Monday, August 18, 2008

Director's Vision, Part 2 (The Pivotal Scene)

Part 1

In this installment of my little series on the director's vision, I'll look at the pivotal scene - a startling revelation that sets off the rest of the adventure/campaign.

An important consideration for the pivotal scene is the setup. It won't have the impact you want if the players don't have some investment in what's been going on. Before you turn their world upside down it helps if they're actually settled in the world.

For example, in the last long term 3e campaign I ran, the party returned from a side quest to find the caravan they'd been traveling with destroyed and one PC's father and brother apparently killed. The rest of the campaign was spent tracking down the evildoers responsible.

I waited a long time to spring this scene. The PCs were 4th or 5th level before it went down and they had been traveling with this caravan since campaign day 1. The father who was killed had also been their benevolent employer all that time. I had worked really hard to make him likable, from handing them bonuses for good work to just looking like a harmless old dude (click the name Niccolaio Torelli on that page to display his portrait).

I don't think, even though one character's family was killed, that the scene would have been as effective if I had gone ahead with it when they were level 1 or 2 (which I thought about doing at the time). No matter how much we want them to, players just don't start out attached to those NPCs in their back stories. It took time and work for them to lose at least some of the metagamey feeling that these guys were going to screw them over at any second*. I introduced an NPC from another PC's back story in the same campaign, and I don't think they ever trusted that guy. When he betrayed them it barely registered, even though he only did it because they took his mount and abandoned him in a plague-riddled town when he got sick.

I wish I had a formula or step by step instructions for how to make your players care about the things in the world you plan to take away, but I don't. Maybe they can just smell it on you when an NPC is going to betray them. The scene with the father dying might have worked because the father would never have betrayed them. He was doomed to die from campaign day one, but he would never have betrayed them. Maybe the best way to go is to just put lots of sympathetic NPCs in your campaigns... see which one they get the most attached to... then kill the hell out of that one.

* They never lost that feeling with the brother, but that's OK... he turned out to be behind the whole thing anyway.


Ravyn said...

Errrr... is there more? It sounded like you were on a roll, and this topic interests me a great deal.

Gregor LeBlaque said...

Welcome, Ravyn,

Sorry, I kinda felt the same way but my roll hit a speed bump. I thought I should do another paragraph or two to either give a counterexample or sum up my thoughts, but the words just wouldn't come to me and I convinced myself that what I had was enough.

Ravyn said...

Ah, makes sense. My catch was mainly that you'd talked about setup but not much else with regards to the pivotal scene, and the presentation had sounded like you were going to go into a bit more detail on some of the other factors.