Assassination

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Agamemnon
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Assassination

Postby Agamemnon » 27 Sep 2015, 19:53

As I've been hammering out the rules for 'Bastards, a topic has been eating me for a while. Since Higgins and I were unable to come up with a good solution, I thought I would offer it up for discussion here.

We are going to define the word assassination in this discussion to mean "a situation in which the target is dead without a meaningful chance to prevent or react to it." The primary examples to be discussed are sniper shots and poison.

Both of these things are extremely effective in killing people. That is why they exist. It's realistic and good simulation that they should kill people pretty effortlessly when they happen, and it's fitting that the rules should encourage players to make use of them (if it is the sort of thing their character would do). After all, getting in a fair fight is usually a very poor tactic utilized by the foolish, idealistic, or desperate.

The problem is that this blade that should cut both ways, but in practice doesn't. Mechanically speaking, there's nothing stopping me as a GM from rolling some dice and announcing "Your conversation is cut short when the window shatters. Blood and brains fly out the back of your skull and splatter the wall behind you. A half-second later, your friends hear the report of a high-caliber rifle some distance away." The rules support it just like they do if it were a player character doing the same to an NPC.

The problem is that any GM who would actually do that out of the blue is ..well.. probably an asshole. For a game like 'Bastards to work, you have to have some kind of trust in your GM and killing a PC off without any meaningful chance to prevent it is a gross abuse of that trust. Poison is the same way. An option is always some kind of perception test to spot the sniper or detect the poison first, but even that seems grossly unfair when the fail-state of the test is "you die."

Thus in practice, this becomes an extremely strong tool for the PCs to use, but one that they are essentially plot-armored from ever receiving. At best, the GM is going to have to either intentionally miss the first shot, or an NPC winds up eating a bullet to alert the players to the danger.

In our discussion, Higgins did point out that we are primarily simulating fiction - not reality - and that protagonists very rarely die suddenly and without warning from assassination attempts (George R. R. Martin notwithstanding). This is a good point, but the counterpoint I offered was that the protagonists in fiction aren't aware of their own plot-armor. By contrast, players can generally trust that their GM isn't just going to kill them without a warning or a chance to prevent it - which has a strong tendency to translate into player-characters operating under the same assumption.

So the question we are forced to grapple with is "how does one balance assassination as a useful and effective tool for the PCs without making it so effective that it can never be used against them?"
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Re: Assassination

Postby hector » 27 Sep 2015, 20:22

Hmm... In this case, as in all things, I suspect the most important thing is that character's death should be due to their own actions. If they piss someone off who is well known for poisoning their enemies, then they might want to hire a food taster :twisted: .

Honestly, if somebody is planning to kill them in this way, they need some kind of warning that their character is at risk of this so that they can take sensible precautions. To use the sniper example, for instance, bullets take time to get to their target. If a PC moves in a way that couldn't have been predicted, that might be a good time for a shattering of glass followed by the rifle report a few seconds later. That sets up the scene of trying to make sure the second shot doesn't kill them, and it warns the players that their enemies are actually willing to take these measures - and it might be a good idea to start taking precautions.
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Re: Assassination

Postby higgins » 28 Sep 2015, 03:30

Agamemnon wrote:At best, the GM is going to have to either intentionally miss the first shot, or an NPC winds up eating a bullet to alert the players to the danger.
I kind of suggested the latter last night almost jokingly, but isn't it an acceptable way in fiction?

Off the top of my head (spoilers, obviously):
- Full Metal Jacket (Cowboy eats it)
- Enemy at the Gates (Ron Perlman eats it)
- The Hurt Locker (random guy eats it)
- Breaking Bad (random dude eats it)
- Ghost in the Shell (random guy eats it; yes, the dubbing makes me cringe)

Had a couple of more, but forgot them while I was hunting down the clips.
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Re: Assassination

Postby thirtythr33 » 28 Sep 2015, 05:36

This is an interesting topic I have thought about a little in my own DMing experience. As I see it, it boils down to enforcing alternate forms of costs.

In the first case where the player is the target of an assassination you could force the target to "pay" an amount of Story Aspect Points in order to either downgrade or outright ignore the result of the assassination. This is kind of putting assassination attempts in the Narrativist camp of resolution. Does the target coincidentally move out of the way of the bullet at the crucial moment or do they accidentally drop their plate of poisoned food?

Flipping the coin to the case where the players are assassinating the target. I am happy to allow for "instant kills" in the cases where the players have gone about spending some kind of resource in orchestrating the assassination attempt. This might be in bribing a cook, spending time to learn the targets habits or calling in some favors. But basically, the success of the assassination should be roughly proportional to the amount of work they have put into making it happen. I'm not sure how to really nail this down mechanically though. One idea might be to call for Story Aspect Points to be spent to make things run smooth, with price lowering based on the completeness of the plan.
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Re: Assassination

Postby Daeruin » 28 Sep 2015, 23:09

As with most things RPG related, I have opinions about this.

The first and easiest way to handle this is just live with the fact that you can't kill PCs that way without ruining the game. Accept that you can't account for every aspect of the social contract mechanically.

Regarding how it's handled in fiction, characters in fiction often do act as though they are bullet proof and poison proof. In a lot of adventure fiction, the characters act in ways that no sane person with an ounce of self preservation would ever act. It's easy to find movies with examples like this (John McClane from Die Hard, James Bond, etc.) but they are present in a lot of fiction as well.

Even in more realistic fiction, important characters almost never get killed without warning. Even GRRM doesn't do that. The only thing he does that violates the norms of fiction is kill major viewpoint characters. But their deaths come with plenty of warning if you're paying attention. Especially after the first major character gets killed, it sets the precedent that even major characters can die if circumstances are right. And it so happens that in his world, the circumstances are almost always right. :twisted: So that's one way to handle it. Give plenty of forewarning that such deaths are possible, then follow through to set the precedent. Make sure the PCs always know if they have enemies who have the potential means to kill them that way. Also make sure that the players are willing to engage in that kind of game. Will your game have an Insight mechanic a la TROS?
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Re: Assassination

Postby Agamemnon » 29 Sep 2015, 15:47

Daeruin wrote: Will your game have an Insight mechanic a la TROS?

Yar. We wound up calling it Karma, but the idea is basically the same. The SAs you spend or burn through play give your next character more points to spend at creation.

So if your character catches a stray musket-ball to the brain-pan, then you do get some compensation for it. It's still a lot of time invested, lost.

I mirrored this conversation on my blog, and because I posted it there it also went up on g+. The overall consensus I've come into has fallen into the following bits of advice:
  1. The GM should tip their hand at the moment of striking. The benevolent GM makes the sniper miss the first shot. The less benevolent GM makes an important NPC get killed instead.
  2. The GM Should tip their hand and make the players expect it. Either make it bluntly obvious ahead of time "you see a shadowy figure on the roof. Wait, he's got a gun!" Or hint about it "there are rumors of rebels using snipers in the city." If the players don't take precautions, they are fair game.
  3. The GM should kill someone important early on, so that the players are keenly aware from the beginning that they could be killed by assassination or poison at any time and act accordingly.
Three entertains me the most, but this all ultimately boils down to the GM handling things correctly and communicating with the players.
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Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
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Re: Assassination

Postby hector » 29 Sep 2015, 22:31

In that case, it might be best to, instead of making assassination work in a rules way that protects players from instantly dying but keeps it powerful enough to be worth using for them (god knows how you'd make that balance), to give explicit advice to the GM on how best to use it on behalf of NPCs...
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Re: Assassination

Postby PsiPhire » 30 Sep 2015, 04:00

Another option is to simply make assassination attempts on PCs not be instant kills. So instead of taking a shot to the head they instead take a shot to the chest/shoulder, giving the other players time to get to cover and stabilise their friend before he bleeds out. Poisons used on PCs could be slower acting giving them time to find an apothecary. This is similar to taking down an NPC with the first shot, but would create a bit more tension for the players. However, if the players have been poisoned before but still keep recklessly eating and drinking everything without attempting to check for poison, they're fair game for instant kills.
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Re: Assassination

Postby Marras » 30 Sep 2015, 05:21

To me there are so many variables in sniping as well as in poisoning that neither is a sure way to kill someone. Or rather, it is possible to storywise describe how it failed or succeeded only partially. Poison might be diluted or is somehow partially negated by the food/drink or even by the good old by puking it out should be a viable way to describe it (see Casino Royal). Even a window class can partially deflect a bullet to change the angle of the shot so the shot didn't manage to give an instant kill but rather wounded the target or even missed.

So far poisoning has been rather rare in my games, in fact it has been sort of unspoken agreement that PCs don't use poisons (much) otherwise GM will do the same (like poisoned daggers). Of course there has been some occasions both ways but those have been rare. Sniping has been more common but sniper shots have not been instant kills automatically. Even in Cyberpunk 2020 a person can survive a head shot although it is highly unlikely. In Finnish Praedor fantasy RPG bow shot to neck (a critical) kills instantly but otherwise it is not a sure thing. So, I have occasionally used snipers on PCs too. Still, I have refrained from taking aimed head shots against PCs partially because head shots are usually pretty hard to accomplish due to mechanical penalties.

Based on that experience being poisoned by or against PCs should not automatically mean death. Maybe some sort of resistance roll is in order to allow lesser effects (like character falling really ill, maybe even for extended time). Sniper shot is a bit more difficult but I would allow some sort of location roll (maybe fuelled by some sort of point spend) so the shot won't (necessarily) hit the brain but rather something less lethal.

Of course same should apply to NPCs as well. Important enough NPC should be able to avoid instant and boring death the same way as PCs so his/her death when it finally comes actually serves the story.
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Assassination

Postby Daeruin » 30 Sep 2015, 10:31

Marras wrote: so his/her death when it finally comes actually serves the story.

This is a fruitful line of discussion. How to make the death of important characters dramatic and meaningful? It seems harder to accomplish in an assassination scenario.
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Re: Assassination

Postby thirtythr33 » 30 Sep 2015, 10:58

I guess this all boils down to which symmetries, if any, should be broken.

If you choose to not break any symmetries and treat players exactly like NPCs, you have two options.
a) The rules do not allow instant-kills and the problem becomes trying explain why the NPC that got shot in the back of the head is still alive or
b) Instant-kills are allowed and the players can expect sudden and swift deaths.

Or you choose to break symmetry and choose from:
c) Mechanical disparity. Players get additional "saving throws" or mechanics to weather the attacks which NPCs do not.
d) Narrative disparity. DMs have to pull their blows by signaling their attacks or targeting bystanders etc. Players get "hero armor".

Personally, I think a) is the worst of the above options. It break verisimilitude and cheapens the stakes. It also doesn't effectively reward intelligent play. c) has the weaknesses that it leaves itself open to a savvy player being able to abuse the asymmetry of the system. It also can break verisimilitude when a player is enabled to undertake suicidal behavior with no repercussion (I can't count the number of times I've seen a hostage situation be completely ignored because "a knife does 1d4 damage and I have 20hp").

An interesting thing about options b) and d) above is that they APPEAR to be indistinguishable to the player unless they have read the specific piece of DM advice concerning whether or not they should be instant-killing their players. By just allowing for the POSSIBILITY that the DM is allowed to wipe you off the face of the planet at a moments notice goes a long way to herding player characters towards acting a lot more rationally; whether or not the possibility of instant-death is ever actualized.

To touch on the point of making the assassination dramatic and meaningful. I think a good rule of thumb is to make the assassination a means to an end and not an end unto itself. For example, assassinating the Big Bad Evil Guy is an anti-climax. Assassinating the right-hand man to sow civil unrest is interesting. Assassinations are really at their best when framed by political intrigue.

You guys talk a lot about replicating classic and modern literature and I've noticed more than a few references to Game of Thrones. What about magical assassinations such as Melisandre assassinating Renly? "Scry and die" tactics definitely feels likes like a very 'Bastards thing to me but its possibility opens the door to even more degenerate situations than has already been discussed in this thread.
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Re: Assassination

Postby hector » 30 Sep 2015, 12:02

Assassinating the BBEG could make for excellent gameplay if done properly - in this case, the challenge isn't the BBEG's death; the challenge is in arranging everything so that it works.
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Re: Assassination

Postby higgins » 30 Sep 2015, 15:39

I hope I can clear a couple of things up. Mixed up the chronological order for the sake of coherence.

SHOOTING:

PsiPhire wrote:So instead of taking a shot to the head they instead take a shot to the chest/shoulder, giving the other players time to get to cover and stabilise their friend before he bleeds out.
While not as graphic, chest wounds can be just as lethal as head wounds. Just sayin'! :)

Marras wrote:Even a window class can partially deflect a bullet to change the angle of the shot so the shot didn't manage to give an instant kill but rather wounded the target or even missed.
That would be already factored into the shot complexity as cover. It's transparent cover and not hard cover by any means, but it's still cover.

hector wrote:If a PC moves in a way that couldn't have been predicted, that might be a good time for a shattering of glass followed by the rifle report a few seconds later.
Purposeful unpredictable movement is modeled by the system. Picking something up and being lucky... is not.

thirtythr33 wrote:In the first case where the player is the target of an assassination you could force the target to "pay" an amount of Story Aspect Points in order to either downgrade or outright ignore the result of the assassination. This is kind of putting assassination attempts in the Narrativist camp of resolution. Does the target coincidentally move out of the way of the bullet at the crucial moment or do they accidentally drop their plate of poisoned food?
This would work well in a collaborative storytelling where the player clearly hears the other people (a.k.a. the fellow players) plotting this and knows to spend the points. If that's not the case though, it becomes simply a retcon safety net. First, it sounds artificial, and second, it'd be silly to apply such special rule on assassinations alone. If I can retcon a bullet to my brain, why can't I retcon... say... that really clever insult that made my character a laughing stock of the court? Hell, I could even call it a verbal assassination, ha! :P I spend the point, and while the NPC still insults me, I've vetoed the clever and highly effective wording. Now, that would suck. Hard.

thirtythr33 wrote:I am happy to allow for "instant kills" in the cases where the players have gone about spending some kind of resource in orchestrating the assassination attempt. This might be in bribing a cook, spending time to learn the targets habits or calling in some favors. But basically, the success of the assassination should be roughly proportional to the amount of work they have put into making it happen.
That's all well and good, but surely brigands on the roadside waiting for a the first wealthy looking wagon to strike at should benefit from their ambush when picking off the first couple of guards, despite their clear lack of research. It's not a classic assassination, but it works on the same principle, no?

POISON:

Marras wrote:Poison might be diluted or is somehow partially negated by the food/drink or even by the good old by puking it out should be a viable way to describe it (see Casino Royal).
Yes! Such instance of a non-instant poison would be one situation where SA point expenditure COULD help. The GM reveals that the first effects of the poison have taken hold... and the PC will clearly try to counter that. Since his condition worsens, burning SAs can help him succeed in his rolls. In case of Bond, he succeeds two rolls (bathroom cleansing, reaches the car). He fails the last roll (following instructions while delirious) and passes out. He's helpless and alone. However, since Vesper is nearby she can burn an SA point to appear in the right place at the right time (yes, that's one of the official SA uses).

And yes, that's an outstanding movie. Especially the Straight Flush Edition.

Instant poisons are still problematic, though.

NARRATIVE:

thirtythr33 wrote:To touch on the point of making the assassination dramatic and meaningful. I think a good rule of thumb is to make the assassination a means to an end and not an end unto itself. For example, assassinating the Big Bad Evil Guy is an anti-climax. Assassinating the right-hand man to sow civil unrest is interesting. Assassinations are really at their best when framed by political intrigue.
Not sure how to implement this, but I definitely like the direction!

thirtythr33 wrote:You guys talk a lot about replicating classic and modern literature and I've noticed more than a few references to Game of Thrones. What about magical assassinations such as Melisandre assassinating Renly? "Scry and die" tactics definitely feels likes like a very 'Bastards thing to me but its possibility opens the door to even more degenerate situations than has already been discussed in this thread.
C'mon, we can't have magic without a touch of (thread) necromancy! :twisted: viewtopic.php?f=4&t=51
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Re: Assassination

Postby Agamemnon » 01 Oct 2015, 11:11

Higgins basically has the gist of it. Anything to do with shooting is basically already covered by the shooting rules.

To a degree, we do have something of a safety-net built into the SAs (which can also be levered out without much trouble), but if you've taken a level 5 wound to the head/chest you're going to have some consequences to deal with even if you survive. I don't think I'd want to change that, though someone could if that was part of the game they just weren't interested in.

The big thing we've come to is that it's almost completely about how the thing is treated in by the GM and players in the story.

If the GM wants to introduce assassination out of the blue, then it's an almost certainly an assassination attempt, making sure that the GM tips their hand at least enough to give the players a chance to do something about it. Failing that, it's a successful assassination aimed at someone who isn't a player.

If the players want to assassinate someone, the GM should turn that into a whole operation in and of itself. If they succeed, then they've essentially raised the stakes of the danger they face - if the players can assassinate people, then they should be ready to accept the idea that they themselves are valid targets for assassination.

TL;DR - the whole topic is a function making sure the players and GM are on the same page about the level of danger they are currently in, and the consequences of their actions.
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Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
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Re: Assassination

Postby Marras » 01 Oct 2015, 14:33

Could this be a sort of lever for the campaign that only sets the tone of the campaign but has no mechanical effects? It would be just a formal way for GM to tell the players how things go in that particular campaign (for example having a Dune like campaign without assassins and poisons would not just be right) or something they just agree on when starting the campaign.

In one of my CP2020 campaigns the main bad guy was a sniper who got to the stage right at the first session where he killed an NPC who had hired PCs to do a job. After that the sniper called Slick was hounding on their trails for a very long time until PCs managed to play local Arasaka (a mega corp) to kill off that sniper that PCs couldn't handle themselves. Slick never killed any of the PCs but wounded at least one so badly that PCs got really paranoid and very afraid of him. Good times :twisted:

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