Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is right on topic.
I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two).
This time around, I’m look at what should be the most pleasant surprise of all – the unexpected gift…
It never fails to surprise me how many GMs fail to appreciate the plot potential of gifts, especially when coupled with the season of giving that is Christmas. I’ve often made a point of emphasizing the PCs giving gifts to each other in my campaigns at such times, something I discussed in ‘Tis The Season: A Christmas Scenario, in which I described an adventure from the Zenith-3 campaign that had this principle as its’ theme.
In fact, to be both seasonal and topical, you don’t need to have a version of the Christmas Holiday in your game at all; simply have an enemy of the PCs give them a gift and play the resulting adventure at the appropriate time of year, and your players will make a metagame connection to the Holiday Season with no need for in-game festivities at all. It could be any time of year, game time.
Using Gifts as adventure springboards ultimately comes down to three elements:
- The Personality of the Giver;
- The Motivation for the Gift; and,
- The nature of the Gift.
The first two clearly shape the third, and are also strongly interelated.
I’ve chosen to use Motivation as the differentiator within this article, and have identified six different Motivations which could prompt the issuance of a Gift from Villain to PCs. Some are benign, some are anything but.
Christmas Bonus: Characters
I’ve offered up a quote to mark each of the Motivations. While some of these are traditional or from outside sources, most of them are original, offered up from fictitious (original) villains, and contain a lot of characterization. These character seeds are my Christmas gift to the readers of Campaign Mastery – take the names, or the personas, or both, and grow new characters for your games from them!
Have a very happy and safe Christmas season, everyone!
Gifts As Surprises
“I like to watch them scurry about like ants before the rain.”
— Uberlord The Cruel
Doing something nice for your enemies just to mess with their heads only works when you have already established a sufficient level of paranoia on the part of the players, but when it does, BOY does it work well!
These gifts need to be mysterious, tantalizing, and at the same time, innocent of any nasty surprises. Quite obviously, the villain won’t give away anything that could possibly be used against him, so that’s a second key criterion. And it should be something that reflects his personality in some way, so that’s criterion number three.
You can have it be something that’s vaguely or superficially threatening if you need to actively engage the PCs paranoia, but it’s far better if you forgo this and let their own inability to find anything wrong with it fuel the plot.
That’s all setup, the first act of the adventure. It obviously needs to link to something more substantial if it’s to stand alone; here, you have three options.
The first is to have this be part of a general Gift-giving between the PCs. This uses The Gift as a seasoning to this main plot, rather than the primary object of the day’s play; your adventure should be crafted accordingly, with this just one of several encounters or incidents along the way.
The second is for the gift t3o lead to someone who’s in trouble and needs the PCs help, a breadcrumb that lets them be the Good Guys somewhere. Exactly where depends on what the transportation capabilities of the PCs are; if they are limited to foot- or horse- travel, you might need to incorporate a one-off travel gimmick into the gift.
What the Villain is actually offering as a gift is not the physical item (which may well be consumed in the process of transport), but the opportunity to feel good about themselves.
Taking that as the theme of the resolution of whatever the trouble is that the PCs end up in gives a significant clue as to the nature of that trouble. It also has to be something that will pose considerable difficulty for the PCs, but which they can ultimately overcome fairly quickly, and those requirements further restrict the nature of the plot.
Finally, the people to be helped should be isolated, so that they don’t form a resource for the PCs. It’s even possible that they will be massively ungrateful by nature, or rabidly xenophobic. That doesn’t matter, in fact it only helps (from the villain’s point of view).
The third alternative is to focus on the mind-games aspect of the gift. This can be the hardest of the lot to do, but the most satisfying – to the GM, I doubt the players would agree – if it comes off.
In this approach, the gift is just the first breadcrumb in a series that ultimately proves a tail-chasing exercise of no significance. It’s effectively a boast on the part of the villain, a reminder that he’s out there and is not going to go away – and if he’s quiet for any length of time it’s because events are proceeding exactly to his liking, thank you very much.
This really works well as an opening salvo, assuming that the villain (and/or his machinations) are going to be central to the adventures of the next year or whatever. It can be viewed as a throwing down of the gauntlet. Again, use these themes and threads as the foundation for your decision-making in terms of what the gift is and what it invokes.
Yes, I know I said that there were only three. I don’t consider this a full option because it is too dependent on player actions and behavior. Rather than making a general case, a quick example should explain everything:
The weather is absolutely miserable, either hot or cold (depending on the local season). If we’re talking Christmas, and the PCs are in the northern hemisphere, the bitterest winter imaginable is unfolding; if in the southern hemisphere at that time of year, use a heat wave. You then need one of the PCs to wish aloud for a change of weather or a bit of relief. The villain then flips the earth on it’s axis of rotation for 24 hours, reversing the seasons. Sure, there will be all sorts of other unwanted consequences, but he makes the PC’s wish come true and that’s the key point. Of course, there are all sorts of implications to this idea that may require scaling down, depending on the campaign; villain power level, villain awareness of what the PCs have said, and so on. And, at the end, you need some sort of connection to make it obvious why this has been done.
Gifts As Characterization
“Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.”
— 76th Rule Of Acquisition,
Gifts can be a wonderful way to add depth of characterization, or to reinforce key personality attributes, on the part of the giver. The first is achieved with a gift that contradicts the perceived personality, in whole or in part; the second by reflecting the elements of the personality that are to be reinforced.
Clearly, the primary differentiator is the nature of the gift. Who exactly it is sent to is a secondary consideration, though it may be used to focus attention on a relationship (even if the PC receiving the gift isn’t aware that there is one, or even sent to the group as a whole.
Consider: You’re the Avengers and UPS contacts you to say they have a package for you with only the return address “Hydra HQ”. You’re Batman and you get a similar call about a package to you from the Joker. You’re the X-Men and something from Magneto turns up on your doorstep.
Is it a threat? Is it a trap? Is it a genuine gesture? What does it mean? Is it an attempt to curry favor, or repay a debt (real or perceived?)
More: the people or person who benefits most from the gift may not be the gift recipient. It might be a clue to a deep, unsolved mystery. It might be a breadcrumb leading to an entirely separate adventure – one with a villain, and victims who need rescuing. It doesn’t even have to be the usual genre of adventure if the gift provides transport into another realm, even as a one-shot. It might target a rival of the sender, or it might simply target someone who deserves to be taken down a notch.
One adventure for some future point in the Zenith-3 campaign is a gift from an enemy who forces the team into an opportunity to altar the villain’s past – just a little – in such a way that he is not as ruthless and consumed by his obsessions, by playing the part of the three ghosts to his Scrooge. It still needs a lot of work, and I don’t currently have the right villain for this plot on tap in the campaign, and the fact that there are more than three PCs is a plot hole that needs to be solved, but the basic principle is right. Even if the villain was certain that the attempt would end in failure, the opportunity is itself a priceless gift – and the mere offer (whether acceptance is forced on the PCs or not) makes the villain some shade less than pitch-black.
In a slightly-similar vein, I have a plot somewhere in the back of my head about a joker-style homicidal maniac who – for reasons not yet figured out – decides to gift the PCs with 48 hours in which he will do charitable things and help people and not let them end up dead if he can help it. Of course, everything is stacked against him succeeding, and he has the worst luck imaginable. Will the PCs apprehend him, or let him try and take one small step towards reform? Will they help him, overtly or surreptitiously? The last is what I will want circumstances to lead to, if I can manage it, but the choice of how to deal with the situation will be up to the players. Again, I don’t have most of the required building blocks in place for this adventure at the moment, and it has plot holes that I might never be able to solve – but the idea is there, and win, lose, or draw, it adds a lot to the character of the villain.
Because gift-giving only happens on rare occasions, they always represent an unusual circumstance, and that can bring about unusual actions and expose unseen corners of personalities – a rare opportunity to make things more interesting, as well as more “real”.
Gifts As Tactics
“Just because I’m a cyberdroid, that doesn’t mean I’m completely heartless. I keep several in jars on my shelf.”
— Vax Digitus
Some people are always looking for an advantage. Christmas represents a time when guards are lowered, when people want to think the best of everyone, and when opportunities, therefore, abound.
The more indirect the advantage that can be gained by a gift, the better the resulting campaign effect, at least in the long term. In the short-term, however, the more remote the consequences, the less engaging the adventure. Clearly, you need to find a way to make the two live with each other. The best solution is to have two targets, with one dependent on achieving the other. Target one could be just a distraction, but it’s even better if the opportunity to achieve target two is an unnoticed objective of achieving – or failing to achieve – target one.
You may be wondering how failure to achieve a target can have a positive effect without that target being a distraction. The answer can be characterized as “a contingency plan” – ie the bad guy uses a gift to go after an obvious advantage, which he would quite happily take if he can get it, but he is prepared to settle for something smaller and far less obvious that he can pick up along the way, or on the way out.
Think of this as a series of dominos, with the attempt to seize target one being just the first. Not the success, just the attempt. Every subsequent domino up until something close to the last is to take place in the shadows, unseen and unremarked by the PCs (at least at the time). So the PCs get to see, and stop, what they think is the first (and last) domino. Villain goes away, content with his hidden win, PCs go away, content with their overt win, everyone’s happy. At some later point, they notice one of the later dominos fall, but can’t work out how the villain gains from it. They start investigating and find a clue about the real significance of domino one, and start backtracking through the connection that leads to the later domino, and discover what the villain has really been up to. Two adventures and a lot of seemingly unimportant background stuff going on in the meantime.
Using this basic example as a template, you can design as many of these as you want; the shape and content of the dominos may vary, but the principle remains the same.
An alternative that might be fun is to have two villains trying the same basic ploy at the same time, and inadvertently interfering with each other, getting in each other’s way, drawing unwanted attention to what the other is up to, even leaking information on each other’s activities (anonymously) to the PCs.
There are lots of ways to have fun with this basic scenario. Another key point of difference is the end goal, which might in fact turn out to be something mundane, even trivial, from the point of view of the players (who have no doubt been imagining all the terrible things that might be done with the power and resources that the villain has accumulated) only to find that it’s merely something that has great personal value to him.
One adventure that I started to write, but never got to use, worked along similar lines; the supervillain went to a lot of trouble to kidnap one of the world’s greatest artists, went to even more trouble to steal a painting from the Louvre, and went to even more trouble to get his hands on the latest and greatest microscope and variant on the mass spectrometer. When he added a microbiologist to the list of kidnap victims, one who specialized in weaponizing disease organisms, they naturally began putting together all sorts of disaster scenarios built around the concept that plague bacteria had somehow survived in the natural pigments of the paint. The artist was needed to separate out samples of the different pigments, using the microscope; the mass spectrometer was needed to confirm the viability of the disease; and the microbiologist was needed to breed the bacteria and turn it into a weapon. In actual fact, the villains grandmother was in love with the stolen painting, and he had promised her a perfect copy for her birthday. He needed the artist to paint the copy, the mass spectrometer to ensure that the pigments were reproduced exactly, the microscope to study the brushwork, and the microbiologist to work the equipment.
The fact that the “gift” aspect of this plotline only happens at the end of the adventure – and might not happen at all, if the PCs get clumsy about things – doesn’t make it any less relevant to the theme of gift-related adventures. To make it even more relevant, you could change “birthday” to “Christmas”. Oh yes, the old woman is dying, this will be the final opportunity to make her happy.
If I were actually writing this up today, I would make sure that the PCs didn’t find the villain until he was actually giving the copy to his grandmother, and didn’t get to confront him until later – when they learn that it was a near-perfect copy, and the villain trades the location of his kidnap victims, the original, and the equipment for his freedom. Will the PCs take the deal? I would also have large sums of (possibly stolen) money paid into the kidnap victim’s bank accounts (payment for services rendered, even if the rendering was involuntary), just to muddy the waters along the way. And I do mean large – a couple of hundred thousand, enough that they might be payments for collaborating with an Enemy Of Mankind.
Random Acts Of Kindness
“Once a year I indulge my generous side just so that I can really enjoy being evil the rest of the year.”
— Grandmother Sinister
I love throwing morally-complex characters and difficult decisions at my players. The hard choices are the ones that really define who and what their characters are, what they want, and how far they are willing to go to get it. A black cat at midnight makes a great gimmick for a scary story, but it’s an awful visual. For black to really look black, it needs something to contrast with.
The best villains in comics have always had this – Kang The Conqueror, who wanted to restore his lost love Ravonna, almost as much as he wanted to conquer the earth throughout time. Doctor Doom, whose mother was trapped in hell, and who he would do anything to free – so long as that did not in any way injure his pride. The Dread Dormmammu, who was – at least initially – a noble (if despotic) ruler who cared for his subjects and sought to protect them – but saw nothing wrong with expanding his realm by conquest. And, of course, Magneto, who will go to any length to protect Mutant-kind from attacks from blind, bigoted, Homo Sapiens. Even the original Green Goblin, who was a good man gone bad, and who genuinely cared for his son – but thought that discipline and tough love were necessary to toughen the much weaker Harry up, even when it degenerated into abuse.
Of course, there are some villains who are only weakened and made more ambivalent by such humanizing characteristics. Deathstroke. The Joker. The Red Skull. Loki, as portrayed in the comics and movies.
It’s no coincidence that these lists contain the lead villain of most of the major superhero movies to date. Once, I would have included Lex Luthor in the second group, because he works very well that way, but the somewhat-softened versions that appeared in Lois & Clark and Smallville – refer this article on Wikipedia – shows that he is that rarest of creations, a villain which can be equally-effective both ways.
One of the best ways to show a humanizing streak is for the villain to perform a random act of kindness as a gift to whoever they help. The PCs hear about it taking place, of course, and assume the worst, and go off to stop whatever nefarious plan the villain has in mind, not realizing that they are casting themselves, in this light, as the villains.
Picture the following: the news carries a feel-good story about a community helping a crippled child who has experienced some sort of tragedy just prior to the Holidays. The boy’s condition is uncommon but not especially rare. Our Villain buys a couple of pharmaceutical labs that he didn’t have before, and directs them to find a cure for the boys’ condition, sparing no expense. He also announces to the press that he has been touched by the boys’ story, and what he has done in response, and that he is donating $10,000,000 to ease their burdens in the meantime, so that wheelchairs and medical attention and whatever else they need can be provided. Meanwhile, he carries on being an utterly evil villain, opposed by the PCs, so that when he subsequently (a week or two later) announces a breakthrough that will be given to the original victim free of charge, they will assume the worst. In fact, they may even think he has sunk lower than they thought possible, seeking to take advantage of the boy. Villain shows up, PCs show up, they fight, boy is accidentally endangered, villain rescues him. PCs make one final stab at convincing the boy not to trust the villain, but he has no other hope – he accepts the treatment, and lo and behold, it works – in front of the mass media who have been attracted to the story like flies to honey.
The next day, the Villain (back to being evil) announces to the media that the treatment will go on sale in (some market that doesn’t have a rigorous approvals regime) for $10,000 a dose – but that he will subsidize that down to a mere $100 a dose for anyone who comes to work for him, or who sends him credible intelligence on the PCs. And if the treatment should later turn out to be flawed, even if the PCs discover the problem, who’s going to listen to them after all this? They can have ironclad proof, and even if they did manage to convince others of the flaw – something that can be independently verified – any hint of allegation that the Villain knew about the flaw all along will be routinely assumed to have been fabricated by the PCs. Public Opinion is against them.
Of course, your plots can be simpler: Villain donates rare piece to a local museum. Villain rebuilds orphanage. Villain stops a runaway train, or averts a meltdown. Villain donates toys to a hospital. There doesn’t have to be a zing to it, a sting in the tail – it can simply be a random act of kindness. And if he can make the media, and through them the world, think that the PCs are just a little nuts where he’s concerned, so much the better!
Gifts as Traps
“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
— Traditional Roman Proverb
“…but always examine it’s droppings..”
— Azanar Quint’s rebuttal to the Roman Proverb
I’ve largely covered this already, but there so many possibilities, it’s hard to be sure that I’ve dealt with them all.
A trap is a situation designed to harm or hamper those affected. That covers a wide range of territory, of which direct attacks via gifts are only the most overt. Some measure of the subtlety that is possible was made evident in the previous section, where I described an attack on the reputation and credibility of the PCs.
To a large extent, the more overt and obvious the attack, the more insignificant the event, no matter how dangerous the attack itself might be. The more subtle and indirect the attack, the more interesting the resulting adventure will be.
For example, contemplate a Personality Bomb that swaps the minds of the PCs with the minds of ordinary passersby. This puts the PCs in a position of having no extraordinary abilities, or very reduced capacities, while three ordinary people now have the opportunity of a lifetime to do whatever. Will they try and be heroes? Will that act for their own gain? Will they seek revenge for some past slight, real or perceived? There are a great many possibilities – and none of them are good from the PC’s point of view.
Or perhaps, a Taint Ray, that simply amplifies negative instincts and behaviors – just for a while.
The Gift of Pandora’s Box
“It’s easy to take the high ground when you never have to make the hard choices.”
— Baron Zuker Von Darkholde
I mentioned earlier that I love to put my players in moral quandaries, and that I like to use enemies that do the same. Making things matter is an easy way to make the adventures more interesting. “Gifts” that offer such moral dilemmas are obvious fodder.
These adventures are actually harder than they appear. It can be quite difficult not to be clumsy, heavy-handed, or morally simplistic. For example: “There are two bombs. One will affect just one person of some importance, but has a very short fuse. The other will harm a great many people, of less importance, but has a much longer fuse. Which bomb do you want to arm, and which to disarm?”
Or, “I have overridden the controls of a nuclear reactor in France, and initiated a process that will lead to a meltdown in about an hour. I have also planted a cannister of biological agent in a subway station somewhere in the world with a timer that will detonate in just under an hour. For every person that you publicly sacrifice in the name of the Darker God Below All, I will reveal one letter from the name of one of these two targets. You have a little less than an hour to decide who lives and who dies. Don’t waste it.”
Or, “You have a simple choice. Take the pill, and your power will double for an hour – but somewhere, someone will die to empower you. Don’t take it, and the disease with which I have infected you will halve your power for that hour. And, did I mention that there’s an alien invasion fleet that I have lured into position to attack Earth any minute now?”
“It’s a gift. Take it,” he said with a smile.
— Any villain, any time
Gifts offer innumerable possibilities for GMs. They can enhance an existing plotline or character, or stand alone as a seasonal plotline. They can be a side-story, the main story, or can presage an even bigger story. Surprise “Gifts” are a Gift for the creative GM – take advantage of them!
The observant may have noted that I usually post articles here at Campaign Mastery on Mondays and Thursdays – and that both Christmas and New Year’s Day this year fall on Thursdays! I do have something I’ve prepared to post on those days, but it won’t be a full article – unless my plans change for something like the 15th time in the last six weeks, of course…