JP On Gaming

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shades of Gray... The Good and the Bad (part 2)

What makes a good Shades of Grey?

A good shades of gray campaign requires two things. Everything can be brought down to those two.

  • A crucial, difficult dilemma At some point in the game, the players have to face a dilemma. This dilemma should change the characters, reinventing them in some way. The dilemma must be presented so that once the PC(s) has the information or is presented with the dilemma, both sides must have advantages OR both sides must present disadvantages. Those choices must not be trivialized or presented in a way that only one is valid.
  • Multi-dimensional characters That means both PCs and NPCs. Bland, vanilla characters rarely manage to catch or get involved in the depth of the plot or make any important decision as they would buy a scroll of cure light wounds. Having interests and ties into the campaign completes the picture. People feel loss more readily when they hit closer to home. Similarly, for the NPC maybe getting his minions scattered and his loot stolen by a bunch of upstarts can change things.

  • I think of Magneto who, around X-Men issue 200 turns from his villainous ways to become the leader of the New Mutant and an X-Man. Later, he realizes that this new way is wrong and he turns evil again, but by now some of the X-Men have a better appreciation for the master villain.
  • One small thing I wish to point out is that you don’t need to have the NPCs fully fleshed out to be multi-dimensional. One way to give that appearance is to have them do something off-camera, while the PCs are not around. When the PCs realize what is happening, they are now in a wasps’ nest. For example, the PCs have taken a dislike to a group of druids. Coming back from a quest, the PCs discover one the druids is now the local constable!
  • Watchmen... The whole plot is just about defines shades of gray. Read/see it.

  • What makes a bad Shades of Grey?

    This list could go on forever. A bad campaign is a bad campaign. Players who refuse to "play the game" generally ruin a DM's best attempt at coming up with something interesting and exciting. But what makes a bad "shades of grey" bad? I will try to focus only on that and ignore the rest of the bad stuff...

  • Bad Setup For the choice to work, the PCs must understand the difference between what they are are about to choose. Poorly setting up the choice destroys the angst and torment you wish to inflict on your PCs at this time. The two most common

  • Trivial Choice You can give the artifact of mega-super-healing to the priests so they can cure the sick little children dying of the plague OR you can keep it to yourselves to try and uncover more of its powers? The way the choice is presented to the PCs gives them the answer to the dilemma. Although some jerk PCs might try to get away with it, it is very likely that the party will vote in favor of helping the kids.
  • Bad Choice The Prince’s 50 highly trained men surround you. "You can give the artifact to me or I can take it from your cold, dead hands..." Although this is presented as a choice, the setup really indicates that the PCs should not try anything funny, making the choice trivial. Some PCs might try to look for a way out, but it seems that most of the ways are blocked.

  • Letting the PCs know the meta-gaming repercussions The PCs should know that keeping that great artifact will bring in thugs, muggers and assassins after them. Having them know that you prepared a full campaign about those thugs will influence the PCs’ decision.
  • DM forcing the choice In RPGs, the illusion of free will is one of the most important things. The players should always feel like they have their complete destiny in their own hands, even when that is not the case. The DM here must be particularly careful not to influence the choice. This means that a more open style of writing must be used. Having a strict Encounter 1-> Encounter 2-> Encounter 3 adventure flow makes it very difficult to follow and give the PCs the impression of free will.
  • Not part of the climax Now... what is the most boring part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? That’s right... the chapters following the destruction of the One Ring. Once such a choice is made, lives are changed, group dynamics are no longer the same, or the world might breathe differently. I can see why some of you are going "but my best adventure starts with something like that". I do not see how you could create the tension, the dilemma, the angst needed by *starting* with that. When writing a novel, you can... I mean the author gets to inject whatever he wants into the character and through his prose communicate that to the reader. When it comes to role-playing... the best prose cannot give a starting character, of even the best role-player that feeling of personal investment. I’m always willing to hear how you pulled it off but I doubt there will be anything of interest mentioned. If the Lord of the Rings started with Frodo throwing the Ring and walking out of the volcano, it would not be very memorable... But when he comes to the edge and then hesitates about throwing the Ring into the lava below... I still wonder to this day. Would Frodo have destroyed the Ring?

  • How do I make it work?

    Here there are many ways to do this. I leave the individual DM to think about how they would like to accomplish this. Unless a game system is pre-disposed toward gray-ism (such as Elric/Stormbringer, Vampire or Warhammer Fantasy or the D&D settings of Lankhmar and/or Midnight), or the game was not presented to the players as a shades of grey campaign, you have to be sneaky about it.

  • Payback is a bitch! One way to get the players to suddenly realize that things aren't as clear-cut as they wanted it to be is payback. Do you remember that special armor none of us wanted to use that we sold or stored in our vault? Well there was much more going on with that than we thought... Ars Magica's A Winter's Tale uses precisely that plot device to get things going with GREAT effect. What you do here is you draw the PCs into a story about something they knew or assumed in the past and change it so that it now bites them in the rear. Maybe the bejeweled sword was not that of King Arthur... What if it were Mordred's? One of the keys to succeeding here is to allow some time to pass. Make players memories blurry a little, but clear enough that they remember what you are talking about.
  • Do not start a session with the dilemma Wait for the players to get into the get, to get into character and begin to think like they should before springing this on them. Plus a little fatigue mixed with the usual gamer's caffeine-filled evening heighten the tension. You goal is to play on those elements to help the players get into the mindset of the game...
  • Introduce the object of the dilemma early If your dilemma involves a person, introduce that NPC early. If it is about an object, introduce it early. If it is a moral choice, start dropping hints early. The earlier in the adventure you introduce the element, the easier it will be for the PCs to understand and have to make a choice. By then, hopefully they will have some investment in the dilemma. A previous point says not to start with the choice, this point has you introduce the main element of that choice.

  • JP

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