Since last year I have been running a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3d ed). My play group, which consists of myself and three friends, does not meet very frequently. Life is busy and oftentimes the weekends are even busier. Back in July we were going to play (for the first time in months). One of our players wasn't able to make it though, so we cancelled. It wasn't until this weekend that all four of us were able to get together again. Unfortuantly, one of the players fell ill in the days leading up to the weekend and ended up not being able to make it.
We had planned to play on Sunday afternoon, and the weekend beforehand ended up being quite busy. So I basically had the two hours between waking up and when the other players arrived to figure out what to do. I could have cancelled, but the frequency of our play sessions is so infrequent that I wanted to carry on. In other games, the third player character could just take a backseat to the primary action, but I didn't want his player to miss out on the ongoing story. So I decided to pull a Ravenloft diversion.
Ravenloft is an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) setting that was released as such for Second Edition in 1990 (it appeared twice before in modules). Though Ravenloft is significant for a number of other things, what is important in this context is that it was a gothic horror realm (the "Demiplane of Dread") that any character from any AD&D setting could end up in. The charcter would be walking along one day, up would come the mists and there they were in Ravenloft.
Now one of my players is very much into developing his character's background, so I thought I would give him an opportunity do so through a little trick that I learned about in some of Graham Walmsley's Trail of Cthulhu modules -- directed scenes. In a directed scene the players play out the roles other than those of their player characters in a scene defined by the Game Master.
Adding to the above, I wanted an improvised short adventure that we could get through in two or three hours that wouldn't kill the player characters. Drawing partially from A Wrinkle in Time and the gothic horror present in the Innistrad block in Magic: The Gathering and in Ravenloft, I improvised a short adventure for my players. Here is the outline of it:
First, the player characters had been investigating strange goings-on in an old hunting lodge as part of the introductory "An Eye for an Eye" adventure included in the Core Set of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Everything around the two player characters froze and became grey. They were drawn out of the kitchen (where the last session had ended) and down the hallway, past a room where they saw a clue to the ongoing adventure, then outside where the mists rose up.
At this point I did directed scenes for each player character. I asked my players to think of the most traumatic thing that had happened shortly after they entered the Empire. (One character is a high elf and the other is a dwarf, so neither of them were originally born in the Empire, where most of Third Edition is set.) I gave them a few minutes.
The elf character had been taunted by a human and was beaten up in a brawl. The (human) man who taunted him and knocked him out would never be forgotten. The directed scene that I had the two players play was from just after the brawl between the elf and a human priest (of the goddess of healing) who he talked to afterwards. It worked much like a short therapy session, as the elf had also been taunted in his homeland due to his being an iligitimate child of a noble.
The dwarf character's immediate family and trading band had been killed by a warband of orcs. He would always remember the orc war chief that had killed those he was closest to. Afterwards, he wandered into a nearby town and met a barber-surgeon who he would apprentice under to become a barber-surgeon himself. The directed scene was of the meeting of these two characters, dwarf and human barber-surgeon.
Returning to the mists, the characters ended up on a road surrounded by dense forest (reminicent of Northern Saskatchewan). After travelling up the road for about twenty minutes they encountered three young children. The oldest of the children, a girl about seven years old, told the adventurers that their brother had been taken by monsters that had come out of the woods.
Scouting ahead, the elf ended up at a large clearing in which there was a guard house and a small fortress. He shot an arrow into a tree at the edge of the clearing to mark that he had been there. Then, recklessly knocking on the door of the guardhouse, he came face to face with his human tormentor for his flashback and was taken.
Arriving to the clearing later with the children, the dwarf failed to see the arrow in the tree. However, it was spotted by the older girl who said she and her younger siblings would wait by the tree with an arrow in it. The dwarf then checked the guardhouse, and finding it empy, tried the fortress. Coming face to face with the orcish war chief from his flashback, he was also taken.
Both characters came to in a courtyard, facing their own worst fears personified (as it were). Also in the courtyard, the abducted brother sitting on a throne wearing a crown. The fight began. Interestingly, the elf's primary tactic was to intimidate the thug who had taunted and beaten him up all that time ago. The war chief and the dwarf immedately drew weapons and engaged in battle. In the meantime, shadowy figures started gathering at the edges of the courtyard and approached slowly and menacingly.
A number of rounds of combat began. One of the interesting mechanics in Third Edition is that the custom dice allow forthe success and failure of an action to be separate from other positive or negative things happening when attempting that action. For example, when trying to climb a wall, you could succeed climbing it, but also pulling a muscle while doing so. The combat began focused on the primary adversaries -- these two figures from the player characters' respective pasts who had caused so much trauma. However, after several rounds of fairly unsuccessful combat, the player characters began focusing on the boy on the throne with the crown, who of course was the centre of what was happening to them. The elf began throwing daggers at the boy, some of which nicked his arms at which point, ever so briefly, the shdowy figures at the edges of the courtyard blinked out.
Soon the player characters were talking to the boy, telling him that his younger siblings needed him. At a particular high roll of boons, though the overall roll failed, the boy shouted out, "I'm afraid." Which was an invitation for the player characters to show him that they had overcome their fears, which they caught on to after about a full round. With some more successful pleas for the boy to be strong and think of his siblings, he overcame the evil influence of the crown, throwing it off.
The rest was fairly straightforward, the shadowy figures which had blinked out at least three times fully disappeared, the two adversaries faded out too. Of the crown? When they looked at where it had been thrown, it too had disappeared. Older brother was bandaged up (at least two daggers had hit him) and was reunited with his younger siblings outside.
Again the mists rose up, the children faded away and the player characters found themselves again in the kitchen of the hunting lodge they had started the session in.
There are some things that I would have liked to have differently (and may have, if I had had more time). The first is to have more detail about the monsters that took the boy. My players have already faced beastmen, but I wanted to have something almost more Lovecraftian. Recently looking a demo scenerio for Trail of Cthulhu, I was thinking of the good use of a night gaunt (which doesn't even take material form until it is right on you, let alone the alternate way that it "tickles"). Ultimately I went with a group of nondiscript monsters, as I thought that would be more terrifying for the young children the player characters met. These same monsters, of course, came back in the courtyard as a sideline menace as shadowy figures. (But wait, if the monsters disappeared when the crown was taken off the boy, how could they have been around to abduct him in the first place and place the crown on his head? Just go along with the story!)
The second thing I would do differently is make the threat more real to the player characters. I wish I had given them both good hits by their adversaries before they figured out what was actually going on. On the other hand though, the whole thing was very fear-driven and ended up being about facing your fears, so it makes sense that their fears ended up not being able to hurt them.
All in all, the imnprovised session made for a fun afternoon of gaming.