Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Murder-Hobos Attack

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.

18 comments:

  1. Nice. PvP if handled well has always been one of my favourite parts of games, even if it's not violent.

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    1. I have to admit that PvP usually falls outside of my comfort zone. I get a bit of a worried "oh my god I hope this doesn't explode the game" feeling that is--likely a holdover from the heated blow-ups of preteen years (once ending with me getting kicked in the family jewels no less).

      But that one had enough context and buy-in that it was a pleasure to run.

      The biggest challenge was trying to play the whole thing out impartially. I did all the rolls upfront on twiddla and tried to adjudicate by probabilities.

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    2. PvP's a lot more tolerable if you set it up from the start. I'm planning a blog post about this sometime, since one of the best groups I've ever been part of had tons and tons of PvP (culminating in one of the PCs turning into the Big Bad in one campaign).

      It sounds like it went well in this case, so congrats!

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    3. My last GURPs fantasy game ending in a TPK secondary to PVP violence. It was likely the ending of a Spaghetti Western. The theme from The Good, The Bad, nd The Ugly should have played. Though I had "given" them that set-up in the beginning, I was still surprised when, so many sessions later, they carried through with it.

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  2. That's awesome!

    I totally let the players (and me) indulge in ethically questionable behavior in game. As referee, its sorta my duty to have bad guys do bad things. As player, it lets the player's id flex its muscles a bit. Of course, there are always consequences to a player character's nefarious deeds...

    What I would do next in your situation is try to get the same group together and have the home-table player at my side to do the hunting live. Keep Patch's player off screen to really freak out the Hangout players and give Patch's player an entertaining game as well.

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    1. That's so devious and wicked that I just might try that.

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    2. I've been itching to take this one step further.

      Ever since playing a G+ Hangout game I've been itching for a party vs. party session. I even wrote up an adventure hook and map for such a thing. Now I just gotta figure out how to make it work, preferably keeping it a secret until the proverbial $hit hits the fan.

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    3. That sounds great. I've always wanted to play the Braunstein like competitive set-ups that were in Boot Hill and Top Secret. It's a road that got lost in the hobby.

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  3. While I am a bit miffed at the lack of PC death, I am certain "Patch" will be a minor thorn in their side for some time to come.

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    1. Absolutely. He'll be an even bigger thorn in our side if he just holds still. Hold still, right...there...

      :D

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    2. So says this guy: http://www.landsknecht.com/assets/images/doppel.gif

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  4. It's funny - after hearing from Mandamus, I was going to suggest that he should join us one of these days as a 'special guest star'.

    Little did I know that such was already underway.

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    1. Mandamus would be happy to take over leadership of your group, spend an hour or two telling you how you did everything wrong, and lecturing you on the proper use of written contracts in hiring underlings (with possible asides on the way divination magic has affected the judicial system, how proper instruction in the classics would provide a higher caliber of hireling, and about killings for contract by the Black Lotus Society). He has a doctorate, you know ;-)

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    2. Oh, and you have a bad link to Mandamus's take on Kugel the Lucky. Here's the URL: http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2012/01/mandamus-erudite-tells-all.html

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    3. Thanks done fixed the link, I did.

      Robert et al, you'd be wise to mind Mandamus, he is both a gentleman and a scholar.

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  5. And playing over G+, there's no chance of another kick in the balls. :)

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    1. I need to add that to the "pro" list.

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  6. You know about the Homicidal Transients game developed by Miles Davis don't you? It was inspired by the phrase "murder-hobo".

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