The thing I liked most about Senna was that he wasn’t entirely wrong. Players do love causing havoc. In my experience there’s nothing a player enjoys more than doing something for which they believe the GM is not prepared, whether it’s ignoring the plot hooks or killing the big bad with a lucky critical hit or stabbing the king instead of negotiating with him. It’s a proclivity I see less in experienced players than new and less in story gamers than other types, but even the most narrative, deeply-embedded, bleed-heavy roleplayers sometimes get that look in their eyes that comes with an understood “Dance, DM monkey, dance for my amusement!”
Most campaigns have a plot that helps limit this. The players won’t stab the king because then they’ll be hunted by the guard, and they won’t ignore the plot because the plot is about saving kittens and the players are generally affable folk. But as I pointed out last time the Great Tower of Oldechi was different. It took a certain type of floor and a certain type of guardian to give the players long-term consequences for their actions. On top of that the characters were pretty bad people (three evil and three unaligned, and of them four were largely self-serving). With this situation and this group facing the end of the campaign, I figured the final tower guardian would either have to finally punish or reward them in a meaningful way for being who they were and doing what they did.
Giza did both. He was the only unabashedly evil tower guardian, and he wanted to lead climbers into depravity. He wanted to see them commit evil great and small, maiming and cheating everybody they wanted to, and he would happily reward them whenever they took the easy way out. But as it is with evil, the rewards weren’t always as good as they seemed.
Let me tell you a story. Way, way back in the far-off year of 2006 our FLGS became a site for beta-testing a new card game, The Spoils. Like Magic: the Gathering The Spoils* used five “mana types”, but they didn’t represent magical energy. Players played factions or guilds warring for dominance, so resources were trades that suited the game: bankers representing greed, rogues representing deception, warlods representing rage, gearsmiths representing elitism, and arcanists representing obsession. The beta of the game came with a slew of these resource cards. Eventually the game collapsed, leaving us with a bunch of cards for a game nobody was playing. Since there wasn’t a demand for them at the store I requested them, figuring I could use them somehow.
Years later I finally figured out how. Whenever a character in Giza’s floors succumbed to one of those traits (greed, elitism, etc.), I gave them a Spoils resource. For example, if a player ended negotiations by rolling initiative I would give them a rage card, and if they insulted a crowd of NPCs I would give them an elitism card, and so on. Players could trade in these cards for specific benefits, like trading in a rage card for +5 damage on an attack. This worked largely the same in-game as it did at the table, with Giza awarding the character an intangible magic charge that would manifest at their command.
It quickly became clear that I had some hidden agenda for doing this, and immediately after that it became clear that almost nobody cared. Regardless of the true purpose behind the cards, a +10 bonus to an Athletics check was too tempting to resist. I can’t be sure how much players went out of their way to acquire cards but I know they cashed them in a lot. The players used sixty-two cards between Floor 27 and Floor 30 and they gained a few they didn’t end up using.
I don’t have numbers for the cards I gave out because those number didn’t matter. Only the cards spent mattered because that was what Giza cared about. He knew that people sometimes got angry or haughty or deceitful, and that was fine. What he wanted to know was how often people would do it for their own benefit and whether they would lie, cheat, and steal more often if they knew there were further benefits down the line. He (read: I) was running a study on the characters to see what they did when evil was more rewarding than good but carried an unknown future penalty. And at the end he made sure they knew how far they had fallen: for each card a character spent, the bosses at the end of Floor 30 would increase in power.
Long story short, we had a boss with an AC of 57 and another with a +131 bonus to Intimidate checks. The full story requires more gesticulation than a blog post can handle.
The material downside of the cards wasn’t the point. The point was that Giza said to the players “You’ve been getting away with a lot this campaign. In the previous section of the tower you learned that your actions have consequences. Now, with that in mind, are you willing to take shortcuts to get what you want, knowing that short-term gain will lead to long-term consequences?” And the players overwhelmingly said “Of course we are! What’s wrong with you?”
I’m not saying that the players learned nothing, though that’s possible. It’s also possible that they trusted in their ability to handle anything that came their way regardless of its power level, or that I would never throw anything at them they couldn’t handle, two sides of the same coin. Maybe they wanted to play their characters to the hilt, and since the party ranged from “overly, passionately evil” all the way to “morally ambivalent” that’s somewhat likely and I can’t really fault them for it (though I can always fault a player for creating a given character, and often do). There’s even a chance they carefully weighed all possible outcomes and chose to use cards only at the most dire times; if that’s the case, apparently things got dire around four times a week.
Giza didn’t help matters. He made sure to give characters a chance to flex their muscle on the less-powerful. His floors were filled with things to destroy, NPCs to bully, passive monsters to kill, and the occasional task that actually merited action. They were rife with temptation and opportunity to do evil. In a sense they were like sandbox video games, like Grand Theft Auto. There’s a vast world out there for the players to destroy, and they can destroy it to their hearts’ content, but the more they do the more the weight of the world will bear down on them.
He was something of a sadist DM, presenting the players with great freedom and hoping they didn’t see the fine print. But he also didn’t give the players any situation where they were guaranteed to lose, just situations where it was very, very likely. Giza shared a lot of his philosophy with Senna but went about it in a different way. He was willing to give players a bonus instead of just a lack of a penalty, and he created multiple worlds that he wanted to see the players break instead of a single perfect world that he despondently expected the players to ruin.
Fittingly for a near-final boss, Giza was the most Gygax-like DM in the tower. He viewed the players as antagonists and expected them to do the same to him, he littered his floors with ways the players could suffer for doing mundane things and suffer worse for doing them wrong, and he made it clear from the start that he was in charge and the players should consider themselves lucky to experience his world. But he also had the broadest scope of environments by a wide margin, he gave the players lots of interesting and different things to do, he challenged them in ways they did not expect, and he did it all by throwing out the rules where reasonable and coming up with situations live during play. Whether or not his style is fun depends largely on the campaign, the players, and how friendly the DM is about it.
I never did go back at the end of the campaign and ask what the players thought abut Giza, partially because it broke the story flow and partially because I thought he was too recent for the players to have a proper retrospective opinion about him. Given the heavy player and character rotation, I think it might be hard for the party to look at the campaign as a whole like I can. But that’s another post.
* — I understand that naming things is hard, but that sentence was really rough to type with all the weird capitalization.