Risk, Reward and Thunder-Reclamation


I recently failed my save vs. the dreaded Steam Holiday Sale (DC 40) and purchased XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I’m not very far into it, but I have identified several of the game’s qualities that will most assuredly propel me into an unhealthy obsession with the destruction of aliens. Of these, by far the ability to customize my troops is going to be my undoing. I named all my squadmembers after all my favorite D&D characters over the years. Some of the troops in XCOM are assigned character classes, so I even attempted to roughly match those with their PC namesake. I thought this was all just a bit of fun until Rk. Lionel Pureheart took a hit in the third mission, leaving him with a single hitpoint. I felt the blood leave my face. Panic set in when Rk. Bat Loaf and his wife Rk. Niann Loaf started to come under fire. I steeled myself, flanked the evil alien bastards, and got everybody home safe. It was absolutely exhilarating.

It’s been awhile since I was emotionally invested in a game. I missed it. That being said, I’ve been told this game is pretty difficult, and I envision some emotional trauma in my future.

The Threat Of Decapitation Makes The World Go Round

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things you miss when you run a roleplaying game instead of playing a character in it, and the imminent demise of my XCOM troops made me remember something that I don’t think I’ve been giving enough of to my players: namely, the thrill of extracting a character you love from a dangerous situation.

While we typically have great roleplay every week, you don’t typically find my players on the edge of their seats praying to all gods real and fictional that this one particular d20 rolls high just this once. I’m sure this is a byproduct of there being very little combat in my game. This is going to change.

The trick is going to be figuring out how to put the PCs at risk without ensuring their certain death. I’ve struggled with running combat that is essentially risk-free, and I find it incredibly distasteful and even disrespectful to your players. I also don’t want to overshoot and accidentally TPK. Adjusting to the circumstances seems the wisest choice, but toeing that line without seeming disingenuous is going to be difficult. I don’t have the best poker face, and my players know me well enough to know when I’m completely winging it. I think one answer might be to have the consequences of failure be something other than death. Capture or inflicting some ailment upon them that they have to figure out how to get free of might open up possibilities for new adventures. Or I could just kill one of them. I’ll keep a helmet by my chair, just to be on the safe side if I feel like things are going south.

I am reminded of that old saying where putting up an emotional wall keeps out pain, but also keeps out love. I think this is similar, except sometimes the pain is 3d8 necrotic damage.

What’s Sauce For The PCs Is Sauce For The DM?

A peculiar offshoot of this topic for me is that I’ve started to wonder whether there’s a way that I, as the DM, can get emotionally invested in one of the characters I run.

At first, I wondered if a recurring NPC might do the trick. His goals could be his own, perhaps aligning with the party’s enough for him to be present (or set the stage for betrayal). My gut reaction is to write “DMPC” on the thought with a magic marker, set it on fire, and carefully dispose of the ashes where nobody can see. I’ve run afoul of this gone wrong, and I would not put my group through that.

The lure of the DMPC, for me at least, is that it’s hard for me to get into a character without a little time spent in their shoes. I had a recurring villain and a couple recurring NPCs in the last part of my campaign that I did manage to extract some personal satisfaction from, but I must wonder if applying a little more attention (and intention) to a few select NPCs is going to draw me in.

I have a strange feeling that, if I am successful in this, the players might not even know any of it has occurred — just that the DM is a little happier than usual. I hope it scares them.


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  1. samldanach says:

    7th Sea had an interesting quirk for this. When you create your character, you describe how you want him or her to die. Obviously, this is in fairly generic terms, but you roughly set the stakes and scene.

    When the GM wants to ratchet up the tension, all he has to do is adjust elements of the scene to match the death conditions of one of the PCs. It is a blatant flag that Shit Just Got Real. Characters normally can only be knocked unconscious by damage. But, in a death scene, that rule is suspended.

    It helps to both avoid the “hero of a thousand legends dying in a pit trap” issue, and the “I just attack, because the GM won’t kill us” issue.

    Also, when characters do die, the scene is typically awesome.