1. The Paladin Too Smart for Gods
Way back in the day, I ran the occasional game of 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons.* One of those games featured a paladin named Cody. He wasn’t much for brains, but his skill with a hammer was matched only by his faith in a just universe. He was never holier-than-thou but always worked to make his idyllic vision a reality. Cody always stopped to help people, whether they needed a monster slain or a field plowed. His player was charismatic enough to pull this off, even when the campaign became about the horrors of fantasy warfare.
This serenity did not last. The party wizard decided he needed someone on his intellectual level to converse with. So he crafted a hat of +6 intelligence* and gave it to Cody. When Cody put on the hat, everything changed. With his heightened intellect, Cody saw the world for what it was. He saw the cruelty and destruction all around him. He saw his supposedly benevolent gods looking down and doing nothing. His revelations were so shattering, he lost all access to his paladin abilities. This was all the player’s idea, strange as it might sound. He voluntarily took away his divine abilities for the sake of roleplaying.
Even without his powers, this new hyper intelligent Cody was useful to the party. He applied all his focus to devise strategies that let the party win an important battle against overwhelming odds. At the same time, Cody became despondent. Much as he hated the gods for their indifference to human* suffering, he missed the certainty of knowing what he did was right. I was amazed that one of my players put this much effort into roleplaying what was supposed to be an inconsequential magic item.
In the end, Cody chose bliss over knowledge. He took off the hat and told the wizard to destroy it. I ruled that he remembered his time wearing the hat as a blur, allowing him to re-establish his faith and regain his powers. The experience left Cody changed, never so quick to assume everything would work out as it should. He gained a drive to work even harder until the world was as just as he knew it should be.*
2. The Mages Who Converted
After reading the Dresden Files books for the first time, I wanted to run an urban fantasy game where the PCs were mages dealing with the political shenanigans of various other magical groups. Using Mage: The Awakening and a custom setting, I did just that.
The characters were outcasts from wizard society, something I originally did to make sure they couldn’t easily call for backup when things got dicey. I put them in a city rife with vampire clans, succubi cabals, fairy courts, and every other urban fantasy trope you can think of. My idea was that the PCs would have to band together as the sole representation of magery in the area.
My players were having none of that. Instead, they each picked a different magical group and tried to join it. One character used her mind magic to earn the respect of local succubi. Another drew up formal contracts to join the Winter Fey, slowly maneuvering her way into the fairy aristocracy. A third character used his life magic to look and act as much like a werewolf as possible.
At first, I was baffled. Why play a game of Mage if what they really wanted was to be changelings and werewolves? Then I realized I’d brought this on myself and that it wasn’t a bad thing. I’d made the PCs start off as outcasts, and assumed they’d want to work their way back into wizard society. Instead, they saw other wizards as the enemy, and therein lay story potential.
Instead of “mages vs everyone else,” the game slowly became one of resistance against a tyrannical wizard government. The PCs eventually rose up with their allies in open rebellion, carving out a place where all magical beings could live. That was a lot more fun than whatever I had originally planned.
3. The Jealous Bodyguard
Once upon a time, I ran a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), a samurai game with as much relation to feudal Japan as Tolkien has to medieval Europe. Social intrigue matters a lot, so naturally one of the PCs played a talented courtier. To stretch himself, the player decided his character would be female. A second player decided she would play the courtier’s yojimbo.*
In L5R, characters take special disadvantages to gain more points. The yojimbo took both True Love and Dark Secret. She decided her true love was in fact the courtier, who was unaware of her affections. Her dark secret was that she had disguised herself as a man and run away from home because her family didn’t want her learning to fight. In a culture with rules as strict as Rokugan,* that kind of act could get you in a lot of trouble.
Things got interesting as the courtier started plying the waters of Rokugani politics. She was good at it, making and breaking alliances with the greatest of skill. Naturally, part of her machinations involved tantalizing offers of marriage. She never planned on actually settling down, but the look of the thing was important. This didn’t sit well with the yojimbo. None of these suitors were worthy of her courtier!
When things started getting serious, the yojimbo took matters into her own hands. As a master of disguise, she lured the courtier’s suitors away to somewhere secluded by pretending to be the courtier herself. Then she straight up murdered them. She was also an expert swordswoman, so it wasn’t too hard. Ah, the things love drives us to.
This only happened twice, but that was enough to gain the courtier a reputation as having the kiss of death. Remember, she had no idea her yojimbo was up to any of this or even that her yojimbo was interested in her. All she knew was that everyone was suddenly afraid to court her. Being a consummate politician, the courtier found a way to turn this to her advantage. Any time someone gave her too much trouble, she’d make subtle hints about romantic interest, and that was enough to scare them into line.
Of course, like most good samurai stories, this one ended tragically. After heroically foiling an assassination attempt, the yojimbo died in her courtier’s arms, never confessing her true feelings.
4. Rugby Diplomacy in Star Trek
Star Trek is my main scifi jam, so naturally I ended up running a campaign in the Trek universe. I set the game in a remote sector of Federation space, well before the Next Generation era, and made my PCs the officers of a tiny patrol ship. They were the only Starfleet presence in the area, so any problems that arose were theirs to solve.
And oh, what problems they had! Their sector bordered Gorn space on one side, Klingon space on the other, plus a bunch of lesser known but still potentially hostile aliens. More than once, the PCs found themselves skirting the edge of war. With that kind of conflict hanging over their heads, it was impossible to deal with more mundane problems like finding missing ships and charting gaseous anomalies.
Until the chief engineer challenged a group of passing aliens to a rugby game. Deep Space Nine had baseball; we had rugby. I honestly don’t remember if the PCs won or not, because it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that they scored high enough social rolls to convince their opponents that this was something they should do again.
From there, word spread. Within a few sessions, the PCs couldn’t meet another ship without being challenged to a game. Even traditional enemies like the Klingons and Gorn got in on it. Fun fact, Klingons are really good at rugby – put your characters in sickbay good!
Except for the chief engineer, our PCs weren’t actually that good at rugby, but like before it didn’t matter. Win or lose, aliens who played rugby with them weren’t shooting them. Winning big games became a matter of prestige, and no one wanted to be left out.
These diplomatic connections became important later in the campaign, as the main plot heated up. Using their rugby connections, the PCs put together a coalition of allies that would never have joined them before. Somehow, I think Gene Roddenberry would have approved.
5. PCs Fight for Their Right to Party
Leaving behind the utopia of Star Trek but still hankering for some space gaming, I decided to run a near-future scifi game set on the Asteroid Belt habitat Athena Station. I meant for the story to be one of political intrigue and revolution, as the outer system colonies slowly shook off Earth’s control.*
That’s not exactly what happened. My players found space politics somewhat boring. Instead, they were really into Athena Station’s nightlife scene. Specifically, they spent a lot of time working on new ways to party that only worked in zero-g. This started innocently enough, with party-goers zooming around at break neck speeds, trying not to slam into anything. But that was only the beginning.
Whenever I described a new technology, the players imagined how it could be used to keep the party fresh and interesting. Eventually they hit on what came to be known as scramble parties. It started with a medical scanner designed to stimulate different areas of the brain. With a little tinkering and the proper application, I ruled it could give people temporary synesthesia – that is, when stimuli for one sense activates receptors for a different one. Hearing a loud noise might manifest as a feeling of pressure on the skin, for example.
Have you ever wanted to taste an opera, or hear a deep tissue massage? Easily done at a scramble party. A few brave characters tried combining the scramble technology with zooming around obstacles at high speed, with interesting results. A whole culture grew up around these new kinds of parties. The PCs put so much effort into promoting them that they eventually spread out from Athena and onto other outer system colonies.
For the first time, the colonies had a piece of culture wholly independent from Earth. When the conservative Terran authorities tried to reassert their control, the colonists fought back. Who were these gravity dwellers looking to take away their right to literally see what a seven layer chocolate cake tastes like?
In the end I got my revolution, but it was less Star Wars and more Footloose. That was just fine with me.
6. Everyone Loves Murder Baron
So one week I was minding my own business, designing what I thought would be a one-off villain for my steampunk industrial revolution campaign. I designed him to be a real jerk, a sorcerer baron who hated how the lower classes were slowly gaining economic and social mobility. He had a grudge against the PCs because in a previous session they’d broken up a street gang he depended on for income.
I figured he’d be a nice reminder that actions have consequences, and that would be it. How little I knew back then. When he first tried to wipe out the party, they dubbed this villain the Murder Baron. I figured they’d defeat him and move on before the session was out. Instead, everyone wanted to be his friend.*
That’s right, they wanted to be friends with a classist jerk who tried to kill them. Instead of fighting him, the PCs devised a complicated scheme by which he could regain lost income, thereby removing his beef with them. This turned out to be a profitable venture for Murder Baron. It didn’t end there. For many sessions afterwards, several PCs approached him with offers of friendship and alliance. I wasn’t sure how to handle it.
To this day, I don’t understand why they liked Murder Baron so much, when I designed him to be completely unlikable. Perhaps because I played him as a man mourning what he saw as the end of a golden age. It was really the end of the aristocracy’s complete dominance over everyone else, but that wasn’t how Murder Baron saw it. Of course, none of the PCs were aristocrats, so that doesn’t hold a lot of water. Maybe I was just extra charming that session.
Regardless, several players were deeply invested in turning him to their side. It even felt natural after a while. Murder Baron was a man who’d never had anyone extend a genuine hand of friendship, and he didn’t know how to handle it. I wanted the PCs to have a real impact on him, but there was a problem. With his magic and wealth, Murder Baron was too powerful to be the PCs’ ally. He’d have completely overshadowed them when the finale came.
My solution was to have him killed in a poorly conceived attempt to take down the main antagonist. Murder Baron was too arrogant to imagine he’d need help, after all. He was still the same man at the end, but at least his heart was in the right place. His death was a poignant moment in the campaign, galvanizing the party against his killer. Until they started calling him Martyr Baron, anyway.
Does your group have any epic stories that’ll put mine to shame? Please post them in the comments below!
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.