Day 7 of #RPGaDay asks: what was your most impactful RPG session?
I imagine that’s an extremely difficult question for most gamers to answer, which is how it should be. Made particularly difficult because over the last two weeks I’ve had some very intense games (including the climactic session of two campaigns, one live and one tabletop). So this doesn’t turn into a post about ‘what my character did this one time’, I’ll try and focus more on events-driven impact rather than things that were incredibly powerful for my character but didn’t necessarily impact the rest of the group as well. I’m fundamentally quite a self-centred gamer unfortunately, and tend to remember things that affected my character most.
I do have a few self-indulgent runners-up, though:
The final session of the first season of a Masks: A New Generation game for the group I play Monsterhearts with, and I personally feel that it’s the best I’ve ever done as a GM. It was a sudden ending as I had expected the game to go on for 1-2 more sessions, but I’m very glad I didn’t spin it out. I was able to hit the Delinquent with her sister’s kidnap at the same time as hitting a big public target with their mad science machine, leading to big damn hero moments for the Legacy and the Outsider, where the Legacy inspired a group of super-powered peers to act as a team in a heroic last stand and the Outsider personally risked her life to save an awful lot of people. Then the Delinquent used her Moment of Truth to kill the villain dead rather than bring him down in a righteous way, and it was a huge deal to end the season on. Everyone got to do their hero thing.
The Season Two finale of a Monsterhearts game in which my Cupid, Ambrose, did a deal with the goddess Aphrodite to save his one true love on the condition that he would never love Ambrose again. And then his Mortal ex-boyfriend set the characters’ dorm on fire and Ambrose died and took the Phoenix move with an advance meaning he resurrected in a surge of flames.
The final session of a Vampire live game I helped run, Dark Metropolis, in which we somehow managed to hit all the greatest hits of our style of running vampire, with collaborative roleplay, political drama, mystery and intrigue that had far-reaching consequences, personal plot, a big well-balanced fight (that I had nothing to do with) and a story game dream-quest (that I had a lot to do with). Then ended the whole thing by having the characters all utilise different skills to save the city, with a literal list of beloved NPCs we would cross off if certain rolls were failed. They managed to save everyone. It was ambitious but it worked, even if we ended up rushed at the end, and I feel it was pretty much the best ending we could have had to that game. It was never going to be perfect (and I still beat myself up about one or two things I didn’t do right) but it was as close as I think we could reasonably get.
The most impactful whole session, though, would be the final session of the Heroic Tier in our Dungeons & Dragons 4E Eberron game. Technically two sessions, as the GM cruelly had the cliffhanger at the mid-point of the game, and then we had a massive gap between them as we had another short game as a palate cleanser.
We knew out of character that the Day of Mourning would happen at the end of the Heroic tier, and it was pretty clear that when our Cyran scouting/special forces squadron got sent outside the border of Cyre to break the siege on a fort in Thrane that something was on the way. But it didn’t really prepare us for it. When the battle was done and we were picking up the pieces, reinforcing the fort against further attack and tending to the wounded and dispirited forces inside, a call went up from the walls. Our motley group of Cyran soldiers looked out to see a wall of mist rolling across our homeland. We had previously found a similar mist surrounding a mansion filled with ghosts, so we all knew this wasn’t good. We watched our homeland die and there was nothing we could do about it. The group’s reactions varied: Cale, the eladrin Hexblade got a natural 20 to peer at the mist with Arcana and it started leaking from his eyes, sending him into unconsciousness. Adara, the half-elven Adept got on her horse and raced towards the border. Milton Wallace, the human Ranger/Warlord (my character) handed over authority to the other Captain at the fort and then very calmly began packing supplies for a long journey, fully prepared to walk into the mist and try to rescue his wife and two sons. Responsibility fell to Rune, the warforged Swordmage, who was the only one with enough perspective to see that we couldn’t just react to the situation at hand. Rune persuaded Milt that his duty to the people under his command was more important than his feelings. And then the group set about dealing with a world in which, as far as they knew, they might be the last remnant of Cyre, but not before Milt (as the ranking soldier present) gave an inspiring speech to the effect that: Cyre is a people, not a land. As long as we survive, Cyre endures. That session was awesome, and it’s something I’ll remember forever.
A Few Thoughts on Impact (from a highly personal perspective)
Make it personal – The players have to give a damn and the characters have to have a reason to be involved. Where possible, hook everything in to their personal stories/themes or into the bigger themes of the setting. Make parallels, make it personal. If you’re introducing a monster hunter or a big bad, reveal that it is the parent of one of the character’s love interests or an old rival of their mentor. If you’re running a live game, don’t try and hook every character in, but if there’s an NPC who’s showed up a few times and people have affection for, put them at risk. Understand that events in your world only matter as much as they affect the characters in the game. I’ve been in games where I have had to find reasons for my character to care about the issues at hand to justify actually getting involved. Be wary of getting too distracted by one or two characters’ personal plots and ignoring everyone else – this is a particular risk with live games. Nobody wants to be a bit player in someone else’s story, at least not all the time. Be fair, even if you prefer certain characters’ stories to others’, as your job as a GM/ST is to provide every player with a fun play experience, not just your favourites.
Put characters in situations where they affirm their personality or change in response – Certainly for players like me (far from true for everyone), the intersection between compelling mystery/suspense and things that will allow the character to grow and change as they react is where the drama lies. The most compelling sessions for me are when events challenge my character to show who they truly are or the character has significant change between the start and end of the session. Examples: this last weekend my Mage who had a background reason to hate Seers got abducted by our local evil Seers so they could try and make a very well-pitched deal with her, causing her to genuinely wonder whether resolving her backstory questions was worth doing something to help them; my Werewolf had to choose between two other wolves as to who lived and who died. The first was planned by the STs and pitched to give me personally a difficult dilemma, the second came out of events that were unplanned but I happened to be the only one in a position to make a difference. I’ll certainly be proactive in trying to find ways to explore facets of my character and backstory as a response to events, and also find ways of demonstrating changes to the character’s psychology, but it’s a lot easier to do when the STs are giving you opportunities to do so and challenging you to explore further. As an ST, I’ve seen that throwing players against challenging situations keyed to their specific character can enliven a static character and create an arc. Though…
Be careful you’re not expecting too much – Any GM has been in a position where the players just aren’t getting something they’re supposed to, and players are more likely to walk away from a plot that’s frustrating them than keep trying if they can’t see any manageable path. I love it when the NPCs I attach my characters to (there are always a few I care about for every character) are put in danger, but it has to be danger I can manage. Years ago, an ST put a character’s retainer under suspicion for a false murder charge, but we couldn’t clear their name for reasons I won’t go into here, and nobody in the game had any influence that could help. So short of breaking them out of prison, I wasn’t able to affect the outcome at all. Some of that was me playing it safe (modern me would totally take the risk and break them out, as I was definitely more anxious about stupid character choices back then) but some of it was frustration that there wasn’t a clear way of affecting the situation. If your players are struggling, find ways to guide them rather than getting annoyed they aren’t finding where to go. If they’ve given up on a plot, they might be frustrated with it. But also, don’t be afraid to change or abandon a plot if the players are bored by it.
Add complicating factors – my Masks game really got rolling when I started making the fights more than just ‘here are some bad guys, there are some innocents at risk as well’. Characters couldn’t have things both ways, or they had to respond to two separate threats, or they had a time limit. Give them a second layer to the fight, with reactionary abilities for the bad guys at a certain point in the fight, or an unstable environment. That makes people prioritise. Characters should already have the ability to deal with situations, or have a fun consequence for failure, or why are we even here? So make it clear they can’t always do everything – though be wary of enforcing arbitrary limits that they should be able to defy.
Think about spectacle – for a really big badass showdown, make sure to set the scene and have evocative descriptions, whether it’s of the heroes and villains squaring off against one another dramatically or the heroes’ desperation as they come to this final fight beaten but unbroken. But don’t get too caught up in the details – you’ll lose players’ attention quickly and risk interruptions. Focus on the really memorable or unique bits, the edges they can use to their advantage or the dangers that will make their lives harder.
Keep it moving – don’t just say ‘who’s next in the initiative’ – smash cut between people. This can be tough when a player realises they’ve forgotten to do something, but taking ownership over the pace of combat can help keep things moving. Easy (and utterly necessary) in games like Marvel Heroic Role Play and Masks, even when players get to decide who goes next, but can be used with a light touch in other games. I often use reactionary moves in a Powered by the Apocalypse style to change things up, and Masks‘ condition reactions for villains or D&D 4E‘s ‘when bloodied’ or rechargeable effects add a level of tension to the fight that is very powerful.
Appreciate individual differences – remember that different players get impact out of different things. Just ask any group of gamers to reminisce about their favourite moments in games and you’ll see what I mean: some will remember the moment when they did something ingenious to save the day in a clever way, some will enjoy relating how their character’s stats turned the tide of battle, others think of when the emotional arc for their character came to culmination, or the badass scene the GM set up, or the props and miniatures, or the zany madcap antics that left them all laughing. You start to get a sense pretty quickly for which buttons to press for which players (or characters – sometimes gamers can vary across different characters or campaigns) but if you’re not sure, try some stuff out and see how they react.
But the big thing is that you have no idea how stuff is actually going to go down. That awesome set piece you plotted could prove annoying or unmemorable, but for years after they tell the story of the intelligent eco-warrior beavers riding rust monsters that you threw in as a joke, because of course they do. If this one doesn’t work, try a different approach next time. Maybe they’re tired of that villain or plotline? Maybe they don’t have a reason to care about the outcome? Maybe they got used to the idea that in your campaign, the highs come from emotional arcs rather than fighting, but then you throw in a fight because you felt you should? I worried after I ran the Masks session that I described above that I’d gone too heavy-handed on the cinematic shots and emotional gut punches, but considering how my players raved afterwards, they didn’t seem to notice (and if they did, they were very nice about it). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come home from running a live game session and felt it went poorly, but apparently our players had a great time. I can tell myself that next time I’ll do better, but for now, the players had fun, I had fun, and that’s really what matters. Give yourself permission to fail, and try again.