While this is not as much an issue with a lot of fantasy games, where the players are off exploring or doing whatever in a wilderness setting, modern and science fiction games — particularly where the players’ characters are part of a larger organization — can have an issue where players are quick to either slough off the danger or responsibility on NPCs.

Having characters tap their contacts, allies, or superiors for help occasionally is a good thing — it gives them a chance to interact with their organization, which makes it more real, but also more comforting; it also gives the GM the opportunity to use a deus ex machina at the behest of the players without it seeming too pat. But once a team starts calling on aid too often, it’s likely to bring their competency into question by the powers that be. Here are a few instances of how calling the office for help can be used, and a few ideas for controlling over-dependence on the NPCs for help:

They’re Turning My Car Into Swiss Cheese! I Need Backup Now! Now, goddammit!

There are times the players are going to be in too deep. That’s part of the challenge. And sometimes, they’re going to need help. If that help is “cinematically appropriate” or something likely to happen, go for it.

David One-Four, officer needs assistance! In a game where the players are a police officer, a federal agent, a soldier on the battlefield, calling for help is sometimes just a radio call away. Say your team walks into the largest drug deal in history (’til the next one), and you are out-gunned and pinned down. Calling for assistance is certainly reasonable, and hopefully will even get there in time.

In a system with rules for contacts, or getting favors, etc. this might help manage response time to a call for help. Otherwise, it’s always good to keep the players right on the edge of their seat, then bail them out at the last minute. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to chase the big bad guy through [appropriate action set piece] to catch him, it just means the mooks that have been making life a bit too hard are distracted or dispatched by the backup.

Longhorn, Devil Niner — I need a fire order at the following grid… In a military-themed game, this might scale to something like calling in a fire order from artillery or an air strike. (Come on…you know you want to…) It’s a way to make things hard enough on the players to be very challenging, yet give them a pathway to success if they can’t handle it on their own.

In a spy game, calling for help is the last thing you want to do unless you have to…

But say they call for help a bit too often, or turn to the NPCs the moment there’s any opposition. How do you handle that?

David One-Four, backup dispatched. Estimate 15 minutes… A good one is time constraints. Backup is too far away, or your division is too jammed up, or maybe that self-righteous spat in the locker room with another detective got you the Serpico treatment. Either way, no one’s showing until the music is long over…

Say again, Devil Niner? Another is comms trouble. How many times has your cell phone dropped a call for no reason at all? Radio frequencies get stepped on by other transmissions, or buildings mask the signal. Maybe that new guy didn’t programs the PLGR for the radio before you left the FOB. Or that planet you landed on plays havoc with your communicator. For whatever reason, you can’t get a call through. You can leave them hanging for longer than they’d like, or leave them to twist. Another good variant is the message is garbled enough that you get a worse result…like when your artillery starts raining fire on you.

For an espionage game, any communication with the home office is a chance for either interception of your calls, the bad guys locating you or sending someone as “help”, but actually to stop you. Worse, your organization could get nervous about the outcome of your little op that wasn’t quite sanctioned in that particular country and your are suddenly deniable. No help. Find your own extraction. Hope to see you again. If they don’t just burn you, or send someone to clean up your mess…including you.

Reduction in rank or responsibility is a very real penalty in all of these situations, especially if it’s obvious that the players were shirking their duties.

…Requesting Further Instruction!

In most game scenarios, we can assume that — unless being in the dark was part of the challenge — the players got some kind of mission briefing, or have some kind of rules of engagement. There’ a goal and parameters to work inside. But sometimes, you get overtaken by events and need some clarification:

Yamato, We’ve encountered a possible new lifeform… Sometimes, you were just to darned clever  for the players (or were unprepared and haven’t explained things particularly well) and they need help. Letting them tap that expert in exobiology, or criminal law, or calling a language expert back in Ft. Meade, or some other subject matter expert can help get a story back on the rails.

Big Bear, Duchess: Flash mission update! Another scenario where calling for further instruction from the hierarchy might be when the players discover some element of the plot that the bosses might need to know, or something has happened that would cause you to exceed your orders. Say that convoy of weapons you were supposed to stop managed to get past you with some super weapon or crossed a border into a country denied to you. Do you go in? Do you call for permission?

Superintendent, you won’t believe where the money trail leads to… Maybe that criminal investigation got a lot more interesting than you expected. Following the money, you’ve started turning up people of power — the sort that can shut your op down if they get word, or which you simply won’t be allowed to go after unless you can get cover from the higher-ups. This is an appropriate time to check in with the powers-that-be. Remember that golden rule of politics…don’t surprise your bosses.

Sometimes, however, the players are looking for a gimme…at times like that, it’s time to use the magical power of bureaucratic sloth or expectation against the players:

If you can’t handle it, Lieutenant, I’ll find someone who can! Say your mission was to beam down to a planet and observe a lesser advanced species of aliens without revealing yourself. Calling the ship to ask the science officer or captain for instructions every time you get stumped might see you recalled in favor of a “more competent officer.”

You’re on the ground, Devil Niner, not me! You’ve stumbled onto the enemy in a place they’re not supposed to be and the rest of the force is otherwise engaged…it’s you, or it’s nobody. What’re you going to do, sergeant? Let your force get flanked?

I’m not putting myself on the chopping block… Never underestimate the power of covering your own ass. Maybe your investigation is likely to embarrass someone to powerful to get to. The heat hasn’t even started to come down, but your boss isn’t going to stick his neck out for the chop this close to his pension. All that work — great stuff and you’ll get a commendation, but now it’s over…just let me know where you don’t want to go in the department so I can get you where you (don’t) want to go.

Do you know how expensive it is to retask a satellite!?!  Another given, bureaucracies don’t like to commit resources they don’t have to. Maybe you need a satellite retasked — nope! Maybe you want a mini-sub to infiltrate an area, but the navy isn’t playing along. Oh, you want an Aston Martin, Mr. Bond — you know how many £150,000 automobiles you’ve destroyed this quarter? Here’s a Vauxhall.

This is one of those things where the GM has to be aware of how often and how quickly the players resort to calling for aid or instruction when they are stumped.