Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Rorschach Fight

Here's one I like to use--you can do it over and over without anyone realizing you're doing it if you just change the details:

The PCs come upon two parties (entities, monsters, groups, group v. monster, etc.) fighting. The PCs are either hidden from the combatants or else the belligerents are so busy that they don't notice the PCs.

The Players' three most obvious choices are: join Party A, join Party B, or just ignore the whole fight and continue on their way.

The funny thing is, the party often acts---or at least my players often act--as if they have no choice at all.

They instinctively join in the fight on the side of whichever combatant looks more human. I think part of the reason might be because most of them are semi-new and don't realize that there's D&D in every direction, no matter what they decide to do.

The situation is like a Rorschach test in a very literal sense--sometimes you'll see an ink blot and it's not just like it looks kinda like something it's like you don't immediately realize that anyone else could see it any other way.

The players, in this way, create both the plot and the morality. Occasionally without knowing it.

Mandy's commentary on one such encounter:

Mandy: "After we fought the guy with the weird brain coming out of his head I was like that was the wrong thing to do."

Zak: "Why was that the wrong thing to do Mandy?"

Mandy: "Well he was outnumbered already even before we got there and then we found out later that the dark elves were performing experiments on everybody. But they were dark elves and Frankie is a dark elf, plus there was the language thing like the brain guy was only making weird bug noises we couldn't understand, but the dark elves could ask for help so we're instinctively like oh, lets help them!"


  1. It beats my group. They usually wait until both sides kill each other and then loot the remaining bodies. Monsters/ doesn't matter.

  2. Very Star Trek I must say.

    In one adventure in an old campaign of mine the PC's Starfleet vessel comes upon two starships of unknown origin engaged in battle.

    One ship hails the Starfleet ship and requests aid. Their damage is considerable and power is failing. The vessel's occupants are virtually identical to humans except for deep purple skin and dark grey, almond shaped eyes. Their female first officer is very attractive by human standards.

    The PCs hail the other ship whose crew are large, hairy, ferocious looking Yeti-things. Their strange grunts and growls are taking the universal translator some time to understand. In moments, their ship will decimate the other as the Yeti's have powerful plasma torpedos.

    The PCs help the purple people and capture the Yeti ship. Later we learn that the Yeti's were a slave race conquered by the heartless Purple Empire.

    Never judge a book and all that...

  3. Barking Alien: Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!

    This post makes me realize that I need allowances for rorschach fights on my enocunter tables...

  4. Yeah, many blessings upon Star Trek for hooking me as well on the things-are-not-what-they-seem trope. My players often figure it out, which among other things led to many adventures with Gnedd the Gnoll as an NPC in the party.

  5. "...don't realize that there's D&D in every direction, no matter what they decide to do."

    Man, that is great. :)

  6. Drow asking for help.
    Incomprehensible experimental victims.
    Morality test encounters done right.

    This rocks!

  7. Great idea. It took your suggestion to realize that I was (A) doing the same thing in an exploded format and (B) there is no reason not to condense it as you have done. I regularly have the party run into a group pre-or-post-battle and give them plenty of time to examine clues as to who should be helped/what the real motivations are. No reason not to just pop them in in the middle (other than, if I were playing, I would hate that).

  8. Oh, yes, and the reaction of possibly half the parties I've DMed or run with would be "Help the weak ones kill the strong, then kill the exhausted weak and take EVERYBODY'S sh*t."

  9. Mandy's observation puts me in mind of the *Girl Smarts* that have always been missing from my gametable. Smart guys can always justify whatever course of action they have taken but it takes a little humility to step back, examine the bigger picture and feel for the guy whose frontal lobe is dripping on his shirt.

  10. Cool coincidence, I'm just leaving to DM a session where players might encounter a giant gecko with a giant tick feeding on it. I'm curious as to how they'll handle it.

  11. "They instinctively join in the fight on the side of whichever combatant looks more human. I think part of the reason might be because most of them are semi-new and don't realize that there's D&D in every direction, no matter what they decide to do."

    That's just begging to be exploited.

  12. Oh man, I do that all the time!

    The difference is that I always do it as either monster vs monster or good humanoid vs good humanoid.

    I've done this with a group of elven rangers attacking a small pack of dwarven warriors, halflings harassing gnomes, half-orcs being hunted by half-elves, etc... where both parties are right and have good motives.

    Then there's an Orc warband against gnoll hunters, goblins vs kobolds, and entire orc civilization vs a demonic invasion, and hobgoblins raiding the tower of a lich. And both are wrong but still have good motives and assistance to lend the group if they help them.

    Sometimes they just try to avoid any participation in the conflict but so far they never just turned on both.

  13. Zak, you know I like your blog posts even if sometimes I am scratching my head going "why in the hell does he do it *that* way" and this post is a good example of why I like to read.

    But today this is what I got out of it.
    " ... there's D&D in every direction, no matter what they decide to do."

    To me that is just a cool quote. I like it and I think it sums up how DMs should view their worlds.

  14. This happens alot in Shadowrun too. When you don't know what's going on, you go with what you know, better the devil you know than the one you don't. PC's in shadowrun usually end up siding with whichever group their characters have ties to, be it Triad or Yakuza, Lone Star or DocWagon. And that's as it should be.

    Siding with Drow because Frankie's a drow is probably exactly what the characters WOULD do. Being horrified about it after finding out it was the wrong side falls right in line as well.

    There are no "RIGHT" choices or "WRONG" choices in RPGs. It's all just about the story, and having fun making the story.

  15. The last campaign I did had fierce bird-types engaging melee with (what seemed to be) humans with guns (the PCs were all decidedly, non-humans too I'll note). Halfway through the battle they observed the very plain synthetic nature of the only "human" that had fallen (and had been dead since before they found the ruckus). Considering how hell-bent the players had become to destroy any auton the last several sessions, escaping a rampant AI far, far too many centuries festered, and a number of unpleasant employees; it was also their first encounter with beings from the "outside". A very poor impression was made.

    One of them went on to brutalize his way to a dictatorship over men. The other? They couldn't, and didn't, let the skimming beasts skim overhead, and after being savaged by a grue, was shortly afterward blown up by his friend, and presumed to have been dragged off by scavengers when the others returned for his things the next morning.

    Returning to the actual topic however, yes. They are fun, and good.