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The "Vogler" Model Part 8: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

In many games, yes even games I’ve run, this section could be described as, “Combat, Combat, and more Combat.  The heroes have left the relative safety of civilization, and they are immediately beset by bands of roaming orcs.  Take this event, rinse, and repeat, until they get to the big finale.

While combat is certainly a large component of role playing games, other tests can be just as rewarding.  Not all types of test will work well in all games, or with all groups.  It’s important to know what your players want, before you start introducing unfamiliar tests.  So what kinds of tests are there?  Probably more than I can think of.  Below are a few examples, and some warnings associated with them.

Riddles - A common device in classic literature, riddles can be a great addition to your game, or they can derail it.  Not everyone enjoys solving riddles, and some simply don’t have the knack for it.  Be sure to pay close attention to the players if you introduce riddles.  If you sense a rising degree of frustration, you should start to offer hints, or let them roll the dice to gain insights that help them solve the riddle.  Don’t punish your players because they’re not good at solving logic puzzles.  It isn’t good game mastering, and they will resent you for it.

Labyrinths - These devices have become a cliché in role playing games, due to the large number of nonsensical dungeon plans that have been printed over the years.  Still, the concept of the labyrinth can be a good Test for the characters.  Just don’t bore your players with an endless series of hallways and rooms.  Make the labyrinth meaningful, and make the placement of rooms, monsters, and traps sensible and appropriate.  Caverns make excellent labyrinths, as they are chaotic in nature, and require caution and thoughtfulness to navigate successfully.  Caverns are also natural nesting sites for all sorts of creatures, so the presence of dangerous monsters will seem less contrived than an ancient red dragon in a dungeon room it couldn’t possible have entered.  Keep the monster encounters limited to those that will provide a dramatic impact.  A goblin around every corner, will quickly start to bore the players, and steal the drama.  Instead of monsters, try challenging the players with natural hazards, such as drop-offs, chasms, and underwater rivers.  This will force the players to look more closely at their character sheets, and use strategy, rather than brute force to solve the problem.  A successful journey through a labyrinth should find the players using all of their survival related skills to navigate.

I mentioned earlier that all combat, all the time, will likely bore the players.  However, nothing get’s the blood flowing like a good fight, so don’t remove all the carnage.  The question with combat, is who should the heroes fight?  Yes, monsters are good (assuming it’s a fantasy game), but rival factions are also a great way to introduce conflict.  A competing group of relic hunters, or a rival political faction may want to stop the heroes at any cost.  A great example of this, is Belloq, from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Although we only see him defeat Indiana a few times in the film, it is suggested that he has long been our hero’s rival.  Plus, he does it with style.  Because of this, he is far more interesting than a wandering band of Nazis, and Belloq’s hubris induced defeat at the end of the film, is all the more satisfying for it.

There are many more sources of conflict that you could use to challenge your players.  However, as I mentioned earlier, don’t inundate the players with it.  Give them some downtime, to rest and heal their wounds, then ratchet up the action again.  From time to time, if you’re able to time it correctly, have the action ramp up just before they’ve fully recovered.  Their partial recovery will keep them from dying, but the lack of full recovery will increase the tension, because they haven’t had the opportunity to fully heal from the last battle.  I will caution you though, that this is a method to use sparingly.  If you use it too often, the players will come to expect it, and they may resent you for never allowing them to really recover.

It is during these Tests, that you want to introduce Allies and Enemies as well.

Allies are an important source of aid and information.  Allies can take nearly any form.  They might be as simple as a farmer who shelters the heroes for a night, or a powerful wizard who gives them the magical artifact they will need to defeat the villain.  Allies should always be secondary characters.  Don’t let them take over the scene, or save the heroes from their own mistakes.  This steals the drama from the game, and feels like railroading.  Allies should only serve to aid the heroes.  They should never be confused for the hero.

Enemies too should be secondary at this point.  You may introduce the main villain, but save the big battle for later.  For now, Enemies should be used to challenge the heroes, and provide them with an opportunity for growth.  The character archetype that best fills this role, is the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is not the villain.  The villain’s role is to destroy the hero.  The Antagonist is their to force the hero to change and grow.  In game terms, the Antagonist might create a situation where the hero needs to use a skill that will later allow her to defeat the villain.  This could simply be enough combat to allow the character to level-up, or depending on the game system, allow the player to choose a new skill for his character.

Tests, Allies and Enemies will be the meat of many adventures, especially a long running campaign.  You don’t want the heroes facing the villain too soon.  They would either be wiped out, or the villain would be too weak to be truly interesting.  By Facing Tests and Enemies, the characters have the opportunity for the growth they will need during their final ordeal.  By giving them Allies along the way, you have the chance to provide them with the tools and respite they will need to arrive at their destination healthy and powerful enough to survive the Ordeal.

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