Roleplaying – Emotional Experimentation

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs about roleplaying games of late. Blogs like The Angry GM, Ars Ludi (of West Marches fame), and The Alexandrian are blowing my little crop-topped mind pretty regularly. They’re writing stuff on a regular schedule that is opinionated, detailed, and high-quality. I’m learning a lot about the art form of Game Mastery, and I’m learning that I have my own opinions and approach. I feel like those are distinct enough that they’re worth trying to map out, so I’ll be trying to write a series of posts on the topic.

The most rewarding moments for me personally in RPGs are about people’s reactions to what’s happening. Whether I’m a player or a GM, I like to have some things going on that are not explicit. Sometimes those things become obvious immediately and  sometimes there’s a build-up that leads to a question from someone else at the table about holy crap what is going on right now?!?

Let me give an example.

In 4th edition D&D, there’s a player race, Deva, which is based on a reincarnation cycle. The Deva is born, lives a mortal life, dies, and is reborn. I played a Deva character named Shas’uit Abyss in a rotating-GM game. She was born into a brothel in a never-named fantasy world, and she became a bard. Humble beginnings and all that.

I decided, without telling the other players or GMs, that relatively late in life (as we began our campaign, in fact) she began to have visions of her past lives. I also decided that although her current incarnation was good by dint of her background, some of those past lives were not at all good, and she was going to try to redeem herself. I wasn’t sure initially how strong an influence that would have, but it gave me a chance to roll up a bunch of characters, which is a good bit of fun in 4th edition, without having to switch characters at all.

Early in our gameplay, we encountered a juvenile dragon-ish creature, and we promptly beat it to within an inch of its life. It fled the encounter, but I decided that Shas’uit wasn’t having a loose end at that point, so she chased it down, slew it, and made a cape of its skin.  That fairly dark moment made me think that perhaps she might be influenced more than I’d thought.

I began to spool out a particular piece of her background, and in my head she began to have recurring dreams of a recent incarnation in which she had lead the armies of a Hell dimension in an trans-planar war.

We played through a series of relatively innocent adventures, encountering the usual low-level baddies – goblins, wolves, orcs, men-at-arms – and the other GMs rolled out little pieces of stories centred around an old fortress, which we decided as a group would become the base of operations for an adventurers’ guild. We alternated between travel tales outside of the base and building tales to expand it.

During one of the travel tales Jon gave us our first long-term-worthy adversary. A cult of some kind lead us into a trap where we confronted mirror selves. I think in the lead-up to this encounter we had to share some of the things in our characters’ background, but my memory is hazy. We played through the encounter, facing down the literal shadows in our closets, and at some point in there I realized that I was starting to think about Shas’uit as a much darker soul.

The next time we tracked down a group of cultists, we left one alive for further questioning. I took that opportunity to pull the curtain back on what I was thinking about my character. She tortured and maimed the orc we had captured. I still recall one of the other players saying, astonishment in his voice, “What did you say your alignment was?!?”

During another episode in the same campaign, this one a builder tale, the players encountered a nest of Kruthik, which are lizardoid-insectoid animals which live in underground hives. Everyone was still pretty low level, and Kruthik are an easy fit for a tale in the early going about digging out an ancient fortress.

Much of that game was improvised, but I knew the Kruthik would form the backbone of the combat encounters. I built myself a little “nest” map and had them come at the party from the walls and ceilings, digging out, striking, and disappearing once more. It was a cheap shot, but I wanted to make the players consider their progress more carefully.

With everyone at low level, however, there’s only so far you can go with that. So I used the juvenile version of the monsters, which inflicted very little damage and took very little to defeat, to harass them, and had an adult show up in a couple of hit-and-run attacks to keep the threat level worthwhile. Even with the adult in the mix, the party tore through enough that I started to worry about boredom, and I let them move forward worrying solely about navigation and traps.

And then inspiration hit. When the party reached the heart of the nest, the adult stood waiting in one corner. The players took a moment, and then they charged in. They each took a shot at the beast, and then her turn came around…and went again. She did nothing. They continued to attack her. She continued to shrink into her nest.

One of the players said “I feel kind of bad – she was just protecting her kids.”

That’s something I’ll remember a long time.

I’m running a game set in Rifts right now, and I’m not sure if I have the chops to pull a decent emotional moment off. I’m working on other parts of my GM skillset – preparation, loose framing, sandbox play – but I’d love to find a way to make a player think twice about what is happening sometime just because they feel something personal.