How to Make a Character Do Something Foolhardy

Into every plot, a few regrettable–sometimes even downright stupid–actions tend to fall. Let’s face it, they make for better conflict, and sometimes half the fun is watching the character or characters pick up their own messes. On the other hand, GMs run the risk of players just not taking the bait, and writers run the risk of those characters who do take the bait being labeled too stupid to live. That isn’t to say we should never assume anyone won’t make the wrong decision at all, nor that we should never plan around them doing so, just that if we want it to happen, that regrettable action needs to fit the old phrase, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” But how?

Before the decision point arrives, try to put them in a state where they’re not thinking clearly. For the character, mind-altering substances can do the job, but I prefer strong emotions, since those are both highly effective and (particularly important for the GM) legal to hit the players with. High-immersion players are really good for this! This can be part of the encounter itself–that really obnoxious opponent who won’t stop pushing the characters’ buttons, the very palpable risk that the character or something/someone they value will be destroyed beyond hope of recovery–or they can be primed with a slightly earlier trauma, like one of those Everything You Ever Based Your Identity On Is a Lie revelations (use these sparingly, mind). They tend to do things to people’s judgment–just what you want.

Present as few alternatives as possible. The kinds of regrettable decisions we’re looking for are a lot more believable, and a lot more forgivable, when the situation is framed as a lesser of two evils choice or as an Act? [Y/N] conundrum than when there is an obviously better choice and the characters just aren’t taking it. That, and while players are good at finding the third way, it’s harder for them than just going with an option that’s clearly in front of them. I find the optimal setup involves a choice between a. acting and accepting a high risk for a rather small chance to avert a negative outcome and b. not acting, avoiding the risk, but guaranteeing a negative outcome.

Add a time crunch! The biggest reason for a character to be labeled Too Stupid To Live is that their actions caused the audience to scream out “What was she thinking?” How better to counter that than to not give the character time to think? The choice needs to be made, and if it isn’t made now, any proactive options are going to be Lost Forever, or the Thing the Character Is Trying to Avert is going to happen, so any reasonable person is going to grab the best-looking option and run with it. (For extra credit, make the desired/foolhardy option the one that hesitating will run the character out of time on. We humans can be so silly about those rapidly closing doors.)

Make the option you want them to take look like the better choice–safer, saner, reasonable. Of course this character looks trustworthy. The risk seems low, the threat far away. That obstacle shouldn’t be that hard to make it over. For an added bonus, have it play the character’s strengths, and from there to their pride; of course they’re good enough to pull that off in time! Similarly, you can play to the character’s self-image; it’s much easier to get a character to take the kind of path that she knows she’s the kind of person who would take.

Prime the characters properly, and their foolhardy choices will fall safely into the category of surprising but inevitable.

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