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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