Archive for January, 2011

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