“Edge of the World,” Session #5: Shudder Island, Part 2
This is a long installment, folks – skim for the techniques you’re most interested in, I guess.
Click here for more of my continuing series where I follow the tips, techniques, and mistakes I used in my current pirate campaign. Last week, the party went on a madhouse rescue mission in a madhouse and found out even the doctors were insane; this week, they’ll discover the very building is mad…
Handling “Let’s Split Up And Investigate” scenes
Last week you’ll remember the party split up and investigated all over the building. The problem with this is: if anything happens, how will they all reconvene to deal with it? This doesn’t just threaten the PCs lives, it threatens the players’ fun; one-at-a-time play is usually way less fun than teamwork-play.
When the whole party’s goals require them to be in separate places, my Rule Of Thumb #1 is to design the setpiece so they’re always within earshot of each other. But if they have to be spread out over a bigger area (a whole insane asylum, say), I use Rule Of Thumb #2: it’s okay for players to make up ways they can get each other. That means when a player suggsts, “I look for a service ladder that will coincidentally take me to where he is,” I’ll to go with it rather than say “that’s too easy.”
And this leads to a related technique…
Exploration always leads the same place
When players split up to investigate, there are two things at stake: rewarding their individual roleplay and information-gathering they’re doing, and making sure the split up doesn’t make the game less fun. My rule for handling these two concerns is: make sure the gameplay is effectively the same as if they were in the same room investigating the same object.
Reward each player with unique information according to his character’s unique talents and how he roleplays it – same as if they were all in one room. Your notes should have at least one information tidbit for each PC. If any serious action begins, make sure the PCs somehow end up together. This doesn’t mean you’re making their individual explorations pointless – it just means you bypass the frustration of either facing a serious conflict on your own or being left out of one. This is a group activity, after all!
End of Investigation Phase; Beginning of Problem-Solving Phase
The power of the last two principles eventually brought everyone down to the basement (And it helped that this whole building physically rearranges itself on the whim of some unseen mind, this was pretty easy to pull off.
As players explore a scenario they tend to follow three phases: 1) roleplay, 2) investigation, 3) problem solving. Part of GMing is handling the transitions: dropping an irresistible hook when it’s time to start investigating, letting them in on the problem when it’s time to start problem solving, etc. Discovering the Madness Machine provided the perfect transition into problem-solving mode: seeing zombified laborers confirmed that something evil was indeed going on, investigating the machine itself helped explain what it was, and a fight with the guards helped punctuate this scene as a game-changer.
Mixing Main Plot and Subplot
The machine was the crux of the asylum’s operation – the center of the plot that I’d thrown in their way as an obstacle. Now it was time to bring their personal objective back in: finding Jacob Jones.
This story had a main plot (rescuing Jones) and a subplot (there’s something weird going on and it’s not just the doctors who are behind it). This is a rewarding structure because it gives you and the players lots of things to do at any given time. At the scenario climax, it’s fun to clash the two together. They thought they knew everything when they’d found the machine. My final surprise was Jacob Jones is also a key part of the “machine” plotline. He’s prisoner #1: the maddest on the island, the prime producer on the farm.
By this point the party was very aware that the building wasn’t shifting at random, but shfits to show them something. So when they open a door in the basement and find themselves on what is obviously the top floor, with nothing but Jones’ cell on it, they’re a little bit scared. Was this railroading? No, this was just letting the Id NPC use his skills against the PCs – which worked because he was unwittingly using them for the story.
Cell #1 is nothing but a bigger version of the “coffins” that fuel the Madness Machine. The green mist swirls around Jones, making the PCs delirious.
The Climax isn’t what they expected
They’re here to rescue Jones, but Jones has given up a long time ago. His door isn’t even locked. He says the whole asylum is the plaything of a mad demon, there’s no way out, and if there were, they’d be trapped on the island anyway. I played him so lucid that hearing this viewpoint shook the players up a bit.
Try On the Fly NPC Development!
Because the players knew more about what was happening than why, I had the Id speak to them again here, telling them to take a good look at Jones, that they’d be in his place eventually, that it’s easier to surrender to sweet, sweet madness, etc. Then Savio dialogued with the Id to try to get inside his head
When your players are this intrigued by an NPC, it’s a good time to flesh the character out – if you can do so on the fly. Respond with what feels right, and you’ll find things out about the character yourself. For example…
In this conversation, I made up that the Id was insane because he had been incompletely transported into this world from somewhere else. I found myself playing him as someone who, being the victim of such an “accident,” believed existence was a joke. I also found that he sounded envious of the PCs and their sanity: his prior assertion that “madness is all there is” started to sound less sincere and more sour-grapesy.
See, I already knew this character preached about madness being the ultimate reality. But when Savio asked questions that didn’t have a good answer (like, “what do you care if we agree with you?”, I’d respond in anger, then ask myself, “why is this character angry right now?” He ended up envious because my initial response sounds envious. On-the-fly character-building is scary and takes practice, but thrilling when you can do it well.
Letting Good Roleplay Rewrite the Story
Finally, Savio showed the Id that he should just go home (back to the realm he was from) instead of destroying the mortal world. He did this so convincingly that I had to reward it.
…but I didn’t want the Id to “go home.” Instead, I rewarded Savio with some good plot info: the Id coldly told him he could not return, because he had actually been pushed through – sent as a forerunner for the “one” who would come later to submerge the mortal world in insanity: Pluto.
The Id didn’t have this origin story at first, but Savio’s awesome roleplay made it so we had to know more about him. And what we found out ought to be plot-relevant. And giving him a “hates everyone because he got banished” forced me to think up some declared about the whole Pluto plot: smaller spirits like the Id can already get into our world, but something’s in the works that will change things so Pluto can squeeze in.
Two existing ideas fed into this scene, totally by accident: the campaign has cultists who worship a god of darkness, so naturally I’d been thinking about reasons anyone would do that. Here, they were able to see the reasons someone would: because he believes Pluto is unstoppable anyway. The other idea was that I’d already made the doctors not be the main bad guy at the asylum but the playthings of an larger evil. Now the Id was the same with, with an even bigger Evil. The lesson here is that if you think about your campaign as a bundle of themes, you’ll find yourself making up details that nicely match those themes.
Karn’s “Tune in” from last week had clued me in that he was ready for his sacrificial death.
Determined to escape, the party found some explosives in the digging operation beneath the asylum and blew Cell #1 wide open. The Id manifested in almost-visible form, determined to keep them here and make them mad in return for making him feel bad.
One by one they attacked him, but no matter what they did I narrated them succumbing to illusions. Yeah, I know I was kind of punishing creativity, but the point was to let Karn save them. I figured that when a PC was trusting in his own skills to do the job (which you can count on players to do) he could be easily pushed further into his own mind by the Id’s madness attack, but the defense would be pure self-sacrifice.
Conveniently, Karn attacked last. He grappled it, started to feel himself crushed by its tentacles (it was now visibly manifest: a shapeless abomination), but just held it off with a qi attack meant to slow it down and keep it from everyone else. Its hold on everyone lessened. Jacob Jones blew a little shell he’d forgotten the purpose of: it called the Mad Captain’s ship. Karn wounded the Id and it fell off the tower – he was too entangled to be pulled loose before it fell. The glorious ship the Jester’s Throe hove up on the clouds of the storm and they all boarded.
The details of this were kinda unsatisfying to me – Karn’s death only defeated the monster circumstantially. I should have made sacrificial death somehow be the monster’s only weakness, and something it totally wouldn’t expect (spoiler: Dreamworks’ Sinbad did a good job of this). Otherwise, the Id does seem a little foolish for letting the party in on its secrets. …then again, the Id is a depressed, possibly suicidal spirit with a desperate need to express itself to others, so, I guess it works if he’s just overreaching himself too.
After a climax, players are usually more willing to sit and listen to narration. I painted the scene as Karn and the Id fell from the tower, as the crew scrambled aboard the Jester’s Throe, as the tower crumbled and fell behind them while the oddly jolly Captain hove off into the clouds – how the storm itself began to disperse. They had lost a friend, and achieved a major objective all in one session.
All in all, I found I didn’t really know how the Mad Captain would act in such dramatic circumstances. For a character I knew was going to be introduced after events I couldn’t really predict, I should have spent more time getting a picture of him in my mind.
The Id wanted the party to find out the building’s secrets, as much as I did. I realized when I was GMing the “shifting building” scenario I was really playing the Id as an NPC. Playing the locaiton as if it were a character (because in this case it actually was!) was a fascinating experience and I wonder if I somehow bring the same mindset to locations that aren’t haunted or “alive.”