This January, Tales of a GM was proud to host the RPG Blog Carnival. In keeping with the season, the theme for the month was Gates & Portals. This bonus essay is my fifth and final contribution to the January Carnival:
- My first article explored the portalwrights and their Collegium of Planar Travel
- Next was an essay introducing the Demon of the Gate
- The third article presented the Bronze Gate at Far Vale
- My fourth was the first Personal Growth essay, exploring broadening and rebuilding the Hero
The focus for many articles in the January Blog Carnival Gates & Portals theme revolved around the physical transition from one location to another. However, January is also the time of year to start a personal journey to a new way of life. Such a personal transition may be physical, mental or spiritual.
Transitions are also embedded within RPG games. One of the core principles of D&D is the idea of “levelling up”, the incremental process of improving the Hero. There are, however, more avenues of personal growth within RPGs than just the accumulation of levels. This essay explores some negative growth which may be inflicted upon Heroes.
Not everything which happens to a Hero during a game is desirable. There are many ways a character can suffer growth in an unwelcome direction. The addition of insanity, made famous in RPGs by Call of Cthulhu, is a clear example of character development dreaded by most Players. Other possibilities include curses, scars and an accumulation of interfering enemies.
Such negative growth is all part of many campaigns. Heroes cannot leave a trail of bodies behind them without slowly acquiring reputations and blood feuds. Indeed, I have known CoC Players who embrace the psychosis of their Investigators as an inevitable part of the setting.
For all their drawbacks, these unwelcome additions to a Hero link the character to previous events in the campaign. They provide a degree of continuity and often drive subsequent quests. I firmly believe the actions of Heroes should have consequences, and these examples of negative growth bring home the impact of previous actions.
Physical Scars at Your Table
There are several ways to bring home the negative consequences of events at your table. Firstly, you should keep track of the major injuries suffered by Players, having each one result in a scar, or other long term effect. Roll on the physical scars table below, or choose something appropriate to the nature of the injury suffered. As with any table, the GM may need to improvise the minor details to fit with the exact circumstances in your game.
|d12||Nature of the Scar|
|1||Long white scar|
|2||Jagged red scar|
|3||Scar to scalp, hair does not grow|
|4||Scar across the eye, changing, or removing, the pigment in the eye|
|5||Missing fingertip, no loss of manual dexterity|
|6||Loss of finger, minor loss of fine manual dexterity|
|8||Scar down neck, change in pitch of voice|
|9||Tip of ear lost|
|10||Scar down leg, walk with a slight limp|
|11||Broken bone, heals slightly misaligned|
|12||Joints stiffen in wet weather|
Emotional Scars at Your Table
These are all physical scars, but there can be emotional ones too. Close encounters with powerful beings, or hideous monsters, can have a lasting emotional impact. Dragons, deities and creatures from beyond the veil can force a Hero to face their own mortality, or insignificance. Even if the encounter ended positively for the Hero, it may still leave an emotional scar.
Monitor the impact of events upon the Heroes in your game. After a notable encounter, whether life-threatening or not, hand out one or more of the emotional scars from the table below. Many character-focused Players will savour the emotional depth these quirks give to their Hero.
|2||Bouts of insomnia|
|3||Fixation on the trigger event, or creature|
|4||Mild fear of trigger event|
|5||Need to drown sorrows with ale|
|6||Unwillingness to be alone|
|8||Mild shift in personality|
|9||Limited ability to laugh|
|10||Obsession with weapons, to be better prepared "next time"|
|11||Talks to self about the trigger event|
|12||Powerful hatred of the trigger event|
Please note these emotional and physical scars are intended to have minimal impact on the capabilities of the Hero. Unless you want to reproduce the gradual degradation of Heroes common to games such as Call of Cthulhu, you should keep the mechanical impact of these scars to a minimum. Rather, treat them as additions to the narrative of your games.
Social Scars at Your Table
The final type of negative growth is the social one. This is the reaction of society to the actions of the Hero. Authority figures could respond with warrants of arrest, bounties or just issue summons for the Hero to explain themselves in a court of law. Whatever the response of the local government figure, and it need not be wholly negative, there will be some reaction. Rulers are unlikely to simply ignore the presence of an elite group of warriors in their territory. These responses are potentially quite extreme when dealing with “murder hobo” groups.
Alternatively, society as a whole may react to the actions of the Heroes. Reputations, feuds and rivalries can all spring up as a result of an adventure. Once again, these consequences may be positive or negative. However, they will be primarily beyond the direct control of the Players, and could have a considerable effect on the story moving forward.
The social scars table below presents another batch of 12 outcomes. These are split evenly between the reactions of authority figures, and those of broader society. Most are the negative consequences of unwise actions, but I have included a couple of positive outcomes too. Choose, or amend, according to the events in your campaign.
|2||Taxation writ, on all the accumulated, or assumed, gold|
|3||Bounty for capture|
|4||Summons for an "interview"|
|5||Offer of employment, which ought not be refused|
|6||Target of official spies|
|7||Blood feud declared by a family|
|8||Bloodthirsty reputation, scares children and many gentlefolk|
|9||Rival warrior seeks a duel|
|10||Spurious legal claim issued, grasping for a share of the Hero's wealth|
|11||Unwanted marriage proposal|
|12||Mantle of folk hero, bringing with it all manner of social and political baggage|
Here are three plots featuring negative growth to run in your game:
- As a result of a vicious combat, one Hero looses one of their fingers. Minor healing magic can staunch the flow of blood, but will not re-grow the mising digit. A local temple could help, but requires a divine quest in return. Do the Heroes want to take this challenge, just to soothe the vanity of the Player missing a finger?
- During the course of an adventure, the Heroes kill a warrior. This could be any type of warrior: human, goblin, or dragon. The species is not important, what matters is that the deceased had an extended family, and they want revenge. As the Heroes relax in town, a messenger arrives to announce the existence of a blood feud between the Heroes, and the family of the slain warrior. Cue bounty hunters, lone warriors, waves of frenzied cousins and all manner of legal complications. Such a feud can run for years, as the family grow ever-more fanatical for every cousin slain by the Heroes.
- One Hero has a near-death experience with an exotic creature. Once healed, the Hero finds themselves fixated in that creature type. They see the machinations of their “nemesis” everywhere, believe their “nemesis” is behind every plot and urge the other Heroes to hunt down these creatures. Even just the name of their “nemesis” is enough to unsettle them and goad them into action. Only a successful duel with their “nemesis” will overcome this fixation.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the negative growth of a Hero. While scars are not always desirable for the Player, they do reinforce previous events. A heavily scarred Hero, with a burden of physical, mental and social scars, is closely linked to campaign events.
How would you use scars in your campaign? What emotional scars work best for your Players? Share your thoughts with fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read more about the January RPG Blog Carnival at the launch page.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Gates & Portals Personal Growth Part 1
- Something for the Weekend next week: Gates & Portals Summary