Revenge as a game hook.

So, the players have broken up a major crime ring/necromancy lair or some such, and fancy cutting loose and celebrating. This of course would be a great time for the kingpin/necromancer NPC to strike back! That is at least according to every film made ever about such things. But would they? Really?

What’s just happened is a small bunch of people have done possibly millions of dollars/gold pieces worth of damage to his organisation, and the costs still haven’t been counted for if they decide to restart the operation. What profit is there in going after those people? They have already proven themselves to be highly capable and resourceful killers who it would seem foolish to annoy further.

This post is inspired by the soon to be released film Taken 2, and the comic book series Sin City: Hell and Back by Frank Miller, touching on how the idea of revenge as a plot device could be handled in an RPG. A lot of what you take from this blog comes from the type of game you’re going to be playing. I’m not talking about sci-fi versus fantasy, but high adventure/Hollywood movie action versus dark and gritty/life on the line kind of games. If you’re rocking some high adventure kind of game, then you’re going to have players who are nigh invincible, especially if all the bad guys have to throw at them are mooks by the bucket load.

In this instance, I would advise sticking to using revenge as a motivator for the characters. It may be tricky to think of something that will drive all of the party to action. If the group are already well established this could be easier, as they may already share common goals and associates that could be compromised by the bad guys. In this kind of story the avenging angels (read:player characters) will almost always succeed, but the reverse is never true. Boss bad guys will look at the damage wrought on them by a group of heroes and send wave after wave of increasingly tougher mooks against them, all of whom will die without being much a challenge to the PCs. Only in the final act will the party face a real challenge other than attrition, usually in form of a right hand man, who’s been itching for a chance to take them out from the start. Even this will be an easily surmountable obstacle that will open the way to final Boss who will be the only real challenge before the thirst for revenge is satisfied.

This kind of thing is certainly fun, but the final speech from the head bad guy in the comic book mentioned above is far more realistic,

Revenge is a loser’s game. There’s no percentage in it. All that matters is profit… and power. …As for Wallace… let the man be on his way – and prey we never see his like again”.

After watching the trailer for taken 2, all I could think was, Why the hell don’t more bad guys think like that?!

Not every band of heroes is a mook grinding machine though, and if your game lends itself to more realistic combat, then it’s much more likely that the threat of revenge from a powerful criminal consortium, or even dark wizard, would be something worth worrying about. Handled well it will drive the players away from their safety zone, away from friends and allies, and will make them watch over their shoulder every second. It will take some thought on the GM’s part to give a sense of genuine peril without just killing someone,but there are plenty of ways to do it. My personal favourite is to play the first round of bad guys that are sent after them as way more clever and well organised/disciplined than the players would expect from a random group of NPCs.

Expect them to know how to use the terrain; know that trying to take out the PCs in a single rushed charge will do very little, but whittling away at them while keeping themselves as safe as possible makes a lot more sense. They will also know when to withdraw from a fight, and know to keep an eye on their own resources, not wasting anything while doing their job, but doing what they can to reduce the party’s supplies. It’s also a foolish evil overlord indeed who is stupid enough to send out only the one team. Don’t feel the need to swamp them with everything all at once, but use a second team to stymie the PCs as they seek to get themselves squared away after the first attack. Markets or inns that they would run to in times of trouble will be nothing but scorched remains, or closed to them, the owners fearing threats of violence for helping them in any way.

This all sounds very much like the characters are eventually going to die, or just stay on the run, fleeing for their lives for as long as the bad guy keeps his attention focused on them. There are a few ways to combat this, but if you have a strong group of role players, I’m sure they could figure a way out of it that their GM would never see. The opportunity to turn the tables on the  bad guy should be presented though, just to keep them interested.

Maybe one of an attack party over plays their hand and could be captured and ‘persuaded’ to give up some goods on the antagonist? I’m not going to do all the work for you, but you see where this could go. As long as nothing that happens is easy, and the threat from the bad guy remains constant, then there’s a lot of fun to be had with the consequences of your players’ actions, even if they were carried out from the moral high ground and especially if they thought they were doing the right thing. Eventually though, they will want to take the fight to the big bad, and this should be a hard slog indeed,but still a workable option. To deny the players closure after putting them through so much is just plain mean.

So, I hope that’s been useful, but if you have any ideas of your own, or some examples from play that you want to share, sound off in the comments and let us all know.

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4 thoughts on “Revenge as a game hook.

  1. I think you underestimate Revenge, actually. If the PCs are unstoppable murder-hobos then yeah it gets a bit harder to work with, But if you’re playing that kind of a game, it’s probably valid to say the villains go after them because “no one can be unstoppable.” Maybe they blame the PC’s success on incompetent minions, or maybe they just don’t care — irrational villains are a staple of Hollywood, too.

    You touch on an important piece, though, when you mention inns and shops being closed to the PCs out of fear of reprisal. “The mask isn’t to protect you,” and all that. Even if the PCs can’t be assaulted directly, a ‘powerful’ villain can put pressure on those around the PCs. You can also create a Lex Luthor-style villain who the PCs can’t simply kill outright (because he’s a pillar of society and taking him out would make life worse for everyone). And you can have various villain groups come together to confront a common enemy — if the PCs have been badgering villain groups for a while they’ll have collected a number of enemies, and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — even if I don’t like that friend very much.

  2. I like this post primarily because it calls into question the knee-jerk response that Y always follows X. I am happier in my games when the players are planning to do unto rather than waiting to be done unto. Delaying revenge, or having it come at them sideways as Jack also suggests allows them to treat the villain with the respect a good NPC deserves by predicting what might happen and trying to prevent it. Sometimes, it will never come. Sometimes the villain will take revenge on his own goons to make his point. Sometimes, a dead friend is the price you pay for meddling.

    Whatever happens, I think it should be genuine, not contrived or typical.

  3. Pelgrane Press are looking at publishing a revenge driven game: Gaean Reach, by Robin Laws. It’s a Gumshoe variant, and the concepts behind it are really strong.
    All the players have been wronged by a Kaizer Soze figure, and have banded together to kill him.
    They design him between themselves, then set to tracking him down, killing his minions and enacting your revenge.
    It’s like Kill Bill meets The Usual Suspects, in space!

  4. I agree that it should be genuine. It should flow out of the character of the villain in question and the actions of the PCs. Delayed revenge is an excellent surprise to spring on players. Good stuff.

    I’m also a big fan of the fear that can be inspired in a party just by a group of bad guys that actually seem, you know, good at their jobs.

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