Tag Archives: reversal

…Now We’re Here (or: Reversals, Part 2)

In Part 1, we discussed throwing Reversals at your players, knocking them off their “high horse” as it were and regressing their power level or resources in order to provide a new challenge or to change things up. Reversals are not an endgame, however.

Captain Marvel GIF by Marvel Studios

 So, congratulations, you’ve beat up your players. You stole their gear, blew up their stronghold, got them arrested, or some other relatively major setback which threw them into an uncomfortable situation where they no longer have an advantage in power level over most things they encounter. Now what? You can’t just leave them there to fend for themselves (well, you shouldn’t in my opinion); you need to provide them an avenue by which they can turn the tables back on their enemies.

 (Side note: here is where I know some of you may differ with me; “the players should have to figure it out on their own!” you’ll say, “it’s their own fault for getting into that situation in the first place!” Yes, while a lot of times, as we discussed in Part 1, the players are responsible for their own fate by their action or inaction in the face of warning signs or direct knowledge of an upcoming reversal, I firmly believe that our job as GMs is to facilitate the fun of the players at the table. No one comes to an RPG looking to get punished repeatedly for bad decision-making; there’s enough of that going on in the real world. Players are there to have fun, and if people aren’t having fun because of things you as the GM are doing, then you’re just being a bad GM.)

 How do we go about setting the players on the road to their own Reversal against their enemies? I think it’s important to work backwards, as you would do in a lot of story plotting. By this point in the campaign, you should have a pretty good idea of what your players and their characters want, as well as a good idea of how they are likely going to respond to their latest reversal. Brainstorm what you think their desired end state is in regards to this reversal: in the example of my wife’s Age of Rebellion character (example 1), I knew she would ultimately want to break her brainwashing, and in Edge of the Empire (example 2), I knew the players would want to steal back the item and hopefully take down the pirate group at the same time.

 Once you have the players’ likely desired end state in mind, work back to how the players would be able to accomplish said goal, if there were no restrictions at all. In example 1, I knew that my wife would need to get access to the same or a similar chemical formula used to help condition her, and essentially “reprogram” her brain to “overwrite” the brainwashing. In example 2, I knew the players would need to have a large fight, both on the pirate ship on which they were currently being held, and in space amongst the various ships of the pirate fleet. In both instances, the ability to carry out either one of those plans was far outside the capability of the players. That is normal, after all, the players just suffered some pretty serious setbacks. So now you have identified the gap that the players need to be able to cross to go from their current situation, to be able to achieve the desired end state.

 The next step in the backwards plan is to try to figure out what you can credit the players with in order to try to bridge the gap you just identified. Some players come up with elaborate plans and put in a fair amount of legwork to try to enable their success, only to have the dice rolls work against them. This was the case with the Edge group I run for. They acquired a Letter of Marque from the Empire to go after the pirate group, they acquired allies from two different pirate groups that also had an interest in seeing these pirates go down, and they conducted a fair amount of research and prep work, including double checking information to ensure it was accurate. When rolls went against them, they were never able to get to the stage of the plan where they called in all of their allies. They were captured, but they had also put some work in that would help, though I don’t think any of them realized it.

 Near the beginning of the campaign, they had liberated a Wookiee slave named Gracuck. Gracuck was an agricultural engineer by trade before he had been enslaved, an intellectual, not a fighter. The players could have simply left him as such, but over the year or so that I’ve been running for them, they have made a deliberate effort to make Gracuck a useful member of the crew, including teaching him how to pilot their ship, and how to fight with vibrosword, blaster, and bowcaster (fairly well, actually, they rolled well on these checks). They never asked Gracuck to come along on any missions, but they had, over time, turned him into a fairly formidable Wookiee who was not going to sit by and watch as his friends, to whom he owed a life debt, were spirited away by pirates. Gracuck had dropped the players off prior to their assault, and was waiting for certain signs that things had gone according to plan. When it became obvious that things had not gone according to plan, and the players were captured and taken away by the pirates, I had Gracuck do several things behind the scenes, and made several rolls. He activated a tracking beacon and followed the pirates. He then contacted the Empire and the two pirate groups with him the party had made arrangements and told them of the situation. One pirate group backed out, but the other group and the Empire both agreed to stand by their agreement with the party and join the fight. They followed Gracuck’s tracking beacon to the pirates’ location. Finally, Gracuck allowed himself to be captured, placing the tracking beacon aboard the pirates’ flagship as well as giving the players an escape route by the ship being onboard the pirates’ ship in the hanger bay.

 It may seem like I “gave” the players a lot by having all of this occur, but in reality, I simply gave them credit for all the hard work they had put in prior to the reversal. I believe Gracuck acted entirely within his character based on the time they had invested in him as a member of their crew, and the rolls fell the way they were going to fall in terms of which groups would come to the players’ aid. When you put the players in a helpless situation, they will often focus on what they can do currently to alleviate it, but it’s important to not let their previous work go to waste just because an encounter went sideways on them. Make your gaming world a living, breathing place where events keep on going without them, where their allies will make moves to try to rescue them or help them out of their bad situation. When Gracuck arrived aboard the ship and they were all brought before the pirate leader, they were still bound and without weapons. When the Empire and other pirates jumped in and started firing, it caused chaos on the ship, but the players still had to fight to break out of their restraints, grab weapons, and overpower the pirate crew in a close-quarters battle that was by no means certain. Giving the players credit for their preparation and hard work does not mean they get a free pass out of a bad situation.

 Sometimes, though, players won’t have preparations or hard work that is directly applicable to the situation they find themselves in. Does that mean these players are SOL? Absolutely not. Remember, our job as GMs is to facilitate the players’ fun. Sometimes, players will be able to figure their way out of the situation on their own; they will be able to ask the right questions, attempt the right rolls, and deduce information they need to without the GM having to intervene. My wife was able to cleverly subvert her character’s conditioning and work around the system to start figuring out the information she needed to eventually break free of it. That may not always be the case. You put the players in this situation, so you owe them a way out. If the players can’t get to the solution on their own, be prepared to guide them down the path. Have an idea in your mind of how they can get out of the situation, and then reward them with scraps of information that lead them down that path when they make rolls. Don’t be tied to giving certain information only for certain types of rolls; instead, try to give out information regardless of what type of questions they ask or what types of rolls they make. For example, if the players are lost in the woods and trying to find their way out, and you intend them to have to make a Survival check to notice some tracks, don’t be tied to that check as being the solution. If one player makes a Survival check and fails, but another wants to roll Perception to notice something else and they roll well, I encourage you to give them the information from the Survival roll as well. Tell them they not only notice what they were looking for, but they notice the tracks as well. Don’t punish them for asking the wrong questions or making the wrong skill check. Remember, we as GMs have all the information, and it’s too easy to forget that the players often have little or none.

 Once the players are on the right path, they should be heading for success. Your ultimate goal is for them to have fun, and hopefully for their attempt at recovering from the reversal to succeed. This is a time to probably pump the brakes on some of the more difficult encounters. Don’t make it easy, but don’t absolutely crush them; it’s no fun for players to go from one gut punch to the next. In the end, everyone comes to the table to have fun, and it’s our job to ensure that no matter the ups or downs of the games, that they do so.

Started from the bottom… (or Reversals, Part 1)

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A common problem in roleplaying games, and in storytelling in general, is how to keep raising the stakes. As characters advance through their stories and the plot of the game, they pick up new abilities and new weapons, and also usually get “better” at playing. The GM must find new ways to challenge the players in order to keep things interesting. This is usually less of a problem in the Star Wars roleplaying game than in Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, since increases to Wound Threshold (hit points) are rare and weapon damage is high, making a squad of Stormtroopers just as dangerous to a high-XP (high-level) party as a low-XP party. However, the abilities accumulated by the players does make them more powerful over time, necessitating ever-increasing stakes.

 While throwing larger, more powerful, or more numerous enemies at the party is always an option and standard RPG progression, I would also recommend a major reversal at some point, or several minor ones. What I call “reversals” are events which change the power situation or power relationship that the players find themselves in and force them to react, while depriving them of some resources that had previously made them powerful or able to do certain things. Flipping things on their heads and cutting the power level of the players, even if temporarily, is a great way to return to those tense moments of low-level play and encourage the players to think outside the box and pursue options they would not have previously considered. Reversals need to be carefully done, however, to avoid alienating your players and sucking the fun out of the game.

1. First, and most importantly, the reversal has to be plausible. The most effective way to do this is to give the players a chance to see it coming in advance, and have the nature of the reversal be a direct consequence of their action or inaction. In our Edge of the Empire game, the players were hired to steal an item, as well as a large sum of money, by one of their regular job-givers. His representative on the planet betrayed them once the item had been stolen, ambushing them and taking the item for herself, as well as their ship.

compete twitch streamer GIF by AsmodeeGames

I would have considered this a cheap trick had I just sprung this event on them, so I gave them an opportunity to spot the betrayal coming: halfway through the job, the representative came to the players and told them their employer had changed the bank account to which he wanted the money transferred. A successful Discipline (Insight) check by one of the players discovered that the woman was lying, and that their employer had made no such request; the woman was trying to take the money, implying her future betrayal. While the players transferred the money to the original account, they did not alter their plan to steal the item, a plan which the woman knew, enabling her to ambush them later and steal the item. Had the players adjusted their plan, or informed their employer of his representative’s betrayal with the money, things could have gone differently, but they did not, and recognized their mistake when it was all said and done.

 2. Second, the losses need to be damaging, possibly even severe, but not derailing. In our Age of Rebellion game, we made a “deal with the devil,” as it were, throwing in with a seemingly-disgruntled Imperial Intelligence officer who had been a long-running antagonist in the campaign. In the end, she (of course) betrayed us, and my wife’s character was imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately brainwashed. All of the allies, networks, and equipment she had built up were lost or scattered, and she found herself bound to carry out her orders from the officer without question. Again, this could have gone very badly, but I made sure that several things were clear: most of her allies were probably still out there somewhere, the battle in the Sector was going badly but not lost, and the only things she could not do were to directly violate her orders. My wife quickly latched onto the last part in particular, and began her subversive campaign to undermine her orders without disobeying them, while secretly researching a way to break herself free of the “conditioning.” It changed the dynamic of the game drastically, putting her in the situation of a double agent without the benefits of the allies and network she had built up previously.

 Sometimes, the dice can take things out of your hands as a GM and the players are handed a reversal you did not necessarily plan for. Players can be critically wounded or even killed, or the players can end up in a hopeless situation that you had no intent of them being in. You can (and should, in my opinion) handle these the same way as a planned Reversal. Two sessions ago in our EOTE game, the players, still pursuing the treacherous representative and the pirate band she belonged to, stormed the pirate stronghold intending to steal the item back and then launch an attack on the pirate fleet. They had gathered two powerful groups of allies, had a fairly solid plan, and started off rolling well. They fought tactically, maximizing use of grenades in the initial fights, but when they reached the central chamber of the stronghold, the rolls went against them. They missed often and got hit severely. One player was knocked out, another lost his eyes (Star Wars has a critical injury table for critical hits), and a third, a Droid Tech, had his prized droid companion destroyed. This could have been a TPK situation, but I find those distasteful and anticlimactic if they serve no narrative purpose; capturing is far more interesting. So, the pirates offered a chance to surrender, which the players took, and we moved on. Two characters had suffered potentially derailing occurrences during that fight which I felt threatened the possibility of them having fun in the future: our Wookiee warrior character had permanently had his eyes sliced out by a vibrosword, and our Droid Tech had lost his droid. I had not planned for these things to happen, but I knew I needed to ensure the players’ fun was not crushed by these losses, so in the next session, I had the pirates’ surgeon, wanting to “learn” on a Wookiee subject, implant one cybernetic eye on our Wookiee, while the pirates’ techie brought the Droid Tech the memory core of his droid, empathizing with his loss. The players were still very much in the hands of the pirates, imprisoned and with no weapons, but those two in particular had not suffered the complete loss of things which, in their minds, were central to their characters.

parks and rec GIF

 3. Lastly, you need to have a plan and provide an opportunity for the players to affect a reversal of their own. I’ll explore that in Part 2.