This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the big differences between roleplaying sessions and the adventure stories from which they derive their inspiration is found in the degree of interaction between hero and villain before their conflict devolves into violence.

In a Bond flick, 007 typically meets the archvillain at least once before the final confrontation. Often they interact a couple of times before our hero finally starts blowing up the bad guy’s impressive hideout.

The archetypal action-based RPG is D&D, where the monsters conveniently check into hotels, which the heroes raid, one suite at a time, busting in the door and killing everything inside. Once one room is cleansed of its valuables, they head down the corridor to the next door, opening it, too, with their hobnailed passkeys. If the inhabitants of a room are ancient vampires with an awesome pedigree, or high-level characters with elaborately fleshed personalities, it doesn’t much matter. They’re going down, man, with no time-wasting conversation to separate the smashing of the door from the rolling of initiative.

If you don’t think roleplaying ought to resemble other narrative forms, this isn’t a problem, just a point of divergence.

However, if her players want to respond to the evolving story of a roleplaying session as they would to a movie or book, a GM has a tricky task to execute.

Part of the problem lies in the relentlessly first-person nature of RPG narrative. If the heroes aren’t in a scene, the players don’t see it. Contrast this with the shifting viewpoints found in most heroic fiction, or the cutting between scenes typical of a movie.

When writing a novel, if I know that the hero and villain won’t actually meet for a long stretch of the book, I can still introduce the bad guy early on in the proceedings. I just give him his own chapter, a bit of internal monologue, or a secondary character to interact with and presto, I’ve got a living, breathing antagonist with a bit of distinguishing depth to him. In a screenplay I can cut from one character to another just as easily.

However, there are a few fictional examples where we see everything through the lead character’s eyes. Most, if not all, detective novels are structured this way. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are a touchstone of this approach.

In film, we can go back to the Bond example. The classic template includes at least three meetings:

1) Non-violent conflict, in which the hero gets a sense of the villain’s character with a face-to-face meeting. Usually this occurs in public. The Bondian fascination with gambling is not only an evocation of Fleming-era high style; it’s a highly useful fictional device allowing the antagonist and protagonist to undergo a conflict that will not bring the narrative to a premature close. (Goldfinger gives us two of these scenes: a card game and, later, a round of golf.)

2) Capture. The hero is captured and placed in a trap. The villain and hero interact once more, this time with deadly stakes. The villain then departs, and the hero escapes. He lives, but once he is free, the bad guy is long gone. Again, they’ve come into contact, but the final confrontation is delayed.

3) Climactic action. Finally, the hero has learned of the villain’s nefarious plot and arrives to defuse it before mass carnage ensues. Once he’s neutralized the plot, his conflict with the villain reaches its ultimate, fatal resolution.

The introduction of a secondary villain or henchman often follows a similar pattern. Sometimes the hero meets the henchman in a nonviolent context before later coming to blows with him. In some of the Bond films, the henchman survives the main villain, showing up at the end for a coda fight scene, as in Diamonds Are Forever.

Adding these elements to your roleplaying scenarios is a matter of context and motivation. You must provide your heroes with a reason to hold off on the ultraviolence until a later scene. Solid motivations include:

Cover. Like Bond, the heroes have reason to make a least a token nod toward concealing their identities. They can’t blow their cover by blasting away the moment they run into a suspected bad guy.

Bystanders. Initial encounters can take place in public. If the heroes start a fight, innocents will be killed or taken hostage.

Public relations. If they have an authority figure as a patron, the heroes may be discouraged from staging their fights in places where massive property destruction may take place. They have a stake in the reputation of their stomping grounds – the king won’t like it if their villain-smashing activities make his nation seem like a dangerous, lawless place.

But above all, the most important reason for PCs to keep their cans of whup-ass sealed is information gathering-/-evil scheme preventing.

In the standard RPG plot, the villains are passive. They’ve done something bad already, and now are merely holed up in their well-trapped dungeon complexes waiting for the PCs to show up and slaughter them.

In fiction, the villains are almost always actively doing something. The PC’s main aim is not to kill them, but to stop the bad thing they’re trying to do. Any antagonist killing occurs merely as an adjunct to this main goal. The heroes are trying to save people, not just confiscate some loot after committing a justifiable homicide.

(The revenge movie, like Unforgiven or Gladiator, is an exception to this pattern. But even there, the protagonist and antagonist interact prior to the act that inspires the anti-hero’s quest for vengeance. In some cases, such as Kill Bill, the interaction takes place in the antecedent action, but it happens nonetheless.)

To stop the bad guys, the heroes have to find out what they’re doing. Interacting with them is a way of doing this – hence the time-honored Bondian technique of infiltrating the hideout and getting captured. (At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond dispenses even with the pretence of infiltration and just has himself dropped on Blofeld’s doorstep, essentially reporting for incarceration.)

Capture sequences are tricky in an RPG context. PCs prefer death traps they can disarm before they climb into them. Many players game for a feeling of power and freedom and react with surprising anxiety if their characters are imprisoned. Some, oddly enough, prefer character death to capture. A less extreme reaction is a loss of hope when captured – you may have to be blatantly heavy-handed in pointing to possible avenues of escape.

By allowing the PCs to meet the bad guys before they get the chance to kill them, you’ll be delaying their gratification. In other words, you’re frustrating them in order to enhance their enjoyment at the adventure’s end. You’re employing frustration as a tool, which can be rewarding – but only if you use it with a laser-like precision to do Auric Goldfinger proud.

by Adam Gauntlett

This Thrilling Chase scenario comes courtesy of Ian Fleming’s Octopussy, in which a dead body found frozen in the mountains near Kitzbühel leads to death for a former wartime hero.

Location: Kitzbühel

Demographics: 3,200 (1890s), 5,500 (1939-45), 8,000 (1970s), 8,200 (2014). The majority are Austrians, often with Italian connections; in the modern day about 24% are foreign born, with Germans, Turks, Bosnians, Serbs and Romanians being the largest foreign born demographic groups. Standard Austrian German is the common language; English is uncommon.

Type: small mountainside medieval tourist town, heavily dependent on winter sports and skiing. In the summer there are mountain bike paths and hiking trails. There are over 10,000 guest beds, which means in season the tourists outnumber the locals, probably at a 2:1 ratio at least. The World Wars largely bypassed it, so its medieval heritage is intact. A river runs through it, the Kitzbüheler Ache, and there are rail connections. Before skiing and tourism took over, Kitzbühel was a mining town – silver and copper. Its ski season is mid-October to early May, and most of the tourists who go there are High Society 1 or more. The city centre is car-free. The crime show SOKO Kitzbühel, a modern police procedural, has run for 17 seasons since 2001. Recurring characters include a Michelin-star chef turned amateur detective, and a Countess.

Landmarks: Museum Kitzbühel located in former granary & medieval tower, comprehensive history of Kitzbühel from Bronze Age to present. Town Fountain designed in 1971 to celebrate 700th anniversary, with statues of town founder and famous Tyroleans. Death Lantern chapel in a cemetery, designed in the shape of a square death lantern, similar to wayside shrines. Built 1450. Lebenberg Castle hotel built in 14th century, has been a guest house since 1885.

Chase Scene elements: Road. Cows. Kitzbühel is still a farming community; cows outnumber permanent residents by 3:1. Horse-drawn carriages. Narrow, cobbled medieval streets with gaily decorated gabled houses either side. High-end classic cars, unblemished, as if they’d just rolled off the production line. Ski. Cable cars and ski lifts, over 57 of them. Snowcats, massive enclosed fully tracked vehicles designed for group tours. Treat as Speed 0 Manoeuvre -2. Over 32 km established ski routes, plenty of off-country opportunities and deep powder. Trails (summer). Gentle Alpine slopes. Hiker Huts and shelters. Adventure realms with dinosaurs, witches & spirits, perfect for driving through at high speed.

Inciting Incident

A corpse was discovered out on the mountainside, and best forensic evidence suggests the body’s been there at least ten years. The identity is going to depend on the era; 1890s, a Vatican exorcist and vampire-hunter. 1939-45, a German Communist and anti-Fascist suspected of having stolen information from the German vampire program. 1970s, a British pilot involved in flights in and out of Kitzbühel during the War. 2014, a Russian former KGB agent and fixer to the great and powerful. Whoever the person was, they had information on them when they went missing, and the question is, where is that package now? Was the McGuffin stuffed under a rock, hidden somewhere in Kitzbühel itself, something else? How did the dead man come to be there, and what killed him? The tip to the inciting incident can come from Tradecraft, Cop Talk, High Society.

OPFOR

The dead man was killed by a Conspiracy Node that is now non-functional or under new management. The reconstituted Node, or its replacement, is suspicious of this discovery, particularly since it comes at a time of crisis; one of its competitors is challenging its authority. The timing is too perfect to be a coincidence. It activates the Yojimbo option, sending an unaffiliated team to scarf up any information it can, and hopefully trigger any traps or ambushes. The Node also sends an agent of its own to monitor the situation, and step in if the Yojimbo team gets trounced.

Yojimbo Team: (N=agents+4) Thugs, all gym rats (expert skiiers/mountain bikers). Civilian High Society fixer with Athletics 6, Driving 6, effective Flirting 1, posing as a VIP. Led by former Soldier, Shooting 9, inhabited by an Adzeh who hates the cold and really wishes it were somewhere warmer. Armament will vary depending on era, but assume the Thugs have at least rifles and pistols, or the equivalent. The Soldier uses a crossbow, with the Sniping option.

Node Agent: Vampire, with Civilian High Society fixer, Athletics 4, Driving 4, Hand-to-Hand 4, effective Cop Talk 1, posing as a Michelin inspector and amateur detective working for a client who ‘prefers discretion over publicity.’ Equipment will depend on era, but their job is primarily surveillance, so they’ll have the best era-appropriate surveillance equipment. The Michelin Guide doesn’t exist prior to 1900, so in an 1890s scenario the Civilian is a travelling epicure.

It All Goes Boom Variation: Of course this wasn’t a coincidence. The rival Node placed Class 3 explosives at the target site, hoping to catch someone important. The Director may or may not use this variation, as required.

Arrival

Kitzbühel is, as always, full of life, but now it seems frenetic, frenzied, like something out of Poe’s Red Death. Mountains glower down on the little medieval outpost, and the shadows grow longer each night. The Ork, a Tyrolean ogre or demon, is supposed to live in those mountains, ever the enemy of man; on cold, dark nights like these, it seems plausible. The tourists seem happy enough, but the locals go home as early as they can, lock their doors, and refuse to come out till morning’s light. Tradecraft or Surveillance notices the Yojimbo team immediately; even with their fixer doing the best she can, they stand out. However they don’t seem to have realized the agents have arrived. A point spend sees that the Yojimbo team are being watched, by the Vampire’s Civilian fixer.

The Body

Cop Talk, Law, or Bureaucracy spends needed to get access to the body, or see the things found with it. Infiltration Difficulty 4 to get into the police morgue. The police station in Kitzbühel is close to the river and rail lines, far from anything glitzy or touristy. Autopsy notes can be found on computer (Digital Intrusion Difficulty 4) or the forensic medical examiner’s notes can be found at the station, in the doctor’s office. In any scenario at or prior to 1939 there are no notes; the body hasn’t been examined, and awaits an expert’s visit.

The dead man was knifed in a manner that strongly indicates military experience, possibly special forces. Medical report or Forensic Pathology study of the body needed to realize this. Some effort was taken to conceal its identity – face bashed, fingers cut off. However sufficient evidence remains (DNA analysis, giveaway tattoo, tailor’s marks, as needed) to tentatively identify the body.

Among the possessions is an Idaite fragment containing copper, iron and sulphur. Given the location of the shallow grave where the body was found, the likely source is a mine – Röhrerbüchel, one of the deepest medieval mining operations. It hasn’t been used in over 150 years. It isn’t a tourist site, though it is occasionally visited by geologists and rockhounds.

Chase #1: Yojimbo Rabbits

The Yojimbo team either interrupts or arrives ahead of the agents. It wants everything it can get its hands on, and will try to get away with something that seems valuable – the body, the autopsy report. However the real prize is the Idaite, which the Director should ensure ends up with the agents. How Yojimbo gets in depends on circumstances; Infiltration, or determined bluffing from the Civilian fixer, as she tries to smuggle Thugs through the front door. Road conditions: cramped, if the chase goes into historic Kitzbühel. The Thugs use an SUV, the Civilian fixer a sports car. The Soldier oversees this operation from a distance, and does not appear in the scene.

Röhrerbüchel

The abandoned mine shafts stretch on for miles, but agents spending Notice or Outdoor Survival find trail marks left behind by the dead man. Depending on the era this can be Latin tags (1890s), German (1939-45), old RAF marks (1970s), KGB symbols (2014). Not spending means the agents will have to follow the Yojimbo team.

The McGuffin is hidden deep in the mine, and may be booby-trapped with explosives that cause a cave-in. If the booby-trap option is used, an extra point spend of Notice or Outdoor Survival sees that the trail marks are too fresh to have been made by the dead man, warning the agents that the McGuffin is a trap.

Chase #2: Roger Moore

The surviving Yojimbo team pursues the agents down the mountain, either on skis or by mountain bike. The mountain is steep, with potential avalanche if the booby-trap went off. The chase ends in Kitzbühel, where the Vampire steps in to claim the prize. The Vampire will want either the McGuffin or a kidnapped agent to tell it what happened. If an agent is kidnapped, the Vampire can be traced via its Civilian fixer, allowing an escape attempt.

 


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.