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Keeping Kosher

The Turning Point

by Walt Ciechanowski
Jul 13,2005


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

The Turning Point

I ended last week's session with a bad taste in my mouth.

While I've had a few days to reflect and come to grips with it, I still haven't completely shaken it. I look forward to this week's session with a combination of dread and anticipation (of course, by the time you read this, I'll probably have already experienced it). So what happened?

Let me file most of the serial numbers off my campaign and explain. I currently run a very near future urban fantasy campaign. The player characters (PCs) are university freshmen in a college where the faculty is aware of their "special gifts" (I apologize that my school terms are American-centric; the PCs are all 18). The PCs are being trained in the use of their gifts in preparation for the latest spike in magical energy that could bring about the end of the world as we know it. The world itself seems primed for change. A new worldwide depression is setting in, unemployment is skyrocketing, some governments are starting wars to divert their people's attention, and Great Britain has adopted the euro.

Although the setting is bleak with signs of getting bleaker, the PCs are currently more embroiled in the soap opera-esque machinations of their school life. Up to now, "good" and "evil" have been fairly well defined. Previous adventures have always featured antagonists that were doing something obviously wrong. While some of the PCs and NPCs have moral gray areas, none of them have ever publicly (that is, revealed to the players) stepped over the line. So far, it's been a fun campaign.

Over the last few sessions, I've been building a subplot with one of my PCs. He's been aching to get into a secret magical organization. One of the subgroups within that organization has targeted him for membership. The problem is that this particular group has interpreted an old prophecy in such a way that they can target key individuals who have the potential to start the End Times. This group has decided to preemptively murder these individuals to prevent this from coming to pass. (It would be like someone asking you to murder the high school prom queen because she's likely to become an evil dictator ten years down the road).

Now obviously, in a world where psychic precognition and divine visions are possible, this group is driven by more than paranoid delusions. That said, I did not expect the PC to complete his initiation, which involved the killing of an NPC that was the former PC of the same player (follow that?)! In a sense I was following a television situational comedy staple. Almost every sitcom I've seen that has a regular cast member in college has had a "fraternity/sorority episode." At the beginning of the episode, the cast member really wants to get into a particular fraternal organization. As the episode moves along, the cast member discovers that, in order to join the organization, he has to make a few painful choices (in the sitcom world, this usually involves turning against former friends). By the end of the episode, the cast member decides to keep his integrity and his friendships by declining the fraternity's offer.

I was expecting something along those same lines. I even made the plot to kill this particular NPC over-the-top. The PC would have to betray his love interest (another NPC that was good friends with the target) and use her as bait to get the target NPC to a certain location. Once there, members of the Order would mow him down with sub-machinegun fire, allowing the PC to complete a ritual by overcoming the NPC's regenerative powers (a Highlander-esque scene that involved decapitation). While I did expect the PC to struggle with the morality of it all, I never expected him to go through with it.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what he did. Worse, he continued to go through with the plan even after making his NPC roommate an unknowing accomplice and after one of the PCs got wind of the plan. He even went so far as to attack the PC with a spell (it was an air attack that did no damage but kept her from interfering) and then complete his part of the ritual while the other PC watched helplessly.

I felt the tone of the campaign change completely in that moment. One of my PCs went from being a slightly geeky student magician to a cold-blooded killer whenever he felt the end justified the means. "Party unity" was over. His actions completely severed his friendship with the second PC, and I'm quite certain that the third PC in my campaign (a miracle-wielding religious fundamentalist) will be forced to choose sides. Luckily, the session ended for the night.

So what now?

I walked out of that session completely torn. On one hand, I wanted to set a massive reset button. On the other hand, given the bleakness of the campaign, the PCs actions were thematically appropriate. The PC made a hard choice and now he would have to live with the consequences.

The reset button was tempting. My wife's PC is a psychic. I could have pulled the "you wake up, realizing that the events you remember were only a vision" and let her interfere with the events, ensuring that the bloody climax never happens. This would have been a nice, clean fix. Unfortunately, it would also negate a session of passionate roleplaying. The PC in question was asked to make a choice. He made it. He should live with the consequences.

Normally, I'm a big proponent of consequences, especially when I feel I've telegraphed the implications. In this particular case, I'd been a bit cagey. There was a respected NPC in the campaign who belonged to the magical organization (though not that particular Order) in question. Since I wanted the PC to make the decision on his own, I had my NPC drop the decision in his lap. Her advice boiled down to, "I can't say if this Order is evil, but you have to make your own decision." There was the rub. I'd given him backhanded approval, or at least ambivalence. Besides, this action opened up a wealth of plot threads. The PC was now in the group. If he has a change of heart later, he can attack from within. He needs to re-forge his friendships with the other PCs, who now no longer trust him. He needs to confront his love interest when she discovers what he did. No matter what happens, nothing will ever be the same.

Still, something was bothering me.

After reflecting for a few days, I realized what it was. The tone of the campaign had been altered, and I wasn't sure if I liked where it was headed. I had seriously (and hastily) considered ending the campaign. I had conceived of a campaign in a bleak future world where the PCs still wore white hats, and suddenly their hats were gray. They now had a giant issue to deal with that could not be ignored or brushed aside. One of them was now a murderer. I could easily see the offending PC being ejected from the campaign, or at least relegated to NPC status. I wasn't sure how the player would handle that.

I also realized that this was the first time in a long time where the tone of the campaign took a darker turn. Usually, my campaigns start dark and tend to lighten as it goes on. Throwaway NPCs become valued semi-regulars. Dark secrets of PCs are resolved and dealt with. Realism gives way to melodrama. Horror becomes Action-Adventure. The sense of PC vulnerability disappears. Usually, this is when the campaign starts to become stale. In the present case, I have the change in tone opening up a fresh new direction, and I'm ironically apprehensive.

A day or two later, I made my decision. I would not rewrite continuity with a convenient plot contrivance and try to pretend it never happened. It did happen. The PC made his decision after weighing the risks. He would have to live with that, and the other PCs would have to decide how to deal with him. This could, and will, change the tone of my campaign, but I've decided to ride it out. We'll see what happens.

Keeping Kosher

All GMs have to struggle with a change in tone. Usually, this happens at the beginning of a campaign, where the tone set by the players may not mesh with the tone envisioned by the GM. It becomes more difficult as the game wears on.

The only advice I have to give is to weigh the options and don't make hasty decisions. A change in tone, especially when driven by the players could open up a lot more storyline opportunities. Make the most of it. Besides, a rewrite does not necessarily mean that things will go back to being the way they were. Sometimes, you just can't go home again.

Good Gaming!

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