The Fall of Stronghold

An image of an unfinished RPG terrain board with some miniatures, walls, and craft toolsIn tabletop roleplaying games, it’s often tough to provide backstory and broader setting information to the players. Reciting a summary or printing handouts is seldom effective; even if players pay attention, they’re less likely to remember events in which they did not participate. In the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign I’m currently running, I ran into this problem, and addressed it with the Cutscene technique.

The Campaign

This campaign is no stranger to player-driven narrative. The game world itself was generated using the Dawn of Worlds rules, which allow each player to control a god to shape a fantasy world. The world generated had goblin airships, a Beholder uber-necromancer, and a race of marijuana-smoking Wilden. It also had a race of Eladrin (mystical elf-cousins) with a Hebrew cultural feel that tried to conquer the world under the banner of their demigod Judas and was struck down by a terrible plague. This plague left behind the fallen city of Stronghold, which in the centuries since its destruction has become subsumed by the earth.

The PCs are exploring Stronghold under orders from two different mysterious clients in order to figure out what’s so interesting down there that mercenaries would be hired to trespass on the island. They’ve found strange evidence of the events there: an enormous lock seeping necrotic mist, emblems of Judas with his eyes scratched out, and a room full of tubes containing long-dead (or in one case, insane) specimens of each other major sentient race. I wanted to give the players a better idea of what had happened, without just giving them a huge info dump or requiring endless investigation.

The Flashback

So, while they were resting in the ruined — but still consecrated — chapel of Ioun, the PCs had a dream. Lissa‘s character Dipana is a shardmind ardent who has “rescued” a shattered and insane shardmind from the aforementioned laboratory. This shardmind has bonded with Dipana as a slightly precognizant set of armor, and circumstances collided so that Dipana’s psionic abilities focused and broadcast her armor’s last memory to the rest of the party.

The PCs found themselves in the bodies of the Eladrin researchers who had studied their captives thousands of years ago, in the style of Mengele. I then asked each of them who they were and why they were there. The players were surprised at first (I hadn’t warned them I was going to do a cutscene), but they quickly assumed their roles. We ended up with a gifted intern, a cold megalomaniac, a crazed half-construct technician, a scarred sadist, and a self-deluding zealot of Ioun. The demigod Judas arrived and invited them to witness the opening of an obelisk containing something powerful… which of course turned out to be the source of the plague that felled the Eladrin empire.

The Conclusions

One of the risks with this approach is that the line between GM and player becomes very blurry. I (incorrectly) find myself wanting to keep tight control over the events of a game. When a player decided that his cutscene character had strange powers, or another player arranged for his cutscene character to leave behind something that the party might find, my first impulse was to shut it down. But these additions can be very useful; they can serve as inspirations, starting points for plot complications, and also help to cement the backstory events in the players’ minds.

I really like the cutscene approach. I do think it’s useful to prepare the players. As the cutscene begins, take a step out-of-character and explain how this is going to work: what are the parameters within which the players will be working, about how long will the scene last, and how much information will the PCs retain once the cutscene is done? Giving the players a framework and enough time to think about their contributions will help prevent them from freezing up or taking the campaign in an undesirable direction.

Have you used a technique like this in a game? Is there another situation in which it could prove useful? Let me know in the comments.

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One thought on “The Fall of Stronghold

  1. I’ve never used that technique – I usually go for a more archaeological approach – but I think it’s very neat and something I’d quite like to do.

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