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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Cutting corners, not quality

One thing that has become clear in my vast month long experience of RPG blogging, is that every other GM who blogs does about twenty times the work I do in planning and running a game. That’s not to say that my games suck, I have an awful lot of people who would say otherwise. But I manage to do it without the buckets of effort that others put in. This will probably be the first of many blogs where I talk about short cuts and GMing tips that could, if you’re confident enough, take a lot of the hassle out of running your own game. To start with I’m going to talk about populating a small settlement in a way that takes less time but still looks well rounded.

I start with NPCs that players will meet. People in shops, mostly, or someone plot related who introduces themselves. These NPCs are statted in the simplest way possible, and this is a method I use with every system for any NPC that doesn’t deserve its own character sheet. The system I was using last time, so the one I will be drawing examples from, was Unhallowed Metropolis. I love this system and setting and have run games using it that have lasted years.

Before we get into their stats though, lets think about names. I like having fun with this, and do take a bit of  time to prep before each game coming up with a list of name. Last time I compiled a decent list of Lovecraftian names, and whittled out the most recognisable ones to leave me with a few sides of A4 of random men’s and women’s names. Leave a line between each name, and pick out a few at first for the NPCs that you know you’re going to need and quickly jot down a few things that will flesh them out enough to be recognizable to your players, and you, when you need to play them again. Any stat that’s different from the average, just make a quick note of it and the difference, throw in a specialty skill and you’re almost done. Next pick a quirk, either physical or social that means they’ll stand out and make a note of that too. After that, anything else you need to remember just make quick notes of, you don’t want too much to read if you’re playing the character as it slows down the flow of a game.

That leaves a bunch of other names on your list, but don’t worry they’ll get used soon enough. The village will have a bunch of other people in it, farmers, workers, kids and the elderly. 90% of them will never be needed as the players will have no reason to talk to them, so don’t worry about them until the players feel the need to find anything out about them. This works very well with imaginative players who will think of solutions you may not. Do they need someone in town who used to be in the army? You never thought of that, but twenty of the farmers are just one dimensional shadows at the moment. So go to your list, find an appropriate name, give them a stat boost and extra skill that makes sense, a quirk that would be fun to roleplay, and respond to your creative player, “yup, the barman tells you about a good old boy who comes in of an evening telling stories about his time in the Deathwatch”, and away you go.

When it come to stats, UnMet has a pretty basic set and the usual skills. Choose your human average, in this case 2 across the board, and a set of skills most people would have a level in, then one per NPC that they’re trained in and can have at level 2. Then pick a stat or two that differ from the mean, usually one up, one down, but play around with as much as you want; they’re your characters and don’t have to fit the mean if you don’t think they would. This applies to everyone in your little settlement, and takes a matter of second to make the notes next to name you’ve not used yet.

A lot of people use random tables and feel free to go for it if the idea of picking quirks out the hat during a game is a bit daunting. But my best advice would be to prep a list – or steal it from a much better prepared blogger out there – and familiarise yourself with it a little before you run the game. That way you should have in your short term memory a few ideas that you can quickly take down without it looking to our players like you’re doing it all off the roll of a dice and are instead putting a lot of thought into each decision.

I hope some of that was useful, and as soon as I think of some other ways to speed up your GMing prep, I’ll share them with everyone.