|How most of my players react when they read the subject of the post|
By way of example, in a Burning Wheel game I ran one of my players had constructed an entire family for his character. He was a human raised by Great Wolves. They were his pack, his home. They were in a world that was poisoned by undead stars that had touched down and wilted everything around them. Well, a lot of stars had hit the earth and the world was roamed by millions of undead. The players were in custody of the one live star that had touched down, who had the ability to reverse the effects of the others. She had also transformed "Mowgli's" favorite wolf brother into her protector. The players guarded the both of them. Understandably the undead in charge had issue with this. The story was a game of cat-and-mouse, with the undead trying to catch the star and the players trying to keep her free until they could figure out how she could reverse the undeath of their world. This included a love triangle between the players and the "female" star and touched on a lot of themes of love and family when you threw in the great wolf pack. And, for eight sessions, it was perfect.
No, I didn't kill the guy's family. I did a lot worse.
The players had found a hideout under a tree, gifted to them by a kindly elf. One day they came home and found the tree the hideout was under on fire. Running downstairs they found their elven compatriot was twisted into something horrific, something they couldn't understand. Most of the wolves lay dead at the "elf"'s feet, except for Mowgli's mother. After a tense fight the corrupted elf lay dead at their feet. Mowgli went looking for his mother and found her, in the next room, long dead. His least favorite brother was still alive and cursed him to his face, telling him that Chosen brother had been taken as part of the fight. Mowgli got his hearbroken (and asshole) brother to team up with him one last time to find their brother. And find him they did. He'd been horrifically corrupted, a source of evil. This was the point that I wanted Mowgli at. Who was he when his family was mostly dead, he was stuck with the family he didn't like, and the his favorite brother was an agent of evil?Mowgli practically went to the edge of the world to save his brother. He never gave up on him.The game ended right before they actually saved the world, mostly because of time constraints, but the question that I intuitively felt the game to be about was answered. Mowgli was a hero. It was an honest answer and one of the best I'd gotten in years.
But getting at an honest answer out of people is not easy. People will tell you what they think you want to hear, as opposed to what's actually true and that's not satisfying for anyone. Unfortunately the only way to actually know what a character is to tell them they're full of crap and to push them to tell the truth. Of course they have to construct what they think is an answer first, and that may take some time to extract that "pretend" answer from them. But once I'm satisfied with their "statement", which can take months, I start to strip away the things that they say they are. Define yourself as a lonely badass? As time goes on more and more will be piled on you until your character and the setting break from the stress of not relying on anyone. Obsessed with your kingdom? It will stab you in the back right when you're not looking, and it will hurt. Love your little girl? Something's going to happen to her, it's going to be your fault, and she'll know it was you. The question that I ask to all of these situations is the same each and every time: now what? In a moment of nakedness what do you, the player, want to do? All the things you put your hope in in the game are gone, who are you without them?
Once that answer is extracted you repeat the process as many times your players allow you to. You play out the consequences of this new-found belief and let them get soft and secure in it, which makes the decision eventually ring false. You then break that answer, subverting it and breaking whatever emotional bones you have to to get a new answer.
I don't pretend to be very good at this. Some games I manage to get it right, and others I don't. Sometimes it comes out as a beautiful masterpiece, other times as a half-strangled yelled, and other times it... sorta works. But sadistic? Nah, not really. I don't revel in the pain I've caused players because the pain just isn't the point. I want an answer, a real one, one that will stick with everyone at the table for years to come. And that means pain, unfortunately.
But wait, isn't it just a game?
Ha! You wish!