Okay, so you’re working at the diner and the lunch rush has just come and gone. You’re tired, looking forward to a fifteen minute break, but still have a few tables to clean up. Just as you head to the first table in walks six burly guys armed to the teeth.
Three of them have AK-47s strapped to their backs, one has a gad-damned rocket propelled grenade launcher, the other two have multiple pistols. They’re all wearing flak armor and have various knives and assorted ammunitions strapped all over the place. They’re covered in a network of scars from previous violence. They all take a set then call for sausage and biscuits.
What do you do?
Some people might back away as quickly as possible and call the cops. Some people might just run. A few might look over their shoulders nervously and keep their distance. Not a lot of people are just going to go about their day and treat the situation as normal.
Now let’s think about this in the context of an RPG. Those armed men that walked into the diner: they’re a lot like many a group of PCs. And I’ve seen a lot of groups that assume they can walk around everywhere armed to the teeth. The problem is that this really stretches suspension of disbelief for me. It also undermines the value of weapons that are specifically useful simply because they can be easily concealed (ex: small knives).
Now, I understand that there are genres and situations where it’s normal to go around armed all the time. No one is going to question being armed to the teeth in a cinematic post-apocalyptic wasteland, on a military sci-fi mission or question carrying a pistol in a western. But there are just as many genres—say, urban fantasy or low-key noir—where it’s going to attract a lot of attention.
The question then is: as a GM, how do you handle this situation in play? Reading through different games I’ve seen a lot of advice regarding this over the years. The most common advice I’ve seen boils down to apply social penalties and have it cause complications. And there’s something to be said for this. But in my experience this generally results in one of two PC behaviors: Either the PCs nominate one character to be their “face guy” who goes unarmed and does the walking to try to get around the penalties, or the PCs provoke a confrontation. Both of these are problematic.
Let’s start with the latter case: provoking a confrontation. It’s probably pretty obvious why this can be a problem. Confrontations can easily escalate and consume a campaign. I’ve seen this happen a bunch in World of Darkness games. A game which is initially about investigating a cabal of vampires escalates into a shootout with the police, a high-speed chase, wanted posters and breaking into stores in the dead of night to restock on ammo. At this point the campaign is no longer about investigating a cabal of vampires, so much as it is about evading the human authorities.
The former situation—using a face guy—can also be a problem, although it’s more nuanced. In this case the PCs are really trying to skirt the “spirit of the law” behind “apply social penalties for walking around like Rambo” by separating their armaments from the guy making the roll. Think of it this way: Six burly men get out a truck outside the local box store, five of them armed to the teeth. The one who’s unarmed goes inside, flashes his charming smile, then buys a shopping cart full of ammunition and some sundries. He goes outside and then distributes the ammo to the heavily armed guys who then drive away.
Okay, realistically the face guy might be able to pull that off without anyone calling the cops. He might even be able to pull that off multiple times. But eventually it’s going to catch up to him. Someone’s going to see him associating with “armed gang members,” see him buying things for them and put two and two together. And for the still-armed PCs, even if they’re not making social rolls, cops tend to keep their eye on someone walking around armed.
So here’s how using a face guy is still a problem: It’s trying to skirt the spirit of “social penalties for walking around armed” but really it’s just delaying the inevitable. Eventually either everyone has to swallow their suspension of disbelief regarding the PCs walking around armed, or a confrontation is going to have to be provoked.
So then, if the usual advice doesn’t work all that well, what do I suggest? Mostly I suggest exactly what I’ve just been arguing against, but with a few caveats.
Let’s look for a moment at why players might have their PCs walk around armed to the teeth. The answer is usually that there’s an obvious mechanical benefit to having their arms and armaments ready at a moment’s notice. At the same time “you may suffer social penalties for walking around armed” is pretty nebulous and when players are forced to choose between an obvious mechanical benefit with non-obvious nebulas drawbacks and not having that benefit, they may often choose the benefit.
So my first advice is: make the social drawbacks obvious, and do this at the at the point in time when they’re choosing whether to walk around armed or not, rather than when the social interaction starts happening.
My next point of advice is: Think before confrontations are provoked, and try to provoke them using events that are unlikely to escalate into a bloodbath. For example, instead of cops shooting at PCs because a confrontation has been provoked, the cops can go get a warrant and raid the PCs’ place, taking a bunch of stuff as evidence. The authorities can look for petty excuses to hit the PCs with fines. The press can take notice and plaster their faces all over the news, making it more difficult to slip places undetected. Store keepers can simply refuse to do business with them. Some of these escalations may also require some suspension of disbelief, but so long as it’s less suspension of disbelief than walking around armed all the time, it’s the lesser evil.
My final piece of advice is to think before giving players reason to want to walk around armed all the time. PCs are going to get the most benefit out of walking around armed when they’re worried about being ambushed or forced to fight at a moment’s notice. If these situations don’t arise in the campaign, the PCs aren’t going to benefit from it, and are going to have less incentive to do it.
And that’s my advice. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it will hopefully make handling it easier.