IC actions and IC consequences: A critique
This article was written for us by Brian aka Crimsyn from the USS Portland in Obsidian Fleet.
If you poke around the internet, you’ll see that a lot of the simms out there have something in their rules to the effect of “IC actions have IC consequences,” often putting various degrees of emphasis on this statement, such as “if you write your character jumping out of the airlock, your character is going to be dead.” It is so popular that it has somehow become almost a clichéd truism in the world of simming, commonly cited by players and GMs alike.
And yet, it is one that has always bugged me. It’s like the simming equivalent of “support the troops” – a somewhat harmless statement on its own, but one which carries with it a lot of implications and other baggage, to the point that it becomes an almost propagandistic thought-terminating cliché, invoked whenever someone’s writing and its effects on other characters are questioned.
Of course, the idea that actions have consequences is necessary to our storytelling. Without a cause and effect relationship, we wouldn’t really have a coherent story, but more of a bunch of random events that happen. In that sense, there is nothing wrong with the idea that actions have consequences; in fact, it is necessary that they do. But where it starts getting tricky is when we start breaking that statement down.
Generally, the idea of “IC actions = IC consequences” is meant as an exhortation to writers to think of the consequences of their characters’ actions before taking them in an effort to write a realistic piece of fiction. For example, if you don’t want your character to spend some time in the brig, it might be a good idea to wear pants while on duty like all Starfleet officers would realistically do. That’s all well and good, but coming at it this way can make consequences seem like punishments, which are no fun for anyone.
Further, while in-character actions tend to have consequences, what those consequences are is often up to interpretation. If I write my character running into a room and opening fire on a bunch of Jem’hadar soliders, what is the consequence of that? Does my character kill all the Jem’hadar, get killed himself, or somewhere in between? Do we go with the most likely result, or do we get to bend the laws of physics and probability as every Starfleet officer who isn’t a redshirt does from time to time? And who decides all of this?
Unfortunately, when people say IC actions have IC consequences, often what they really mean is “IC actions have IC consequences, I get to decide what those consequences are, and if you don’t like it, sit down and suck it up.”
I’ll give an example. Many years ago, I was on a simm and my character was leading an away team. I had written a post with some other players where we had found some bodies of soldiers who had been killed with some kind of new weapon. Somewhere in the middle of that post, I wrote my character as having contacted the ship to beam the bodies to sickbay for an autopsy, something I thought was a reasonable thing to do at the time.
Unfortunately, the Chief Medical Officer didn’t agree, and the next day I woke up to her doing a post where the bodies just appeared in sickbay without warning, in violation of dozens of safety protocols and causing the entire sickbay to be locked down for potential biohazards. My character was reamed out six ways from Sunday by the CMO and the command staff, and as a player, I started to get so frustrated that I stopped logging in for a while.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but after some reflection, I saw what the problem was. I had my character perform an action, and ended up with a bunch of consequences that I didn’t intend, had no input in coming up with, and didn’t enjoy writing. It ended up with my character being portrayed less as the competent Starfleet officer that I was going for, and more of an imbecile who can’t even follow basic safety procedures. And I was stuck with the unfun task of writing this guy as he got chewed out for it. As a player, I felt written into a corner, and any protestations of mine about this would have fell on deaf ears, as “IC actions have IC consequences.”
“But it’s what my character would do!”
Of course, it’s not always a question of player versus environment. Sometimes these questions can arise in a situation of an interaction between two players, where one PC takes an action and the other PC reacts to it. Here, the phrase “IC actions have IC consequences” is often coupled with the old cop-out “it’s what my character would do!” This too, can cause problems. I’ve written before on the importance of stepping outside of your character and doing what’s best for the story, so I won’t repeat my arguments here, but suffice it to say, I believe we as writers always have choices and we should use our creativity to expand the possibilities for interesting stories rather than limiting ourselves to the one possibility we think is most likely, regardless of whether it is fun or not.
Further, the “it’s what my character would do” defense contradicts the notion of IC actions having IC consequences as it is normally used, to exhort players to consider the consequences of their actions before they do something that might be considered stupid. Saying “it’s what my character would do” takes away one’s agency as a player, which is exactly the opposite of what the notion of IC actions and consequences is urging one to do – use one’s agency as a player to have your character not do things that you wouldn’t like writing the consequences of.
So, what should we do?
From time to time, I GM Dungeon World. It’s a very simple and flexible tabletop RPG system which places story first in a way that few others do. As the GM, that means I’m often put in the position of deciding what the consequences should be when a player throws the dice and a low number comes up (low numbers being bad). But as a proud lazy GM, sometimes I won’t feel like thinking up a consequence and turn it back on the player. I’ll say something like “Okay, so your character was trying to swing into combat on that vine and start stabbing those orcs, but you rolled a 2. What do you think happens?”
You might be surprised to find out that instead of saying something like “the vine breaks and my character falls, but fortunately his fall is broken by a pile of gold, big enough to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams,” the player will often come up with a consequence for failure that is even harsher than what I had in mind. And yet, it’s guaranteed to be a consequence that he as a player enjoys because it’s something that he came up with himself.
That’s the magic of collaboration. When you collaborate on consequences, or even give the decision to the other player whole-hog, your chance of ending up with a consequence that people end up being frustrated over approaches zero. And as a player or a GM, collaboration allows you to unlock story possibilities beyond your wildest dreams. Trying to single-handedly impose consequences on others, whether as a player or a GM, often leads to frustration and ruin.
While in-character actions do lead to consequences, what those consequences are is open to question. The best consequences are those which follow logically from the action, which are cool and interesting, which players collaborate to create, and which no one feels like they are feeling punished because of. This way, no one feels like they’ve been written into an uncomfortable corner and everyone has fun.