Maintaining the Horror Campaign – Chapter 5
The Best Day Ever, or Why, Mr. Whedon, Why! – Chapter 5
Maintaining the Horror Campaign is a series of articles intended to not only make your players afraid of the dark, but to keep them in a state of fear through the length of a campaign. The Introduction , Chapter 1 , Chapter 2, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 can be read at their respective links. In today’s article, we’ll be discussing how to mess with your player’s expectations, then how to mess with messing with your player’s expectations.
“Passion is the source of our finest moments; the joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief.”
-Angelus, from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer’s episode “Passion”
Joss Whedon (Director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse among other things. Where have you been?) has a very predictable trick he does, and the cleanest example of how he did this was with the character Miss Calendar from Buffy the Vampire slayer. For those who can’t remember, Jenny Calendar was a Computer Science teacher, and presented as a love interest for Buffy’s mentor, a very tech-unsavy Giles.
The romance, though, was a long and drawn out affair that took the first two seasons of Buffy to get rolling.
At one point, even, Jenny is possessed by a demon that Giles had summoned in his youth. That can put a serious crimp in one’s relationship. But the two got over it, and finally found love. In a very touching scene, after the two had confessed their love for each other, Giles returns to his home to find a red rose at his front door and opera music coming from inside. On his desk is an ice bucket with a chilled bottle of champagne, and a folded note to the side which reads “Upstairs”. He follows a trail of votive candles and rose petals leading to his bedroom, in which he finds Jenny Calendar dead, killed by Angel, a vampire who lost his soul.
Why, Mr Whedon, Why! Calendar was a likable character, and Giles is such a good man. He deserves happiness in his bitter life! Why would you do such a terrible thing!
Well, how important is Miss Calendar to the plot? Did Buffy the Vampire Slayer really need a Computer Science teacher who was secretly a gypsy witch? Willow, inspired by Miss Calendar would become the face of magic for that show. Buffy already has a mother, so there isn’t really a need for a mother figure, either. In fact, if I was to break down Buffy: the Vampire Slayer into Player Characters and Non-Player Characters, I’d stick Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander in the playable characters list, a few other characters like Anya and Dawn in either the PC camp or NPC camp, depending on the episode, and a character like Jenny Calendar square in the NPC camp. She provides nothing besides an aspect of Giles’s personality and needs, and her death continues to mature Giles’s personality. In fact, her death not only advances the plot, but creates an interesting tension between two major characters: Giles and Angel.
What do we take from this? I mean, besides that you should build up Non-Player Characters, then hack them to pieces as I explained in my last chapter? Well, its an interesting trope, isn’t it? We’re playing in a horror campaign. Most Game Masters are going to make every player miserable, and every non-player untrustworthy. As game masters we get caught up in our ingredients to scare our players that sometimes we forget that if we keep dumping terrible thing after terrible thing on our players and non-players, then the soup is going to taste blasé.
But what if you singled out a character? What would happen if The Wronged Duke who’s travelling with the party is summoned by the King? What if The King realized he made a grave error, arrested the conspirators that forced The Duke to leave his lands, and returns The Duke his duchy? What if The Wronged Duke’s wife, who previously betrayed him, welcomes him in tears, ashamed at what she did? What if his children, who were imprisoned in the dungeon are released and reunited with their father? Out of the blue? Everything just resolves itself?
Wouldn’t you be suspicious?
This sounds like a plot. This sounds like something bad is about to go down. Maybe there’s a villain pulling the strings, and something went wrong and he got desperate and changed the plan. Or maybe this hypothetical bad guy has a vendetta against The Duke, and he made him suffer, but suffering isn’t enough. He needs to destroy him, and he can’t do that unless he builds The Duke back up. Either way, things are going to get nasty, and if you’re obvious enough about it, the players will catch on to what is happening and look forward to it.
There’s another trick you can play, working with player expectations. This one involves Benjamin J. Grimm, otherwise known as The Thing, from The Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four recently went through a major storyline by the name of “Three”. The premise was simple: Someone in The Fantastic Four is going to die. The hook was that no one, except for the people working at Marvel, knew which of the four characters that would be, or why it would happen. While “Three” wore down, all of the characters were in individual dangerous situations. But something extra was happening to Ben. Ben was getting one of the best days of his life.
You see, Ben doesn’t like being The Thing. While many superheros written before The Fantastic Four were portrayed as self-confident thrill seekers, Ben looks in a mirror and sees a monster. Reed Richards has tried for years to find a way to turn his friend back into his normal human form, but each attempt has resulted in failure. The Future Foundation, Reed Richard’s child genius think tank, have found their own solution. They can’t turn The Thing back into Ben permanently, but they can do it for a few days a year. Ben hesitates, then agrees.
Ben has a few days to make up lost time, but he makes the most of it. He goes clubbing with Johnny. Later, he comes across a bunch of wise guys from back in his old neighborhood called ‘The Yancy Street Gang’. Normally, he’d have to take their crap in aggravation, because he’d be too big to fight back, but now he gets a chance to do something he always wanted and sock those idiots in the jaw. Later, he spends the evening with his girlfriend Alicia Masters, and what they do after is left to our fertile imaginations.
The next morning, Johhny and Ben are in the Baxter Building when the alarms start blaring. The Baxter Building is under attack from The Negative Zone, a dimension that leads into the heart of the Fantastic Four Headquarters. Ben, still in human form, scrambles to do what he can to shut the portal, and protect The Future Foundation, but it becomes apparent that the portal needs to be closed from the other side. Ben mans the controls, ready to die at the hands of the invading extradimentional army… when he’s shoved back through the portal by Johnny, The Human Torch, who seals the portal and is massacred by Annihilus’s front guard.
It’s an interesting play on “The Best Day Ever”, isn’t it? Here someone was given everything they wanted, and there are members of the audience who saw that as a clue. They know that Joss Whedon trope. People die when you give them everything they want. Johnathan Hickman, The author of “Three”, knows that trope, too, and played with his audience’s expectations. He knew that some people would see the ‘evidence’ and just expect Ben to die under the weight of it. Hickman also knew that when he failed to deliver what people thought they’d see, but yet still fulfilled the plot’s agenda without resorting to tricks, that people would nod their heads in approval at an ending that was expected, but not predictable.
Understanding tropes is important. Understanding what they are and why they work will help you craft your own stories. Treading familiar plot arcs with your players will please them, and give them a feeling of story and continuity. And when you understand a trope well enough that you spin off of it, sending that trope into unexpected places, but that still work with the expectations of the players, that’s when you will impress your players. Those are the sorts of plots that stick with people for the rest of their lives.
So now we’ve got a game with a convincing plot, where people’s lives are on the line, and their passions are invested. What’s the next thing we do? Tune in next time as we End on a Cliffhanger!