When I’m running a campaign, I have a script in mind. I think most dungeon masters do. For me, everything is moving towards an epic final confrontation. Throughout the encounters, the villain is established and shown to be a powerful, formidable threat. The motivations are laid out. The stakes are revealed. The encounters are set up so the action crescendos in intensity until it reaches its peak at the Final Battle. Everything is laid out with precision and care.
And then players try to pull stuff like this.
Jacob Holo: Okay, what are you trying to do again?
Twinkie: I want to dodge the robot, grab Shrike, but not where he’s drenched in acid, jump up to the next level, and flip us both over the ledge.
Jacob Holo: <sigh> Acrobatics check.
Twinkie: <rolls D20> Okay … uhh, it’s a one.
Jacob Holo: <blank stare>
Twinkie: This is going to hurt, isn’t it?
Sometimes I wish they would just read the script. Except, yeah … They don’t have my script.
That being said, it’s a fun and challenging exercise to guide players towards their goal without letting them feel like they’re being led by the nose. Case in point, Twinkie was supposed to just shoot the robot, which had (what I thought were) conspicuous weak points. Instead, he lathered up with acid, melted his armor, and later asphyxiated on the lunar surface because, you know, no air.
Fortunately, this is science fiction, so the party was able to rescue him as a Futurama style head-in-a-jar and then get him a new body. I particularly enjoyed coming up with that bit.
So, after much coaxing that (I hoped) didn’t seem like coaxing, the players were ready for the Final Battle. And this is where I deviated from the norm. I had a script, and darn it, it was going to be followed. After all, this was it: the end of our campaign. I wanted it to be memorable and exciting, and the players were not going to get in my way, darn it!
Jacob Holo: Perception check.
Agnis Crane: Thirty-one!
Jacob Holo: You see a vague, ghostly silhouette down the ship corridor. It appears humanoid.
Agnis Crane: I shoot it!
Jacob Holo: Go ahead.
Agnis Crane: <rolls D20> Umm … let’s see here …
Jacob Holo: Yes?
Agnis Crane: Hold on. I’m doing math. Twenty-four?
Jacob Holo: Hit.
Agnis Crane: Yay! Ten points of damage.
Jacob Holo: The optical illusion falters, revealing a crusader. He raises his Gatling gun, and he’s not alone. Three more crusaders decloak and raise their weapons. One of them has a thermal lance.
Agnis Crane: Well, crap.
And that was just the start. After that, the foes kept coming, impeding them every step of the way. It was a long, grinding battle as the party fought through obstacle after obstacle, struggling towards their target at the center of the enemy starship.
They chewed through a huge number of gun-spiders, crusaders, and three tank-spiders before I finally wore them down. Those of you who have read my book, The Dragons of Jupiter, will know this is no small feat. In retrospect, I should have given the tank-spiders beefier stats, but oh well. They did their job.
At the very end, three party members had been knocked out. Agnis Crane, with only five hit points left, took out the last tank-spider with a lethal shot. After that, the flow of new enemies stopped. Because, you know, the rules of drama had been satisfied. The party had seized a victory from what could have been a Total Party Kill. Throwing more enemies at them would have served no useful purpose.
Angis revived the team, and they went on to complete their objective. The campaign ended on an emotional high note, with players talking excitedly about what had happened and how close to defeat they had come.
Just as I had intended.
As a dungeon master, I don’t just see myself as the guy running the game and setting up the encounters. I’m a story teller, and if I have to bend the rules to tell a better story, well … yeah, consider those rules bent. There were exactly enough enemies, and their attack rolls were just good enough to make the battle a tense nail biter. No more. No less. The players don’t need to know that, right?
At the end of the day, I had four happy players who enjoyed my campaign and will probably ask for another someday in the future. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.
For a sample of our misadventures, click here.
As a writer, I find being the dungeon master of our local RPG sessions to be a challenging and rewarding experience. In a lot of ways, it’s like writing a novel.
Yeah, like writing. Heh. Like writing on the fly with a captive audience. Like writing where any lovingly-crafted character may be put to death by the “readers”. Like writing where no matter how many signs I put down saying GO RIGHT, the “readers” are still going to go left because, you know, there might be something cool over there.
It’s a lot of fun, and it keeps me on my toes. Every session the players do something I never expected, and so I have to think fast to make it entertaining. Otherwise people aren’t having fun and won’t come back. Also, let’s face it, the best part about being the DM is getting to mess with people, their expectations, and even their sympathies.
Player sympathy is a tricky proposition. How do I get the players to care about an NPC? After all, the same guy who portrays the NPC (namely me) also handles every nightmarish terror trying to shoot, maim, incinerate, or digest the party. Not the best grounds for a trusting relationship.
But I found a fast and easy workaround. So easy, I almost consider it cheating. Almost.
Allow me a moment to set the stage.
We play using a house-modified Pathfinder ruleset. The setting is science fiction spanning the whole solar system, but nothing too crazy. No shields or warp drive or artificial gravity. The party had just escaped captivity while on the Moon and were making their way north across a lunar city.
That’s when they met Pochi. He’s a talking dog.
Yep, I did it. I used a talking animal. I even gave him a Scooby Doo voice. Partly because everyone thought it was funny, and partly because it’s an easy voice for me to perform when sick.
Now, this wasn’t some cuddly, white-haired Maltese with big eyes and a cute, button nose.
No, this was a man-sized dog in power armor with a gun on his back and chainsaw teeth. Something more like this.
Yeah. Not exactly a dog you want jumping into your lap. The first time the party saw him, he ripped an enemy combatant’s throat out.
But they loved him all the same. At one point, Pochi helped the party fight off a group of four very nasty commandos and almost got himself killed. One of the commandos threw his smoldering, horribly-burned carcass off the roof. It landed in front of the party.
Oh, you should have seen their faces when I described the scene! Nobody messes with the dog! The party went after the commandos with reckless abandon and tore them a new one. It was awesome! The battle had emotional punch for them. They CARED. Afterward they discovered Pochi wasn’t quite dead and used most of their healing items to revive him.
Pochi is fine, by the way, just in case you were wondering.
Now, let’s compare this moment to one with a human NPC. In an earlier session, one of the players met a relative on the field of battle. A cousin by the name of Viter to be precise. I set it up so the players could, fairly easily, gain his trust and use his help during the coming battles. I had Viter join in near the end of a fight and help out, reinforcing the fact he was a potential ally. I even took one of the players aside and filled him in on the necessary backstory, stressing that he was on good terms with this NPC.
So what’s the first thing the players try to do? They try to STAB HIM IN THE BACK! I’m not kidding! They didn’t trust this heavily armed dude in front of them, and they wanted him out of the equation.
Let’s recap that, shall we?
Human NPC, just helped fight off an enemy, related to one of the players, ALMOST GETS A KNIFE IN THE BACK!
Talking dog NPC, just ripped a guy’s throat out, not related to anyone (obviously), gets saved by the party.
Huh. Well, whatever works. As long as we’re all having fun, right? And in this case, we are definitely having fun.
Click here to enjoy some of our misadventures.