In which the Smaller GM from Beer With Teeth talks about emotional payload and kicking puppies.
For the purposes of this blog, please assume that a puppy is a small alynx.
This blog was triggered by a comic, about those naturally evolving mistakes when the town ends up burned down, and by a comment from a friend about common situations we find ourselves in:
How about the character that decides to face their enemy (loose definition) then discovers that said enemy has just bared their soul publicly, made a “woe is me” appeal and got lots of sympathy so that facing up could now be seen as kicking an injured dog when if the dog is injured (debatable) it’s a self inflicted or imaginary injury?
I’ve also been the person who really wanted to kick that dog. It got me thinking about golf professionals and kicking puppies. That is, emotional payload.
Mandatory Gaming Anecdote: The Golf Professional
First, a little scene-setting. A group of characters, all hardened trouble-shooters who have exemplary pattern recognition skills have a little downtime. They decide that a perfectly ordinary weather event, a ring around the moon, is strange. So fine, I play along. They may even be right. But then they decide that the night-time golf events that go on at the hotel they are staying in are in fact a part of a terrible magical conspiracy, and that the golf pro (who looks a bit like a guy they know) is the centre of it. Their pattern-recognition and trouble-spotting skills have led them down this path and they keep walking it, and it all makes sense to them.
I keep a straight face and let them make plans.
These magical glow-in-the-dark balls are horrific magic, they decide, having never seen such technology. So, they pull in some extra help, because their understanding is they need it. It all ends with a shoot-out in which the entirely innocent golf professional is killed, and the brother of their own king is shot. (By the golf professional. Innocent does not mean stupid.)
They pile out from a hotel bathroom they are pinned down in, by magical means, and survive to put in their report.
And they get away with it.
The group got away with killing some guy and wounding someone really important, because they had a good reason and the stakes were wrong for screwing them to the wall. It was a black mark on a couple of them, but they literally got away with murder, and they probably will again. And that leads us to the concept of emotional payload, when other consequences don’t matter.
Find what they value. Use it as stakes.
In general, ‘find what they value and use it as stakes’ is simple plot hook advice. The character has a dear old mother/father/orphaned aunt? Quick, threaten them! But this goes rather deeper. I’m not talking about physical things that they value here. I’m talking about things they want to do, and the things that other people want to do around them.
If they want to kill a golf professional, or an innocent crafter, you’re allowed to let them get away with it. But sometimes, the murder of an innocent person is… too easy. Sometimes, they have to kick a puppy in public. Sometimes, the ‘innocent crafter’ is really guilty, but looks sorry about it, and the characters will have to carry the emotional value of the entire crowd that watches the puppy being punted. That is, they’ll make the crowd angry.
I like to give people this sort of decision, where nothing will be perfect afterwards, and none of the obvious outcomes please them. Not all the time, but… when you are in a position where the characters are likely to kick a puppy, or kill a golf professional, or accuse a brewer of selling bad beer, remember that you can up the stakes by making the puppy into a PR machine.
And Sartar? Runequest?
Well. Honour Scores. ‘Find what they value’ is generic advice, but it goes very well with opposed rolls on Passions or Runes. If you’re looking to create tension in the emotional region, and kick them right in the feels, then you have a few possibilities: kick the puppy and get hurt, choose between puppies to kick, or set fire to the puppy.
What, you want free plot? Sure.
background plot hook tensioner de-tensioner emotional multiplier
The characters roll into a civilised city to hear rumours about themselves. They track them down to a man who is very popular and has a crowd of fans to hear him sing and talk. Their reputations are trashed but the man appeals to his friends, saying he was deceived and is now sorry, and offering to make it up to them. The effects on their reputation are still there. If they punish him, his fans will turn on the group and if they survive that the city will punish them but if they don’t they have to live with letting him badmouth them. If they do nothing, they will keep being reminded of the matter for weeks to come. Will personal vengeance and wounded honour win out, or will pragmatism help them swallow this bitter pill? Is there a way to kick the puppy? Can they find someone to help them trash this fellow in return? Are his enemies people they want to have as friends, or are they just your enemy’s enemies1? Honour, Air, Darkness (both cruelty and patience), Harmony… All of these fight it out, and should be able to fight it out inside a character.
A character has a traditional enemy they have a personal argument with. A representative of the enemy comes to their Clan and proposes a Heroquest that would heal rifts. The character has the chance to speak in the moot, and their Clan Chief tells them to come out in support while their mother begs them to remember the perfidy of the enemy and their various friends remind them of how badly it could go if they get things wrong. Will they kick the puppy and annoy the Clan Chief, or is their mother the puppy they are going to kick? There has been no threat to the things they value – but the stakes are there, and they have to decide for themselves.
|What It Means
|If your memory serves you well
|Set up this enemy in advance, or take from a previous plot…
|We were going to meet again and wait
|…preferably an NPC who shook a fist at them as they parted
|So I’m going to unpack all my things
|They are definitely well prepared…
|And sit before it gets too late
|No man alive
|Totally, throw ghosts at them
|Will come to you
|While isolating the characters
|With another tale to tell
|Sudden twist – the puppy has enemies who reveal a secret!
|And you know that we shall meet again
|Puppy is a vampire
|If your memory serves you well
|Exposing puppy will expose character’s old sins
OK, that was a stretch. But it becomes a valid plot, and the payload of kicking the puppy is satisfaction as you both burn at the stake. Again, Honour, but also Disorder, Darkness, Fire, Hate (Individual), Hate (Race), Hate (Chaos), Devotion (Humakt)… Passions and Runes are fun. Look over those your players have, and see what a plot looks like when you pull in several that conflict. Passions and Runes can help you generate the shape of the emotional conflict, even if you don’t have the details yet.
Adding the details can be by NPC generation, by grabbing NPCs and situations you have used before, or by the time-honoured method of waiting to see what the players come up with as their worst fear, and generating enemies to suit that between sessions. Above all, it’s important to look for decisions that the characters will find emotionally difficult. Don’t jump up and down on them all the time, or it loses effectiveness, but find ways of making clashes happen.
Make the characters choose what they value most, and play it through.