I’m sure you’re wondering what on earth I’m going off about this time. Parties? Roleplaying games? Parties in roleplaying games? Just hear me out for a little while, and I think you’ll find this useful!
Most gaming groups forget about and ignore party occasions. How often do player characters (PCs) have in-game birthdays? What about New Year’s parties? How often does a character get married (PC or NPC) and throw a reception? And why should you care, anyway?
Some of you might remember our instant plot hook articles (they’re still some of our most popular issues). Instant plot hooks are brief things that you can drop into your game at a moment’s notice. They’re designed to use up a spare half-hour or so when your players totally short-circuit what you had planned and leave you stranded, but they also tend to make very good fodder for longer-term plots. At times they can inspire some pretty weird stuff – since you didn’t plan the plot out, you often have no idea where your players will take your instant plot hook.
In-game parties and celebrations are gift-baskets of instant plot hooks! Such an occasion can be a bit like tossing a handful of plot hooks up in the air and watching your players scramble to catch the falling pieces. Parties can have repercussions for game-months afterwards. Here are just a few of the ways in which you can use celebrations in your games.
Using Parties In Your Games
Celebrations are great places to start big plots
Parties are fantastic places to kick off unusually high-epic or high-intensity plots. Who hasn’t read a book where the big event that starts off the adventure happens at a party? Everyone remember Bilbo’s disappearing trick at his birthday party in “Lord of the Rings”? What about your average dinner party murder mystery? I guess you could say that weird things like an audience.
I believe this approach is so popular because the switch in tone is so remarkably effective. You’re going from an atmosphere of celebration and joy to one of shock and surprise with hardly a moment’s notice. It also makes a certain sense – some characters enjoy a flashy entrance or exit. They enjoy showing off and surprising lots of people. This premise lets you set up a scene that’s as dramatic as you desire!
Gifts as instant plot hooks
One of the categories of instant plot hook in the original article was the gift. You can use presents as an excuse to slip all sorts of weird and wild things to people. These don’t have to be terribly powerful items (see next month’s article for more hints on creating cool things that aren’t super-powerful). They can appear simple but have unusual properties. They could be totally normal yet come with unusual histories. They might be stolen items, with former owners hot on their trail. They could be magnets for trouble of one sort or another. They could have emotional import to the PCs.
All of these are possible even if the giver has the best of intentions. But what if he doesn’t? What if an enemy of the party wishes to take advantage of the situation to slip in something dangerous? He could sell something that seems initially harmless to one of the gift-givers. He could switch a dangerous item in for a real gift. He could send the gift anonymously, or the gift might not appear to be gift at all, but for the timing.
The great thing about this latter possibility is that you have the perfect opportunity to hand the party something dangerous that will make their lives interesting rather than smush them. After all, in order for that enemy to pawn something off as the perfect gift, he has to make it appear harmless, or even beneficial. The dangerous effects have to be subtle or slow in order to avoid initial detection. Besides, what long-time enemy could resist the temptation of a party? What bitter rival could see the PCs having a joyous celebration and not try to ruin it?
So bring out your bundle of instant gift hooks. Spend a little time coming up with interesting things that have some fun background to them. See what the party does with them, and where things go. Plan some of the things to come into play weeks or even months on down the road, so your gifts will last you a long time to come. Throw some completely normal, mundane items in there just to make things seem halfway normal (or at least to confuse the PCs). Throw a couple of really nice things in to give them a little bonus (and to keep them from swearing off parties forever after!). Heck, send some gifts from people the PCs have never met before as a way of introducing them to a new and different part of your world.
You can also turn the entire gift idea around. What if your PCs have to find an appropriate gift for an important person before attending her party? Perhaps getting her the right gift could get them later favors or alliances, or getting the wrong gift could be disastrous to some plan. You could get weeks of plots out of the PCs’ attempts to find and procure the right gift!
Parties that catch the wrong sort of attention
Really want to have a wild night? Maybe the party in question attracts all the wrong sorts of attention! A cabal of evil wizards shows up, thinking it’s the perfect place to hold dark rituals. A gang crashes the festivities. Vampires decide the party looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Someone uses the party as the perfect place to ambush their enemies (who, of course, nicely put themselves in one place by coming to the party). Your PCs could spend most of the night running from crisis to crisis, trying desperately to keep the whole thing from tumbling down around their ears. If they keep enough people alive, they could also forge some great new bonds and alliances out of the night’s festivities, or at least rack up some future favors.
An additional source of concern when you have a wild party is – the neighbors! Who lives nearby? How loud does the party get? Will anyone call the police? This can be yet another source of plots and plot hooks. Who takes an interest in the PCs because of the party? Whose ruffled feathers do the PCs have to soothe? Who do they have to pay off or do a favor for in order to avoid trouble with the law?
Putting all the wrong people in one place and shaking them up
Have your PCs been making friends on both sides of the fence? Have they been trying to keep their darker friendships secret from their nicer allies? Have they been hiding a few too many skeletons in their closets? Have you been dying to find a way to shake things up a bit?
Maybe the PCs go to someone else’s party (New Year’s party? Birthday? Grand re-opening at their favorite night club?) and find that a few too many of the people they know are there. Maybe they throw their own party and some of their less savory friends find out and decide to crash. How do they keep their differing friends apart? How do they choose who to make happy and who to anger? What lies do they tell? Which secrets come out? How many weeks of game-play does it take them to patch things up afterward by running around, explaining everything, and doing favors for people?
Be a little careful with this one – it will shake up the PCs’ alliances and friendships. If they’ve put a lot of work into those alliances your players might not be so happy about this – and understandably so. Try to make sure they’re okay with this sort of thing first (ask them point-blank if they mind you shaking up the game), and particularly try to make sure that there are ways for them to repair the damage afterwards. You should be able to get half a dozen great plots out of the favors they have to do and contortions they have to go through in order to win their friends back.
Parties as villain weaknesses
What about your villains’ celebrations? What about their birthdays and triumphs? Even bad guys have friends and allies who want to be wined and dined, after all. A party could be the perfect chance for the PCs to get creative about destroying their enemy. A party could be the perfect chance to slip in with a disguise. Or to waltz in openly and trade thinly-veiled threats in a situation where open violence would be a bad idea. Or to sneak in the back door while the normally effective guards are distracted by party problems.
If you’re going to play with parties now and then, vary the kind of party. There’s your loud, raucous, destructive party. There’s your fancy dinner party, or your big, pompous affair of state. There’s your intimate gathering of family and friends. There’s your strained reception with family you don’t like. There are costume parties, theme parties, club parties, and more. Do something a little bit different every time!
Fostering a party atmosphere
Okay, this one’s a little tough: if you really want to do that whole atmospheric about-face we talked about earlier, then how do you build up a party atmosphere? It can be tough to get your players into the mood just by telling them that they’re at a party, and not everyone enjoys roleplaying small-talk, which is how these things usually start out. What, then, can you do to help?
To start with, if you’re up for it, try to make the game-night itself a little out of the ordinary. Serve a nice dinner to start off with (home-cooked if you’re into that; delivered if you aren’t); begin the roleplaying at the dinner table if people are up for it. Pull out the table-cloth and the nice glasses if you have them. If you don’t want to go that far, at least bring something a little nice (a cake? Some sparkling cider?), light the candles, and clean up the gaming room a bit.
Put some quiet-but-upbeat music on in the background. Remember to smile a lot as you roleplay the guests at the party. Think of a few fun and interesting things to chat about as you set the stage (keep notes around – maybe a list of guests with a potential topic or two for each). Talk about past successes the PCs have had and amusing anecdotes from their history – making it personal should help to draw them in. As always, remember your details. Describe the room, the decorations, and what people are wearing, and make it sparkle. If you have any friends who’ve been wanting to play an NPC for a night, invite them to come play party guests.
Try to keep the pace moving. Every time things slow down too much, bring in a new guest. Have one guest insult another’s taste in clothing and almost start a fight. Describe a late arrival’s weird taste in clothing, unusual bodyguard, or ostentatious gift.
Most importantly – have fun! Enjoy yourself. An in-game party should be fun for the players and the GM, even if it drives the PCs crazy!