Playing one-to-one game sessions, Ken and I have logged more hours gaming than I’d care to calculate. It’s really easy to pick up a set of dice and a character sheet and fit in some gaming once the rugrats are sleeping on vacation (or on weekends, or when the game is hot).
My love of gaming is almost always strong, but there have been waxes and wanes that got me to thinking about what I like in my RPG sessions. I believe any RPG lover still has something specific about gaming they love, and what’s more, some sessions are memorable, some story points frozen in our mind, some characters and their deeds living on forever. Why? What was it that made some sessions make me want another game session asap, while others left a sour taste in my mouth.
I thought I knew, but after numerous muddied attempts to explain to my gm, I had a realization that helped me explain it a new way. So often I have tried to explain it is the relationships, but it is really more than just that.
What I like is the exploration of how a character evolves. Sometimes these big changes come from a success (or failure) in combat or another specific part of the written (or home-brewed adventure). Other times it can be smallest detail that sets a tone for a relationship which has huge effects on a character.
But For a Bite of Breakfast
One of my first characters, and the first iteration of my most beloved PC, believed the world owed her whatever she was willing to take. In the beginning of the campaign she thought she was hot stuff. This character was willing to flirt with just about anyone to get whatever she wanted, and with a super high charisma and max ranks in Diplomacy, it just about always worked. (When that failed she just did what she had to.)
In the early days of the campaign she and the other PCs (technically GM-NPCs) were still getting their footing with each other. They’d been forced to work together after fleeing prison and, thanks to a signed contract, had to cooperate with each other despite their less than wholesome natures. Before long, my character began a casual relationship with one of the others, trading her skills as a former courtesan in exchange for his magical knack to clean garments.
One morning as they stayed in a tavern, getting ready to head out into the nearby woods in search of their quest, my character made her way down the stairs into the tavern where the sorcerer was already eating a plate of breakfast. She ordered, but helped herself to a bite of his. Or tried to. He moved the plate away, called her on it, and said in no uncertain terms he wasn’t sharing. As minor as this moment might have been, neither my character, myself, or my husband, could have predicted how this small moment set the tone of their relationship from then on.
Who had what? Who was willing to give what for something the other person had? And who had the power?
By the end of the campaign those two had been manipulating each other almost as much as they manipulated their enemies. One of the hugest revelations in the later home-brewed portions of the adventure was the master manipulation the sorcerer had done to make my character’s husband nothing like he was before. He’d made me and my character hate one of my favorite NPCs. Once a strong, determined, no-nonsense inquisitor of Asmodeus, that NPC had become a meek kitten who couldn’t even put his foot down with traitors in his church. My character was deep into plotting his demise when the sorcerer’s trickery became evident. After some dealings with divine heralds, she got the sorcerer back by enslaving him for the rest of time.
There’s more to all of that, big moments and small ones, (and the sorcerer did get free of it, but ended up so shocked by his tricks being turned on him he turned over a new leaf), but the point is that bite of breakfast, or lack of one, created a ripple effect that echoed through the course of a 20-level, 10-mythic tier campaign that was played for about two years.
Taste of Your Own Medicine
In another campaign that same PC was re-portrayed in a different reality with different abilities. My mesmerist teamed up with a new version of the Asmodean inquisitor, who was now not that different from Sam or Dean Winchester, zigzagging across modern America in search of occult anomalies that could use his attention. They were very different characters than their original versions (not just because they weren’t nearly so evil), but a lot of who they were remained the same.
At any rate, at one point in the campaign, my mesmerist, who had become capable enough to use charm and suggestion type spells, came up against another mesmerist. She had no idea who he was or what he could do. This ruthless, conniving, evil man (actually modelled after Kilgrave from Jessica Jones) managed to land his domination spell on my character. Things happened. And my character changed.
She changed in a few ways, including being more serious about her road partner, but one of the big changes was her unwillingness to use overly powerful or long lasting mind-affecting spells. I think this was good for the GM since investing supernatural cases becomes a lot easier when you can quickly get to the bottom of things and hit the road before your spells wear off. (There were numerous times my character’s spells made too-short of work of his planning and mystery.)
It also made sense from a character perspective though. If you could do all of those same things to a person, would you? After you’d experienced them yourself? Could do it in the worst case scenarios? At all?
What was meant to be a small thing in a case, a saving throw she probably should have made, dramatically changed how my character viewed the world, how she treated people, and what she was willing, or unwilling to do. Rest assured she eventually managed to hunt down the other mesmerist and with the help of a couple of close friends, managed to take him down, though a few good NPCs almost died.
If she had made that saving throw, if she defeated him then and there, she wouldn’t have spent months looking over her shoulder afraid of the only person to have controlled her, she wouldn’t have felt bad dominating people for “the greater good,” and she would have become a very different person.
No Evidence, No Crime
In another iteration, my character was ripped from her “perfect” life and thrust into ancient Golarion. Everything she had always done was done with purpose and because it was the way it should be done. She always did her best to live up to expectation. And the fear of being caught doing something she shouldn’t (her father was a notable man and she herself was a minor celebrity as a result) didn’t ease her desire to be “perfect.”
When she was thrown into ancient Golarion she met a man who was so different than her fiance, and each time she was dropped back into the past, there he was. She quickly developed feelings for him, but worried she shouldn’t act on them because it wasn’t who she was, it wasn’t what she should do, she didn’t want to hurt her fiance, etc.
Then one day, after a bit of back and forth, and the realization that there were no cameras to catch her, that no one there really knew who she was or cared, she suddenly kissed him. Which led to other things. The conversation had been ending, the two were going to retire to their own rooms, and something in the conversation made her act without thinking. It was a huge moment for her, and to have hand-waved that evening would have meant it didn’t happen.
Who she was was altered somewhat as a result. She suddenly realized she had to follow her heart and her passions, not just do what was expected. The plot of the campaign (which was saving the universe, and was tied into the time travel) carried on of course, and they more or less succeeded, but how she dealt with it and the decisions she made and wrestled with, were tied to the decision that night.
A Tiresome Trio
Most recently we’ve been playing Wrath of the Righteous. My once neutral evil rogue trickster has been reborn as a shining paladian champion of Erastil (yes, that’s right, a paladin of Erastil – it is totally working).
Quick backstory: she lost her husband before the game started. He joined the crusade a couple of years prior, unknowingly leaving her pregnant. The baby died at 6 weeks. It was all a depressing start, but it made her ready to kick some demon butt. Fast forward a bit of time, she’s got her group of companions, a childhood friend and two guys she met during the attack on the city and they are pushing back against the incursion. It’s all good, and she realizes she might almost be having feelings for one of these new guys. She doesn’t give it much thought. Then she learns her husband might be alive. They save him. Happy reunion. Only the demons keeping her beloved force the 3rd wheel to admit his feelings before they can go. He does. She’s shocked.
For weeks she struggles with this knowledge, her own feelings for him, and the return of her beloved. The other guy has to go into a super dangerous situation. She admits her feelings to him while they are telepathically linked, before he starts his mission. It’s intense. He goes in. The link gets severed. He gets tortured. They get him back, and learn he succeeded on his mission. Hooray!
A few days later she and the companion are hunting for stray demons, and they get to talking – about how some things can’t be, about what is, about her husband being back, about what they both admitted to each other etc. He says things that he thought were no big deal, but she takes his mention of likely growing tired of her in the future to heart and right there shuts down any feelings she has for him.
Where I think my favorite PC (or a reborn version of her) is about to get into a tangled threesome (one much more messy than the Starfinder one), one small interaction where an NPC doubted her and said some hurtful/inconsiderate stuff, changed the direction I saw things going, and changed who the character was, or may have been. When the campaign started I thought it inevitable they’d end up together.
I’m actually disappointed by the lack of romantic relationship between the two characters, but it was organic and made sense to me. Their “almost something” happened because of the role-playing interactions between them, and their “never going to happen now” happened for the same reason. And given the tragic beginning, the surprise return of her husband makes a better ending.
Despite years apart, the loss of their child, and everything else they have been through, this PC is now 100% completely devoted to her returned beloved and there is nary a person or beast who could convince her not to be. Her beloved sees her as his light, as a creator of the goodness in his life, and she needs that with all of the demons she destroys, the carnage she leaves.
With the Wound closed, she’s now going to throw herself body and soul into slaying every last demon she can, hopeful that once the job is done she can settle down with her husband and try for a family again. Had she ended up a love triangle, or with other guy, the end of the adventure may have see her travelling the countryside, constantly looking for another mission – and I’m not sure where the guys would be. Sure, the plot of the written story would have ended much the same, but isn’t the point of playing through it to learn about the characters too?
The plot of the story – be it demon slaying, investigating occult anomalies, or saving the universe from destruction – affects how a character develops, but so do the small details.
Too often, I think, small details, role playing details, are glossed over. Combat and grand missions are integral, yes, but those other details can have long far reaching plot hooks, character development and just fun times. Don’t hash out every conversation, but throw in details here and there because you never know how they’ll alter a campaign.
After all, if you just wanted the bland characterless version as written in the book, why are you running it?