RPG Talk: Do They Have the Bomb?

There was a time (last year?) when I had a hat filled with non sequitur topics for role-playing-based posts. I'd asked readers like you to challenge me and they did. Just found that hat with one last topic in it... North Korea nukes! Talk about a challenge...

Ok, here goes. What strikes me about North Korea's WMD capacity is that over the last decade, there's been a "do they or don't they" feeling hovering over them. Just because they say they have the bomb, doesn't make it so. And even reports of a test don't mean it's been entirely successful. But do we dare to call their bluff? How do we translate Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il's strategy to the role-playing arena?

New School Idea: The Deterrent Bluff
Definitely one for GameMasters who like to give their Players some measure of control, this narrative device could also be used in Old School games as a way to counter (but also encourage) the dreaded Total Party Kill (TPK). Here's how it works.

First you need a proper set of circumstances. The PCs must be up against incredible odds and face a powerful foe. It's the climax of a grand story and they're at the enemy's gates. He's got a apocalyptic weapon at the ready, the Eye of Sauron opens, Darkseid's just figured out the Anti-Life Equation, Doctor No's gonna detonate the Earth's volcanoes, SOMEthing. Personal stakes will do just as well for more intimate games: The hero's sister is held hostage, a virus is threatening to take away her superpowers, again something that would drastically change the campaign. The threat must be spelled out. There must be a BLUFF on the GM's part. Or is it a bluff? Only one way to find out... you have to call it.

The PCs enter the scenario and discover the villain was telling the truth. The threat is real, the odds almost insurmountable. And maybe they win the day. They often do! And likely as not, the consequences of their failure is so high, they might even have had help from the Powers That Be(TM), i.e. the GM, who would lose his campaign world if he let the bad guys win, or lose his cast of players if they all die. RPGs being what they are, it all might hinge on a dice roll, and most GMs will have done a little "fudging" to keep hope alive. But say you didn't need to. Let's say the heroes DON'T win. What happens? The sister dies, the world ends, the heroes would get a state funeral, except government's been taken over by the super-despot. The GM gets to describe the consequences of failure as they happen, the whole damn campaign-ending story.

Don't worry. It's just what COULD happen. In the case of a massive apocalyptic failure, the PCs can decide to sacrifice something (that's up to you - huge amounts of Story Points, a full level, any XP coming to them, even have a to choose a character to die heroically). The GM decides if the sacrifice is adequate. When a price has been settled on - and it should be painful - the action picks up again at the point where the threat was proven real. It now isn't. The apocalypse machine breaks down, the heroes are actually 15 minutes early, the cure to the virus doesn't go down the drain, SOMEthing. What's important is that this time, the PCs have a fighting chance. You can keep them on their toes and change some of the endgame's details (after all, the doomed rehearsal was all in their heads), or you can allow their foreknowledge to create the opportunity to change events (now that they know about the monster that killed them all, they lay a trap for it and survive, for example). Make sure they pay the toll though. They did "cheat" death.

It's not the kind of trick you should use every game, but it could prove a fun and unusual narrative device used sparingly and at the most extreme of moments. They can walk away from a nasty turn of events, but they'll have to go all in to prove their hunch that Ol' Jong-il doesn't have the firepower he claims to have.

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