by Mike Shea on 16 June 2014
Note: This article has been rewritten since the original published May 2010.
Sometimes we have some really great ideas for our D&D game. We write them faithfully in our fancy Moleskine notebooks. We dream about how great they'll be when these ideas manifest at our table. We wonder why we've never tried these ideas before.
Then we release these ideas and they end up stinking like bad meat.
Sometimes the story idea you have ends up a lot less fun when you're sitting on the other side of it. Today we're going to talk about some great ideas that may be a lot more trouble than they're worth.
Betrayal seems like a great story idea. Sometimes it's a trusted NPC. Other times it's the player of a PC willing to work against the rest of the party. We keep them close for a while, wait until they're fully trusted by the players, and then let the betrayal loose. Many GMs have tried betrayal in their games at one point or another. Sometimes it actually works fine, but sometimes it doesn't. It's not just a betrayal of the NPC, it's a betrayal of the GM. It feels like a personal trick.
Betrayal seems like a really good idea for the GM, and it's fun for the DM to run, but many players don't like to have the wool pulled over their eyes. They want to be the ones moving the story, not stumbling through a story like Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
If you betray their trust, expect that the PCs will be cutting the throat of almost every NPC you bring into the story from then on.
Betrayal can work, but if you're planning to use it, plan carefully. Your PCs may really hate it if you do it the wrong way.
A lot of times we want to put PCs in the gutter and have them fight their way out. 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 replicate this by taking away what our PCs love the most. We might have every intention to give them better gear later. We migth plan on motivating them to fight out of a tough spot. But people hate losing and we're all about fun here.
Nothing you give PCs in return will make up for what you take away. Players want progress. They want growth. Loss feels like they wasted the time and energy it took to acquire those things. 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 time lost last game.
Be careful taking things away from your PCs, whether it's items or levels or even story elements that they like.
Good stories come from real villains with their own goals and quests. When you design an NPC based on Al Swearengen of 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.
Soon this villain has a lot more information than he or she should. They don't just see the world through their own eyes, they see it through yours. They know everything. A supervillain who knows too much will end up either smartly killing off the PCs when they have 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.
Smart villains are the glue of a good story but they should only know what they were capable of knowing. The all-powerful villain brings up the hard question in the minds of the players: "why didn't they just kill us when they had the chance?"
Even your smartest villains should have flaws and blind spots.
All of these story arcs can work at your table if you use them correctly. The key is always to ask yourself whether you would enjoy this as a player. You might think it's interesting to have a major NPC betray the party but how will the players feel? Sit on the other side of the table with these or many other ideas and ask yourself if they will end up being fun for the players. If not, focus on what will be fun.