Under Pressure – By Ben Clemmer.
There’s a quote from Robert McKee that has come up several times in these blogs, “true character is revealed in the decisions a human being makes under pressure.”
I’m up against something of a recency bias here, but my character in a D&D campaign just had one of these character revealing pressure moments, and I’m going to use it as an opportunity to reflect.
In our community update episode of Storytelling Breakdown, Caleb and I talked about our experience with RPGs. The first time I ever played D&D, was with a group with Caleb and three friends, two of whom have appeared on the podcast, Autumn Schultz and Lucas Gerke. I’d like to delve a little deeper into some of the characters I’ve played and how they were revealed under pressure.
Also, for fun I’m going to include links to a playlist that includes songs that I think get into some of the character’s headspaces. Just because my characters have been confined to the worlds of Star Wars and high fantasy, that doesn’t mean these tracks and genres are.
Hidalstone (The Bridge of Khazad Dum, Once There Were Dragons, Scene d’amour, and Marry Me & Across The Stars)
For as simple as the starting concept was, Hidalstone got fleshed out a lot thanks to playing him for the better part of a couple years. I initially pictured him as an eladrin wizard played by Tom Hiddleston, hence the name Hidalstone. He wore layers of simple wizard’s robes and carried a staff of winter that he got in the first session of the campaign. His demeanor was a bit unpleasant, but it came from some of Hidalstone’s own unpleasant history.
I was vague on specifics with Lucas (the DM) early on. It gave him the opportunity to flesh out story details around Hidalstone. An encounter about halfway through Hidalstone’s 127 years of life led to a close friend of his dying and Hidalstone feeling powerless. His goal became to never feel that way again, searching everywhere he went for more spells, abilities, and power.
And power corrupts.
Hidalstone was one of several members of the party whose goals were almost entirely self serving, but as he amassed power and grew more dangerous to our party’s antagonists, it always felt like he was a couple bad decisions away from being worse then some of the enemies we were fighting.
There was an incident in our campaign that gave me an opportunity to play Hidalstone under pressure, although Lucas did a fantastic job of making the dangers we faced feel real and immediate throughout the campaign. In this particular session, we were battling the first of several enemies called abyssal lords. Many of our allies could get in close to this abyssal lord and take the damage there, if not benefit from it (looking at you, Eddie).
That was not going to work for Hidalstone. There was a nearby stronghold where Hidalstone could stand at a parapet and rain down ice and fire on our enemy. The abyssal lord grew tired of this, scaled the wall, stabbed Hidalstone, and threw him down to the battlefield below. That hurt on its own, but Moonleaf (Caleb’s character) had conjured a field of carnivorous frogs that made an area of difficult terrain. Hidalstone entering the area and starting his next turn in the field of frogs took out the second third and final third of his health and put him into dying state.
As a player, I was frustrated. I’d just gone from full health to dying state without making a single check, but then I realized I could channel that frustration. Hidalstone felt the same way and going back to when I’d first begun designing the character, there was one feeling that Hidalstone hated above anything else, feeling powerless.
It took a while for Hidalstone to forgive Moonleaf and the other party members for this incident, but coming out the other side of the experience made Hidalstone and his allies closer. The final levels of the campaign as we worked our way through epic tier saw Hidalstone freed from his lust for power and instead using the power he already had to help his allies. I upgraded the enchantment on his staff of winter and epic tier Hidalstone more closely resembled Hidalstone The White.
Or as I called him, Hidalstone: Archmage of the Solstice, Bane of the Abyssal Lords and Warden of the God Breaker.
Nu-Kaan (You Want It Darker, Himalayas, You Never Knew My Mind, Final Duel)
These next two we talked about in our most recent episode. Because I was DMing the Star Wars Fate Core campaign alongside Stephen Stachofsky, Nu-Kaan was more of a DMPC (Dungeon Master Player Character). In the episode, Stephen and I highlighted our first eight sessions of playing this campaign, because we did a lot of things really well. One of those was making it so our characters (Silk for Stephen and Nu-Kaan and Kelliya for me) felt like they were part of the party. They argued, fought, and engaged with the characters and the world, much as the players themselves were doing.
I designed Nu-Kaan at the same time our players were building their characters. In some ways, I made my design decisions about him based on balance. I wanted him to be different from Hidalstone, so instead of his darker past moments setting him on a path of corruption, Nu-Kaan was on a path of atonement and redemption. One of my early inspirations for Nu-Kaan was Shepherd Book in Firefly.
From there, I tried to balance out the party. Our characters collectively leaned young, so I made Nu-Kaan the oldest character present. He was a young man when the Empire rose to power. Making Nu-Kaan a Kel-Dor balanced out the number of human and alien characters at the table.
When it came to how Nu-Kaan would interact with the world, everyone had to choose ten skills that they would have a bonus in when rolling dice. I did not want another character who could go from full health to dying in a single turn of combat, so I made Nu-Kaan’s +4 skill Physique. He was the biggest character in the party for almost the entire first season.
Now, you might have an obvious question right now about how a character like Nu-Kaan fits the premise of this blog post if I was the DM. If I control the game, how would characters I’m playing ever act under pressure?
Believe me when I say, there was no controlling our party.
Nu-Kaan didn’t have all the answers. He spoke from his experience without talking down to allies and being aware of his own limitations. Nu-Kaan was also somewhat reserved when it came to speaking about his past. He’d react to a situation as the party would if we were put into a high risk negotiation or a battle for survival. He had to interact with the economy of the game the same way players did, spending Fate Points to gain the same advantages.
The most character revealing moment for Nu-Kaan came at the end of our final showdown in the first chapter of our campaign. While five of our characters went to face the big bad for our story, one of our enemy’s lieutenants got aboard our ship and threatened to kill everyone on board.
First, he had to get past Nu-Kaan.
That fight was as tense for the players at the table as the battle they were facing elsewhere, because they couldn’t go back and help Nu-Kaan and the rest of their allies. They were a young Luke Skywalker watching Obi-Wan Kenobi battle Darth Vader. Nu-Kaan was an older mentor willing to sacrifice himself for the party to survive. Winning the fight told us about his abilities. Staying in the fight told us who he was.
Kelliya Gouw (Maxwell Murder, Nothing Can Stop Us Now, Started Out, and Ah Yeah)
In a previous blog post, Stephen talked about how you have no idea who your players are going to get attached too, which is why every NPC better have a name and you better keep track of those names. During our first session of Star Wars Fate Core, we had a swoop bike race that featured six characters. At the time, none of them were in the party. We had a local ganglord, an Imperial informant, a former spy, a syndicate strongman, a flight academy cadet, and a wild card who didn’t have any affiliations we were aware of at the time.
Kelliya getting pulled into the campaign wasn’t a result of the players’ attachments, though that was how we ended up with the flight academy cadet. Kelliya joined us thanks to the dice. We rolled to see how each of our racers were driving and Kelliya just happened to be in last (technically third, three other racers had already crashed or withdrawn) when her speeder was shot by Imperial troops and she crashed.
Our party found her the next session and the femme fatale joined the crew from there. Continuing the Firefly starting point, I felt like she was a cross between Zoe and Inara. Her first scene in the campaign had her firing a blaster in a tavern and there might not be a better Star Wars example of true character revealed under pressure than “yes, I bet you have,” and then Han Solo pulling the trigger.
That’s really where we saw a transformation with Kelliya. She was kind of the reverse of how I played Hidalstone. Hidalstone’s corruption was internal. Going by the alignment system from D&D, Hidalstone was lawful neutral and Kelliya was chaotic neutral. Kelliya’s loose connections to syndicates and willingness to shoot first made her unpredictable, but once the party was under fire, she was more than willing to return fire in the direction of enemies. Shoot was always one of her best skills.
Jagger (Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, Hungry Like The Wolf, Dance Macabre, and There Will Be Blood)
I think this is my first public mention of Jagger, because I am currently playing him in a campaign Stephen is running. Whether in actual D&D or equivalents in Fate Core, I’ve played a wizard, a paladin (Nu-Kaan), and a bard (Kelliya). Jagger is my first rogue and I am leaning hard into the rogue assassin archetype. Jagger’s build is slim and his eyes flash noticeably over a mask and hood that covers most of his face and head. Yes, I made a character I can play more accurately when masked.
We started the campaign playing our characters’ ancestors and the biggest contrast so far has been honesty. Jagger’s ancestor was willing to lie to the party to get everyone to go in a different direction that looked safer. Exploring the dark castle just isn’t a good idea when you’re level one. Jagger is more honest, which is why it’s clear to everyone near him that he might stab someone at any moment. He keeps his blades close and uses speed, stealth, and acrobatics to solve problems.
The action taken under pressure happened in our last session. We were set upon by wolves, while attempting to get an NPC, a young woman, to safety. Jagger killed the first wolf. Before the pack even revealed themselves, my perception check was high enough to hear from Stephen that I might have seen something moving in the brush off the road. “You’re not a hundred percent sure you saw anything.”
I replied, “that’s good enough for Jagger. I’m throwing a blade.”
And then we heard a yelp from the brush as the dagger found its target.
Combat with wolves and dire wolves ensued. Jagger got crit by a wolf that hit him for three fourths of his health. I miss Nu-Kaan’s durability sometimes. Things didn’t look great. We were outnumbered, taking hits, and wolves were beginning to drag off the woman we were protecting. We were under pressure.
It’s worth noting that the big bad of our campaign has an infatuation with the woman we were protecting, which is why Jagger’s next action made sense.
I had him pull a dagger, dive towards the wolf carrying the woman and held the blade at the woman’s neck. You read that right, not the wolf’s, the woman’s. Jagger then shouted into the night sky.
“Call off your hounds! Or I’ll feed her to them myself!”
The wolves retreated, except for the three that were dead, and our session wrapped up after that. The moment revealed Jagger was willing to kill the woman we were asked to protect to get us out of a bad situation.
True character is revealed in the decisions characters make under pressure, even if sometimes it doesn’t surprise any players at the table.