Apr 19 2012
I’ve temporarily retired from GM-ing Savage Worlds RPG campaigns with the boys and made the transition to “Player Character” in an Old West campaign a la Deadlands. I’ll probably start chronicling the adventure in a bit, but I wanted to get out some thoughts that were rolling around in my head while I was still a GM: particularly, the strategic use of guilt to make the adventure awesome.
One of the biggest challenges in gaming whatever campaign is getting your players “into” the story; in other words, making them care.
One of my biggest complaints about classic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns was the lack of strong motivation for characters to do anything meaningful. The game rewards characters for defeating monsters and finding treasure. For the characters, this usually means killing anything and everyone you meet or robbing them blind. Even when there was a backstory (rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, preventing an invasion by demons, etc), that always took a backseat to murder and acquisition.
Boring and stupid. Boring, because adventures often turned in to generic encounters with different statistics, after which we would count up the loot. Stupid, because adventurers had no genuine motivation for getting too far into an adventure if it got too dangerous (eg. “I’ve got a good chance of dying if I stay in this Frost-Giant infested cavern. I’m heading back to the forest to scalp some three-foot-tall goblins). Usually, they’d finish the dungeon just to finish it — not because they had any real reason to do so.
How to get my players involved? In one adventure, I settled on a backstory that made the characters responsible for the evil in the land. They started out (as most fantasy adventures begin) in a tavern, celebrating victory with a few cold ones and looking for new adventures. They were soon summoned to an ancient city that was now threatened by a hideous race of subterranean monsters — all because the characters were previously hired to kill all of the evil magical slime creatures in some of the local mines.
With the sentient evil slimes gone, the new, worse monsters from the deeper caves were no longer prevented from harassing surface dwellers. The players didn’t just have to kill the monsters because monsters are bad — they had a moral duty to kill them because they had put the city dwellers in danger.
In my more recent zombie adventure, I used a different kind of guilt. I made it apparent in encounter after encounter that most of the NPCs around them were innocent and useless in a fight; nice people, grateful to the players, and helpful in small ways, but pretty much dependent on the player characters for protection. Once the player characters felt responsible for the NPCs, just abandoning them and going off on their own (which would have been the quicker, easier thing to do) was as impossible as leaving a cold, shivering puppy out in the rain. The players had to keep moving towards their objective, not just for their own survival, but to shepherd the sad sacks around them to safety as well.
Guilt (and redemption) is a great motivator. It’s not the only one. Blood-lust could be a motivator if you pile on the hate (eg. “Your mixed party of fighters, a cleric and a wizard are the sole survivors of an onslaught of dragons that wiped out your town last night, including all of your friends and family…”). And greed can be good (eg. “The black diamond of Zabrai in castle Greyhook is worth 100,000 gold pieces). But how much better is it to add a little bit of guilt into the picture? (eg. “The town could have been defended, but your characters were partying in the tavern when you should have been at the watchtowers” or “You could trade in the diamond as payment for the local cleric to resurrect your comrade-in-arms, who was killed when your rogue character failed to detect traps’).
Guilt. It’s not just for your grandmother’s D&D campaign anymore.