Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The importance of urgency in roleplaying

Out of several roleplaying sessions, you're likely to have one or two stand-out, highlight sessions. Yesterday was such a day for our group.

The PCs have been attacked numerous times during this adventure. Each time, the attack is performed by covert and unseen enemies. There has been no clue as to who is after them, or why. Until recently....

After a mid-night onslaught against the PCs, in their inn room, by 10 superbly strong men, the PCs interrogated one of them who was still conscious after the skirmish. The attackers all spoke with strange, slurred, incomprehensible speech. But this one fellow managed to utter one word, which sounded like the name of a person they knew - the head of the craftsmen's guild. The man who had welcomed them to town and given them a free booth for the craftsmen's convention.

That was two sessions ago. The following session, the players were all fired up to go find this man and do some serious talking, even though it was the middle of the night. They located the guildmaster's house and snuck around the back. Using Elros' energy magic, all three PCs hovered safely over the 10-foot wall surrounding the courtyard at the back of the house. Rwake then proceeded to climb through an open window into a small study. At the same time, Leo worked the complicated lock on the back door until it successfully unlatched. Then, as Leo opened the door, much to the PCs' dismay, alarm bells started ringing from the top of the house.

That is where we began yesterday's session. Immediately, there was a sense of urgency. The guildmaster's house was rigged with an automated alarm system that only someone like him could have crafted. The PCs heard viciously barking dogs coming down a hall toward them, accompanied by yelling voices.

This urgency was great. I was moving things along pretty quickly, in real time. I didn't want the players to have too much time to meta-game the scene. They came up with a couple of options - fight or flee. Leo and Elros chose flee. Rwake chose to stay and fight, to be consistent with his character. He requested a compel, which I honored, and he got a fate point for it.

Running back through the courtyard to the 10-foot boundary wall, Elros launched Leo and then himself over the wall, after which they both rolled successful stealth checks, keeping to the shadows outside the wall. A moment later, someone loosed three muscular attack dogs into the study where they had smelled an intruder - Rwake. Trapped in a corner between two sets of shelves, he quickly launched a paralyzing dart into one of the dogs before they lunged at him with teeth and claws.

Taking some damage, Rwake realized things were unmatched. So he decided, "I'm going to use my staff to vault over the dogs, then make a quick flying leap out the window." I asked him to roll, and his roll was a success. On the way out the window, he slammed a shoulder and twisted an ankle, but he made it out alive. Two dogs quickly ran around to the back door which Leo had left open in his retreat and darted for Rwake once again. The poison from the dart had left one of the three dogs disabled inside the house.

Elros, per Leo's recommendation, was now doing a pullup on the wall to see what was happening on the other side. Using pure mental power, Elros wielded more energy magic to float Rwake back over the wall. As Rwake left the ground, he narrowly avoided the thrown ax that someone from inside had just thrown at him through the doorway. He made a successful stealth check when he landed, and all three PCs retreated to the back of the building to come up with a plan. The sounds of locals and constables echoed from the front of the house now.

All this time, the players felt the need to keep moving, to plan quickly, and to avoid being seen. They would be regarded as criminals now, if they were seen or caught.
They were almost certain they had been seen heading this direction earlier in the night. They decided that their only option was to find an answer behind the mysterious attacks before they could be found. They couldn't risk being caught.

A young urchin named Vonny Jaywhistle whom they had earlier befriended happened to be in the area that night and gave the PCs a "Pssst!" from behind a nearby building. The PCs joined him and found out that some of Vonny's friends had reported seeing the guildmaster enter his nearby warehouse earlier that night. The PCs stationed themselves in small tree-enclosed area within sight of the warehouse and took a few minutes to plan their next course of action.

Everyone came away from this session feeling good about it.
Whether they were correct or incorrect in their suspicions, the players had an idea of what they wanted to do. They had a reason to move quickly. The law would now be their enemy unless they revealed the greater criminal. They had avoided unnecessary combat. Rwake had earned a fate point in the process. For the first time in a long while, they had a solid sense of direction, and much was on the line.

It's hard to line this kind of thing up. But this session reminded me how helpful urgency is to an adventure. We all came away pleased and eager for the next session.