by Mike Shea on 31 May 2010
The night before writing this I ran a bad game. It didn't appear bad when I wrote it. I followed a lot of my own advice. I spent time in the eyes of the villain, thinking about what he wanted and how he would get it. I had a pretty good encounter set up - the defense of the PC's brothel where they rest between adventures. I had lots of environmental effects and interesting situations. I didn't presuppose how it would go.
But it still went poorly. The villain's goal wasn't what the players thought it was and by the time they found out, it was too late. This is a pretty good arc for a story but it isn't a lot of fun to play in. I didn't really learn this until I was done.
This isn't the only bad game I've run in the past two years of running a weekly 4th Edition D&D game. Today I plan to talk about some of the great ideas I had that turned out to suck in the hopes that you might either avoid them or learn to run them so they DON'T suck. So come on in, relax, and leap into my insecurities.
Betrayal seems like a great story idea. Have an NPC or even a PC that the players are used to. Keep them close for a while, wait until they're fully trusted by the players, and then wham, turn them right around. I've done this in just about every campaign I've run and I don't think it ever gave me the reaction I wanted. Normally after the big reveal I hear one four-letter word and get a lot of narrowed-eye looks.
In my most recent campaign (don't worry, I won't talk about my own campaign anymore than I have to), the betrayal was one of the current PCs. The player who ran him and I planned it out from the moment he used him. We knew what would trigger his betrayal, what his secret motivation was, everything. When the betrayal finally hit, the other players either didn't really care or were wicked pissed off.
Betrayal seems like a really good idea for the DM, and it's fun for the DM to run, but players don't like to have the wool pulled over their eyes. They want to be the ones moving the story, not Forest Gumping their way through like Jimmy Steward in North by North-West.
If you're planning for a betrayal, plan carefully. Your PCs may really hate it if you do it the wrong way.
The Smart Supervillain
I believe strongly in the idea of method-acting with your NPCs. I think a good story comes by the reactions of characters relating to one another - not by the plot you spell out from point A to point B. When you design an NPC based on Al Swearengen from Deadwood, you want him to be cool and smart. You think about what he wants and what he plans. You think about how we will react to the PC's actions. You wonder what he will do with the information he has.
The problem is, all that smarts might only amuse you. A supervillain who knows too much will end up either smartly killing off the PCs when he has the chance or building such a web that the players will feel like they are just knocking around in a maze they can't see.
Your players should be the smart ones. The PCs should generally have the upper hand. It's one thing for your bad guy to have a plot and something else for it to be so maniacal that the party can't do anything about it.
Stay true to your NPCs but remember that they exist in total for the fun of your players. They shouldn't be idiots but a little bit of black-hat mustache twirling might do better than a twisted web of intrigue.
Taking Things Away
A lot of times we want to put PCs back in the gutter. They've grown strong, they've acquired powerful magical items. They are at the top of their game.
Good storytelling takes people we love and puts them in the worst situations of their lives. We often want to do this again to put our characters in a low spot and get them to fight back up again. Sure, they'll have better gear later. Sure, they may get over that terrible disease you gave them.
Nothing you give them, however, will make up for what you take away. Players want progress. They want growth. Any loss feels like they wasted the time and energy it took to acquire those items. They might very well feel like they wished they hadn't come to that game. You might try to reward them later but any reward will feel like you're making up for screwing them last time.
Always be careful taking things away from your PCs, whether it's gear or levels or even story elements that they like.
Never Forget the Rule of Fun
All of these story arcs can be good ones and even end up working well at the table. The key is always to ask yourself whether you would enjoy this as a player. You might think it really interesting that one of the party members is secretly a spy but as a player you might just feel like you got screwed. Sit on the other side of the table with these or many other seemly good ideas and ask yourself if they will end up being fun for the players. If not, focus on what will be fun.
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