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Friday, 31 January 2020

A score to settle

There’s a trope in modern American crime fiction that goes something like this. The Hero is a thief, loyal to his friends but not too smart. He pulls off a daring robbery, but the cash is stolen by the Sneak, a friend he trusted who betrays him to the cops. The Hero waits until his sentence is up and goes to get his money from the Sneak, only to find it has been paid to Big, a mobster who had the screws on the Sneak. The Hero sets out to recover his cash from its new owner in spite of the massive resources Big has at his command.

How dumb is that? The Hero originally stole the money from a bank or corporation that wasn’t guarding it very well. Now he’s setting out to steal it from somebody who is not going to let it go without a fight, and whose idea of payback is a lot more brutal than ten years in clink. It makes for a gripping story, because it’s personal and played for high stakes, but if the Hero was at all rational he’d just go and rob another bank. All he needs to do is not trust the Sneak this time, and he’d be on a beach with a paper umbrella in his drink before you can say Stick ‘Em Up.

OK, park that. Here’s another strand. Years ago, I got to a moment in my Tēkumel campaign that looked like turning into a Total Party Kill. Luckily it was the end of the session, so I had some time to think outside the box. Instead of having them all roll new characters next time, I had them wake up on a ship with filthy bandages wrapped around their wounds. It was logical, as they’d been whupped by a gang of smugglers in a waterfront warehouse. Instead of leaving bodies for the authorities to find, and thus bring heat down on their heads, the smugglers stripped them of their gear and sold them to a slaver.

I thought it would turn into a prison break thing, where they’d run away or lead a slave revolt and eventually after many adventures they’d make their way back home to freedom. But the players hated being slaves. They’d rather I’d killed them. It didn’t take long before a couple of them made a deliberately futile assault on their guards just to commit suicide. The others asked to end that campaign and restart with new characters.

Oh well, an interesting discovery, at least. Then I got to thinking, what if they had escaped? The very first thing they’d think about after getting home would be how to get their gear back. That enchanted steel sword, that Excellent Ruby Eye, the Gloves of Chirenē … they wouldn’t rest until they had every single item back. But, of course, this would be months later. That gear would be scattered to the ends of the Five Empires. They could very well spend years tracking it all down and recovering it, probably at far greater cost than simply writing it off and embarking on new adventures to pick up new equipment.

It wouldn’t be rational, but I know that’s what they’d do. Just as they couldn’t abide being enslaved, they couldn’t have lived with the shame of having their precious stuff taken away from them. You can almost imagine the voiceover for the game: ‘They were sold into slavery on the far side of the continent, their treasures taken from them. Now they’re free, and they aim to take everything back…’ It would run and run. And, because it’s personal and defies all reason, it would make a cracking story.

So the next time I see Coen Brothers characters doing something completely stupid, I’m just going to think of my players and it’ll all make perfect sense.


  1. Very entertaining. However, I'm struggling to understand why they didn't play ball. I know life is short and rpg time is shorter, but was it really that bad to role play a plausible slave insurrection?

    Speaking of life being short, I do think any link to TV tropes should come with a rabbit hole warning.

    1. It shows how precious freedom is, I guess (the insurrection might have failed) or is it just that players hate any loss of agency?

      Hope you get out of that rabbit hole eventually. I've been there myself...