This one is all Marc Plourde’s fault. In our recent Gods of the Fall game, he ran this encounter in our first adventure. I thought it was a pretty interesting encounter because the setup gave us players a lot of choices and helped us define our characters. This is not a big set piece I know, but small encounters can mean a lot to players if it helps define themselves and the tone of an area or a campaign. You can find Marc Plourde’s writings and gaming tips over at his Inspiration Strikes Blog.
Someone is on the street corner proselytizing to the people passing by. A group of folks with opposing views come and accost them in sight of the PCs. Quite a simple concept really but you can do a lot with this.
So the mood for a scene like this is entirely in your hands. You are basically establishing two factions in your world. How do they act? If the corner crier is spouting blasphemies and member of the inquisition simply just walks up and shoots him with a blunderbuss, then you’ve established a tone for this conflict. The inquisition clearly thinks they can get away with this kind of blatant violence. If the two factions end up in a shouting match none resorting to violence you set a different tone. If it’s just simply a crowd of people heckling the crier then you’ve set a tone. The mood is clearly in your hands. What happens next is totally up to the players.
Generally, the people threatening the proselytizer should outnumber them significantly. Not always the case, though; see Inquisition example above. It is all about raising the stakes. You are presenting your players were a scene. Do they interfere? Allow the scene the play out naturally if the players do nothing. The threats aren’t focused on the players unless they do something the change the status quo. The leader of the opposing faction shouldn’t be a pushover but his lackey friends can be. This encounter isn’t about the fight really but more about your players defining themselves.
This is pretty straight forward. If the players get involved with violence then it’s a combat encounter. If they try to talk everyone down then it’s a social one. The real mechanics come later in how this event plays out. You want the world they live in to seem real, so if they interfere it should have some rewards and consequences. Make sure people appreciate them for their help, and remember them for their interference. Well, if things go really well for the players maybe everyone leaves happy… it could happen. Ok, doubtful. Give the priest a name. Maybe his church could be a great place for the players to take sanctuary when things get a little too hot. If your world has a pantheon maybe the God of the proselytizer took notice of the PCs’ actions/nonaction and some boon/bane may be forthcoming.
Turn the screws. The event is all about the players coming to the aid of a lone innocent being accosted. The obvious thing to do is to make this innocent a member of one of the party members beliefs. Do Not do this. You are basically forcing the player’s hand and taking the choice out. Why not go the other way. Make this Proselytizing person’s views be in direct contrast or conflict with that of the players. Will they still rush to the defense? Or watch it happen? This is a more interesting character decision. However, a neutral, maybe lesser held belief may work best.
Bait and Switch. Right before the players take action or maybe directly after, the victim switches things up. Maybe she gets really violent with her tormentors, or she starts hurling venomous curses at them (maybe she is a witch and they are real curses) and the players have to reassess. (be careful with this idea it sets a tone and may make your players reluctant to help others if this type ok thing occurs too often)
As usual, don’t force your players to get involved. No-action is a roleplaying choice and right for many characters. If they don’t get involved it allows you as the GM to really define the world a bit in what the faction do and how far you let things go.
Don’t forget about other bystanders. Maybe the players aren’t the first to jump in and help maybe it’s a plucky 16 kid who stands up for the priest and gets slapped down. This ups the stakes a bit for the players if they are decent folk, but don’t overdo it. The bystanders could affect things in other ways maybe they join in the heckling or boo the thugs. You as the GM can help define the type of people in the town on how the react to the scene. Do they ignore it and look the other way, do they believe the proselytizer but are too afraid of the authorities. Details like this give your players lots of information that can inform their future decisions.