Game Mastery

Story Time! The Tale of the Schizo Ranger and His Imaginary PC friend.

by on Sep.17, 2008, under story time, writing

Good RPGs invariably lead to good stories. I have a love/hate affair with this particular story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty damn awesome. I’m just a little sick of it because a) I’ve been repeating it for the last five years and b) no matter how many games I GM I’ll never do anything this cool ever again.

Before we begin I need to lay down a little bit of background story. You know it’s good when the story has required reading before you can even begin the story.

I’ve always been bothered by insanity in RPGs. It often ends up being run as a player having private conversations with the GM. Everyone sits by patiently while the player has a conversation in his head and when its done they all nod and smile happily. If the player is competent he’ll act as though the private conversations were real, but everyone knows they’re not. At best you get a character whose intelligence is questioned. The rest of the time they end up as comic relief.

That’s not how insanity works. Let’s go with schizophrenia for an example (it’ll come up later in the story). The problem isn’t that there are voices in your head. The problem is that you can’t distinguish those voices from the people talking to you in real life. This leads to wonderful roleplaying opportunities, but is incredibly hard to model in a tabletop game. How can you put voices in a player’s head without him noticing the GM whispering in his ear?

Fast forward to the spring of 2003. I was preparing to run my first RPG ever. Some players were old and some were new, but all were willing to cooperate with a first time GM trying to learn the ropes.

I had two problems.

The first was the ranger. Phelmore if I remember correctly. The player wanted to be somewhat crazy and picked bipolar disorder. Cool. I wanted the player to be a lot crazy. Like, crazy as in what we discussed in this story’s backstory. But I didn’t see how to do it.

The next problem was more of a group thing. I wanted exactly four players. This would let me write plenty of individual plot and give each player a bigger chance in the shared spotlight. Maybe in the future I’d learn how to write for a bigger group, but I really wanted to start with four. Some of the players disagreed. They were used to bigger groups (6-8) and thought I should run with five, bare minimum.

So I put the problems together and got a solution.

I told the players about my buddy Jason who was going to be living with me next semester. He was from out of town but I wanted my home friends to meet with my college friends so I’d invited him to be our fifth. He was going to play a cleric who belonged to the same adventurers school as Phelmore. In fact the two of them knew each other pretty well. They’d start the game as allies on some sort of investigation to track down a murderer. The players seemed cool about it. I neglected to tell them that Jason and his PC didn’t exist*.

First session starts and we’re waiting for Jason to show up. We’re doing individual preludes for each character so I’m able to run everyone else. Eventually I pick up the phone. “What? You can’t make it? Shit, that sucks. Will did the mechanic give an estimate. Damn. Well good luck.” Etc. Jason would not be joining the first session. I ran Phelmore’s prelude, NPCing as Jason’s PC (whose name I wish I could remember right now. Let’s just call him Tyler for obvious reasons**). I improvised a plot that would separate Tyler and Phelmore at least until imaginary Jason’s imaginary car got fixed. Basically Tyler would track down the murderer they were after and Phelmore would go on the PC’s quest. But while they were doing this, Phelmore and Tyler would communicate by letter (the game world (the only time I homebrewed) had an advanced postal system) and this would let them take advantage of it. I was encouraging players to keep journals. Phelmore’s journal would take place in the form of a letter to keep Tyler up to date with the game. And in turn I responded with letters from Tyler’s point of view about the murderer he was chasing.

As a point of clarity, what was actually going on with the letters is that Phelmore would write letters each night addressed to Tyler. He’d then become Tyler and read the letter and respond to it. Okay, so this is multiple personality disorder moreso than schizophrenia. So shoot me. The letters never actually got sent and were stored in boxes in the PC’s backpack. But something in his subconscious kept him from ever noticing that the boxes of letters were there.

He seemed normal enough during the beginning of the game. The manic depressiveness played a greater role in the character’s insanity. Jason couldn’t afford to repair his car, but I’d been running plot with him simultaneously over IM. Eventually the plots would converge I promised.

People soon realized that something was up with Phelmore though. His wounds disappeared over night (his other side was a cleric after all). And when the group spent a night together in prison they noticed him muttering holy words in his sleep. There were more details, but those were the only two I can remember five years later. At any rate, the players knew he had some plot going on but weren’t in any position to investigate it yet.

Fast forward to the second to last session of the game (which isn’t much fast forwarding as the game was only 8 sessions long). The players are in an underground library camping for the night. They’d done something to piss off the mafia. As such, the mafia sent out some arcane tricksters to kill of the PCs. On the off chance that someone woke up, the tricksters took the PCs gear away first and then went in for the kill (I really just wanted to see the players win a fight without relying on magical equipment). Players woke up, killed the attackers, and everyone took back their gear. Except for that strange box that nobody recognized. Narro, the quintessential bloodlust halfling rogue, took it. The box was full of letters from Phelmore to Tyler.

Now, I’ve always been aware that players will draw all sorts of conclusions. That’s why you shouldn’t plan for specific directions your players can take, but you should plan a robust world than can handle impulsive players. I never would have expected the reaction the players took, and yet it was so perfect.

Phelmore’s recovered backpack contained all the letters he thought he sent to Tyler. Obviously the mafia guys kidnapped Tyler, got his letters, and somehow used them to track down Phelmore. The PCs had to return to the city, so they could infiltrate the mafia and rescue the ranger’s imaginary friend! Seriously, what could be more perfect than that?

The players got captured by the mafia and I got more heavy handed with my hinting regarding Phelmore. I was amazed that they hadn’t figured him out yet, but I wanted to make sure that his story came up during game time.

The murderer Tyler was allegedly tracking just so happened to be working in the mafia and he recognized Phelmore. The player just chalked that one up to Phelmore chasing that guy during his prelude. Oh well.

While the PCs were being interrogated, a mind flayer licked Phelmore’s head and was confused. He said it had a lot of flavor, or something to that effect and that he’d need a cigarette before he could analyze that character any further. Then the PCs made their escape. I was really glad they threw me the mafia plot line, because I truly had no idea how to entertain them for this second to last session. Oh yeah, while they were there they picked up some information concerning the whereabouts of the big bad evil guy. He hasn’t been mentioned yet because as far as I’m concerned the real meat of the game was the imaginary player plot.

So begins the last session. At this point the players knew Jason was never gong to be gaming with them, but they hadn’t put everything together yet. The players tracked the BBEG to his lair and were preparing for a big fight. Part of their preparation included a spell by the name of Rary’s Telepathic Bond. This let them communicate telepathically. When the Telepathic Bond went up on Phelmore they got line noise. Or something. I’m not sure exactly how I described it. But the gnome wizard (who was the player I made sure saw all of Phelmore’s hints) figured things out. The rest of the group had a private meeting to discuss what they learned.

(Sidenote leading back to my first point about insanity – it made me very happy that Phelmore’s player was the last one in on his insanity. He knew his reality was screwed up but couldn’t tell how. They figured it out and then brought the problem to him.)

Once again, I can’t remember the conversation that took place except for the tail end. The three other players were figuring out how to break the news to poor Phelmore. The uberintelligent gnome wizard, Fnipper, and the charming halfling rogue/bard, Narro, were not up to the task. No matter how well thought out or nicely they said it, they couldn’t predict how Phelmore would react to being told he was insane. Instead they gave the task to the half orc barbarian who called himself Thug. The logic was that Phelmore would likely flip out and attack the bearer of this news, and Thug was the one who could take such an attack.

It was a good choice. Once they calmed him down, the players made Phelmore practice with a greatsword (Tyler’s favorite weapon). They were able to confirm he knew what he was doing with it (in mechanics terms they found out that he had weapon focus greatsword, even though Phelmore never took it). I think they also had him use a Telepathic Bond on himself to ease communications between his two sides. I may be making that last part up though. Did I mention that it’s been a while. In the end, Phelmore/Tyler had an epiphany and became one. Phelmore gained Tyler’s cleric levels and became powerful enough to defeat the BBEG.

So, in summary I made up a player and told the players he’d be joining us as a way to simulate schizophrenia/multiple personality disorder. The players bought it and nobody figured out what was going on until the very last day of game. They even declared war on the mafia to save the ranger’s imaginary friend along the way. When I tell this story to other GMs, they’re awed. Not to brag, but I’m still amazed at what I pulled off. It was my very first attempt at being a game master. And as awesome as that was, I know that I’ll never pull off anything that cool again.

* Okay, I lied a little. Jason did exist and he was a D&D player who I’d be rooming with the next semester. He was in on the plan but wasn’t actually going to be gaming with us. I picked someone who could be a warm body for the imaginary PC if ever I needed to get bailed out on this plot. Never needed him, but I was glad to have a backup plan.

** Yes, I blatantly ripped off Fight Club.  I didn’t even bother to hide it.  But it worked because of how the plot was unveiled to the players.  They didn’t know it was a movie rip off until they’d played through it.  This extended story is the best example I can give to justify my article on creativity theft.

More details have come to light since I spoke with Phelmore’s player. Tyler was actually named Ellessor. That jogged my memory a little. ‘Ellessor’ was another hint I put in the game, but didn’t expect the players to pick up on. According to the Tolkien elvish dictionary, Ellessor is quenya for ‘in your head.’

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. Maliseraph

    /me: AWE @ Sagotsky
    I remember you telling me about this as it unfolded, and I have to say, I was laughing my sides off at what was going on. I try to mess with my players as often as possible, to keep them entertained and on their toes, but this is really one for the record books.

    The closest thing I’ve managed to do is get the other players to play out a delusion one of the other characters was having, without letting the one guy know that what’s going on is only going on inside his head. I’ve also passed people separate notes on what they saw for a success on a perception role, which works pretty well, especially if you prepare those notes ahead of time, but this is something you directly worked into the story line, continued over the entire campaign, and made perfect sense in retrospect without being blatantly obvious beforehand.

    Kudos @ You

  2. sagotsky

    Glad you enjoyed. I really needed to have this one written down once and for all. Each of my verbal tellings was lazier than the last.

    Also, as enjoyable as the story is, isn’t it so much better knowing that Phelmore the ranger was played by none other than Mr. Lahti?

  3. Jokasti

    That’s awesome.

  4. Ab Circle Review

    Hi there website owner can I use a few of the facts from this post if I offer a link back again for a web page?

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