This encounter is intended for any number of players of any level
Let me tell you a story about my early days of DMing – back when 3rd edition didn’t need a decimal point after the number. Back when you were excited about “Song and Silence” hitting the shelves of your FLGS. Back when Cause Fear lasted 1d4 minutes (seriously, why not make a spell that just tells one of your friends to go home and hang out by himself?)
I was asked to run an impromptu game for some friends. We were all pretty deep into playing Warcraft III at the time (this was, after all, the world before the World of Warcraft) and that had infected our thinking. Their was a mutual suggestion to play a party of orcs – a short term brush with running an “evil” campaign. This half-cocked little session ended up being the impetus for a long running campaign, but that’s another story for another time.
So as they all rolled up their heartless orc raiders I started digging through stat blocks and the DMG for challenges. While going through our collective resources I stumbled upon some character sheets that the guys had used a week before, for a game I wasn’t present at.
I slipped those character sheets in with my notes.
I ran the game. It was what they expected. They raided a village, killed its militia, pillaged the farmsteads, laid siege to the kind-hearted land-baron’s villa, and awaited the armed response from the incensed lord of the realm. That response came.
It was headed by their characters from the previous game.
It was a resounding moment for the players. A conflict of interests slashing into their previously simple world of callous orcish brutality. They wanted to win – but winning meant destroying something they cared about. Also they had min/maxed those characters like crazy, and the fight would not be won easily. In the end it was a memorable game in which the players were invested, conflicted, and had a lot of fun.
And that’s the goal for this weeks encounter: have your players make a one-off character, grow to love them, and then force the players to betray their darling PC. Old school DM cheatery – or compelling gimmick to encourage player investment? I’d argue it’s both.
Part I: The Bait
New sourcebooks are coming out all the time, and so are new ideas for characters. Running ongoing campaigns is great, but it doesn’t provide players that opportunity to mess with other character concepts, races, class builds, or backstories. That’s where the one-shot adventure comes in – and that is stage one in your emotional terrorist plot! This will take some careful planning on your part, but the payoff will be worth it.
Propose a one-shot adventure set in your campaign’s world (in fact, you may wish to abstain from any mention that this session takes place in the same continuity, but don’t be untruthful if asked.) Secretly the purpose of this adventure is to establish these player-made characters: their history, group dynamic, and accomplishments – just before they are handed over and made NPCs. For maximum impact, they should not return for a couple sessions, giving your players time to get back into the swing of your usual game, to the point where their “alt” is almost forgotten. Almost.
While the one-shot has a nefarious goal, there’s no reason why you can’t use it as a chance to introduce a place the “real” PCs will soon visit, explore another aspect of the campaign world, mess around with gameplay at a higher or lower level (adjusting these characters accordingly when the final showdown with the “main” PCs occurs) or to tell the story of other NPCs both new and old. This one-shot gets maximum use as a “flashback”, “flashforward,” or a “meanwhile, 100 miles to the north…”
So the location of this adventure is likely to be somewhere the original PCs will be going soon (whether they know it or not). Set some guidelines for the one-shot characters, but encourage your players to try new things, or explore other aspects of the campaign world. Playing a valiant paladin who is a sworn vampire hunter? Try playing a necromancer! Used to your city dwelling guild assassin? What about a skilled, anti-social ranger? Steering them toward characters who would conflict with or (worse) be friendly towards their usual characters isn’t absolutely necessary, but it might not hurt. Maybe run it as I did, demanding that all the players choose an evil alignment (assuming your PCs to be predominantly good).
Now comes the hard part: running a session that is fun and having the players make characters they enjoy. Obviously there’s no quick and simple advice for this: it’s a honed craft and an art all its own. But giving the players an opportunity to try out some off the wall or atypical characters is usually enough. I’d suggest setting most of the encounters on the easier spectrum – that way the players succeed more often, and have a good opinion of the usefulness of these characters. Don’t wuss out on them or anything, but definitely pull some punches. Consider it an investment for later.
Part II: The Switch
Your game returns to normal. You run a session or two as always, with the same Pcs the players have been consistently playing, furthering your group’s collective plot-lines. You might lay down some hints of what will be to come, but you’ll lose the element of surprise if you get too heavy handed. Then, roundabouts the 2nd or 3rd session after the one-shot, the “alternates” show up!
Don’t just state that the characters are there – describe them in detail as though the players had no knowledge of these knaves. Let the realization sink in! Remind your now conflicted players not to do too much metagaming here. While they may love Torbash the Dark: Half-orc Necromancer, their lawful good paladin has no appreciation for him. And if he never took prisoners before; why would he now?
The “alt” characters (please don’t mind the MMO terminology) can be in conflict with the PCs in many ways: commanders of an enemy army, a rival adventuring company, they might be bandits preying on the PCs, mercenaries hired to “deal” with the heroes, mind-controlled pawns of an evil overlord, opponents in a competition, etc.
Though I joke about being brutal to your players it is mostly just that. This is meant to be a fun challenge and add some drama and pathos to your game, not to be particularly emotionally abusive. The PCs very well might find a way to avoid bloodshed, take prisoners, escape, or even turn enemies to tenuous allies. As always, give the players a fair shot to improvise and “make things right” no matter how hopeless or straightforward a situation you throw at them.
Stats and Powers
Running a full player character sheet as the DM can be a bit much – even worse when you have more than one! To simplify things, you might consider “monsterizing” the alts. Draw up a Monster Manual style stat block, using one or two of their At-Will attacks, and one encounter, and one daily power of the highest level available. Keep any iconic abilities (marking, a “Healing Word,” sneak attack damage, etc). Think about what powers, skills, and items the players made use of during the session with this character and use or emphasize those, ignoring the bits that got ignored anyway. That might make a combat encounter with around five fully-fleshed out characters more manageable.
Special Considerations: Ominous Foreshadowing!!!
So I’ve highly encouraged you to conceal the presence of the “alts” before they are finally revealed for dramatic impact – but it can be just as engaging to instead do the complete opposite: foreshadow their arrival at every turn! Building anticipation of this confrontation can be just as valuable a story-telling tool as making it a “twist.”
Maybe the last moments of your one-shot reveal that these characters have arrived in a location the usual PCs have just/will soon explore. Perhaps their last goal put them in league with a hated enemy from the ongoing story. Maybe they arrive in the wake of the PCs, and it becomes clear a confrontation will soon occur as the new characters track the old. This final scene can be used to build anticipation for your next session, and serves as a good cliffhanger.
Another thought: Let’s say you have a player who is very unhappy with his or her character, and you’ve been seeking an appropriate exit for this PC. Now is a great time! The player can “swap” characters in a way that is rooted in the story and the action of the game. Maybe the alt has a change of heart and turns on his allies, siding with the PCs when the conflict is at its most desperate. If the new characters aren’t morally at odds with the party, perhaps the no-longer favored PC duels the alt in a rigged contest and loses, leaving the victor a clear and valuable new companion for the party. Perhaps it is this PC you want to get rid of that proves a turncoat, and the new character, though appearing at first a foe, instead proves to be a misunderstood ally. Whatever your approach, this can be a great avenue to introduce a “replacement” character that already has a place in the player’s hearts and minds.
A final word: the goals here are to be surprising, to get your players emotionally involved in the game’s characters, to add a nice twist to your plot, and to remind them that just because the game is designed for them to ultimately “win,” it does not mean that the challenges along the way will be easy!