There comes a time in every self-respecting sandbox GM's career when the players have to find just how far the boundaries are in the game. They have to walk over to the abyss and jump—or at least make the motions. The darkest abyss isn't the edge of the map, but the one that tests our everyday moral conventions.
I don't begrudge them this. I have had my own share of psycho-tunes behavior as a player, happily carving things in poor critters forehead's Inglorius Basterds-style, running grifts, and generally causing mayhem (almost always “in-town”). Kicking up the amoral-o-meter is part of the terrain that comes with player agency.
Truth be told, there is also a part of me—the same dark space in the soul that savors a right bastard protagonist like Cugel or Flashman—that digs the resulting chaos. I enjoy being surprised as a GM and these moments tend to provide them in spades.
Take last night.
To the sounds of lightening cracking down around my house and great rocking peals of thunder, I ran my weekly Hill Cantons game on Google Plus. The party--a right motley crew made up of two mountebanks, a pearl-cursed thief, a landsknecht-garbed elf, and a drunken Catholic friar—have been investigating rumors of a ostensibly-dead rogue named Kugel who has taken up residence in one of the swankiest of manses in town. They have been plugging away at plans for a home invasion for almost two weeks, last night was the delivery.
Now come the twist(s).
Kugel isn't your garden variety NPC, but the fallen PC of one of the longtime players of the home group. Seeking information about that poor sod, the G+ party reached out to the tabletop players. One player-character, Mandamus, a benign sort (if pedantic) run by the Desert Scribe wrote up a funny and inspired in-character tale.
Another of the home group players, who runs a race and class of “indeterminate origin” (one of them starts with an “a”, ahem), took a decidedly less benign approach to the overtures of the online crowd. He decided—and after grilling him there is a rock solid in-game excuse...err...reason—that he would methodically hunt them down as a GM-run NPC in the G+ sessions. It was one of those moments when your tough internal question rolls down the ethical slippery slope from “should I allow this?” to “how can I make this evil bit of player mischief work in-game?”
And when I say methodically I am not exaggerating, we had a few longish exchanges about his plan and he gave me a fairly-detailed set of written instructions about its execution (no pun intended). There were contingency plans for any number of occasions.
Disguising himself as a potential henchman fighter-type named “Patch”, he ingratiated himself into the party by promising to undercut the Guild of Condotierre's premium rates. Though they saw—said so at the time even—me waving a big ole red flag in their face, the G+ players incredibly hired him on.
Now the real fun begins.
They tromp down to the back alley behind the manse looking for ingress. In proper old school D&D party manner they order their hireling, Patch, to open the shiny, creepy brass backdoor. He refuses citing an old war wound (part of my instructions). They fire him on the spot.
To compound matters, moments later they narrowly avoid a two-headed giant dog behind said door. Courageously they suddenly decide to my utter surprise (and secret delight) “to hell with the manse, let's go kill Patch and take his dosh.”
Tromping back down the pitch-black alley without a light source--seriously, I couldn't script something this rich—they run smack dab into Patch's ambush. Perched on a wall deep in the shadows with a bow (and his strange ability to see in the dark) he starts trying to pick them off.
In the space of a surprise round he has one of the mountebanks—his erstwhile boss--rolling on the Death and Dismemberment table, narrowly avoiding an untimely death. Between the chaos and the avalanche of crappy rolls the Googlers only scratch Patch and he makes an easy retreat over the rooftops.
Off the rails? Yep. Something that may have me stepping in and stopping the probable cycle of escalation that will erupt-- the G+ party, of course, was swearing revenge last night—with a meta-game intervention? Could be.
But good, clean treacherous fun all the same? Oh, hell yes.