A coven of Hags who are being paid in stolen rare magical items by struggling villagers in exchange for meddling in the affairs of a corrupt Lord. A band of pacifist Orcs who roam the country side offering spiritual guidance to the wanderers they encounter. A Hill Giant born with a food allergy to flesh forced to be vegan, inadvertently discovers the softer side of life in the Realms.
Not everything should always be as it seems. When setting up a scenario for your party, consider deviating from the standard tropes for beings that are typically being introduced to the tips of their swords. I’ve placed my group in a bit of a moral dilemma regarding a gang of Vampires right in the midst of a critical cross roads on their quest. Here is the high level overview of what they are up against.
The party takes up a request from their guild to help assist a small farming community that is being plagued by Vampires. The party arrives in said town, is given one hell of a sob story by the townsfolk, then proceeds to hunt said Vampires. The kicker, is that they are looking for two parts of a seal to enter a sealed mountain labyrinth and the Vampires are rumored to hold on half of the seal. Basically, they are dually motivated to tangle with the Vampires. One of the party members winds up in a solo encounter with one of the Vampires who reveals that it was the Townsfolk who betrayed the Vampires and their racist rage fueled their betrayal. The party being leery of the Vampires, proceeds to find their hideout. The Vampires corroborate their side of the story and show no ill will towards the party. The Vampires are even willing to give up their piece of the seal if the party helps take out the Mayor of the small farming town.
What a twist! Some parties like to hack and slash groups of monsters. This is totally fine, always play to the room. Doesn’t make for an interesting game though! There was a lot of set up that went into this scenario. A lot of story telling that set up this specific situation. The only bit that was scripted was the fact that the Vampires weren’t just out to mindlessly attack. Even assuming the party had went immediately to hunt the Vampires, even in initiative I would have continued to role play the Vampires to try and avoid fighting. Most conscious beings typically don’t strive to fight till the death, it just isn’t natural. Self preservation is a strong driver, and violence does not always guarantee it.
I’ve been building in “Moral Quandaries” in my scenarios. Assuming that the world is never black and white and is a series of shades of gray, these quandaries cause the party to second guess their actions. My players ultimately average out to play in the ball park of lawful neutral. They will work in their own favor most of the time, but still honor the unwritten laws of the land.
Here is an extreme. I had a servant of the BBG offer the party total amnesty (after they had foiled the BBG’s initial plot in the first campaign) and great power if they were to work in service of the BBG. I knew they would turn it down. They told the BBG’s servant to basically f#$% off. But, this left them discussing the ‘what could have been’. Their instincts were good, but unlimited power in service of an evil BBG? Mighty tempting! AND a total deviation from a villain showing up and a mindless fight ensuing.
The party is not poor by any means, but they aren’t exactly rolling in the gold. One of the characters, Kreggar, is a Gnome from the Underdark who joined the party to learn about the over world. Kreggar’s people have been under siege by greedy miners who are leaving no stone unturned in the Underdark in search of Bloodfire Gems. The party in their travels comes across a port city named Byfox. Here resides the Byfox Mining Corporation HQ. Kreggar then learns that this company is the direct cause for the torment his people have endured. He valiantly attempts to persuade the party to join the Corporation in an effort to foil them from within. The party is unwaveringly on board with Kreggar’s plan until I reveal to them the astronomical value of these incredibly rare gems that can only be found in the home of Kreggar’s people.
The party of course ultimately agreed that they should help Kreggar, but not until after a lengthy discussion about the potential for riches beyond their wildest dreams. There was even some talk of sabotaging the Corporations operation, but then taking it over for themselves! Kreggar was able to plead the party into the right direction which they may have come to on their own despite him, but these quandaries make the story incredibly colorful and really opens up some unique paths for the party.
Shifting our focus back to the Vampire scenario for a moment. The quandary here is that Vampires are typically evil selfish creatures. They prey on the living. They should be vile wretches to be exterminated. What if they aren’t? This calls for a but of a bucking of the rules.
Throwing the Rules in the Toilet to Tell a Better Story
I tend to stick to the core rules as much as possible so the players don’t feel like I’m bending the game to my will. There are times where closing the book and just doing your own thing can totally work. That situation, as I alluded to, is scrapping a known trope in favor of telling a better story and giving the party a more interesting challenge.
Let’s keep riffing on my previous Vampire example. Vampires SHOULD be evil. Should be self focused. Should be looking to prey off the living. I broke the rules and decided to make them more “human”. This specific group of Vampires in my campaign are not looking for a fight but are merely trying to survive. I gave the the back story that starts with the gang’s leader, Mossimo, having taken orders from the Vampire King (Vlad Tepes, who ultimately reports into the BBG) to strike out to the lands to the south to protect the BBG’s interests. The Vampire King presides over a small kingdom of monsters and demons that Humans avoid, it is a safe haven for the unsavory beings that the Humans despise. As Mossimo spends time away from his home living as a stranger in this foreign land, he ultimately begins to lose his will to fight. He creates a safe hideout for the Vampires that now comprise his gang as they plot a way to make their own comfortable hassle free existence.
The Vampires in this specific scenario have lived a long time and have changed their ideology in an unexpected way. Even more so, they originate from a country where they found peace and safety from the hateful Humans to the East of their home land. It’s a very different spin on the “evil” beings in the Monster Manual. No one in the party’s guild, no one in the kingdoms they originate from would think less of them for mindlessly slaying the “monsters” they have encountered. I certainly wouldn’t have penalized the or scoffed at their call. I have set them up with situations that force them to think and make a choice beyond just charging in and leading with their swords.
This has all lead to a far richer story as well as some very engaged conversations. I would heavily encourage you to do the same in your games if you are not already.
Happy story telling!