Vast, Opaque Conspiracies; Small, Important PCs

January 27, 2011 1 comment

You know, we didn’t really plan to take basically a month and a half off, but let’s call it a holiday hiatus. I feel compelled to point out that this accidental break was all on me. Stewart, trusting person that he is, believed me every time I said, “No, don’t post. I just need to polish it a little more and then I’ll be done.” I may have been understating things. But! Now we’re back for 2011 to ramble about more roleplaying related things.

This is the third post in which I’ll discuss the campaign I just finished, Kjemmen. It’ll also be the last one where that’s the explicit purpose. In the first post, I talked about misunderstanding one of the players’ idea about his PC and the problems that arose from that. In the second post, I talked about some larger problems we had getting all the most important plot elements to occur in front of the players and some specifics about what our original plan was for the campaign and what went differently. In this post, I’ll finish up by giving a concrete example of the differences between players’ actual and perceived effect on the game world.

If we had set out to tell a story about a huge conspiracy in which the protagonists were to play an integral role, but the entire shape of which would remain a mystery to the end, I think we nailed it. That is, basically, what we ended up with as the campaign unfolded. There was a fairly substantial differential between the effects of the PCs’ actions and their perception of those effects. Bear with me as I set this up a bit, so you can see enough of the world around the PCs for me to illustrate what they couldn’t see.

The Second Assassination

During the early part of the game, the PCs spent a considerable amount of time investigating an assassination and trying to catch the assassin. This plot thread came to a head when the assassin broke into the noble house hosting the PCs (House Devrak) and shot the Count with a poisoned crossbow bolt from which he fell into a coma.

The Count’s son then came into power and, because he was a jerk, fired the PCs for several petty reasons. The sort of second-in-command made it pretty clear that if the old man woke up (hinting towards the PC with healing skills), he could probably get them their jobs back. As events unfolded, they decided not to worry about healing the Count (he was sort of a jerk, too) and so in a few days time he died and his son inherited control of the house.

There’s a political backdrop to all this that’s important: House Devrak had been the central power in a very tenuous alliance of somewhat smaller noble houses against the much more powerful House Verokha. The leadership and charisma of Count Devrak was basically all that was holding together this alliance of people who really would rather have been killing each other. When the Count died and his son was unable to bring the same force of personality to meetings, they almost immediately and very viciously fell to fighting amongst themselves. This, as you might imagine, was awesome news for House Verokha and, in fact, was why they’d gotten their assassin to go in and kill the people he did.

So the PCs letting the Count die, rather than doing some herbal research, buying some ingredients and riding in like a knight in shining scrubs, had a not-small impact on the local political climate and the players knew enough of what was going on to see that this decision had an impact.

However, if you recall my earlier explanation of the Bigger Plot, you’ll remember that Verokha (referred to in that post as “king”) is being manipulated by the head of the orthodox church in order to create a conflict with maximum bloodshed. So while the players could observe the political fallout of their choice, they couldn’t see the (much more interesting to them) conspiratorial fallout. By having the assassin kill his rival, Verokha had gone off script from what the head of the orthodoxy really wanted. So when the PCs didn’t save Devrak’s life and Verokha’s opposition melted, the head of the orthodoxy didn’t have the big bloody conflict he needed to fuel his god ritual and had to invent and then pivot to Plan B.

Messing with the Big Bad in that kind of way is awesome, but while not being able to see it (in this case because it was all happening in secret far from the PCs) might be realistic, it really isn’t that great. Basically, the players did this big game changing thing and to them it just looked like they happened to sew more chaos into the typically chaotic political climate of Kjemmen.

This kind of thing can be really frustrating to both sides of the table. On their side, of course, the players are feeling like they’re not having that big of an effect on the game world. On the GM’s side, there’s cool stuff going on that the players aren’t able to appreciate. This frustration didn’t ruin the campaign, by any means–everyone still enjoyed themselves–but it’s not the kind of story I think I’d try to tell intentionally. It’s also a sort of slight variation on a phenomenon that I think is actually desirable in a conspiracy-plot campaign. If you can set it up that the players end up learning about the fruits of their meddling after the fact, that can be very rewarding. In my case, I couldn’t really pull that off except in talking about the campaign with the players after it ended.

Categories: Campaign Post-Mortems

Penny Arcade is Wrong

December 15, 2010 1 comment

In their defense, they are not wrong about either of their areas of expertise: video games and producing amusing images accompanied by whimsical words. What they are wrong about is roleplaying. This comic and these news posts (the first and third) are the material I’m referring to. Don’t get me wrong, the comic is funny and depicts what I would guess is a pretty common event in the campaign life cycle for some GMs. However, the news posts reflect Tycho and Gabe’s more considered thoughts on the matter of GM burn-out and that is where the trouble starts, really.

GMing is Not Playing

False. Tycho asserts that “adjudication isn’t play any more than cooking is eating.” He’s not wrong strictly speaking, but neither should GMing be simply adjudication, which is his implication. If all we wanted was adjudication, we’d be playing video games. GMing should, ideally, contain a hefty amount of sampling as you cook, as it were. The creativity of world building, of playing NPCs, of constructing events and shepherding the narrative is no less rewarding than all the little creative tasks a player does when playing a character.

I am not saying that GM burn-out is fictitious or that people should just suck it up and keep on. I’m saying that dungeon crawls and XP/loot-centric campaigns are going to be really low on all the stuff that makes GMing rewarding. If the village your players are in is really only a place to keep your quest and equipment vending machines, then administrating those machines can hardly be called “playing”. So avoid campaigns like that and you’ll stave off GM burn-out.

Designed to Take New Players to Level 7

Gabe only mentions this in passing, but this is a big pet peeve of mine that is pretty common. It bothers me that this is even a valid metric for discussing packaged adventures, let alone the fact that it is often treated as one of the most primary metrics (behind the sensible metrics of what-system-is-it-for and what-setting/time-period-is-it-set-in). This kind of thinking is destructive to character focused campaigns.

Gabe also laments, “The Characters are all about level 25 now and I only have a few levels left to wrap this thing up.” He’s let the mechanics of D&D’s leveling system dictate story pacing to him. He clearly feels like he must end his story right around whatever the level cap is (30?). I wouldn’t be surprised if, early on, he felt like he needed to make sure his story was long enough to get the PCs from level 1 to the cap.

My point is that this all sounds like statistics and increasing PC power are at the forefront of the decision-making process. This often means that the PCs are very two-dimensional. If the PCs are two-dimensional, sustaining a rich, interesting world is all the more draining and so it’s easy and tempting to slip into the situation I discussed above.

The Solution is to Take a Break

Breaks are all well and good, but the kind of break Gabe talks about would really worry me; especially so close to the end of a campaign. If you’ve got any sort of normally-shaped narrative going on, you’ll have built up a fair amount of momentum to events. Stopping right before the climax dissipates all that momentum and getting all of you back up to speed and into the same mental place you were before takes a lot of work.

On top of that, Gabe talks about playing another game in the interim. Taking some time off because someone’s on vacation (or has family in town or whatever) is one thing and probably not terrible. Even taking some weeks off and still getting together to play board games isn’t going to destroy your narrative, depending on how you frame it. What is highly disruptive is getting the players to assume new characters, introducing them to a new campaign world and getting them invested in a new story. It just… seems so obviously ruinous to telling a coherent story to me.

The Details Just Aren’t There

I think when Gabe says, “I’ve always had an idea about how I would end it but the details just aren’t there yet and I haven’t really felt inspired,” there are two things worth discussing. The first is that it seems that he, as with many GMs, has some seeds of the ideas that Stewart and I espouse and just hasn’t followed them down the path as far as we have. He’s talking here about planning an ending which, as we’ve said before, is of paramount importance in maintaining a recognizable shape to your story.

The other part, the problem part, is harder to point out. There’s a sort of implication that having an ending in mind is seen as uncommon and another implication that planning that ending is seen as less than important. Or, anyway, less important than I feel like it is. Realizing where your story is going is probably one of the more important details that exist in your campaign. I don’t mean you have to plan out the big epic battle at the end (that’s losing focus again), but how the plot ends, how all the narrative threads get tired up (or left intentionally loose), how each PC changes, or grows or achieves their goal, how you get to the point where everyone that’s marked for death dies.

The Inevitable Caveat

Because this is the internet, I want to close with some clarifications. I don’t, frankly, know what Gabe does at his table. Story is difficult to talk about to people outside your group. Maybe it’s just that he only talks about the crunchy stuff in his posts because of that and, really, the story is foremost in his mind. Additionally, it’s eminently clear that whatever he’s doing is working. Which is to say, he and his friends have been having fun on a regular schedule because of his machinations, which is the most important goal, here, right? Regardless of how much Gabe’s process resembles or doesn’t resemble my own, he’s certainly achieving that main goal.

I am a huge fan of Penny Arcade and I don’t want anyone to think I’m hating on them in some kind of holistic sense or, really, in any sense at all. Rather, I just want to contrast some of the stuff they talk about with the ideas Stewart and I are espousing. They represent what I feel like is the most common case (give or take a bit) which holds many ideas that are contrary to those Stewart and I hold. Even amidst that, though, there are some gems of wisdom. Tycho is right, “you’ve got [to] pace yourself, man.” And, I think, if you’re going to go all out, it’s better to lavish detail on your narrative, your world and the characters inhabiting it, rather than on models of “floating-ass orbs“.

Categories: The Way

Failing to Entice Your Players

December 8, 2010 2 comments

This post, like my previous one, is sort of a post-mortem on my campaign called Kjemmen. In a sort of continuing theme, I’m going to discuss another thing that continually tripped Stewart and I up while running Kjemmen.

In the first post, I talked about how not understanding Mikejl’s player’s ideas about Mikejl’s personality and drives made it hard to draw him into the events surrounding him. This difficulty was not just localized to him but, to a lesser extent, infected the whole PC group. Given that the players should see everything important, this presented a problem for us. I will try to enumerate the causes.

The Most Decisive PC

Mikejl was often the PC calling the shots. In any social situation, one person will tend to bubble to the top and assume a mantle of leadership. In this group, Mikejl was that person. So our misunderstanding his motivations, paired with the fact that he was the most driving force amongst the PCs–the one most often moving the story forward–meant that if we failed to convince Mikejl that something was interesting, the other PCs often wouldn’t (either try or be able to) convince him to go anyway. Since this issue is the topic of my previous post, I won’t belabor why that happened, but suffice it to say that it did.

Fragile Plans

In retrospect, we had a few spots in the plot where we assumed that the players would hook up with one NPC or would want to be in one particular place, but we didn’t give enough thought to really making those choices the most attractive ones. This meant that there ended up being important stuff going on in places or near people that they really had no reason to go be at or near. Hearing about things via the rumor mill is sort of lame, and should be relegated to flavorful things or the-world-is-a-living-breathing-place kind of events. Major plots points should have the PCs present at least, and intimately involved ideally. This could probably have been avoided with some more attention ahead of time.

Self Preservation Instinct

After a certain point, it became clear to the PCs that the stuff going on in the city of Kjemmen was Seriously Bad and would involve potential for grievous bodily harm. There were a few times when the PCs knew some important plot thing was going on, but were very reluctant to go anywhere near it because there was a significant risk of terrible things happening to them. This indicates a major win in the department of players feeling like their PCs can die and in making the setting a threatening place full of bad people (a creative goal of mine from the outset), but man did it tend to keep them away from some interesting stuff.

What Should Have Been

Our idea was this: The head of the oldest order of priests (call them the orthodoxy) in Kjemmen was power-hungry. He had discovered a ritual that would allow him to ascend to god-hood, but it required a lot of blood sacrifice. So he told some lackeys that he wanted to start a conspiracy. The lie he told them was that he was tired of the newer orders and the nobility getting uppity and wanted to make them take themselves out. They would orchestrate an alliance between the new orders and some medium-sized noble houses against the most powerful noble house in the city and the orthodoxy. When things came to a fight, the orthodoxy would pull out and let the remaining combatants destroy themselves (which death the head of the orthodoxy would actually use to fuel his god ritual).

Let me clarify something about the nobility before I go on: They were more like mob families than anything else, really. There were constant, low-level turf wars between the houses and constantly-shifting alliances that could never really be relied upon (like Diplomacy!). Over a few generations, one family in particular had gained direct control over about a third of the city and forged alliances such that they had indirect control over about half the city. That family’s historical rival had forged an alliance against this big guy in order to try to stem his growth.

So the head priest’s lackeys went about convincing the most powerful noble in the city that the orthodoxy wanted to make him king. They also infiltrated the younger orders of priests and convinced them they could gain some considerable power by taking out the orthodoxy and their “king” with the help of the rival alliance. The rival alliance was the PC’s original contact point for our layer cake of conspiracies.

The original concept was that the PCs would start out hanging out with the medium-sized nobility and feel like the plot was about this other noble who was making a power grab. The “king” would look like the Big Bad. Eventually, they would discover that something else was going on and that, in fact, the younger orders were making a power grab and the “king” would look like a good guy for trying to stop them. Then they would discover that all the nobility were being manipulated by the orthodoxy and the “king” would seem irrelevant or, anyway, neither bad nor good. And pretty quickly after that, they’d discover that the orthodoxy was being manipulated by their leader and that he was the real Big Bad.

You might be able to spot some fragile junctures already. One of the biggest was that we expected the PCs to transition from one set of noble houses to the “other side”. We envisioned a sort of low point akin to the end of The Empire Strikes Back where their bosses threw them out and they had nowhere to turn. We expected that would sort of drive them into the arms of the “king”. Instead, they felt so defenseless and threatened by anyone with power, they managed to make a big, personal enemy of the “king”. And allying with him was basically our only route to getting in front of them the clues about the orthodoxy’s manipulation of the nobility.

Also, once they reached the point of seeing the younger orders’ power grab, which was about resurrecting the dead, evil god that all the priests worshiped, they decided being involved in a plot regarding that would be worse than an asbestos bath. This is a sane decision, and in a city which was supposed to be full of evil people (as influenced by the afore mentioned dead, evil god), having a randomly selected group of three decide they’re not the everything-on-the-line hero sort makes a lot of sense. But “and then we’ll hide in a basement and pray for a quick death” is really boring to roleplay… or really depressing.

In my next post, I plan to talk about what ended up happening after all and how it wasn’t as terrible as all my “fail” blog post titles might imply. For now, though, you can learn from some of the things that were less than optimal in my latest campaign. Robustness in planning to get central details in front of the players’ eyes is, I think, the biggest lesson I learned from all this. If we had had more than one way to bring the orthodoxy-run layer of the conspiracy to light, that transition in the story would have felt a lot more smooth.

Computer RPGs Cause Bad Habits

December 1, 2010 2 comments

First of all, computer RPGs are good.  Let’s just get that clear from the start.  In fact, some of my best friends are computer RPGs.    But we all know that they are a pale imitation of the tabletop hobby.  They’re a cheap high to get you by until your next hit of the real thing.  The biggest virtue of computer RPGs is their availability.  You don’t need a group of friends or a GM to play.  You don’t have to set aside time and coordinate schedules.  You just need a console or a computer and a game.

Because of this ready availability, there are a lot of people who have played computer RPGs that have never (or seldom) played tabletop games.  While most of the differences between them are apparent, and people can adapt accordingly, there are a few subtle behaviors that video games instill and reinforce that can be disruptive at the game table.*

Breaking the Game is Bad

The single defining characteristic of computer RPGs is that your character gains experience and gets better over time.  In most games, they also gain new and better equipment and/or new abilities and powers.  If it’s a good game, the choices that you make about which equipment to use and which abilities to develop are meaningful choices, which means that some combinations are more effective than others.

This is a really great system, because it rewards the player in two ways.  One, their character is more effective and more powerful, and as we’ve mentioned a few times here at Maximizing Rockmost, being good at things is fun.  Two, the player gets a sense of accomplishment because they “solved the puzzle” of which choices were good ones.  Essentially, most computer RPGs have a puzzle element built in to them.

When they carry this tendency into the tabletop game, things can get a bit hairy.  The rules systems that govern tabletop games are, on the surface, very similar to a video game.  The player makes choices about which abilities and/or equipment to use, and some of those choices are more effective than others.  If, however, one of your players seeks to “break” the system by exploiting holes in the rules or combinations that are particularly powerful (often called min-maxing) it can break the play experience.

One way that it breaks the experience is that it breaks the verisimilitude of the experience.  Abusive skill choices don’t tend to be “I’ll play a traditional knight with a sword and a shield.”  They tend to be more like “I’ll play a multi-classed fighter/conjurer with a specialization in force magic and dual-handed scimitars.”  Since the player is optimizing for effectiveness instead of flavor, they create a character that doesn’t mesh with the setting.  It’s jarring, and it makes it harder for all of the players (especially the person playing the maximized character) to achieve that optimal state where you lose yourself in the story and forget that you’re a bunch of people sitting around a table rolling dice.

The other way that it’s jarring is that when a player manages to break the game, they are usually significantly overpowered compared to the other players.  This makes for really miserable gameplay.  Either the GM keeps sending bad guys at the players that the fairly-built characters can deal with and the broken character dispatches effortlessly, or he sends suped-up bad guys that challenge the broken guy and makes the other players pretty much useless.

The World Does Not Revolve Around You

Do you know who the single most important person in a computer RPG is?  Your character.  In the video game, the goal is to make sure that you, the single player, have the best experience possible.  This is, without a doubt, a good thing. When you sit down to play the tabletop game, however, you are no longer the most important person.  There are some number of other players there with you, and their experience matters as well.

This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s an easy thing for people to lose sight of.  What’s fun for one player might not be fun for anyone else, and they may be so wrapped up in their fun that they don’t notice that everyone else is miserable.   This is obviously bad for the other players, but I also think that it’s bad for the problem player as well.  The best moments of the tabletop hobby are the times when everyone is contributing and having fun.  I strongly believe that player is having less than the optimal experience – by doing what they find fun.

A Totally Different Animal

The reason that computer RPGs teach bad habits is that tabletop role-playing games have a dirty secret – they’re not actually games.   In a game, someone wins and someone loses.  In a tabletop RPG, the players aren’t competing with one another, and they (hopefully) aren’t competing with the GM.  Tabletop RPGs are their own unique thing, a strange combination of improvisational storytelling and puzzle-solving and probability.  It’s an odd combination, but a highly successful one.   That combination requires other people to work, and so when you port it to a video game some things are lost in the translation.


*I’m explicitly not talking about MMOs here.  I’m sure that they have their own set of interesting foibles and habits, but I don’t know enough to espouse on them.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium

Failing to Understand Your PCs

November 23, 2010 1 comment

This is likely to be only the first in a handful of posts about a campaign of mine that just wrapped up called Kjemmen. It’s been a few weeks now and I’ve had time to mull over what went well and what didn’t and to talk to most of the players about their thoughts. The first thing I want to bring up is a mistake Stewart and I made before the campaign even started.

One of our players was creating a PC named Mikejl. He was to be the last scion of a noble house that was no more. His father had basically squandered everything and left the family indebted to another, larger noble house (the Devraks). This meant that Mikejl was effectively raised as a high-profile servant within House Devrak, but he hated it and them and especially the son, Likhander Devrak. One of the biggest driving forces in Mikejl’s story would be his hate of the Devraks and his goal of reattaining a noble title.

When it came time to flesh that idea out, Stewart had this idea of Mikejl wanting to regain the past glory of his family and hating the Devraks so much that he wanted to do it at their expense. Specifically, he had the idea that Mikejl hated Likhander so much that he’d want anything Likhander owned (or wanted) simply to take it away from Likhander. In this model, Likhander would be about the same age as Mikejl (about 27) and they would have this history of Likhander getting everything that Mikejl felt he deserved.

The player, though, didn’t like this idea so much. He explained to us this idea where Likhander is slightly younger than Mikejl (about 22) and much more bratty. There were some other things in there that we didn’t understand, so we tried to get him to explain again. And here’s the mistake: When the second explanation failed, we shrugged and said, “It’s his PC, we’ll go with his idea.”

Now, to be clear: the mistake was not going with the player’s idea. That’s solid and I don’t regret that one iota. The mistake is shrugging and agreeing to a player’s idea without understanding it. This was the central motivator for this PC and we failed to realize that not understanding it would make us unable to either predict his reactions to events or to put things he would find interesting next to important Plot Things. And this played out very quickly in the campaign: Mikejl ignored entirely things we thought he would find interesting and rewarding. We found it very difficult to entice him into plot events because we didn’t know what was motivating him.

After playing the campaign for roughly 2 years, I now know that the major motivator for Mikejl was power. Just about every action he took or decision he made was in order to increase his control over something; the current situation, his life, some asset, etc. This idea is no less good than Stewart’s idea and if we’d insisted on understanding it going in, we would have been able to use different stimuli to push and pull Mikejl into the events around him. I should say at this point, Mikejl’s player had a fun time and ended up being embroiled in the story just fine, so this wasn’t a game breaker by any means. It did, however, introduce some rough spots in the plot that Stewart and I had to furiously invent Plan B for.

The Takeaway

The real lesson here is nothing new if you’ve been reading this blog much: Create your PCs with your players so that if you had to, you could step in and play the character in someone else’s game. Somehow, Stewart and I let ourselves loose sight of it, so let this serve as a reminder of how easy it is to get distracted. Especially when you’re almost ready to start and you’re excited to get going, it pays not to rush things and make sure your idea of what’s motivating your PCs is the same as the player’s idea.

Minibosses: A Primer

November 10, 2010 3 comments

Most tabletop RPG campaigns are action adventures of some form, which is to say that they involve characters that go places and do stuff, and fighting tends to happen along the way.  This puts them in the fine tradition of action movies and most video games, and as such, they tend to have the same conventions.  Most of those conventions (eg. beating up goons with increasing levels of skill, picking up better weapons and allies along the way, etc) adapt to RPGs very naturally.  Today, we’re going to look at my favorite of those conventions: The Miniboss.

A Miniboss is defined by being:

  1. A bad guy
  2. Less powerful than the final bad guy
  3. More powerful than some random goon
  4. Distinct and memorable

There are basically two types of Miniboss: the Lieutenant and the Nemesis.

The Big Bad, Just Smaller

The Lieutenant is a powerful antagonist, one that requires the combined efforts of all of the PCs to defeat.  If we go back to the foundations of the modern fantasy tradition*, the works of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien, we find the seminal Miniboss, Saruman.  He has his own army of Uruk-Hai to fight the heroes, he is more powerful than any one of them on their own, and the protagonists are forced to defeat him before they can move on to facing Sauron more directly.

The mere existence of Lieutentants gives a story structure.  They are defined by being powerful and crucial to the story, so it is easy to create story elements that deal with defeating them.  If your miniboss is an undead horror ruling over an army at the gates to the malevolent kingdom to the north, then your heroes first task might be to raid an ancient tomb where a weapon capable of defeating him is said to be buried.  Then they have to circumvent his army by passing through the Black Wood – but not before assisting in the defense of that one key castle from the evil armies.  Then, finally, they can sneak into his keep and do battle with him directly.  Only then can they turn their attention to the real threat.  Voila! Instant Plot!

Additionally, Lieutenants make for fun and epic battles without endless combat.  There are basically two ways to create epic battles – either your heroes battle their way through a tremendous number of lower-level baddies (think House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill volume 1) or they have a fight with someone way better than them.  On the screen, these battles are fairly comparable in time and effort.   Scenes where the protagonists dispatches lots of goons with ease look awesome, as it gives them a chance to be totally badass.  In RPGs, fighting your way through dozens of lower-level baddies means hundreds of die rolls, and instead of feeling awesome, it just means monotonous and anticlimactic die rolls to kill yet another baddie.

The Decoy

There is an interesting variation on the Lieutenant that you see from time to time where they are presented as though they are the Big Bad, but it turns out there is something Bigger and Badder waiting behind them to be defeated.  This is a particularly common trope in video games (good job Mario, but the princess is in another castle), mostly because there is no sense of how long a game is supposed to take, so the player/audience can’t look at their watch and figure out if the end is approaching soon.   In films and books, you see this device more commonly in multi-part stories.  The Lieutenant is defeated at the end of the first installment, and then the real villain gets introduced.  Since I’ve already referenced Tolkien, let’s look at the foundation for Sci-Fi RPGS, Star Wars.  In A New Hope, Darth Vader is clearly presented as the Big Bad.  It isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that we see the real villain of the story — the Emperor that is giving Vader his orders.

The challenge with Lieutenants is keeping them alive long enough for them to be important.  If Lord of the Rings were a role-playing campaign, when the players were faced with the choice of fighting through the snowy pass or going through Moria they would instead have decided to just sneak into Isengard and kill Saruman in his sleep.  This is why Lieutenants usually have armies of goons standing between them and the players – they provide more opportunities for the players to fail Stealth rolls.  On the other hand, this can also be a strength; if your players are particularly effective at short-circuiting campaigns by circumventing obstacles, Lieutenants become magnets for their ingenuity, giving them meaty problems to solve before they can turn their focus to ruining your plan for how the final boss fight is supposed to go.

Like You, Just Eviller

The other type of miniboss is the Nemesis – a character roughly on the same power level as the PCs who serves as a foil for them.   A good Nemesis has two characteristics: they show up more than once, and the players hate them.   Unlike the Lieutenant, the Nemesis usually survives deep into the story, only to be defeated in the final act right before the Big Bad.

I know that this is somewhat less nerdy than my usual fare, but a terrific example of the Nemesis is the “creepy thin man” (masterfully played by Crispin Glover**) from the first Charlie’s Angels movie.  He’s distinctive and memorable, so the audience/players notice and remember him.  He’s a match for any of the protagonists one-on-one, setting him apart from the usual goons to be dispatched.  Because of his skill, he manages to elude them on several occasions, and the protagonists really despise him.

I really, really like using Nemesis Minibosses in role-playing campaigns.  Powerful adversaries are a good thing, and I’ve found that players really like to have somebody that they can hate.  Lieutenants and Big Bads, by their very nature, tend to be powerful and remote, which makes it difficult for them to inspire disdain.  I mean, they can slaughter families and make their goons commit atrocities and the like, but it’s not the same as if you see them up close.  There is a very visceral feeling associated with finally defeating that annoying bastard that’s been bugging you and kept getting away.

The trick with Nemeses, like the Lieutenants, is keeping them alive.  In order for the Nemesis to be effective, you have to throw them at the PCs early and often, and they have to have ways to escape without the PCs feeling like they are being railroaded.   It’s advisable to give them some skills that make them naturally durable or able to escape at will – or both.

The Dark Image

The most common type of Nemesis is one that is a foil for a specific character in a story.  If Magneto is the Big Bad for an X-Men story, Mystique might act as a Nemesis for the entire team – she is formidable, but not so powerful as to take on the whole team at once (conveniently, she also has a power that gives her the means to escape). Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a Nemesis purely for Wolverine.   The Dark Image Nemesis has very similar skills and attributes to one of the PCs, and should be used to make that PCs life particularly difficult.  The fact that they are so similar to the PC somehow serves to make them that much more annoying for the player, and that much more fun to defeat at the end.


*Interestingly, Tolkien based his work on Danish and Norse mythology – where Grendel is another terrific example of a Lieutenant Miniboss.  The heroes are brought into the story initially just to dispatch him, and the first third of the Beowulf is devoted to his defeat.  Of course, it turns out that Beowulf is the smaller threat, and that the real Big Bad is his mother.  And then there’s this story about a dragon that’s kind of tacked on at the end to make it a trilogy. 

**I saw Crispin Glover once.  I was standing in line for a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse and he was there to present one of his indie projects.  He is In-Tense.  And short.  I mean really, really short.  It kind of threw me off.  The total effect was this little dude that looked like he could start a fire with his eyes and flip out and cut people ninja-style at any moment.  Just thought I’d share.

Categories: Mastering the Game

Conning Your Players

November 2, 2010 1 comment

In talking about the Firefly campaign, Stewart and I ran across something interesting. See, we thought we’d develop a (side?) plot in which the PCs get conned. It seems like the perfect thing to have happen in the setting and like it would present some fun moments. So we got to scheming and quickly discovered that we can’t just run a con on the PCs. Say you were going to run the Fiddle Game on the PCs. In the real world, you just have to convince the maitre’d that the violin is worth a ton and hope that he’s dishonest. He’ll assume he’s had fortuitous luck, perhaps, and get swindled.

In a game, however, if you tried to pull this on the PCs, you’re not letting them hold a violin, it’s a very obvious shopping cart. They’ll immediately ask what it has to do with what’s going on or what it might mean. If they can’t come up with anything, they’re very likely to get suspicious. This is basically because there is no such thing as luck in an RPG (I mean–dice rolls aside, of course). So if you are going to con the PCs, you also have to con the players. Whatever story the con man tells them has to make sense in the universe and has to feel like it’s a reasonable thing for you to have put in front of them. Basically if it doesn’t feel at least like a side quest (“Go bring me 12 were-trout fins.”), then they probably won’t buy it… and then what’re you going to do with all those cheap violins?

Some Examples

In Kjemmen, at one point, the PCs wanted something from an evil priest. Being, you know, evil, he wasn’t going to just let them have it, he was going to give it to them and also screw them over at the same time. The idea was to give them a magical artifact that would make the next step in their plan easier and also act as a homing device in case the priest wanted to kill them later, or whatever. But if you go to ask an evil priest a question and he just says, “Oh, yes. You want to go to the Such-and-Such place and in order to get in, you should use this great bauble that I’m happy to let you just have,” you’d be wise just to flee on the spot.

In order to make it seem less like the trap that it was, Stewart and I had to come up with something for them to do to “earn” the information and accompanying magical trap. However, it needed to feel plausible that the priest would ask some strangers to go do whatever it was for him. If it was too obviously just an errand, it would possibly fly under the radar of someone in real life, but an audience would be able to spot the trap a mile away. The specifics of what we came up with don’t really matter, especially since the PCs wound up doing an end-run around the whole trap thing and turning a few plot points on their ear all at once, but the lesson is, again: In order to con PCs, you have to con the players, too.

Another method is to hide the lie in something that players think of as normal in campaigns. If you wanted them to have some terrible, evil artifact, you could put it in the blacksmith’s shop behind the counter as his prized sword that he’ll never sell and possibly trick the thief character into stealing it. As a real world example, Stewart ran a campaign set in the fantasy old west. Pretty early on, we learned about his creepy old healer lady that lived in the woods outside of town. Being that this is a pretty common trope, it never occurred to us that she would turn out to be an evil, horrifying, mind-controlling witch who was trying to subsume the world in darkness.

Basically any time that an NPC lies to the PCs, in order for the players to buy it, you have to make the lie internally consistent with the world (like a lie in real life) and externally consistent with how stories are told. If What Appears To Be Going On isn’t roughly as believable a story plot as What’s Really Going On, then your red herring just won’t be followed. The players have to summarize the story they’re being fed in their head and be able to imagine you sitting down, having this idea for the game and thinking, “Yes. This is a good idea and will be fun.”

Categories: Mastering the Game
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