In many stories in books, on television, and in the movies, the protagonists are often dealt one or more setbacks before the story reaches its climax. In these cases the writer crafts specific events with an intended purpose and outcome. In Role Playing Games, we GM’s often rely on the players to create their own setbacks during a session and within a campaign through bad rolling and impulsive decision making, but there are times the GM wants to write a setback into the game. Depending on how it is written and executed, the setback session can be a great story building tool or it can bring down the ire of your players. What are the components of a good setback session, and how can you avoid the pitfalls that surround this story style?

Succeeding With A Serious Cost

This week’s article comes right out of my current Fate of Elhal campaign. In the Campaign, one of the characters was searching for clues of a lost heir to the throne, and while translating a tome they failed their Lore check. Since it is Fate, the player can fail or they can succeed at a serious cost. This time around, the player opted for succeeding with the cost. We decided that he was able to translate the text and learn of a lost Princess who was exiled to a far away kingdom. Rather than realizing that her fate was grim because of where she was sent, however, he became convinced that she was likely safe and alive in the care of the Giants who live near that kingdom. So now, he and the rest of the party are heading into the valley of the Giants to find her, in hopes of re-establishing the royal line.

From a game level, the player knows nothing good can come from searching for the Princess in the Valley of the Giants, but it was the choice he made rather than failing, so he has to see it through. From the GM side, I now need to create an adventure in the Valley of the Giants that ultimately ends with the character not getting what he is searching for, and make it fun and enjoyable for all of the players.

The Setback As A Story Device

The setback is a great story tool. It is used for a number of reasons, some of which are:

  • To stymie progress of the protagonist towards completing a goal
  • To slow down the pace of the story
  • To cause the loss of resources
  • To show the protagonist is flawed or not perfect
  • To build up negative emotional investment in the antagonist
  • To build up sympathy in the protagonist as they struggle through adversity
  • To introduce a twist in the plot

In a story, the author determines – deliberately or through discovery – the reason for the setback, crafts a scene or chapter to achieve that objective, and then continues on with the story. We as the reader are then a passive viewer watching the setback and hopefully feeling the emotions which the author intended to evoke.

Don’t Tread On My Character

Creating setbacks through the actions, inaction, and bad dice rolls of the players is a fairly straight forward activity, and one that does not often upset the players – after all it was their idea or their roll which caused the setback. Lets call those spontaneous setbacks since they were not planned for in the GM’s prep, and were capitalized on at the table. These are not the focus for today’s discussion.

When we look at planned setbacks, the kind which are prepped by the GM as part of a session, they can generate a very negative effect in the players. The most common reasons for this negative effect are that the players feel as if the GM has railroaded them into failure, and that the GM is actively working against the players desires to succeed (i.e. the antagonist GM).

Tips for A Good Planned Setback

Understanding the feelings of being railroaded and of the GM being “out to get them”, how then can we create a session which is a true setback and yet avoids the negative feelings of not succeeding? Here are some ideas to incorporate in the design of your setback:

  • The silver lining – The characters do not achieve their goal, but they discover something along the way that makes the session valuable.
  • Two steps forward, one step back – The characters progress forward in their main objective, but a side plot or goal has now become complicated by their progress.
  • Close one door and another opens – The setback has ended progress in the direction the players intended, but in doing so a new path of progress, one that was previously unknown, presents itself.
  • Allies in adversity – The setback has ended progress, but in the suffering of the setback new allies are made.
  • It’s a growing experience – While the characters fail to progress, they learn something about themselves and each other.

Like most things, the setback is also a device that needs to be used in moderation. Players can handle the occasional setback, but to place one setback after another creates a very dark tone for a game (see the first season of Battlestar Galactica in 2004). If your setback is being used as a pacing device, consider mixing it up with other pacing devices rather than running multiple setbacks one after the other.

The Fate of the Princess

In order to not spoil what I am going to be doing in my upcoming setback session, here is an example of a possible setback I could introduce:

The heroes venture into the Valley of the Giants. After fighting one group of giants to gain information, they find a second group of sympathetic giants who explain to them that their evil kin executed the Princess years ago (setback), but before she died she wrote a letter which they kept. The contents of the letter detail the location of one of her sisters (close one door another opens).

Why Do We Fall Sir?

The planned setback is a powerful tool which, when used properly, can moderate a fast moving plot, as well as raise emotions in players. When done well the setback is not a total failure, but comes with a consolation prize that allows the players to accept the bitter taste of defeat, while at the same time preventing the story from hitting a dead end.

Do you use planned setbacks? When have they worked well for you? When have they blown up at the table? What are your favorite techniques for softening a setback?