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Tabletop Takeaways: Evoking Emotion

The action begins with the party in a precarious spot. Previously, they had walked into a room containing a lamia harridan and three cloud giants, who were all waiting for them. The cloud giants aren’t much trouble, but they clog up the entrance to the room.

Our resident Swashbuckler, Barnaby Daryngton, managed to advance into the room to face the lamia head-on. Unfortunately for him, she’s not just a spellcaster; she is actually quite proficient with her magical unholy dagger. Combining those two traits is never a good sign for a player.

The lamia, also known as the Most High Ceoptra, casts a spell to permanently blind Barnaby. She follows that up with a flurry of dagger strikes that forces Barnaby to retreat. But he can’t get far enough away. Out of sight of the party, she takes down the renowned Barnaby, dishing out more damage because of his good alignment.

Ceoptra nearly manages to take down Fobias, the druid/ranger, which would have been exceptionally bad considering that Fobias owns the power to reincarnate Barnaby. Luckily, the party bands together and gets some lucky dice rolls to fall in their favor. The lamia and her cronies are defeated.

After barricading the doors so they can rest and prepare spells, Fobias conducts the reincarnation ritual. Barnaby’s soul experiences another walk along the drab landscape of Pharasma’s Boneyard, similar to the first time he was reincarnated. Again, Adriella’s carriage pulls up alongside Barnaby. She asks him if he accomplished what he sought to – revenge against Moniker for what he did to her.

Barnaby acknowledges that Moniker will no longer be a problem, and that he can’t hurt people anymore. However, there is a greater mission at stake, and his friends may need him, despite how strong they may be. Adriella begs Barnaby to attend a ball with her that evening, and holds out her hand.

Before we can see Barnaby’s decision, there’s a knock on the barricaded doors. The party opens the doors to find a strange creature, known as a Denizen of Leng. There has been a lot of hinting about Leng’s involvement in Karzoug’s affairs, so the party is immediately on edge. As the reincarnation magic continues, the party turns their attention to the newcomer.

The situation is tense, with both sides pretending that they’re on Karzoug’s side. Eventually, the tensions fade as the newcomer changes shape into a pale woman, revealing herself to be an undercover researcher of Leng who has been living up here for months among other Denizens of Leng. She speaks through the player who previously played Barnaby.

And we flash to Adriella’s outstretched hand, which is taken by Barnaby’s. She helps him into the carriage, and they ride off into the distance.

The Takeaway

I’ve written extensively about losing characters and resurrection in tabletop games. It can be a touchy subject, but generally speaking people don’t like to see their characters fall. And it can be difficult to work new characters into the existing story.

Since we’re VERY close to the end of a 3+ year campaign, Barnaby dying left a pretty big question mark on the future. Sure, the players had access to resurrection, but it became a question as to whether or not the player wanted Barnaby to stay in the story.

Off-air, we talked at length about the situation. With the reincarnate spell, the character’s soul has the option to be reincarnated or not return to the land of the living. As it turns out, the player decided that this was a fitting point for Barnaby’s story to reach its conclusion. After all, he had accomplished what he had set out to do.

This left me, as the GM, in something of a pickle. With the group in a place that’s so secretive and hard-to-find, how would it make sense that an ally would find their way up here? It’s important to be constantly thinking about those contingencies, because character death can be around any corner.

Luckily I thought of this idea of a character doing some research and blending in with the Denizens of Leng. Granted, this required some shenanigans, like making sure that the new character could blend in amongst these outsiders. We settled on changeling, which incidentally also gave the character a fairly decent reason to be there.

Changelings inherently experience ‘the call’ which is basically a strong desire to seek out their true origins and discover themselves. Because this call is spiritual in nature, we had a lot of flexibility to determine what it all entails. We made the connection that this character was spiritually drawn to Leng, and the city of Xin-Shalast just so happens to be the place on the Material Plane where the connection between it and Leng is the strongest.

So how does tie into emotion at the table? Collectively, we lost a character that was with us for literal years. Over that time, we’ve really developed a bond with Barnaby, and he was an integral part of the story. When the player decided that Barnaby wasn’t coming back, we had to figure out a way to make that emotional punch land.

Since we had already done a reincarnation scene for Barnaby, the stage was already set. In fact, there had been a few emotional flashbacks and scenes involving Barnaby and Adriella, so as an audience we were really invested in their relationship. A con-man falls in love, crosses the wrong enemy, which leads to Adriella’s death and a lifelong vendetta against the Swashbuckler. At the first reincarnation, Barnaby had this scene with Adriella where she longed for him to stay with her, and he turned it down to avenge her death.

Behind the scenes before the session, we thought the best way to extend the emotional investment of the players would be to pause the reincarnation scene BEFORE they knew the end result. As characters, they were forced to address the newcomer to the scene. As players, they were forced to leave their emotions on hold while their characters dealt with the situation.

In that way, we turned a simple ‘Barnaby’s soul declines reincarnation’ into a scene where the players were left wondering about the outcome. Everyone believed he would come back, so they weren’t ready for the moment when they realized this new character belonged to the player.

The icing on the cake was the brief scene with Barnaby taking Adriella’s hand. My eyes legit started tearing up at that moment, because it meant that Barnaby was out of the game for good.

Find those emotional moments and make them last as long as you can. They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I’d agree that saying applies here. This doesn’t mean that you need to make long, elaborate scenes that provoke emotion. It’s about recognizing what the players are emotional about and invested in, and using that to your advantage.

Long live Barnaby.

Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!

You can find all of the Tabletop Takeaways right here: Tabletop Takeaways

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