual), and one character even had one of his defining skills stripped from him by faeries. All of these were done by character decisions, and while the players did not always know what was in store from them, I have rarely seen complaints from my players. They understand ICA=ICC, and they know that I’ll try to be fair about what’s playing out.
Just, from time to time, I hear people (outside my playing group) say, ‘I wouldn’t play in your games’, or that I’m doing something wrong. I’m told that anything that would ‘end’ a game, or that would ‘end’ a story, or that would ‘end’ a character’s involvement (or agency) is bad. But I don’t see it that way – the players are important to the game – and while the characters may be a part of the story, the actions and consequences of the game are what make up the story. The story doesn’t have a fixed plot and ending – there’s no promise that the heroes will win or save the day, or even make it to the final scene. Or, if they do, there’s no promise that they won’t be scarred by the events along the way.
Of course, not everything is darkness and gloom and doom. There are triumphs along the way – the PCs defeat the dragon. They rescue the princess. They pull off their mission and get paid. They find some nifty toys or magic items. The events leading through this add texture, and some of it is good, and some of it is bad. In one Shadowrun game, a PC revealed himself to an enemy and talked with him to learn about him (and threaten him for training children as thieves and assassins under his employ).  The leader wirelessly contacted an ally who set up a sniper station a few blocks away. And when the time came and combat started – bang – one of the PCs had his head blown off. It makes sense – the PCs revealed their hand and gave the bad guys time to set up. (The PC in question did survive – he spent a permanent point of Edge, something the game allowed, but it was still a lesson). The group decided to have a talk with the PC who revealed himself, and decided to work on their teamwork a bit more – so all good, right?
I think ICA=ICC is a good rule, and I think it should be part and parcel of a game. I don’t think the game master should really hold back on it either – if the consequences make sense, go for it. But this also, I think, falls under the rules for general adventuring. If your characters decide to go for that dungeon delve, then death, trauma, and worse should be accepted as possible risks. You’re putting yourself in harm’s way deliberately, you’d best accept the consequences of that choice.