Thursday, September 26, 2013
An Empire Strikes Back Session
Just wondering "aloud" about something... Empire Strikes Back [ESB] sessions. I'm talking about those nights at the game table where things go really bad for the characters. Like, a lot of terrible things in a row. Also not unlike The Long Good Friday (thank Dread Cthulhu they haven't remade that film yet) or that point in Game of Thrones where pretty much everyone gets their throat slit open (I think it's called The Red Wedding).
An ESB session is about the antagonists. Their plans, their struggle, their story. How they got the upper hand - if only for a short while. Things can't always go easy for the PCs. Sometimes, they just have to pay... dearly.
The players should be thrilled, engaged, and possibly stressed about what's going on with their characters during one of these soul-searching nights of pain, loss, and confusion. Yes, things are dark, but the actual game play is not awful - everyone should still be having fun. On the other hand, there might be some residual depression and darkness carried over from the characters to the players. Depends on the people, system, and expectations. Call of Cthulhu? Yeah, PCs should expect it. D&D? PCs should expect to almost die every few sessions or so. Vampire: the Masquerade? Well, it is a storytelling game of personal horror.
After all, we identify with characters in tv shows, movies, books, etc. And we also like to see them in tough scrapes, tight spots, and squirming on the hook a bit. Shouldn't players relish the idea of their favorite characters being thrown into the meat-grinder? Does the personal nature of player characters make the peril too personal sometimes?
More questions! Do GMs plan for ESB sessions? Do they prepare for it? Do they even know its coming before it hits? Are there unconscious ESB sessions where GMs don't even realize they're shitting all over the PCs? How far can a GM go? How much is too much? Is foreshadowing warranted? After the ESB session, do the PCs deserve a light at the end of the tunnel? In what form: more experience, miscellaneous bonus, acquiring a magic item, old spooky house, or a dangerous secret? Now that those questions have been asked, a few more things...
As long as it's a temporary state, I think it's fine for GMs to run an ESB session every now and again. Of course, the fallout from such a night of gaming has repercussions throughout the rest of the campaign. For instance, if an NPC ally dies, then he's still dead next session. The paranoia a GM stirs in his players, via endangering their characters, will probably continue for several sessions - even after the present danger has subsided... because, yeah, there could be a new danger right around the corner!
Assuming it is only temporary, should the PCs know it's temporary or should they be led to believe that this nightmare might go on and on and on...? Do GMs sometimes experience player backlash for the bleakness or is it generally well received (or at least understood)?
I'd be glad to hear from my fellow gamers on this front. Feel free to elaborate with stories from your own table. Let's hear the horror stories and epic wins of actual play!