It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.
[If you don’t want to see spoilers, don’t read the footnotes.]
Firefly has several interesting characteristics from a setting standpoint aside from the novelty of being a Space Western. It’s a medium-future space-faring setting, in a system of stars and planets where things are close enough together that slower-than-light travel is reasonable. This neatly avoids the relativistic time problems introduced by FTL or near-light travel, as well as the logistics of “jumps” as seen in other settings. The ships feel very much like sailing ships, with journeys taking a few days to a few weeks. These are easy, intuitive units for players to understand and work with.
The primary weapons are conventional firearms that look and act much like the weapons of today except that they make a cool future-sounding noise. The tech level of the medicine, however, is much higher than current levels. Practically any wound can be recovered from, albeit after a few days of recovery. This hits a really elegant balance for combat. Players don’t want their characters to get shot, even if they can be healed, because it removes them from potential action. The inherent lethality of guns means that they can’t afford to be reckless, but they also don’t have to be absolutely terrified of getting hit. I really like the “just get them back to the ship alive” feel of it.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the setting, and one that can be both a plus and a minus, is the disparate level of wealth and technology between the central alliance worlds and the rim. It’s a plus because it gives the GM a lot of leeway for how high-tech he wants things to be during a particular adventure, and introduces variety when needed. It’s a minus because technology, particularly when it comes to transportation and weaponry, is such a strong trump card. When the Firefly crew are on the rim planets, the simple fact that they have a ship makes them significantly more powerful than most people that they encounter. When they are in the core systems, surrounded by Alliance supercruisers and the like, their ship and weapons are completely outclassed. In the series, these disparities are always used to good effect, either giving the PCs a lot of power and then forcing them to make hard decisions on how to use it, or removing their power completely and forcing them to be cunning and resourceful. In an RPG that sort of fine-tuning is more difficult. The players aren’t always going to make the cinematically-appropriate choice, and cunning, resourceful solutions can be hard to come up with on the spot.
Mal, the captain, is the most obvious PC. He’s competent and versatile, and effective in a fight. Most of the episodes boil down to “Mal’s moral dilemma.” Does he deliver the cauldron of kindergartners to the cannibal or turn down the money and do the right thing? In fact, I think that Mal’s role on the ship would be the single biggest challenge to GMing Firefly. With a few notable exceptions, he makes all of the key decisions and the crew is forced to abide by his judgment. In a non-participatory medium, that’s not a problem. We, the audience, can put ourselves in Mal’s shoes, appreciate that it’s a difficult decision, and feel a vicarious warm glow when he does the virtuous thing.
In an RPG, however, each player is (rightfully) wrapped up in their own world. If they’re the character playing Jayne, they should be arguing to give the cannibal his kiddies and get out of there – he’s got a new gun to buy. If that player is constantly being overruled by The Captain, it becomes very difficult for them to stay engaged. It’s important to make sure that each player has the opportunity to make decisions that matter in the story. Speaking of Jayne, he’s also clearly a PC. He’s the best fighter, he has a strong personality, and he dynamically moves the story, often in unexpected or unproductive ways. Also, he would make a terrible NPC. Whenever the PCs have an allied NPC that is a combat monster, the only way for them to make use of them is to throw them into fights. This usually results in either the players sitting around and watching while the GM makes combat rolls for people who aren’t them, or just describing the combat and how awesome the NPC is, making the players feel somewhat useless.
The most obvious of the NPCs is Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. She isn’t versatile, she can’t survive a fight, and she doesn’t move the story. This is not to say that she isn’t valuable, she is a key character in many of the episodes. Most of those episodes revolve around getting her to the right place at the right time, or giving her the right part, or rescuing her from harm. These are all markers of a classic NPC. The same principles apply in the case of Wash, the pilot. He fills a valuable niche on the crew, providing piloting skills and comic relief, but he is largely a reactive character, and not one that can function effectively on his own. The easiest way to mark them as NPCs is that their effectiveness ends when they leave the ship.
Inara, the registered companion, is somewhat less cut and dry. She has obvious social skills and depth of character. She is a dynamic character, driving the action by accepting contracts or questioning decisions. In the few instances where she’s involved in combat, she’s not completely useless. Ultimately, however, Inara suffers from being centered too far from the heart of the story. In most episodes, her role in what’s going on is incidental at best.* There’s a lesson here – the PCs have to have skills and interests that are relevant to the action in the story. Inara could be a fine PC in a campaign that wasn’t centered around a spaceship.
In a lot of ways, Firefly is River Tam’s story. But not the kind of ways that would make her an appropriate PC. She has some of the markers of a good PC – she has interesting talents and a strong personality. The problem with River as a Player Character is that she doesn’t actually make decisions. She just reacts to what’s happening around her. Also, she’s got too much crazy going on. It’s okay to have PCs with personality issues that create challenges for the players (see Cobb, Jayne). It’s not okay to have PCs that are so unhinged that they become a constant obstacle.**
On first blush, Zoe, the first mate, feels like a PC. She’s effective in a fight and she’s a central and critical member of the crew. She’s competent and versatile, and she’s always involved in the important part of the story. The problem with Zoe is that she doesn’t move the story. A crucial part of her personality is that she’s the loyal soldier, always obeying orders and rarely speaking up if she disagrees. Also, the stoic, unsmiling killer persona makes her somewhat one-note as a character. I could see her as a PC, but only for an inexperienced or passive player.
A character that I like far more as a PC would be Book, the shepherd. He has several marks against him – he’s not centrally involved in the story, and his moral code forbids him from being involved in the juiciest parts of the plot. There are also several marks in his favor: his mysterious past has provided him both with combat skills and an intriguing backstory. The thing that intrigues me about him as a potential PC is that he, like Mal, is constantly forced to make difficult choices in ethical gray areas. He is often the voice of dissent, using his outsider role to question the crew’s decisions. As a GM, the challenge with Book would be coming up with stories that could feasibly include him.
River isn’t a PC, but what about her brother the doctor? At first blush, Simon seems like he should be lumped in with Kaylee and Wash – he has a narrow skillset that only applies on-ship. Also, he’s mostly useless in a fight, though he sees a surprising amount of combat. The thing that makes Simon interesting as a potential PC is his story – he’s a gifted and wealthy doctor who gave up everything to protect his damaged sister. He has a matrix for decision-making that is bigger than just doing the missions, and this leads him to take actions that move the story. I think that Simon would make an excellent PC for an experienced player who was willing to sit out of most of the combats. It would be difficult to come up with excuses to include him in the action, but not nearly as difficult as Book.
The typical Firefly adventure revolves around The Job. Most of the jobs find the players, or the action of the players finding the job takes place off-camera. In an RPG, the GM would probably want to play out more of the pre-job negotiations. Each job has a clear objective, and the crew comes up with a plan to accomplish that objective. Then something else happens that either complicates the job, or changes it completely. Usually, that complication requires the crew to make a choice between doing the smart thing and doing the right thing.
It’s a good formula, as it gives the PCs fun things to do, and has built-in problems for them to deal with in their own character-specific ways. It also gives the players clear objectives to feel like they’ve succeeded. The drawback to this formula is that it makes it difficult to tell an over-arching story. Firefly overcame this limitation by setting the Alliance up as the bad guy and then giving one of the characters a slow-revealed backstory involving an Alliance conspiracy, culminating with appropriate levels of epicness.
*Interestingly, in the episode Trash, the writers take advantage of this. Inara is such an afterthought to most of the stories that her involvement in the heist is a surprise to the audience.
**Post-Serenity River, sane and in control of her gifts, is probably still not a PC – she’s too powerful for the setting.
A while back, E of Geek’s Dream Girl asked over twitter if folks had a rule at their table about no GFs/wives. She was doing research for an article, which is not yet published, I think. I thought I’d expand on the idea a bit: I don’t have a strict no Significant Others rule. However, I think that especial care has to be taken when choosing to invite a current player’s Significant Other to join your table. I’m sure we’ll write a post about player selection eventually, but for the time being, let’s just say that Stewart and I are really picky when it comes to players and we select based on various criteria. One such criterion is that a player be able to keep real world stuff from intruding as little as possible on game world stuff.
So, if it seems like a player’s relationship is in one of the (many!) stages where every interaction even near their SO is colored by the presence of said SO, then I’m probably not going to invite the SO. If the characters are not romantically involved, will that cause angst amongst the couple? If the characters are strangers and the more experienced player treats the newer one as such, will that cause angst? Reciprocally, if there is angst in the relationship, will the players’ characters stop getting along all of a sudden? This depends heavily on many factors, I think, including (but not limited to, etc.) how long they’ve been together, how mature they both are, how competitive they both are, how experienced they both are at role playing (or acting, maybe, or similar), how… hasty(?) they both are. That last is my attempt to describe the type of person who reacts to events without thinking very much, which usually means they’re reacting on their “gut” or emotions.
I feel like my wife and I have a relationship that could withstand her playing in one of my campaigns, or us playing in a campaign like mine together, except that I know she is very competitive and hasty, so if she felt like she was “losing” (even in a small way), there would be grief for me later. One of my players has a wife and a relationship with her that would fit fine into them both being players, I think, but she would be a terrible role player in a much more general sense, independent of her husband (note this is according to my standards, which makes it highly opinionated and not at all closed to debate). Both of these examples are somewhat moot in that neither wife actually has any interest in roleplaying, but I think they help illustrate the point.
So if you have a player who wants to bring their new flame into the campaign, act cautiously. Don’t rule it out off hand, but be very wary. Explain to the player your misgivings and that your decision, whatever it is, is not personal. If their relationship is new then, in my opinion, you’ll probably be looking at a higher likelihood of drama bleeding over from the game to life or from life to the game. If their relationship is rocky, likewise. Also, don’t forget to vet the SO as if they were an unattached person wanting to join your group: Do they have fun the same way your group does? Do they agree with the same philosophical points about role playing that your group does?
One of the things that I like about doing discrete campaigns with a beginning and an end is that you can add variety by doing something different the next time. If you just finished a campaign that was full of high-tech gadgets and intrigue, maybe you want to simplify things and go stone age. If it was gritty and realistic, maybe you make the next one full of sorcery and mystical creatures. So what do you do if you run two campaigns in a row where all of the player characters die? You create a setting with indestructible PCs.
A Change of Focus
In the particular setting that I created, the PCs were all roughly 500 years old, and were basically demigods. Think Hercules or Achilles instead of Zeus or Hermes. This results in a peculiar mix of scope for the story. Everything that happens is intrinsically epic – they’re gods. If they get in a fight in the middle of a city, they’re going to cause massive damage. They have the power to single-handedly win wars and destroy civilizations. At the same time, nothing that happens really matters all that much. For example, look at the Illiad (the Trojan War). 10,000 ships from Greece land at Troy. The gods take sides in the battle, influencing the events. The two armies fight for 10 years, resulting in the deaths of countless soldiers. From a human perspective, it was the largest event for a thousand years, changing the history of civilization forever. For the gods? It was really just a momentary distraction. None of them died, or really gained or lost anything meaningful.
This is a tricky balance. If the story is one where a menacing force threatens to destroy the world, your players are likely to be apathetic. They’ll survive, and everybody else was going to die eventually anyway. The only thing that is really threatening to a genuine immortal is boredom. The elf/vampire/god that is bored of life and ready to die is a recurring theme in fiction and mythology. Methuselah wasn’t gifted with eternal life, he was cursed with it.
The immortals that are happy are the ones with hobbies. So let’s say that you were a demigod that was going to live forever, and you kind of liked boats and sailing. After a century or two, you’re probably the best sailor that’s ever lived. Somewhere along the way, you find this little tribe of fisherman that you kind of like, and you help them out from time to time when you feel moved to do so. There are some other tribes that you find kind of annoying, so you kill them on sight, like roaches. A couple of generations go by, and you’ve basically become Poseidon, even if you didn’t set out to do so.
Along the way, your pet tribe of sailors has become just that, a pet. It’s something that you love and train and groom. You develop a strong emotional attachment to it – and since you don’t really have any other driving forces to motivate you, it’s pretty much the only thing in the world that you care about. For immortals, the hobby is their life. So if you’re a GM running a campaign with player characters that can’t die, how do you motivate them? You make sure that they have hobbies to endanger.
This can be a really tricky adjustment for the players to make. Your players, presumably, are both humans and mortal. They care about food, water, and shelter. They care about money and things and the lives of those they love. It’s a complete change in mindset to think like a god – to say “well, all of these people are going to die, but my temple will get completed, and that’s what’s important in the long run.”
Unstoppable Force vs Immovable Object
If your PCs are immortals, effectively gods, then who do you use as their opposition? Other immortals, of course.* Or at least enemies of an equivalent power level. Partially this is out of necessity – you don’t want an antagonist that your players can mow through in the first few sessions. It’s also a factor of the scope and motivation concerns addressed above. In the same way that you wouldn’t pit a scrappy bunch of street kids against Doctor Doom, or the Justice League against a low-level mob boss, you need a bad guy who cares about similar things to the protagonists.
In the campaign that I ran, all the PCs were in the same extended family, and the bad guy was an elder family member that had been expelled and erased from the history books. He just wanted to get back in the family, and get a little revenge on those that had kicked him out. It’s a small, almost petty motivation. In execution, it involved/required a thousand years of scheming and creating an army that killed thousands of people. This is the sort of duality of scope that I talked about above.
The best thing about immortal PCs, and bad guys who are at the very least highly durable, is that you can stage some epic combats. Ben was a player in that campaign, and he took full advantage of the ability to get dismembered. His PC had a leg cut off, had every bone in his body broken, and got eaten by a giant – on purpose (it seemed like a good idea at the time). Additionally, when your PCs can get beaten with non-lethal consequences, it’s a lot easier to utilize the trope of getting trounced by the bad guy in the first encounter, and then coming back smarter and stronger the second time.
Killing the Unkillable
“But wait,” the savvy and faithful reader asks, “didn’t you say just a couple of weeks ago that it was important to have PCs that could die?” Nothing gets past you guys. And in fact, that principle still holds true here. Even an immortal has things that they fear. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t die if you spend the rest of eternity with your flesh roasting at the bottom of a volcano, or if you’re trapped in a cage at the bottom of the ocean. Once your players have gotten comfortable with the idea that they can’t die, it’s fun to introduce the second act twist where there is some weapon or ritual that can kill them. Suddenly the possibility of death, a constant backdrop to traditional campaigns, gets brought to the forefront. Ironically, the best way to make your players really think about and fear death is to give them characters that can’t die.
*Now that I think about it, it would be kind of cool to run a campaign where the PCs where immortal, and their nemesis is a Lex Luthor-style mortal who’s just really clever and wants to rid the world of these gods. Depending on how well-behaved the PCs were, it could bring up some interesting questions about who the heroes and villains were in the story.
The other day, my wife and her co-worker got into an argument about roleplaying. This is really odd since he’s as biker and only sort of nerd-adjacent and my wife doesn’t really understand why this hobby is fun to me. However, she does understand, on an intellectual level, how it all works (probably because I won’t shut up about it, hence the blog). The debate, basically, was centered on the idea that he didn’t understand why roleplaying games needed rules. My wife tried to explain it by saying, basically, “The same reason SciFi needs to be internally consistent,” but he didn’t really understand that concept, either. His assertion was something like, since it’s all fantasy anyway (I’m sure he was envisioning D&D), why do you need rules? It’s just pretend. He then admitted, though, that he’d been kicked out of a game before because he didn’t, “take it seriously enough.” This all got me thinking about rules and why we have them and what purpose they serve.
Why So Serious?
I was struck by that turn of phrase, “don’t take it seriously enough.” I’ve heard it before, of course, in relation to various nerd hobbies. I used to think that it was some kind of hallmark of nerddom that we take our hobbies very seriously, but then I thought about how seriously folks take, say, football. So I’ve come to think that when someone accuses anyone else of taking something too seriously, they’re just expressing (poorly) a difference in priority. So you can sort of re-parse, “You take RPGs too seriously,” as “RPGs are not a hobby I share with you.” Thanks for that observation, Sherlock.
Now, I’m a person who has a hard time taking anything seriously, so I sort of bristled at the idea that I was taking my roleplaying seriously at all. But I think there’s also a misunderstanding between my wife’s co-worker and me with respect to what’s being taken seriously. He imagines I’m taking How An Elf Should Act seriously, but that’s sort of beside the fact. The thing that I, at least, take most seriously is fun. Specifically, I take very seriously the idea that everyone in the group should be having fun. My experience with people who get criticized for not taking a game seriously are focusing most on their own fun at the expense of the group’s fun.
So, to finally bring this section back to the main topic, one of the things that rules do for us is that they give us a framework for negotiating fun, if you take my meaning. The group can use rules to describe things about the play style that they think will be fun. If you’re using the advanced bleeding rules and all the optional close combat maneuvers, that says something about what your group finds fun, or at least is a way that you can have the conversation about what everyone will enjoy because agreeing on that is the key to everyone having fun together.
So What Are Rules For?
I mean, in general, why do games have rules? This is pertinent because RPGs are both a storytelling medium and a game. It seems to me that games can have varying level of structure, by which I mean to refer to the complexity of the rule set. On one end, you have games like one my brother used to play when he was little that he and his friends called Don’t Look Up. There aren’t really rules, per se. The way it works is that you get the bow and headless arrow his friend had. Then you take turns firing it straight up and then standing still with your arms at your side and, well, not looking up. Very simple (and surprisingly low risk, actually).
As you scale up in structure, you run into most sports which, especially at the collegiate or professional level, have whole tomes of rules covering edge cases and exceptions. When you get into this range, I think most games pit players against each other (in teams or not) and the rule set provides a way to moderate the interactions of players who are trying to achieve opposite goals. They might also act as a balancer if one player’s goal is easier than another’s (like pass interference rules in football, or Mario Kart’s last-place-drives-faster thing). These functions are really important in games where players are competing and I think it’s clear that they’re trying to achieve a sense of fairness.
But RPGs are collaborative, right? The players shouldn’t be fighting each other and the GM shouldn’t be trying to beat the players. That’s true, in a sense, but the players are still sort of competing. They’re maybe competing for time in the spot light, or for their plan to be the one the group puts into action, etc. And if, as I said above, we’ve got a goal that everyone has the most fun possible, then we need a way to make sure one player doesn’t sort of run away with every single scene for the entire campaign. So the level of complexity might vary between Savage Worlds and GURPS, but they both provide a structure that allows the management of interactions between all the players (the GM is also a player for these purposes).
How Does That Serve The Story?
So then, if we understand why the game part of roleplaying has rules and the purpose that serves, what impact does that have on the story part of it? One easy answer you might come up with is that is enables suspense. Maybe “micro-suspense” is a better word: I’m thinking of that moment where the goon has rolled well on his to-hit roll and now you have to dodge. Right before you roll the dice, you can’t know what’ll happen. It’s exciting. That’s nice, and all, but that’s going on at a much more granular level than the level of the campaign story.
No, I think a much more fertile line of inquiry is in an aspect of roleplaying that’s absent from other story telling media: the players. In order for the players to enjoy roleplaying, they have to feel that they’re in control of their own destinies. They have to be able to build a model of the campaign world in their heads that’s accurate enough to make predictions about the outcomes of potential courses of actions. If they can’t do that, then they’re just acting (or not) at random and being told a story (or not), which is not really roleplaying except maybe under the most avant-garde definition.
What I’m getting at is that having a system of rules builds a framework for the players that they can use to build their model and know about how to manipulate the world around their characters. It’s a lot like the understanding of basic physics we develop when we’re very young that enables us to predict how things will fall or object permanence so that we know that things don’t just cease to exist when we can no longer see them. So the game part, which requires rules, acts as a foundation for world-level consistency for the story to hang off of. It’s possible to do without it, I’m sure, but I think everyone involved would have to agree to (or build an agreement over) a similarly complex set of assumptions and constants.
My wife’s cor-worker would, I’m sure, consider this entire post as evidence that I was taking it all too seriously, but, you know, this post isn’t really aimed at him. I didn’t know where this train of thought would lead me when I started writing it, but I think it’s led to some interesting places. Have you got an insights to share? Experience with people who took roleplaying too seriously? Not seriously enough? Let us know in the comments.
Sometimes Player Characters die. This usually happens for one of three reasons. One of the way that this occurs is when the GM feels like their role is to play the adversary for the players, and/or to give them the biggest challenge possible. For some play groups, this is the default mode, and how they like to play the game. The second way that this happens is when the GM gets so frustrated with their players that they just kill them off in a fit of godlike rage (rocks fall, you die).
The third way that you can have PCs eat it, the one that has happened to me, is when your players make a crucial mistake or a series of botched rolls and end up dead. While this is usually not a fun occurrence for the players, I actually think that it’s a good thing when this happens. Or rather, I believe that the real possibility that it can happen is critical to a fun experience.
Sometimes players do really dumb things, or at least decide to refrain from doing smart things. As a GM, it’s easy to feel an inclination to say “Are you sure that you want to punch the Voodoo Death Priest instead of talk to him first?” because the actions that the players have chosen would totally knock the adventure, or even the whole campaign, off the rails. What makes role-playing fun, though, what separates it from other mediums, is that things can go off the rails. In my experience, the best moments come not from the carefully arranged set pieces, but from the times when something crazy and unexpected happens and everyone is forced to react. If you, as a GM, discourage your players from making decisions that can have negative consequences, you’re also robbing them of those opportunities. Effectively, you’re railroading them and robbing them of their role in the collaborative storytelling.
As I’ve mentioned before, I ran a campaign set in the Old West with the addition of magic and the standard fantasy races. The Big Bad at the end of the campaign was the old Indian healer woman who lived outside of town. One of the PCs was left with her to be healed overnight, during which time she put him under a spell where she could control his mind. I kind of expected this to happen at some point, so I had a safety valve – a tribe of shamanistic Ute Indians that would take one look at the guy, see the spell on him, and remove it. This was supposed to be how they learned who the villain was. My players, on the other hand, never took the hints to go visit the Ute tribe. So when they got to the big battle at the end, instead of it being 3 PCs against 1 ancient sorceress, it was 2 PCs against an ancient sorceress and the other PC. This did not end well. You may not have noticed this in the history books, but the world was overrun with twisted hellbeasts that killed everybody in the year 1867.
As a GM, there were a few ways that I could have handled this. I could’ve dropped some heavy hints that they needed to go visit the Ute Indians before they went up to the old mine. Or I could have powered down the sorceress such that the 2 PCs had a better chance to succeed on their own. Or I could have given the mind-controlled PC some sort of dramatic opportunity to break the spell at the last minute. Any of these things might have given the players victory in the final battle. But it would have been a hollow victory, one that was given to them rather than earned. In the short term, that hollow victory might have been more fun. In the long run, however, anything that removes authorship from the players is damaging. And if they had somehow prevailed, their victory would have been all the sweeter. When the players know that the GM won’t bail them out when they make a bad decision, they also know that they are earning their victories. Your players aren’t 8-year-olds playing chess – they can tell when you’re letting them win, and it diminishes their fun.
Dice Don’t Lie
Sometimes your PCs eat it because they missed that one critical roll – or a series of rolls. The thief fails to detect the trap, then fails his dodge roll to avoid falling in the pit, then fails the dex roll to grab the ledge. Bad day for the thief. The GM, with their godlike powers, can save the thief’s life. They can have them miraculously land on a ledge. Or somehow miss the spikes at the bottom, taking significant but non-lethal damage. The GM can save the poor, innocent thief, who is doomed to die by no fault of their own. But they shouldn’t.
Once again, it’s a question of short-term vs long-term fun. In the short term, the player playing the thief would have more fun if the GM magicked up a way for them to live. In the long term, however, it breaks suspension of disbelief. Your players, perhaps unconsciously, become aware that you will save them when things go badly. As soon as they feel like they can’t lose, the game isn’t really fun anymore. It’s like playing a video game with the cheat codes on. For a little while, it’s awesome. You’re super-powerful and you can’t die and you can just run around causing mayhem with no consequences. After a while, the appeal wears off and the game loses its fun. When you save the players from bad die rolls, you turn on the cheat codes. Now that’s not to say that you shouldn’t give them some extra chances. I’m a big fan of the “well you fell off the cliff, but you still get a dex roll to grab on to a branch as you fall” approach. If it’s plausible, go with it.
The other lesson that I’ve taken from this is to avoid rolling the dice if you only want one outcome. If your player absolutely has to be able to leap across the chasm to save the princess, don’t make him roll for it. If it’s going to Rock More for the PCs to fall into the evil villain’s trap, don’t give them a chance to avoid it. As long as you’re doing it to tell a cooler story (and don’t do it too often), your players won’t mind. Similarly, if you have a player who is extremely skilled at something, to the extent that failing at it is an unreasonable outcome, don’t make them roll.
For example, I have had a couple campaigns with characters that were extraordinarily adept climbers, and they would routinely scale buildings to access the rooftops. If a normal character were going to attempt that feat, I would definitely make them roll for it. When the super-climber wants to do it, however, I would just let it happen. Why? For the same reason that you don’t make players roll dice to turn doorknobs, or walk through a room without stubbing their toe. 99% of the time, they’re going to make the roll anyway, so it’s just a waste of time. And in the 1% case where they miss the roll, it’s anticlimactic, jarring, and unfun.
There Are Always Exceptions
So you should always just let your players die? Well… as a general rule, yes. I wouldn’t say always. If you, as a GM, can find a way to creatively shove more Rockmost in to your campaign by letting a PC live, then go for it. Comic books do this constantly. In fact, they do it too often, and they’ve reached the “cheat mode” point where no reader ever expects a character to stay dead. There is one example, however, where this was used to terrific effect. The X-Men character Angel tries to kill himself after losing his wings. Apocalypse, a major X-Men antagonist and mad scientist type of the biological variety, saves his life. He enables Angel to grow new wings, made of razor-sharp metal, and brainwashes him to serve as one the Four Horsemen. He christens him Death, but when he inevitably returns to the side of the good guys, he called himself Archangel.
This was a terrific way to avoid character death – the character had something happen to them that was cool and interesting, and actually became significantly more interesting as a result. Perhaps even more importantly, it was plausible in the setting, and it was unexpected. Those should be your guidelines as a GM: if you’re thinking of intervening to save a PC from dying, it needs to be plausible, unexpected, and Rock More. Otherwise, just let ’em die. It’s more fun that way.