The Third Sin: Wrath
When something goes seriously awry in your game, resorting to the emotion of Wrath can be one of the most dangerous responses, both on part of the GM and the players. Other problems may arise at the gaming table, but Wrath is by far the most dangerous, both to the game itself and to the friendships involved. When you give way to anger in a game you endanger not only the tenuous fabric of your shared imagination, but also the very real and tangible friendships you have with your fellow gamers. It is very easy to get caught up in the action of the game, and the investment we put into it is not so easily dismissed, but it must be remembered that the essential purpose of gaming (at least for most of us) is to have fun.
When frustration, the harbinger of Wrath, and its lesser sibling, anger, are the main products of a gaming session it might just be time to step away from the table for a while. It is common to get …
frustrated (say with despondent players),
slighted (perhaps by another member of the party),
or heartbroken (it’s not easy to lose a character you’ve been playing for six months),
and anger is a natural response. I’m not sure if there really is a way to completely avoid the cycle of frustration, anger and Wrath in a gaming environment. When we take something as seriously as most of us do our gaming, then it is only natural that we will feel powerful emotions when something goes wrong. The only thing I have really learned from long and sometimes painful experience is that it does sometimes help to try to put it all in perspective, take a deep breath and repeat to yourself, “It’s only a game.”
I don’t mean this to in any way denigrate or make light of what we do as gamers. Obviously, I feel great passion for the game, or I wouldn’t have spent days, months, years and decades playing. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t think it was important. However, I am aware of the fact that we gamers sometimes do get carried away. Our passion for the game, a noble and laudable thing in and of itself, can take a dark turn. I have seen friendships end at the gaming table. Once, early on in high school, I actually witnessed one player attempt to strangle another over something that happened in game. I’m not talking about a little playful rough housing here; the victim was starting to turn blue when I pulled his assailant off of him. It later turned out that the aggressor was a bit of a disturbed person, and this is probably a very extreme case, but it may help illustrate why I take this particular gaming sin so seriously and why I may be a little overly reactive when addressing it.
How do you avoid the sin of Wrath? One way is to stay on top of potentially explosive situations and occasionally take a break if someone gets a little hot under the collar. If the anger is a reaction to something you control as the GM, use your godlike powers to intervene. Perhaps your duelist villain has just landed a series of zinging “ad hominem” attacks on one of your more insecure and less quick-tongued players. If the player responds in kind, so much the better, but if he or she over-identifies with the character’s faults and begins to get truly upset, break the tension. Have the duelist screw something up to take the sting out of the attack; let the watching crowd boo his latest witticism. You might even throw out another insult that splutters and falls flat. The trick is turning real wrath into constructive, “in-character” anger. It’s great if the players hate your major bad guy. Things are a little less pleasant when they hate you. When things don’t always go perfectly for the villain, they’re less likely to see you as synonymous with him.
The other major generator of Wrath comes from within the party. Often one player will become upset with another player, for a real or imagined slight in or out of the game, and decide to take out his or her anger within the game. Whether this stems from something that happened at the table, or is the result of external factors, your response is the same: deal with it. Ideally, deal with it in-game.
As GM you are the “referee” of fun; it is your job to make sure everyone enjoys himself or herself. This is not really such a monstrous task (remember those godlike powers) as it might seem, and there are plenty of opportunities to soothe the savage tempers of your players. If the other players don’t step in, you need to act to bring them out of conflict. If you can’t just reason with them (perhaps through an NPC), you may need to take more drastic action.
One technique that works well is to present an external threat that forces them to band together to overcome it; it may be a bit clichéd, but clichés work. I think of this as the “Battle of the Five Armies” strategy. Another possibility is to make one player reliant on another for assistance. If you notice a building hostility between two players, give one of them a resource that can help or save the rival character. Most players are friends, and given the chance to remember this mutual affinity, that fact will win out.
There are a few general comments left to make on the subject, mostly a series of “caveats.” I do not subscribe to the idea that inner-party conflict builds useful tension. It might work well in play-by-mail games or special settings (like the old game Paranoia), wherein anger is held at bay by distance or humor. But, in a traditional game it doesn’t have much of a place. Someone will always end up feeling slighted, and in this kind of situation they’ll probably also feel like you’re ganging up on them. On the other hand, if the players develop a friendly rivalry (or even a not so friendly one if they are good players who can separate the game from reality) and they obviously have it under control, you don’t have to squash it just to avoid a disaster in the future. What is important to watch for in cases like this is a mutual agreement to be at odds. If they both accept it for what it is, and use the opportunity to build their characters, then it’s good. If one feels threatened, or if it’s unilateral, then it might be time to step in. †