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Winging It

Letting the Story Find You

by Ian Sokoliwski
Jun 22,2005

 

Letting the Story Find You

Welcome to the eighth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

In this instalment, I want to discuss how sometimes, you can uncover what the story and Theme behind an ongoing Campaign or Chronicle is as the game progresses, rather than attempt to determine it beforehand.

In a previous instalment (8 - Faking Foreshadowing), I discussed the potential benefits of dropping clues to the players in a game that they may later on determine to be a major focus of later game sessions, whether you (as the GM) had that in mind or not. While this column addresses similar ideas, it also is more about the overall 'theme' or 'mood' of the game, and how it will be determined for the GM by the players in an improvisational game. In fact, many of the ideas present will likely crop up in more rigidly-structured games as well.

After last months' foray into a one-shot D&D game, it is time to go back to the lessons and ideas learned in my ongoing Hunter: the Reckoning Campaign, with the characters Izzy and Daniella. For the first of the few sessions discussed in this months' column, I thought a bit of misdirection concerning Vampires and other less-powerful creatures of the night was appropriate, just to shift focus slightly away from the World of Darkness metaplot. So, taking the idea presented in the sixth instalment, I came up with a new NPC (Viv, a Daughter of Cacaphony - a Vampire that specializes in using her supernaturally-enhanced voice to give her power over mortals and other Vampires), and created the game around her.

Izzy, Daniella, and their new NPC ally Devon, had learned about bodies being found in Assiniboine Park, all near the walking bridge over the Assiniboine River, each morning for the past several days. Oddly enough, it was only by chance that they had discovered this, as the events seem to be being covered up in the local media. A very odd occurrence (especially in a quiet Canadian city like Winnipeg, which never gets more than forty people murdered in an entire year - or perhaps that is what people are meant to believe...), and they decide to investigate.

So, on a freezing late-December morning, they scout out the site where all the previous bodies had been found. The police are present, but do not seem to have discovered anything as of yet.

Further to the West (near the sculpture garden) and after a few hours of fruitless searching, they come across the body of a young woman behind a building. She seems to have been cut up, with what looks like two puncture wounds in her throat and a lot of blood in the snow. This looks to Izzy and Daniella to be the first time they have seen a victim of a 'traditional' Vampire.

Now, I had determined that, while a Vampire would feature prominently in this particular session, the Vampire would not in fact be the main villian of the piece. At this point, I was thinking it was going to be a normal human, one of the members of an entourage of a Vampire, perhaps someone looking to 'impress' their 'Vampire buddy'. I still hadn't figured out the precise details at this point, however; just that the killings had been deliberately performed by this person to look like a Vampire attack. Mostly, I was just curious about what the reactions the players would be to a fairly 'normal' person performing Vampire-style killings, and would just see what else would happen from there.

At any rate, they decide to head to a payphone and call in an anonymous tip about the body in the sculpture garden (still being somewhat jittery about the police and any potential supernatural menace there - when they had seen the police scouring the area earlier, they did notice a few of them looked supernatural). While one of them called, the other two went to a coffee shop across the street to warm up.

By the time they were all inside, it was already late afternoon, and the sun was down. Viv, my afore-mentioned Daughter of Cacaphony, began performing a musical act in the very same coffee shop they were in. Now, Izzy and Daniella both saw Viv for a Vampire, but Devon (being a Bystander, and with no access to any sort of supernatural or heightened senses) was simply drawn in by her voice (and powers). Deciding to investigate her further, one of the PC's struck up a conversation with Viv after her show (by purchasing one of her CD's). They learned about her having moved to the city recently from New York, and that she had been performing in this particular shop for the past few days (the same time period as the killings in the Park across the street), and will be performing for the next week or so as well. They also found themselves under the scrutiny of a group of black-clad Goth kids, all of whom seem to be huge fans of Viv and evidently not trusting anyone who was getting this close to their 'idol'.

Later, they follow her to her home, just to track her habits and investigate more about her. They see that she left with a couple of the Goth kids, with the rest seeming sullen and degected, but mumbling about seeing who will go with her 'tomorrow night'.

The next day, after having spent the night outside Viv's house, they discover that another body has been found. However, they did not see Viv leave, nor had she stopped by the Park at any time the previous night. So, they investigate further, going to her show that night as well.

After Viv leaves with two different kids than the previous night (one guy, one girl), the PC's see them stop at a store along the way to Viv's house. As Viv goes inside, the two Goth kids drive to a parking lot on the other side of the street. To break down the events quickly, they discover one of the kids attempting to kill the other one by puncturing her neck and drinking her blood, even though the first kid doesn't look supernatural at all. Viv gets involved, evidently horrified at the scene. Izzy is knifed by the 'vampire kid', and Devon ends up having to shoot him (virtually none of the Hunter abilities - the defense-based ones anyway - have any effect on the killer; most Hunter abilities have no affect on humans, only on the supernatural).

By the end of this adventure, Viv had taken the attacked Goth girl to the hospital; afterwards, she is met by Izzy (after having been partially healed by Daniella, who had also healed the Goth girl enough earlier to stop the bleeding), Daniella, and Devon who try to learn more about her. Due to their manner, some of the abilities they manifested in the earlier encounter, and the fact that they seem to know that she is a Vampire, Viv at first thinks that the trio are representatives of some sort from the local Vampire Prince, and tries to explain how she has been behaving herself as well as she could, maintaining the Masquerade, and had nothing to do with the actions of the kid trying to kill the Goth girl. As the PC's have come to see Viv as 'good' (and, as the conversation goes on, she realizes that they don't look, through her Vampiric senses, like Vampires, Ghouls, or any other similar creature that would normally be working for the Prince), they establish a truce of sorts, with Viv even trying to explain what had happened (as far as she could).

She had been feeding (very very small amounts, mind you) on the group of Goth kids that follows her around all the time. Generally, being fed upon by a Vampire is a very pleasurable experience, and she takes only what she absolutely needs, not harming the kids at all. Otherwise, she does not feed on anyone else (not wanting to hurt anyone).

The Goth kid who tried to kill the girl (and who seems to have been behind the other murders) was new to her group, and she had only fed on him once, about a week ago. Rather than the normal 'pleasurable' experience that most people have (ending with them generally forgetting the entire experience), it seemed to have brought out some sort of anger or delusions in him. For whatever reason, it would seem that he began to think he really was a Vampire, and acted accordingly (as he saw it, at any rate).

All this was my last-minute way of making Viv involved in the killings, without making it really her fault (directly, at any rate). I did end up fudging the final fight scene a bit more than I would have liked to (ultimately, Devon had to be the one to take down the killer; Izzy was out of it because of her wounds, and Daniella had no real combat ability), but I just needed to get the point across about who was really the 'evil' one in this particular scenario, to see how the players and their PC's would react to that. Even using the 'good guy' NPC to take down the 'bad guy' NPC was still done only because it was what the players were wanting to do, rather than Devon taking any sort of initiative and ending the game himself.

Now, this session seems to have been more about establishing how the PC's are much more interested in investigating the supernatural, and determining who is 'evil' and who is 'good' rather than simply hunting down all monsters, or behaving in any sort of prearranged 'character class'. I'm happy, as the GM, to not have to worry about trying to pigeonhole the characters into their Defender and Avenger roles (as their initial choice of powers should have placed them), and am coming to understand that the Theme of this game is one more of helping those in need rather than destroying anything or just fighting evil, and I am more than happy to throw plenty of opportunities for this sort of role-playing their way.

This Theme is dealt with even stronger in the next session. Daniella was the focus of a solo game (with Izzy healing from her wound, and Devon returning to the Arcanum Chapterhouse in Boston for a time - really, it was because Izzy's player was not able to make it that night, and so I thought I would streamline the game even more by removing the major 'good guy' NPC temporarily), taking place on New Years Eve.

Depressed about having just had to work the first half of New Years Eve, and being alone for the rest of the night, Daniella walks home through the snow at midnight only to encounter what her Second Sight reveals to be some sort of Zombie passing by her through her neighbourhood. Following, she spots the Zombie studying a particular house, one where a New Years Eve party is going on, evidently looking for a way to get inside.

She confronts the Zombie (using her Ward ability to keep it from attacking her or moving to the house), wanting to find out what it is doing and how she should deal with it.

Now, before I had started this particular game session, I knew that I wanted to have the game take place on New Years Eve, and that it would be something personal for Daniella. Beyond that, I really didn't have a clue what was going to happen. So, when in doubt, have a Zombie walk by.

Back to the game. It turned out that the Zombie was originally killed by several of the gang members (a group of four, during some sort of initiation) several months ago, along with his son. He had managed to drag himself out of Hell (or something like that - he was very vague about the precise methods of his return) to bring his and his killers to justice, so he could be reunited with his son and finally know some kind of peace.

Now, I'll admit, if this sounds similar to the plot of 'Crow: City of Angels', I cannot deny that. Again, I had no clear idea of what the game was going to be, so I thought dealing with loss and revenge would be a good place to start, letting the player decide what she was going to do with the Zombie and his killers.

Daniella decides to try to help him, as his description of the killers leads her to believe there is a possibility that they are also supernatural. She does seem touched by his story, and seems to genuinely want to help him.

A primary rule of GameMastering is 'the Player Characters are the stars'. That is, generally it is bad GM'ing to allow the PC's to be only on the sidelines, and have the primary story revolve around any of the NPC's. I do try to follow this rule whenever possible (I'll admit, I've broken it a time or two in the past, and usually regretted it. Sometimes players will kind of enjoy watching the story being told, but are much much happier if they are actually participating in it instead).

However, this was definitely a case of 'rules are made to be broken'. Perhaps it was the type of story this session came to be about, but it seemed that most of the decisions were really being made by the Zombie NPC, and the main focus of the session was his story and his pain. Granted, it was not that simple - he had put no real thought into figuring out how to sneak into the house and kill only those individuals responsible. After all, it was New Years Eve, and there was rather a large party going on; Daniella did not want to be party to a massacre of innocents, even if most of those innocents were gang members themselves.

One of the real advantages of the improvisational approach here - the Zombie could not have come up with a plan for how to best sneak into the house, because until Daniellas' player asked about it, I myself had no real idea of what the house looked like, who was in there, and what was around it. So, by having to describe the scene, Daniella ended up playing a larger tactical role, and planning out how best to get in with the fewest number of partygoers on hand and in harms' way.

As it was only about one in the morning, Daniella decided they should wait until four or so, until most of the partyers had left (just keeping an eye out for any of the real targets, lest they themselves leave early). This gave me an opportunity for more role-playing, as we played out a lot of the conversation between Daniella and the Zombie, learning about each others' histories and experiences (what had happened to his wife, his hopes and dreams for the future with his son, about everything that should have happened before it was all ripped away from them), and watching a bond form between the two characters. In the right setting, a long conversation between a PC and an NPC can be a great form of role-playing - probably best in solo play, however, as then nobody is left sitting around, waiting for something to do.

At any rate, the time comes for them to try and sneak in the back entrance. Getting past the kitchen, they come across the four gang members (drunk and stoned, they don't notice right away). With his rage fuelling him, the Zombie immediately attacks one of the gang members, giving Daniella a chance to see that they are indeed something supernatural, but something she has not yet encountered.

One of the most intense combat scenes of this entire Chronicle ensues, with Daniella and the Zombie being attacked by four Fomori (mutant, twisted freaks - one vomits burnings, burrowing worms, another manifests black dripping spikes all over its' body, the third breathes flame, and the fourth rips off its' own skin and attempts to strangle the Zombie with it), all with shotguns. Granted, they are still heavily doped up, but shotguns in a small room virtually never miss, so the battle is very bloody.

Bleeding from a variety of wounds (and holding together the tattered remnants of her gas station attendants uniform and parka), Daniella witnesses the Zombie kill the final gang member, and collapse. Her Second Sight (or perhaps not) then sees a small boy, very pale and somber, walk in. Evidently the son of the Zombie, she talks to him for a moment, then sees the spirit of the father rise up out of the body of the Zombie. He thanks her for her help, and, hand in hand, they both leave.

***

When I had first begun this particular Chronicle, as I had stated before, I had no solid idea of where the game was going to go, of what it was going to be about. I knew I enjoyed H:tR, and the players were very interested in trying this sort of supernatural hunting and investigating game, but none of us had decided that the game was going to have a particular theme, or whether it would what most H:tR games seem to be about (killing, blowing stuff up, that sort of thing). I had just decided to, whenever possible, follow the whims and ideas of the players and cater to what they wanted to do, to tell the kinds of stories that they were interested in.

As a result, the role-playing I've seen in this particular Chronicle has been something dramatically different than in much of my previous experience as a GM. The players get into character so quickly and completely, to the point that they are almost always talking 'in character' during the game (with plenty of asides and tangents, without which no RPG session is complete), and bringing a level of humanity to what can so often otherwise be a dice-rolling bloodfest.

This has made these sessions, some of which have - admittedly - used some hackneyed and cliched plots and plot devices, take a turn toward a different type of game than I had been expecting. Definitely, I'm finding the Theme of this Chronicle to be one of hope and learning, much more than even about fighting or revenge.

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What do you think?

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