(by Keith Done)
At a recent meeting I decided to start running a role playing group, made up primarily of some of our
younger members with a couple of adults acting as mentors. During the day quite a few very funny situations arose and it reminded me of all those great moments that have occurred over the past 30 years when running various RPG campaigns. I thought I would share one each week on the site.
Triggering Emotion: When RPGs Become Dramatic
On the whole RPG’s I have run are pretty light-hearted affair; players fight the baddies, grab loot and pursue their goals in the game. However sometimes, under the right circumstances, genuine emotion creeps into the game, usually as a combination of the players immersion in their characters and the NPCs portrayed by the DM and the circumstances that the DM puts the players in. Emotions can run from something like elation at completing a really difficult scenario to that quiet sad moment when a player of much-loved NPC bites the dust. Let me share a few examples from campaigns I have run over the past 30 years.
Players encounter monsters on a regular basis in an RPG. Should they be scared? If I was confronting some of the things out of the Monster Manual, in reality, I’d need a change of underwear. But players usually quietly analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the terrifying beast that the DM has unleashed on them; they prepare correct spells and send in the tanks to do a lot of hacking and slashing. They rarely display any trepidation or fear in engaging these creatures.
But not all the time….
I recall one game where the players were hunting down a werewolf. The foul creature had attacked some local villagers and escaped into the countryside. The players were tracking it down and I decided to add some circumstances gleaned from Hollywood movies to the mix. I introduced a fog that arose as the sun slowly sunk into the west. This limited their vision and I began to describe strange snuffling sounds out there in the fog and the occasional sound of something big moving past relatively close by. Players told me they were peering into the darkness and fog to see if they could see anything. When they turned back to their companions to discuss matters at hand, I’d say, “They are not there, you lost them in the fog while you were intently looking for the werewolf”.
As players became isolated from each other, in the dark, with a monster out there somewhere, a general nervousness began to be shared around the gaming table. Players began to become very quiet and start expressing their plight with various expletives. I then told them of a baleful howling nearby and introduced a looming farmhouse and barn, with the bodies of slaughtered farm-hands scattered about the area that one player virtually tripped over. Affected by the discomfort of imaging their situation in the game, the players were reunited by retreating to the barn. Here they would be safe. They all made it there and, together they slammed shut the big barn doors and bolted them.
As they all came down from a real adrenalin rush after being creeped out by being lost in the fog, their fear was replaced by that particular kind of laughter that only comes from release after an emotional rush. I then quietly informed them that they heard the sound of claws being slowly dragged along the length of the barn, the sound moving relentlessly toward the rear of the structure. The players, as one, turned from the main doors and took in the rest of the barn.
To this day, I clearly remember everyone’s face as I said, “You can see the rest of the barn in the dim light and the scratching sound continues down the far wall. At the opposite end of the barn you see a small back entry. It’s open, the door gently creaking in the wind. A set of long fingers with three inch
long razored claws, curl around the door-frame as you watch….”
I looked up from my DM notes to see five people with their mouth hanging open. There was a moment of absolute silence before everyone completely panicked, shouting out what they were doing. The battle was on and they soon slipped into that old familiar combat routine, but the journey getting to that moment was what made the game that night.
While discussing how players usually react to nasty creatures, I must mention my son Alex. He has only recently been introduced to role-playing games and, while all the seasoned adult players engage in combat easily and expect Alex to be a co-operative member of the fighting team, Alex experiences the game in a more realistic manner. A few months ago he was playing a Ranger and the party he was with encountered a huge rabid grizzly bear, charging through the woods at them.
The Fighter prepared his trusty great club; the Wizard unleashed a Magic Missile spell, the Cleric took up a supportive position with the Fighter. And Alex? He rapidly climbed a tree, crying out to the others, “What the hell are you guys dong, it’s a huge freakin’ bear!”
Although Alex statistically was one of the party’s better fighting assets, the players were unable to convince him to come down and help, as the bear began to beat the snot out of them. Many combat rounds later, the others had joined Alex up his tree! He continues to have a reputation of being reluctant to fight big nasty things with lots of teeth, although he doesn’t mind taking on the odd goblin or two.
Sadness (and Anger)
In a game I have been running this year, the group ‘adopted’ a young 12 year old girl called Kaeleen who they discovered was the daughter of a thuggish man who would beat her. One member of the party, a thief named Sky, secretly worships an evil Goddess and took particular interest in the girl, only from the point of view that he could eventually hand her over to his temple for induction into the cult. Kaeleen interacted with the group for a number of sessions and they were wary of the influence of Sky over the child, resulting in a few angry exchanges and warnings to the hedonistic thief. They had begun to form an attachment to the NPC.
The party were navigating a remote river system in canoes and they became the prey of a rather wily Wyvern whose hunting grounds encompassed the river, happy to find a larger meal than fish. It descended upon the players, targeting morsels it could easily carry off to its lair and eat at its leisure.
On the menu were Kaeleen and Sencheena (a belligerent Halfling Wizard). The Wyvern dive-bombed the canoe and missed its target on its first run. One of the players put up a fog cloud around the canoes to hide them from the Wyvern. The creature continued to attack but with reduced hits, while the players fired arrows back and Sencheena fired off Magic Missiles (which always hit and really started to hurt the Wyvern!
I had decided that the Wyvern would withdraw to lick its wounds as the Halfling’s spells were taking their toll on the beast. I did a last strafing run and, because of the fog, determined a random character. Unfortunately, little Kaeleen got hit by its tail and, although the damage was slight, she failed a DEX Check and was hurled out of the boat. At that moment in time, the only player who was aware Kaeleen was in the water was Sky – and Sky does not lift a finger to help anyone, if it puts him in possible danger. He didn’t say a word as Kaeleen floated away downstream. The others were alerted to her plight by her cries of, “Help me Uncle Sky…please help me!”
The emotional stress (and anger) in the party at that time was palatable. A much loved NPC was in peril and the players knew Sky had cut her loose (but their characters didn’t know that!) The Wyvern dived in to grab up the struggling Kaeleen in its claws and as it tried to make good its escape, a player spent some Hero Points to lasso the beast. Hooray! The heroes were going to save the child; a wave of triumph swept across the table. Then I had them make a DC check on the rope and, to their horror, it snapped! The Wyvern was free and, despite a few final volleys from Sancheena, it escaped with the girl in its claws.
There was a sense of loss at the table that evening and you could feel the sadness for the loss of (a non-existent) child. However there was also the anger that continued to brim over at the actions of Sky. Quite a few questions were levelled at him to try and bring out what had happened, so players could take action against him. But Sky skilfully dodged them and they still continue to be unaware of the true circumstances surrounding Kaeleens’s death.
Now reading the Pathfinder Bestiary, I noted that Wyverns are quite intelligent and that nasty Halfling Sencheena had done a fair bit of damage on him. The next morning, as the players rested from the fight at a little beach and had a service for Kaeleen, I had the Wyvern pay a visit. From the cliffs above the beach, it observed the players gathering and dropped a present for them. As Sencheena led the others in a lament to honour Kaeleen, the torn and bloodied dress of the child landed on the ground in front of them. With a shriek, the Wyvern flapped its wings and took to the air, heading south. Sencheena was fuming and her hatred for the Wyvern was visible in the player’s gaze. She had made an enemy!
Next time: An Amusing Problem with Scale