Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Putting Your Players in the Belly of the Beast

On Tuesday I talked about consenting to genre and being up front about what can happen in your campaign. Today, I want to talk about the best results that can happen when you do that.

Content Warning: I'm about to advise you to break the rules. As usual, irreverence, probably swearing, possibly weird metaphors if I feel like using those. A brief part at the end where I try to sell you something because capitalism. Let's dig in, shall we?

So. Tuesday's blog was all about how important it is to let your player's know if you're going to use fixed points. Be up front, "sometimes things are going to happen that you can't do anything about". The point of doing this is for the set up, and not to punish your players.

I mentioned the Sunday game I'm in by name. Mischief and Misfits. Well, now I want to talk about how this particular instance of a fixed point worked to devastatingly good effect.

A couple of weeks back, we had a session that was just one thing after another. And if you watch the video you can see me getting increasingly more frustrated as the session goes on, and you can see that infuriating look on Joshua Brickley, our DM's, face because everything is going perfectly according to plan.

Note: From here on out I'm going to refer to him as Brickley because my partner's name is Josh and most of the people that read this blog know us so I don't want to end up confusing people. I didn't ask him if he was okay with that before I made the executive decision to do that, so Joshua Brickley if you're reading this, feel free to drag me for it later if you're bothered XD I have a feeling that you're not.

See, he knew he was throwing us into a downer so that we could pick back up in the next session.

Every story arc has a dark moment. That's something we don't get a lot of in D&D because everywhere you look the advice is that you give the PCs a fighting chance. There's a lot of talk about punishing the player characters when it isn't their fault, a lot of talk about character agency, a lot of talk about what is and isn't okay for a DM to throw at their players. And all of this is relevant to that frustration because every time I've had a DM do me like that, before now, it's just been a power play.

Not so here, my curious congregation, not by a long shot.

So we're going through this world's version of the Underdark that happens to be another plane of existence, and this session and the one before it are just an exercise in misery and shouting into the void. We tried to save some slaves who then proceeded to be too scared of their captors to run away, we ended up in this conversation with a drow matriarch who was just way too high level for us to handle, then got KO'd without a saving throw. Like I said, you can just see me getting increasingly more frustrated in the video.

The thing is, he was setting up an actual challenge. The real bite here wasn't the challenge that was in front of us, it was the one that came after; getting our things back. Fighting our way out of the city with the kids we came here to rescue in the first place. Coming back from rock bottom.

And that was fucking amazing.

Hot Take: not enough DMs are doing that. Because according to pretty much every source material you can find, you're not supposed to force the PCs into situations like that. D&D is supposed to be empowering, right? Well, yes, ultimately it is, but so is fiction.

The thing is, Brickley comes from a narrative background similar to my own; we do lit. We do novels. We read books and study plot structure. There's a big difference between writing a novel and DMing a campaign, yes, but here he's gone and taken the narrative construct of "the dark moment" and applied it to this D&D game and that's honestly not something I ever would have considered doing before he went and did it.

Because it's "cheating". But it's not, not if your players know it can happen. Not if they're in on the reason for it.

What it does do is raise the fucking stakes. What it does do is set up a credible threat. When was the last time you were sitting at the game table and thought "Well, we are in real danger right now and might actually die", or "wow I really hate this villain and want to put them down in real time" and it wasn't because the dice were trying to kill you?

I feel like it added something very real to this campaign and I'd love to see more of that. LynZ (the other player) and I are both beside ourselves and on the edge of our seats ready to find out what's going to happen next and it's been way too long since that's happened.

Hot Take II: Fuck the rules. Warn your players that sometimes shit is going to hit the fan without warning because it makes the later pay out more satisfying and then put them through the god damn crucible. Let's go. Just make sure to follow it up with something empowering.

Throw your PCs in a jail cell with no saving throw and let them fight their way out. Kill off someone's love interest and march the PCs into the underworld to get them back. Let your big bad succeed in taking over the city and have defeating them be a legitimate struggle. Fuck yeah. I will sign up for that any day of the week.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. Here's the part where I try to sell you stuff. Torchlighters. Demonology. 1920's aesthetic. Imp extortion. Gay nephil. Technology that sometimes borderlines on looking like it's from the fucking Flintstones because demon power, hell yes. Have I mentioned it's only 99 cents on kindle? Yes good, find it here:

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