Throughout time, man has sought to control his surroundings. He has invented that which made his life easier, and that which allowed him to do more. He has harnessed the powers of nature. He has witnessed the lives and deaths of many a great human-being.
And he has created the random encounter.
In last months column, we discussed a few ways to break out of the "static" random encounter mindset that so many of us fall so easily into. This month I'd like to expand that a bit more. Consider the following (familiar?) exchange:
Now really, I guess things aren't quite that bad (I hope!) But the essence behind it sparks true. A random encounter is rolled, and the GM goes with it. So the party attacks, like they always do, killing the creature, looting the corpse and leaving it in the sun to rot. Last week we discussed the first phase in making random encounters work better: giving them a reason to be there. Whether it is looking for food, or protecting a holy site. Whatever.
There's more to the story, though. And it all starts when our intrepid heroes leave the corpse there to rot. It is, after all, inevitable. However, as some anonymous physicist once said, "For every action, there is a equal and opposite reaction." This applies to everything: gravity, auto crashes, exchanging business cards, marriage, child-birth, and, yes, role playing. Every time our heroes do something, whether a drastic action, like accidentally destroying the last town they visited, or something innocuous, like killing an unknown Ludo-beast, it should have repercussions. These "equal and opposite reactions" do not have to make themselves known immediately, but somewhere in the pile of random encounters that have been thrown their way lies the seed of a potentially nasty sub-plot. Or could just screw up the current plot. Both ways are a lot of fun, and I'm sure you'll come up with a ton more.
Let's explore this encounter a little farther, stepping through a few of the possibilities.
The party could do a number of things, here, including using the letter as leverage against either Duke, possibly requesting a ransom of some sort. I'm not sure off the top of my head how that might work, but listening to your players' ideas. They can spur some of the best stories! They might be in a good mood and take the letter to the local Duke. Who knows, if the Duke is in a good enough mood, they might even get some small reward for helping keep him out of trouble, something to help in their current adventure? Or maybe the Duke enters a violent rage upon reading this threat and decides the party absolutely must take a message back, which could be a dangerous undertaking in its own right! Or the Duke decides to take it out on the players, you know, a simple beheading, or some such. Nothing drastic.
Hopefully you are starting to get the idea. Even if they ignored the letter, or couldn't figure it out, they could easily become involved in the war later, probably against their will. You should drop the party hints somewhere along the line about how they could have stopped the whole thing. Don't make it too obvious, but let them know it's their fault. With any luck at least one member of the party will do something crazy, like letting the cat out of the bag, and inciting a mob against them.
This is slightly off-topic, but I can't resist dropping it in here. I've heard it asked before, what happens when they get embroiled in this and forget their current adventure? Who cares! Most adventures are not earth-shaking enough to really matter if they don't accomplish it right away. Let them enjoy this! If they get back to the original idea, great! If not, I bet they'll find something else to do to keep them entertained! Just go with the flow, and keep your players happy!
Many, many, many things can happen from the careless actions of the players. I don't have the room, time or inclination to go into all of them here. Just always be on the lookout, and spend the time you'd normally use for watching the Simpsons acting like a 4 year old. You know, walking around, mumbling, "Why? Why? Why?"
After all, using your imagination creates brain cells. Idling in front of the TV kills them.
It's your choice. Choose wisely.
Enjoy your brain,