This past week, I decided to pretend I was J.J. Abrams in the final season of Lost and concocted a reason for all the mysterious events and shadowy nether-business in my campaign. Since the PCs were trapped in some horrifyingly evil prison demiplane, I decided an appropriately evil thing should be trying to make everything worse. But I was still stuck.
Splitting The Party (Sort Of)
The previous session found me trying something new: I’d invented a strange device that let the PCs go to sleep and project a shadowy version of themselves into the “real world”, in which they discovered the baddies were using a similar method to spread evil, death corruption, and other shadowriffic things. I’d decided that one of the PC’s, whose player entered the game several sessions in, wouldn’t be able to project due to not having been exposed to the same black goop the cement zombies were made of. This, of course, would effectively split the party once everybody went to sleep. I had what I believed to be a cool reason for doing this. While the party was off trying to thwart the plan of some shadowy evil, their bodies would come under attack, and the guy left behind would have to defend. As the others were hit, they would wake up, and could help defend but it would make the main mission harder to complete. It seemed totally cool and also like something I was pretty damned sure I didn’t have the chops to pull off yet. I decided to try it anyway.
This had a couple adverse effects I wasn’t anticipating. One, the party had no idea why there was someone missing, and mistrust of him ran rampant through the party for the whole session. Two, the party on the “main mission” got sidetracked and I completely forgot about the poor bastard left sitting there in the shadow world. About a half hour later I happened to glance at him looking bored and “HOLY CRAP BRIAN I AM SO SORRY” flew out of my mouth. I then figured out a way to get everybody awake again and had them run off to fight a particularly nasty white dragon from a story lead they hadn’t taken in the previous session. A good time was then had by all. Except for the dragon, who was played by a My Little Pony toy from a Happy Meal and consequently welcomed death.
A delightful confluence of procrastination followed by the late-night vomit of small children found me at the day of our next session wishing I had planned more. I considered trying to run the same split encounter as before but to nudge the players in the right direction and start the “defending the sleepers” action immediately so as not to get distracted and leave anyone sitting there bored again. Given how the last session went, I was pretty worried about it Going Terribly, but I ran the idea past my old DM and he gave a few suggestions and propped my self-confidence up so I decided to give it a go. I made a few tweaks, such as giving the awake team 3-4 combat rounds for every one the sleepers took (to equalize the play time).
Things actually went pretty well, to my surprise. I decided to throw wave after wave of little shadowy rat-minions at the sleeping people, and the difficulty level of the encounter stayed relatively constant until the end since sleeping people who were bitten and damaged woke up and could then fight the rats. Nobody on Team Awake was getting damaged too terribly, but they were having trouble keeping enough people on Team Asleep. By the end of the mission, there were only two sleepers fighting off three baddies to stop an assassination. They wound up just a few hp above bloodied before it was all over, and were harried enough throughout to be invested in the encounter. I wound up just sort of figuring out how many combat rounds to go to keep things exciting instead of a static rule. I was really pleased with how it went.
I would imagine this could be used for other things too, like Inception-style dream-delves. But I haven’t tested it past the first level. If you get stuck in there for 50 years, it’s not my fault.
The dream-encounter was what eventually inspired me to name the Big Bad of this campaign and figure out his intentions. I remembered watching an episode of the Real Ghostbusters as a kid featuring the Boogeyman, and I decided it would be cool if he was behind everything. I did, however, decide to change his appearance. (I haven’t decided yet whether it’s because the way he looked in the cartoon freaked me out.) The pocket dimension I’d trapped the PC’s in was literally the place nightmares came from, and the Boogeyman had figured a way to break out and unleash widespread terror and corruption in the real world.
I wanted a way to incorporate his ability to draw on the PCs’ nightmares into the story (especially the ones they had as children), but the backstories the characters had made didn’t talk about anything like that. So I decided to do something different twice in the same week. I emailed all my players, and asked them to write me a few words about their character’s fears, and to describe a nightmare their PC had as a child. I even told them what it was for, and said I thought it’d be a cool way to let everyone contribute to the story. I’ll admit it takes a little of the “what’s going to happen next” anticipation out of the game if they know the Boogeyman is going to eventually mess with them using the things they sent me, but it seems fun enough to be worth it. I also told them to send me their responses privately, so they’ll only be expecting their own fears and nightmares. That should spice things up a little I fully expect to hear something to the effect of “you’re afraid of bunnies?” come out of one of my players before the end of the session.
We’ll have to see how it all winds up, but at the end of the day I fail to see how a little collaborative storytelling ever hurt anyone. If I wind up in DM Hospital, I’ll make sure to report in to spare you the same fate.
One Last Piece Of Advice
If you want to get anything done during a game session, don’t let the players find out they’re fighting Fell Taint Rippers. Just take my word for it.