Monday, June 22, 2015

Betrayal, Failure, And Snapping The Ties That Bind

I'm not sure how much advice is going to be in this post. I'm not sure how much because what happened in my last L5R game was as much a natural byproduct of running a game with strong roleplayers as anything that I did as a GM to make it happen. In a real way it was like catching lightning in a bottle. It's terrifying and awesome, but you have no idea how you did it or if you could ever replicate it. That said, a lot happened in the session. Characters now trust each other left. We ended with a general feeling of failure. A loved NPC was almost killed due to a bad decision, and in return a PC was almost executed because of misinformation. It was a good session, I want to talk about it, but don't expect this to just work at your table either. With that said, let's talk about what happened.

The Plotline
One of the characters in the L5R game started with two instances of bad fate, secret love and secret enemy. The only thing the character asked is that the love and the enemy not be the same person. As the player is playing a hare, he also wanted to be involved with hunting Maho Tsukai. So I made one secret love a Maho Tsukai, and the secret enemy a different Maho Tsukai. Over the course of the game the character had maho going on around them frequently as the two blood mages effectively fought, one trying to destroy him and the other to keep him alive. Then, things changed. The enemy managed to get herself into the group and be accepted by the player as an apprentice. Now she had closer access to the group, and used it to begin sewing seeds of dissent. The group knew fairly quickly that they had a traitor in their group somewhere, but with the number of NPCs around them had no idea who. The enemy blood mage used this to set up a frame job on one of the other NPCs whose passions could also make them a likely candidate for the crime.

This is the plotline that resolved on Friday.

So What Happened?
Events came to a head with not only the death of two NPC group members to blood magic but also interference with other NPCs trying to help the PCs out. In a move to stop being subtle about it, the PC leading the investigation had the home the PCs are staying at torn apart and everyone investigated by a local Kuni Witchhunter. Due to plot reasons (not railroading, actual pre-established factors. For L5R fans, this maho and her master had learned to not receive jigoku's tain while using blood magic which renders a Kuni useless in 4th ed mostly) the Kuni wasn't a big help. However, the PC did find a large amount of evidence (planted) that incriminated the scapegoat NPC. They decided to act.

At the place where all the other PCs and NPCs from the house were to keep them out of the way a commotion started just as the PC investigator showed up. Rather than risk the quarry getting away he attacked and dropped the NPC to out (2 wounds shy of dead) without warning. Another PC, who had not been brought in on the investigation or suspicion, moved to execute said investigator. His blade was stayed only by a perception check by the party lead that let her see just who was about to be killed.

The whole group pulled in, the evidence was quickly deemed circumstancial and possibly planted. They brought in more outside help (a Kitsuki Investigator.) With that help and the whole group trapped the actual maho tsukai was found and revealed to be the investigator's apprentice the whole time. She has been killed, and that is where we left the session off.

The Damage
The fallout from this plot is almost all emotional and it is very interesting. The group had their internal loyalties tested, and now key players can't look at each other the same way. One PC, the one not brought in on the investigation, is no longer capable of trusting the party lead or investigator PC because he feels betrayed. He intends to do his job at Winter Court and then leave. Another PC dealing with her own plot is now more sure than ever that she will be betrayed and attacked from within the group. The others don't knw how to feel. Everyone feels horrible for being wrong about the poor NPC who got nearly killed on planted information.

Going Forward
The fun thing about the session is I'm not sure where things go from here for the PCs internally. They're very close to coming up on the big end game for this generation, and the emotional break will likely not have much time to heal. If anything, the tension is just going to keep amping up, and with that the temptations to dip into reserves of strength best left untapped. The ability for the group to succeed is not in question, but how many of them will die - and how many of them will be allowed to die - is a new dynamic that wasn't in question before.

This plot worked because the players were willing to make what, on an OOC level, they knew to be bad decisions. They stayed in character, acted as they felt they should, and came up with the results they have. Changing any one factor of this could actually make it turn out horribly. It worked due to trust at the table, both with each other and me as the GM. Which, ultimately, is what you need when you want to bring plots like this up for your games.

In the end, I think that's all I can say. In many ways this session served as a counterpoint to "you need bad rolls for good RP." Dice didn't factor into this session's results as much. But it did prove one thing. "You need bad decisions for good tension." Now the trick is to not overdo it and ride the crest up to the climax of the generation.


  1. I think it's rather interesting that your L5R games run rather similar to my own FATE games... You made your "Death comes for us all"-post just after my own PC decided to take a very large risk. And the fallout from that came out the previous session too. :p So yes, I can definitely see where you're coming from with this advice and I'll add my own two cents.
    Unlike yours however, my group has quite a diverse level of experience, ranging from "has experience but doesn't know what to do" to "just started" and me being the most experienced player. So I hatched a plot with my GM where my PC realized her role in the party was actually different from what she had expected, and she was supposed to steer the group in a certain direction. This gave me as a player incentive ingame to let my fellow players shine a bit more, but it also made them rely a bit too much on her. Which is why the current Big Bad of our campaign is pretty much an evil clone of my own PC, who decided to impersonate my PC at an important event the previous session. Only one of the players figured out what was happening and here's the good stuff... this was the player who usually doesn't know what to do, and she decided that even though SHE realized it, her PC wouldn't. And she decided to make the bad decision and her PC trusted the Fake-PC. By the time my PC joined the group again the other PC's (and players too, actually, they were that invested by this point) realized they were completely set up by the Fake-PC and my PC hadn't warned them or anything. At this point they could go two ways: become angry with my PC (which would be the most likely reaction due to the events) or try to figure out a solution with the whole group. Interestingly enough, they didn't just decide to figure out a solution, they absolutely rallied together and fully trusted each other. Note that this is a group that has _never_ done a thing like this before, because they were too busy with witty oneliners which nearly caused a breach in the group between the PC's.
    As a whole, I can say the group has definitely grown and learned from the experiences in the sessions leading up to this finale. :) And yes "You need bad decisions for good tension." definitely applied here too. Our experiences were different from your group, but I think that has more to do with how our group functions and how long we have been together compared to your group. But similar to your group, the GM challenged the Status Quo of the group and changed it. Actually having the group trust each other was much, much more difficult than breaking that trust.

    1. Your game sounds really fun. And that sounds like a fun story point to have. I'm glad your group pulled together on it. :)

  2. Staying in character to the detriment of the party requires a cohesive trusting group of players that I think is fairly unusual, particularly as the cost rises.

    This is helpful as the player acolytes in my Dark Heresy game are just entering the thick of an investigation with more leads than answers, including NPC bad actors that aren't the culprit. I think my takeaway from your session A.L. is let the storm rage and see what happens....

    1. Sometimes letting the storm rage is the best possible thing in the world. Just watch the players for signs of real tension. Its ok to call a pause after a heated moment and make sure folks are good/having fun. Sometimes you'll know easier than other times, but it's better to be safe than sorry in those situations.