What’s Happening in-game
Well, we’re getting near the close! I predict one more session before the party wraps this all up.
So we pick up from last week with the party still fighting the witch. They flee into some catacombs, find some mummified enemies just hanging around waiting for resurrection, and meet an extremely decrepit bast woman who’s been forcibly body-swapped with Verathensia! There’s some okay roleplay as she dies in their arms.
Then the party “breaks the game” by escaping from the catacombs, and goes to warn the high priestess. But if they can cheat, I can cheat, so right then the temple gets absolutely overrun by mummies.
What’s Happening in This Post
This week I learned about how and when to “interrupt” player actions. I think this may be an all-important skill when it comes to keeping the game moving.
You can do this to keep the action from getting bogged down with a go-nowhere idea. You can do this to realign the direction the players think the story is going in, so that they don’t miss out on the cool things you’ve got in your notes. And finally, you can do this to make sure that those “emotional” roleplay scenes wrap up before getting cheesy.
GMing Technique – Avoid Week-Old Action Staleness
Ever start a session in the middle of a leftover action scene and realize it just doesn’t have the same punch?
Well, last week they left off in a burning, melting, exploding laboratory with a witch who’s just transformed into snakes. Exciting then, but nonetheless kinda stale now. So I just narrated: “the room is filling up with smoke and flying debris, you’ve lost sight of the snakes, you’re cut off from your exit, but there’s a back door…” They ran through it into some catacombs – new setpiece, fresh action.
I call this the “reverse cliffhanger.” You’re interrupting your players in a way – glossing over a stale bit of game time in order to accelerate the party into the next exciting thing. Is it railroady? Yes. Is that sometimes what the group needs when they’re just starting a session/trying to transition from the real world to the game world? Yes. The only thing I should have done different is to tell them they’d had to run through the door and pick up there.
GM Technique: Release The Mummies (aka, Make Your Story Uninterruptable)
On their way back from the catacombs, I had put an impassible obstacle in their way: a dimensional chasm where the witch’s lab used to be before it exploded, but they found a way across.
Now that was a problem. In my story, I put the obstace in their path so they’d have to deal with things in the catacombs for a while, only emerging to stop the villainess’ ceremony at the last minute. That pacing was crucial for a climactic boss battle! If they got across the chasm now, they’d warn the high priestess and head the ceremony off altogether. …or would they?
See, when players do something that breaks your story, you can either tell them their plan doesn’t work (which will invalidate their roll and discourage their interest in the game), or you can take a step back and ask yourself two questions: “why did I have that obstacle there?” and “What other tools do I have that could serve the same purpose?”
What I did was I let them get across the chasm – then released the mummies (they’d just seen the evidence of them downstairs; there were just more of them, and everywhere). They warned the high priestess like they planned, then were forced into hiding from whence they’d have a “ emerge at the last minute” ending like I’d planned.
Their plan worked, then but kept my purpose in place. They win, I win.
The basic tip is to think big: when players do something unexpected, it doesn’t break your story – it just requires you to make the story bigger. If you need them to be trapped somewhere, and they slip out, just turn the whole place into a trap.
Why To Have An Ally NPC: Heartfelt Roleplay
But if I jumped right in with those mummies, they might have felt like I was punishing them. I had to give the pacing a rest and distract them with a “Character Moment.”
Character development scenes are an “interruptor” you always have at your disposal, but they work especially well near the climax; by this point, you know who the characters are, and players are more ready to react to GM-created situations (as opposed to wanting to create stuff early on).
In our case, I made Balboa start to “blink” out (remember: he’s only semi-corporeal ever since they picked him up from the afterlife). A cleric NPC diagnosed the problem: the “spiritual anchor” holding him here (the Fair Lady herself) was unsure of her love for him. She had to decide, once and for all, whether she wanted him to remain “back from the dead,” since if any part of her rejected him he’d evaporate before the final battle, etc., etc.,
That led to some good (if a bit strange) roleplay between him and me, but just at the point it could have gotten “too mushy,” the mummy-ophidians slithering in, cackling, cursing, brandishing weapons, etc. Interruptions to the rescue!
Alternate Combat Mode: The Unbeatable Attack Wave
Sometimes for story sake, you need the party to flee before overwhelming numbers. Don’t do this like a normal combat scene. It’s a specialized story technique.
Give the PCs one round to do some damage/create some advantages/set up some cover for their retreat. Perhaps have them easily defeat some enemies, only to realize in round 2 that it was just the first wave of an innumerable horde.
Treat enemy units like they’re uncountable. Treat attacks like they cause helpful effects on the situation, rather than reducing enemy numbers (and if you’re playing Fate, this is easy: simply treat Attack actions as if they’re Create Advantage actions).
If you’re giving them an unbeatable foe, it’s important that your players feel like they’re facing an unbeatable foe – not just facing an arbitrary GM wall. Last week we talked a little bit about this with individual enemies. A good way to do this is really unbeatable is to interrupt the action scene with a cliffhanger. (of course planning to answer it with a Reverse Cliffhanger next week.)