August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
What was your most impactful RPG session?
Being that this is me, you can probably guess what I’m going to say next, right?
Yeah, I have two answers.
Hmmm. In my last campaign, which I ran using LotFP, it was when the PCs ran across a Leshy.
Don’t try look that up in the monster manuals for your various games: it’s a mythical Russian forest entity that essentially misleads travelers, getting them lost but turning them around, sending them in circles, and ultimately messing with their minds. I’d done it up as a monster and my players stumbled into a hex where I’d keyed one in, so I gave it a shot and figured I’d see what happened.
They’d been magically transported to some Russian mountains in the middle of winter, and were low on food, freezing, and desperate to get off the mountain.
And so, of course, the leshy messed with them. Mercilessly, it misled them, misdirected them, appeared long enough to taunt them, and then disappeared again. But it was always watching, and always using its powers to confuse them.
By the end of that two hour session, the trio of adventurers had managed to kill a wolverine for the meat (hope helps make the horror even more unsettling), but also had failed to escape the leshy’s territory, had run into the leshy in-person after dark, had been attacked by a bear: it mauled one PC to death, while another PC died from horribly miscasting a spell as he was trying to fend it off.
Distraught and finally having given up, the last remaining player character ended up curling up at the foot of a tree where he’d previously seen the corpses of some previous victims of the thing curled up and embracing one another. As he was drifting off, the leshy appeared, smiling, and he asked it why it had done all this to him and his friends.
The leshy responded… in Russian, which the character could not understand. Hopeless, he lay back, tears in his eyes, and drifted off to sleep cold and alone. We agreed that he surely suffered hypothermia and died in the night.
TPK, yes, but… what a TPK.
Sure, the character could have fought on, and survived, and escaped. He could have met newly-rolled-up PCs on his way down the mountain. But it seemed like an opportune time to close off the game, and the dramatic quality was just superb.
Still, if you mean my most impactful session ever, that was years ago. I was running a mortals-centric game of Wraith: The Oblivion and the group was mostly women writers (plus a non-writer woman, and one guy); none but one of them had any experience RPGing.
They were great players, though. The bereavement support group they met at was emotional and heartfelt. The way the story unfolded was chilling. I remember a wealthy widower returning home to discover the radio switched on, and playing “their song” (his and his late wife’s). I also remember a former Russian spy character, female, whose lover had also been a spy and had died in a mission gone wrong. He was stalking her, and trying to bring her across for some reason; she was too busy trying to survive her brushes with him to try figure out what he wanted.
Those details are about all I remember, really, in terms of plot. I know a housewife had lost a parent, and I think there was an old woman who’d lost an adult son. But what I do remember was the mood in the room. It wasn’t because of me—I was an adequate GM, but it was the players who made the game stand out: they were serious, reverent, but also willing to do surprising things. One player’s former KGB agent player character was suddenly Skinridden (possessed bodily) by her dead ex-lover. She’d been standing at the bathroom mirror, putting on her makeup at the time.
After this happened, she excused herself while someone else’s scene played out. When we got back to her character, she still hadn’t returned. When we called out to her, she jumped out, startling us, with a look on her face a bit like the look that Alice Lower wears at several chilling moments in the film Prevenge, the crazed Greek Furies look with wild eyes and an expression that is halfway between ecstatic joy and soul-annihilating rage:
… but on top of that, she’d taken a tube of her lipstick and applied it like something had gone wrong halfway through—it was on one side of one lip, and then went into a jagged line across her cheek, like something had tried to tear through her face using that flimsy lipstick. It was jarring, effective, and unforgettable.
Other that one brief moment out of character (to reassure us she hadn’t gone mad), and of course rolling dice when necessary, she mostly stayed in character, playing it as a kind of ecstatically insane state and that established something interesting: when other player characters got Skinridden by their deceased loved ones, the players (to whatever degree they could) role-played the ghosts’ personalities, too, and they played them pretty immersively–doing voices, facial expressions, the whole nine yards.
It was a cool, surprising, weird, but wholly sensible convention for our game, and it’s left me believing that it’s important and worthwhile to push players to roleplay states where their characters are under external control. (Hell, creating mechanics to help players do that was one of the things I set out to do first while creating my first officially published adventure—still forthcoming, watch this space.)
The campaign only went on for a month or two more. The way I’d loosely planned things out, the players were supposed to get glimpses of the other side, only to discover it wasn’t always their loved ones messing with them… and they they were supposed to get hunted down and, eventually, unless they got really good help, they were supposed to end up being killed off, only to continue being played as proper Wraith characters. We never got there, though. It wasn’t lack of interest that killed it—it was just a case of life getting in the way, and then my moving to another city a few months later.
But that night… I’ve always remembered it. There was no question of maintaining the mood: even the lone male player in the group, who was the individual most prone to making pop culture references, breaking character and interjecting unrelated chit-chat when the game events made him a little too anxious? Even he held it together.
I can still feel how the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Impactful? You could say that.