Monday, April 15, 2019

Redlining, and What A Well-Placed Retcon Can Do For Your Campaign

We've all been in those situations where we just felt a game go sour on us. Maybe it was when everyone's favorite party member died, but it later turned out that in the heat of the moment a rule was interpreted incorrectly, and that PC should have lived. Perhaps it was when the DM pulled a big reveal, and it turns out that the intricate fantasy setting everyone's really been digging is actually the remains of a bombed-out space colony in a far flung moon, and all of the magic they've been interacting with are just glitching holograms and hard-light creations. More on that in DMs, Don't Pull A Bait-and-Switch on Your Players (It Won't End Well). Or, in a few cases, it might be when the DM just took a scene too far, and the rest of the table was not cool with it.

You want to keep the game going, but it's like trying to swim with a boat anchor wrapped around your leg. Which is why you should just draw a red line through it, and keep on going.

Right, so while it APPEARED that Faruk was dead, he returns with quite a story to tell you...

Editing Works For Your Campaign, As Well As A Book

Too many people around the table (the game masters and story tellers in particular) treat the events of the game as set in stone. Much like the game rules, a group has the ability to call for an amendment, if they feel collectively that it needs to be made. In those instances where everyone agrees that something was not all right and should be addressed, that's when you make an edit.

Or, as I've heard some folks call it, a redlining action.

All right guys, let's just back that up and take it from the top...
Redlining is, more or less, highlighting the incident that everyone has agreed was not acceptable, hitting delete, and doing something different. I've even got an example of a situation from my own table of how it can work.

So, a friend of mine was DMing a game a while back where the protagonists were all members of a fantasy peace keeping organization. Some came from the "good" fantasy kingdom that was heavily Tolkien inspired, others from the "evil" one where everything was dark, gothic, and run by vampires. Think Wicked City crossbred with Pathfinder, and you're most of the way there.

While he did all the heavy lifting on the world building part of this, I agreed to be the rules consultant to help make the bad guys do what he wanted them to do. Generally he kept things vague so that I still had some surprises as a player, but there were certain things he needed a second set of eyes on making work without bending or breaking the rules as they were laid out. When he mentioned that one of the available orders from the dark side was essentially the secret police who were trained in duplicity and spycraft, I was all about that life. Because a pseudo-vampiric James Bond was a character I hadn't known I wanted to play until I was given the opportunity to do so.

At that point, a plan was hatched. Because a central theme of the game was these two diametrically-opposed kingdoms working together, but there were going to be schemes and betrayals on both sides as the game went on, making the party isolate themselves from superiors on either side. However, the DM reasoned that it would have more impact if it was the professional spy in the party (given that his organization was the equivalent of vampire KGB) who kicked over the stone. The idea was that in one of the earlier arcs he would cross a line, then attempt to undo the damage and redeem himself, progressing from, "loyal, self-interested member of the evil army," to, "rebel who knows all of the evil army's methods, and who uses that knowledge to dismantle the villains from the inside out along with his friends."

Well, it looked good on paper.
Needless to say, that is not what happened at all when the incident transpired. The players made their displeasure known, and were very clear that this was not the kind of game they had signed up for (which is to say, one with inter-party betrayal, whether or not it was a pre-scripted thing). Apologies were issued (and meant), and at that point a decision had to be made. The options basically boiled down to:

- Continue On: The incident had already happened, after all, so why not just keep the game moving?
- Redline It: There was a glitch in the system. Rewind to the scene before the objectionable event happened, and go in a different direction from there.

A DM who couldn't read the room might have gone for the first option, claiming they were already in things and so they might as well keep going. While no one said it in words, the atmosphere was pretty clear; trust in the game had to be earned back if the players were going to take one more step forward. So the DM talked to the players, and proposed a rewind and rewrite. The players agreed to move forward down that other path, and in time rediscovered some of their initial spark. It took a while to get things back on track, but the game eventually came to a satisfying conclusion.

Just Another Tool in The Box

Sometimes your game falls flat. You make a mistake, or it turns out that what you thought was a great plot twist is actually a table flipper. So keep in mind that the previous events can be altered the same way you could if you were writing a story. Just make sure that everyone at the table agrees it should be changed, and that you understand why it didn't work in the first place before moving forward.

Otherwise you might find that history repeats itself.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Hopefully it struck a chord with some folks. If you've ever had to redline a scene, why not tell us about it in the comments below?

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  2. I've actually been in that campaign more than once, where the DM could have learned the concept of the redline. In one campaign the DM wiped out everyone's magical items. They were simply gone, we got no saving throws and no warning. The campaign continued a bit after that, but it suffered a lot.

    The second time was the DM purposely setting us to fight a monster where the only correctly action was to run. Fighting got you killed.