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The Deeper Well

Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya...

by James Bierly
Jan 18,2005


The Deeper Well

Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya...

By James Bierly

All stories that have been told by humans tend to fall into similar categories. There are a finite number of plots in the world. For the next few columns, we will be looking at some of the more common Archetypes and how they can be applied to RPGs.

Note: These next few columns are strongly influenced by Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots" (ISBN 0-89879-903-1). If you are interested in exploring plot structure farther beyond these columns, I can't recommend Kernen enough.


Vengeance is something everyone can instantly relate to. How many of us haven't had fantasies about wiping out those people in our lives who have done us wrong? It's no surprise that when many RPG players start experimenting with character backgrounds beyond "I'm a dwarf. I kill people and take their stuff" that vengeance is often the central theme. GMs, think back over all the character backgrounds your players have made. How many of those characters were looking for the man/women who killed their father/mother/brother/master?

Vengeance plots are great for RPGs. They provide an instant emotional connection to the game world. They come complete with a plot structure that is easily incorporated into any RPG campaign. 'Confronting the guy who did character X dirt' is practically a ready-made session that comes implicit in any character with a vengeful bent. There are several things for GMs to keep in mind when dealing with revenge plots:

1. Deciding when in the campaign to allow the player to confront their quarry is a HUGE decision. Don't make it lightly. If you play the revenge card too early, the campaign loses the energy that comes from the pursuit and the simmering fury of the vengeful character. However, if a group already has several other PCs engaged in revenge arcs, then you may opt to deal with one of them early in the campaign. This is a decision that cannot be made lightly. Remember that revenge plots can sometimes be the only motivating factor for a character.

Recently, I opted to bring a revenge plot to a climax within the first few sessions. The PC in question was a wizard/warrior who was pursuing a demon that had wiped out his family. He had recruited the rest of the party to aid him in this goal. I felt that the vengeful sub-plot had served its primary purpose was to bring the party together. Also, two other characters had revenge plots I intended to use in the long run. Therefore, the demon showed up in town in the third session and was killed. Unfortunately, this decision meant that the PC lost one of his primary motivations, and has become less interesting as a result. The player is seriously considering making a new character. Resolving revenge plots often has both an upside and a downside. Make sure that when you decide to resolve them, the upside is greater than the downside.

The Variation: GMs may opt to allow the players to decide when their quarry shows him/herself. Some game systems may already support this. The advantage here is that the burden of this decision is removed from the GMs shoulders, and he/she can focus on other things that may interest him/her more.

2. Vengeance is a vehicle with which to explore a character. Vengeance is not just an easy way to provide plot structure, but something which gets at the very root of a PCs being. When confronted with their enemy, does the PC kill them without a second thought, or hesitate? What happens when they confront their enemy, but for some reason do not have the power to eliminate them? Will they try anyway, or bide their time? Will they try to gain the confidence of the enemy in order to kill them later, or will the loudly swear vengeance and then run away to level up? Encourage players to use vengeance as a way to explore the way their character thinks, and give them room to work.

A Couple Variations On The Revenge Archetype For Players And GMs

- Character swears vengeance on an entire race/government instead of a particular individual. This can be a simplistic motivator toward righteous adventuring (aka Star Wars- 'stormtroopers killed my family' is sufficient motivation for adventuring on the side of the rebel alliance), or an irrational and dangerous racism (a player in an Eberron campaign swearing vengeance against the entire Goblin race... some of which are good or neutral aligned in that setting)

- Quarry turns out to not be responsible for the initial injustice... but will the PC believe him/her?

- PC is actually responsible for the crime they blame on their quarry, but they felt so guilty about it that they have convinced themselves that someone else is responsible.

- Killing the target of the PCs vengeance would have disastrous consequences for the world. Does the PC care more about vengeance or the greater good? (aka the movie Hero)

Come back next time for more discussion of Plot Archetypes and their relation to role-playing campaigns.

Good Gaming,
James Bierly

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