Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Ballad of Johnny Ace

Today I tell you the story of Johnny Ace. It's a cautionary tale going waaaay back to the early 1990s and the second-ever Cyberpunk 2020 game run by yours truly. Every new Cyberpunk player at my table hears this story their first session, so that they understand what kind of game they're playing.

In my first-ever game, the three PCs were an unstoppable wrecking crew. I wanted to challenge them. So the Viking-themed drugrunners they were fighting brought in an ace -- Johnny Ace. He was an NPC Solo (the game's best combat class) built with regular PC rules. And I rolled him up with the best Cyberpunk rolls I've ever made in my life. He was an Olympic athlete, a genius, a man whose core humanity was so deep that he could have ridiculous amounts of cyberware without any risk of cyberpsychosis. No cheating on my part; he was just that good. And during the climactic firefight (there was always a climactic firefight in those days) he was going to round a corner and teach the PCs the meaning of fear...

The firefight starts. Our PCs are pushing back the Viking gang. Some kind of signal is given, and around the corner comes the infamous hired gun Johnny Ace, bristling with weapons and moving at top speed to plow through the surprised PCs. Initiative is rolled. One PC beats Johnny. A gun is aimed, fired, the bullet hits Johnny in the head, plows through his top-quality armor, drops him dead on the spot. No way to escape it. The best Cyberpunk character I ever committed to paper, and he didn't survive long enough to take a single action.

"That," I tell my new Cyberpunk players, "is what can happen to you in this game. You have been warned."

Some sentences just show up, demanding to be written. Sentences like my first response to Untimately's question #2:

"2. How are death and dying handled? -- Rarely. If your character dies, either you wanted it or you're an idiot. Trust me; you'll have plenty of other losses along the way."

My second question #11 gets at the same thing. There are some contexts where the specter of sudden death is part of the fun, like Cyberpunk or Call Of Cthulhu. It creates certain expectations that player and GM alike can do neat stuff with. But I think it's a bad default for RPGs in general. My Mattifesto series got into this at some length. Apparently I also shoot from the hip on it. For most games, I think, instant unearned death is not-fun, that mysterious substance that reduces the amount of fun available. Other bad things are fine, but your PC is someone you presumably wanted to play. The GM, who controls all other things in the game world, should let you have that PC until you're tired of it.

Sadly for Johnny Ace, I don't extend that security blanket to Cyberpunk. And he was an NPC anyway. Rest in pieces, Johnny.


  1. For most games, I think, instant unearned death is not-fun

    I agree, but the key word is "unearned" here.

    When I use save or die (or similar mechanics) they represent a last ditch chance after a player has already messed up. The alternative is "just die." The save is a get out of jail free card.

    That being said, the player has to be able to gather information to be able to make smart decisions. Clues must be placed alongside deadly traps. Otherwise you are playing Russian Roulette, not D&D. There is an aspect of social contract here: players need to trust you not to include the equivalent of "rocks fall, everyone dies" on a whim.

  2. That seems like a good use of the mechanic -- one last branch you can grab for as you plummet into the abyss. In a situation where a player's mistakes, odd judgements, and/or poor rolls are about to cost them their character, it's very sporting to give them one last shot at salvation. And I agree with you 100% about giving them clues and information. Not only is it fair, it's more fun in play.

    I'm still not fond of PC death, from either side of the screen, because I find the threat thereof to *reduce* my interest in the game, rather than *enhance* it in the fashion some folks describe. There are plenty of other ways to threaten a character (and/or a player) without that, particularly since I don't allow resurrection in anything I run. Dead is dead. So I'm more comfortable letting the player determine when their character should die.

  3. I've been thinking about this more, and one of the aspects of tabletop RPGs that really distinguishes them from other art and narrative forms is the lack protagonist plot immunity. It is really not possible to get the same effect in a novel or movie because you know the end has been planned by someone, and that end may have meaning other than the story itself (the sequence of events). The dice (when respected) protect the players (including the referee) from such manipulation.

    I'm not saying this is always better or always fun, but it is a unique potential only available in RPGs.

    1. A very good point. There are no guaranteed outcomes in a "real" RPG,* and that is unique to this particular form. I'd say it extends well past plot immunity, or character death, or whatever you want to call it. In an RPG, unless your GM is hopelessly determinist, things can unfold in unforeseen ways, and nobody is safe from the consequences of their actions.

      I still prefer to remove "death" as one of those consequences unless a player specifically wants it or is specifically stupid. I'll cripple you, I'll rob you, your NPCs will abandon you, your possessions will crumble, your land will burn, your mind will shatter from the cosmic secrets you carry... but as a player, you made the choice to Be This Particular Character. I think it's wrong for a GM to take that character away under most circumstances. Not everyone agrees with that, nor should they. I just know that, when I'm playing, I want to be the character I made. It feels like the GM is stepping outside acceptable bounds if my character gets killed for something other than flagrant or repeated stupidity.

      That said, I have players (and GMs) who feel differently, and we all have fun together.

      * I'm excluding games like My Life With Master from the RPG category here, as do all right-thinking people except Greg Costikyan.

  4. Timely post. I'm going to be starting involvement in a bi-weekly Cyberpunk sandbox game on Thursday and the GM has talked a lot about the lethality of the system and lack of PC or NPC immunity. I'll link this article to my group as an excellent example.

    (From the title of the post, I thought at first this was going to have something to do with the real-life Johnny Ace. Ironically, he too died of a gunshot wound to the head, although in his case it was self-inflicted.)

  5. As SPECIAL BONUS CONTENT for your group (and Brendan and anyone else who likes Cyberpunk), here's what happened on my third-ever game of Cyberpunk.

    The character who shot Johnny Ace in the head? He got shot in the head. Nearly nearly nearly died -- I fudged a roll so he could survive long enough for a stolen Trauma Team card to be used and the Trauma Team themselves to be browbeaten into saving his life. In hindsight, I should probably have just let him die, but I had a genuinely unhappy player on my hands and it seemed like the best answer at the time.