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7th Sea: Illusionism in practice (session 4)

Started by gentrification, November 21, 2002, 03:08:02 PM

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I have a confession to make. Although I made every effort to not anticipate the players or shoehorn them into a specific course of action, though I refused to write notes for any specific method of sneaking out of Barcino, and instead fleshed out possibilities in my head for several alternatives, including sneaking through the harbor blockade in a rowboat and rappelling down the city walls -- in spite of all this, the truth of the matter is I really had my heart set on a coach chase. Racing a coach down a windy, bumpy road, with trees and low-hanging limbs flashing past, enemy soldiers clinging to the sides and rear bumper, fencing while driving, fencing while riding at a full-on gallop, fencing while balancing on top of the careening vehicle . . . I wanted to run that scene more than anything, since the very first session. It may have been coming up with a justification for that one scene that inspired the entire adventure. I didn't force the players into it. But I did make sure to casually mention it every time the subject came up in out-of-game conversations. ("Oh, there's tons of options open to you. For example, hiding Guzman in a coach and driving it out through the front gates." Perhaps I was a little too eager to point out the the disadvantages of alternative plans. Perhaps I was too quick to stress the few tactical advantages of the coach. ("At least if you're caught, you're already on your horses.") Perhaps I am just a bad person.

But I got my wish!

First, however, I had to figure out how to get the characters out of the basement we left them in last session, with the streets above thick with Montaigne soldiers. I'd hit upon an amusing idea: a pair of las Muñecas, whose presence on the streets would not be remarked upon, would sneak down into the basement with dresses and makeup, and everyone would walk calmly back to the brothel in broad daylight, disguised as prostitutes. If The Birdcage and Some Like It Hot have taught us anything, it's that there's no humor like reluctant transvestite humor.

In addition to being rather funny, handing the players a fully-cooked escape plan right at the beginning served another purpose: it cut through the painted-corner problem that dogged the previous session, and it allowed us to jump to the real focus of this session. (And incidentally, they never did stop to ask how the madam of las Muñecas knew where to find them. Heh.)

We soon fell to the task of smuggling Señor Guzman out of Barcino. In this I gave the players free reign to plan all they liked. By this time, the ideal approach to planning sessions was well established. They understood that they would not be required to "beat" me or guess the "correct" strategy, but also that any plan they devised was predestined to become complicated, because that's how drama works. To my great delight, they eventually decided on a variation of the coach-chase scenario. The plan was to hide Guzman (with a breathing tube) inside a barrel full of fish and smuggle him out on a horse-drawn wagon. Their cover story surprised and impressed me, as well: they would pose as churchgoers on a military-sanctioned relief mission to some poor, inland village. This gave me a chance to involve Ontiveros in the plan (he would arrange for the wagon and the fish and the necessary papers, and complement their disguise as missionaries), while still allowing the players to take center stage in the planning and execution.

Meanwhile, there was also the matter of Gabriel's vengeance subplot. The day before the session, I asked Brian flat-out if he wanted to go after Leveque before leaving Barcino (which would probably entail splitting up and possibly jeapordizing the mission), or leaving Leveque for later (which ran the risk of letting him slip through Gabriel's fingers). I did this ostensibly so that I would be able to prepare for the session better. I was only being partially disingenuous. While knowing one way or the other beforehand would have helped me prepare, the real reason I brought it up was to keep the matter fresh in Brian's mind. In any case, he said he wasn't sure yet.

When the time came, he decided to go after Leveque. We ad-libbed some excellent in-character dialogue between Gabriel and Padre Ontiveros, who ended up blessing Gabriel even though he did not believe that Gabriel would find peace by this route. And then I played what I thought was my best card: Renaud LaJaune, the cowardly and pathetic Montaigne who had failed to intervene at the massacre of San Juan, offered to help Gabriel infiltrate the castle and stand guard while he did the deed. This seemed to me to be a striking occasion, intertwining all the elements of the campaign's theme -- a man who was himself the target of a terrible vengeance, seeking forgiveness by helping a man who would otherwise be an enemy exact his own.

For some reason Brian didn't seem very responsive to this. I wouldn't find out why until later. I let it pass.

We started with the smuggling. Everything was prepared. Guzman was in the barrel, Ontiveros was driving the cart, and Alessandra and Iain rode horses. Learning my lesson from last time, I ran the checkpoint at the city gate using only narration, building up the suspense as the guards climbed over the cart, opening barrels and poking through the first layer or two of slimy, smelly fish. The guard captain eyed Ontiveros' documents suspiciously. The players glanced nervously at one another. The trick here is not to draw it out too much; even when I'm at my most entertaining, every second of me narrating is a second when the players are not doing anything.

I made one little decree of GM-fiat, here. One of the guards noticed Guzman's breating hole. I didn't ask if the characters had cleverly hidden the hole, or made sure Guzman's barrel was in the middle of the cart where the guards wouldn't be able to examine its sides. I didn't make a Perception roll for the guard. I just declared it: guard sees hole. I feel a little bit guilty about this. Ramee kicked a little; if she had been asked, she said, she would have done such and such differently. The thing is: they are my long-term gaming group, and they are likely to remain so for a while to come. We are all close friends in and outside the hobby. If I'm going to employ this style of GMing, I have to be totally honest about it. I told the group: we basically have a choice here. Your deception can go off without a hitch, and you can ride smoothly and quietly into the sunset and have the satisfaction of having perfectly executed a perfect plan. OR something can go horribly wrong, and we can run a wild chase scene on horseback and wagon, with the bumps and the tree branches and the flashing blades and hey hey hey. And personally, I would like to see the chase. I am not knocking the satisfaction of the perfect plan, perfectly executed -- that is a valid way of getting enjoyment out of an RPG adventure scenario. But I thought -- I hoped -- that everyone in our group could see the appeal of the chase as well at least this once. So they let me get away with it. This time.

In the first of this session's neat twists, in which a seemingly innocuous detail from previous sessions suddenly gets center stage, Iain threw down the bomb they'd constructed (see part 3) as they bolted out the gate, and the resulting explosion provided an excellent justification for why only four guards managed to give chase -- two on horseback, and two still in the back of the wagon.

At this point I cut back to Brian. (More convenient time-compression here -- Brian's scene was happening in the dead of night, technically a few hours after the wagon chase.) Throughout the campaign, I had been harassing the players with Stealth rolls every time they tried to traverse the city; in order to highlight LaJaune's usefulness as a guide, then, I narrated them navigating the back alleys without any trouble.

As they neared the fortress, however, LaJaune began to get nervous. He started muttering Bible verses, the way he had when the characters first discovered him, particularly, "The deeds of the wicked, etc." He opened the shutter of his bulls-eye lantern and raised it high. Brian guessed what was going on and made a lunge for the lantern, but I overruled him -- another small nudge of GM fiat. The lantern flame exploded out of the glass and engulfed LaJaune, burning him to cinders in a moment. This scene had been planned from the very, very beginning, and was originally intended to further flesh out El Malvado as a side-plot. But it had taken on a new meaning since I first conceived it: the symbol of redemption struck down by a person who has been utterly consumed by revenge. I don't feel too bad about the overrule -- everyone in the group strongly suspected that this would happen anyway, and even if I'd played it totally by the dice, El Malvado (as I've statted him) had more than enough sorcery to fairly beat Gabriel's attempts to foil him.

Brian quickly drew his rapier and ran LaJaune through, so that he would not unduly suffer. Then he looked up and saw a shadow standing on the roof of an adjacent building -- El Malvado! But then, in the light of the dying flames of LaJaune's corpse, Brian saw yet another detail: Malvado wore the white mask of El Vago! This was intended to set off all sorts of warning bells. I had often repeated to Brian what his character had been told when he had received the mask: wear it only for missions of justice and honor; when you wear the mask, you represent the people of Castille. Massacres notwithstanding, I thought all of us could agree that striking from the shadows, burning his victims alive without even the benefit of a fair hearing, was neither honorable nor just. I had expected Brian to give chase, or at least mark this dark vigilante as a future enemy.

Instead, he saluted.

This was the only major misstep in the entire campaign. I was dumbfounded by Brian's reaction. Tacit approval to a cold-blooded killer? Especially when the victim was arguably innocent, or at least not-directly-culpable, and had just reached out in camraderie in an earlier scene? Remember that whenever I did anything involving Gabriel's background or the vengeance theme, I was basing my decisions on my understanding of how Brian wanted to play, not on what I thought his character's motivations were. I know Brian pretty well, and LaJaune was based on what makes Brian tick. When he described his character saluting, it seemed out of character not for Gabriel, but for Brian.

When we discussed it later, it turned out there had been a miscommunication. Brian had been under the impression that he had been one of the soldiers who actually threw the torches into the square at San Juan. He had either had misheard or not paid attention when I first explained that LaJaune had been little more than a horrified spectator. (In Brian's defense, when I imparted this information, I was speaking in-character, in a bad French accent and between big, hammy, fake sobs.) To Brian, LaJaune was beneath contempt, in spite of all his repentance. He had been wondering, in fact, why I seemed to intent on making a sympathetic character out of someone who was basically no better than a guard at Auschwitz. Once we cleared up the confusion, and Brian understood how I had wanted to portray LaJaune, his view of the situation changed drastically. He agreed that El Malvado's actions were villainous and felt sorry that LaJaune had died. I'm not sure what lesson to take from this, other than "enunciate more clearly" -- but I suppose an after-the-fact catharsis is better than no catharthis at all.

At the time, I stumbled for a moment or two, trying to decide how to play it. I didn't want to tell Brian how his character ought to be feeling. Eventually I hurried him over the castle wall and into the keep, and then cut back to the wagon chase.

The wagon chase was wild and cinematic and entertaining for everyone, including Brian, who wasn't even directly participating in it. (I have renounced the custom of physically separating players when the characters split up. I run individual scenes with the other players in the room, and allow suggestions and encouragement from players even when their characters are not actually present in the scene. I have found this to detract from the gaming experience not one solitary iota.) Some idiosyncracies of the combat system, which assumes drawn-out fencing matches as the default mode of fighting, came to light. The mechanics are designed to provide a general level of success and let the player decide what she did after the fact; it is less suited for situations in which the player has a very specific stunt in mind before rolling -- say, for example, cutting through the saddle-strap of a galloping horse so that the rider slides off the back -- and success is an either/or proposition. Ramee and I suffered through a couple of rounds of "whiff factor" before I stopped to reconsider how such a move should be rolled. We quickly got back on track, and eventually the heroes defeated their pursuers and escaped Barcino. It was a very satisfying conclusion to the main plot.


I returned then to Brian's subplot, which in a sense had become the real climax of the whole adventure (this is why it was fortuitous that he "forgot" to pursue it in session three). I called for a couple of rolls to find Leveque's quarters, but they were explicitly to alter the circumstances of the story rather than to stymie the character's progress. For example, Gabriel could not figure out where the officers' quarters were on his own, so instead he ambushed a lone guard and intimidated the information out of him. There were four guards on duty in the hallway outside Leveque's office, but rather than take them on (which he probably could have, but doing so might have given Leveque a chance to escape), Brian chose to climb along the outer wall and slip in through a window.

The moments leading up the confrontation were very tense, though they were all narrated. I don't think Brian had expected to deal so directly with this issue so soon; he and I both are accustomed to games where detailed character backgrounds, though deemed necessary, are marginalized in actual play, and have little effect on the adventure at hand. Today, his character background was the adventure at hand.

Gabriel found Leveque doing paperwork in his study. Leveque had heard Gabriel come in and was ready with a pistol, and there were a few lines of cool-sounding dialogue traded back and forth. And then Leveque put down the pistol, and we ran the duel.

I had made Leveque almost, but not quite, as good a fencer as Gabriel; Brian rolled well early on and I was on the defensive for most of the fight. I had worked out a number of possible outcomes, from Leveque's death to Leveque's escape to even Leveque's victory. But I was determined to follow the fall of the dice for this scene.

After Leveque was wounded and it became clear that he would most likely lose the fight, I described him glancing nervously toward the pistol he had left on the table. Brian, somewhat surprisingly, offered to stand down and let him pick it up if he wished. This was the opportunity to play one of the tricks I'd been holding in reserve. Leveque lunged for the gun, but instead of grabbing it, he started to open a Porté gate. Brian said, "I whip out the grapple gun and shoot him with it."

I had been ready for something like this; it was the perfect opportunity to plug in one of two possible endings I had planned. I called for an opposed Quickness roll between Gabriel and Leveque. If Leveque won, he would be through the portal before Gabriel could fire.

He didn't win. The grapple gun struck Leveque in the back, he stumbled and fell -- into his own portal, with his eyes open. The portal, sealing itself shut, cut off his final scream.

Brian was stunned.

(Everyone was stunned. It is immensely gratifying, by the way, in a setting-heavy game like 7th Sea, when everyone is immediately able to draw the correct inference about a minor setting-specific detail without having to be reminded. It means they've been interested and listening.)

The man who had killed Gabriel's wife was dead; Brian had his vengeance. We ran briefly through his escape from the castle, and ended the session with him riding off into the night to rendezvous with his companions. The end.


What makes this particular game so special to me -- what I think makes it work on a thematic level in a way that my games rarely do -- I did not find out until the next day, while talking about it with Brian. Over fajitas, he confided that, although he'd said nothing about it at the time, he had decided, about halfway through the combat, not to kill Leveque.

Oh, he would have marked him, sure. Maybe cut his other ear off. Made sure he knew that Gabriel could come back and mess him up at any time, anywhere. But he'd have left him alive.

It was my turn to be stunned. All the work I had put into the game's theme, using the NPCs to portray vengeance as an ambiguous moral dilemma -- it had paid off. It had gotten into Brian's head, made him think, and at the last minute he made the decision to have his character grow. (And this, even taking into account the misunderstanding regarding LaJaune.) I was only disappointed that I hadn't been aware of it when it happened.

Even juicier was the irony of the fight's result -- Leveque was dead anyway. The way our combat system works, with so much authorial control given to the player, Brian was assured that the fight would end as he wished. As long as the fight involved standard fencing, the player always has the opportunity to knock out, disable, or cow his opponent into submission rather than killing him. But the circumstances of the fight changed unexpectedly, becoming a situation in which Brian could not anticipate the result, and in that moment the situation slipped away from him, and he killed a man whom he had no desire to kill. Leveque's death was an accident, and Brian actually felt kinda bad about it. Ontiveros had been right: Gabriel was victorious, but he had found no peace.

By chance, by design, or by quick thinking and guesswork, the campaign had fallen into a neat and coherent structure, surprisingly close to the ideal of "the movie in my head". Act One set up the situation and introduced the tragic character of LaJaune; Act Two dealt with the first major challenge of recovering the blueprints; Act Three expanded on the theme, "What price, vengeance?" and dealt with the fallout of Act Two, namely, rescuing Alessandra; and Act Four tied everything together between the climactic escape and the culmination of Gabriel's quest -- a quest that changed him. The GMing style that I'm working towards, a sort of "open illusion" with the players partially collaborating on what goes on behind the curtains, still has a lot of rough spots and foggy goals. But I am well pleased with what we wrought here.
Michael Gentry

Brian Leybourne

Excellent stuff Michael, I enjoyed reading all four "chapters" immensly.

Myself, I would be tempted to bring back Levaque in a later part of the campaign. Just because nobody has ever seen sorcerers again who enter a portal with their eyes open doesn't have to mean they're dead. Maybe it just means they're horribly, horribly insane somewhere, but Levaque somehow finds his way back.

Anyway, thanks for the great read.

Brian Leybourne

RPG Books: Of Beasts and Men, The Flower of Battle, The TROS Companion