I have the good fortune of playing with a gaming group that has a great deal of terrain and miniatures for combat encounters. The host of our game has been collecting such items for many years, and members of our group continue to add to the collection; most notably, we have numerous sets of Dwarven Forge terrain, which is simply spectacular. I realize such tools are a luxury for me as a DM and player, and I try not to rely on the terrain too much in order to have a memorable session. I continue to search for simple and low-cost props to enhance the enjoyment of a game or emphasis a specific dynamic on an encounter.
Last session, the party finally got to meet an important NPC in the campaign world – the leader of a religious/military order, High Priest Adamar (name blatantly stolen from A Knight’s Tale). Adamar was slowly built up over the course of two years in my campaign. The players have assumed the NPC was corrupt, mostly because of the name I choose to give him. Other documentation provided to the players asserted that he was a villain. However, they players did not have an opportunity to meet with him face-to-face before the session. With such a high-profile meeting, I wanted the non-combat encounter to be memorable. Below, I discuss how I attempted to accomplish that outcome with a rather simple request, “Take this and drink it.”
The party was led by a trusted mentor to a nearby temple to meet with High Priest Adamar, who summoned the party on urgent business. Half of the players did not want to go to meet him because they sensed a trap. After a good bit of discussion, the party decided to trust their mentor. High Priest Adamar summarized a variety of dangling plot points in the campaign, which have open since Level 1, while defending himself against allegations made by the party members. He also presented the party with a mission to save the kingdom from a growing threat stemming from the Shadowfell. He gave each party member a magic item for the difficult journey ahead, and then informed them that he brewed a potion to protect them from the despair and madness of the Shadowfell.
Preparing the encounter, I wanted the party to be unsure of High Priest Adamar’s intentions. Better yet, I *still* want them to be uncertain of his true goals, but I realized that he needed to present a carrot for the party member to listen to him at all. The party held such a high level of skepticism about him that I could not use Adamar as just another NPC that presents the party with a mission. The party needed some encouragement to take a mission from him to enter a dangerous realm.
The magic items served to win over some of the party members. But the primary thing I built the encounter around was the presentation of the brewed potion. I wanted the decision to drink – or not drink – the potion to carry weight and meaning. I knew going into the session that roleplaying the offer would likely fall flat because it would be easy for the players to decline a verbal offer to drink a potion offered from the NPC.
How to get around that?
I relied on the concepts of obedience, peer pressure and conformity!
The day of the session, I went to a grocery store and bought a bottle of white grape juice. I then took a small vase along with five wine glasses (one for each PC) to the game. I left the juice, vase and glasses in my car for the first two hours of the session. During the encounter, I spoke as Adamar and said that I had a special potion for them, which I needed to retrieve from another room. I left the gaming room, went to the car, poured the juice into the vase and carried it back into the room as Adamar.
I set out five glasses and poured an equal amount into each glass and passed them out to the players, “Please, my friends. Take this and drink. May Pelor’s blessing follow you into the darkness.”
The players now had a quite practical and in-your-face choice to make. Refuse Adamar by not drinking the potion in front of them or accept by picking up the glass and drinking it. What could have been a theoretical decision became a very practical decision. Watching the players’ reaction was quite priceless.
The party members looked around the table at each other. Each player seemed to wait on another to make the first decision. I said nothing and let the uncomfortable silence hang. Eyes continued to shift and the Cleric in the party (the lone member of High Priest Adamar’s religious/military order) took his glass and drank it. Other members of the party followed suit after he set an example.
Except the Rogue, “I act like I’m drinking it but don’t. Like I toss it over my shoulder or something.” I loved this idea, and asked him for a Bluff check. He succeeded, so four of the five players accepted the drink and Adamar was unaware the shifty Halfling did not consume the beverage. A bit later, the party did travel to the Shadowfell and I described the soul-crushing nature of the realm. As the party staggered away from the teleportation circle, I presented cards from the Despair Deck and asked the Rogue to select one. The potion did indeed protect the others from the pressure darkness of the Shadowfell. The party guffawed about this for the rest of the night, and the Rogue handled it well by roleplaying his Despair Card (Quarrelsome) during the following combat encounter.
The execution of my plan was far from perfect, but I believe it added a great deal of flavor (pun absolutely intended) to the session. Instead of having a group decision made by discussion, the players needed to make a practical decision because the potion was right in front of them. By taking the decision from something abstract to something tangible, I believe it created more tension and drama.
There were many ways I considered playing Adamar presenting the potion. I first thought to have him introduce the potion immediately, but did not think any party members would drink it. I thought about the potion producing negative effects to reveal that Adamar is indeed a hostile NPC, but I decided to keep the party guessing. He could still turn out to be “good” or “evil.” (I know my players read the blog, so I’m not going to give the answer away here!)
The session also led me to think about the multitude of ways liquids and foods could be used in a gaming session. The example above is a roleplaying encounter where a questionable NPC presents a beneficial potion, but there is the chance it is a poison. The party must decide to accept or decline. But there are many other ways to introduce tangible objects into a gaming session to bring more life to a concept. A few examples below:
- Puzzle – the party battles their way through enemies to reach a great treasure. They come to a room that has a locked door; a simple table with numerous potions and a note scribbled with ancient runes rests in the middle of the room. The note is a riddle, and the party must determine the proper potion to drink to unlock the door. Anyone who has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone should recognize this! Use a few different-sized glasses and colored liquids (e.g., juices, dyed water) and set them out on the table with the note. The party now has quite the task ahead of them.
- Combat – in any combat, add a dish of food or a bottle of liquid to the description, but also set that object out on the table. It will certainly grab the players’ attention. Perhaps the liquid provides a boon, or perhaps it is a poison. The food may provide the player with a free healing surge, or could hold some type of hallucinogenic effect. Maybe a basin (use a large bowl) rests in an alcove and inflicts substantial damage if a weapon is coated with the substance.
- Roleplaying – related to the example with High Priest Adamar above, introducing food and drink to social encounters presents a clear choice for players. Even if the NPC is well-trusted, having that person present them with food to drink creates a different dynamic in the relationship. This could be a great method for executing a heel turn for a well-liked NPC. The party takes the drinks and pass out to find themselves in a dangerous situation or imprisoned. Be fair, but be ruthless!
What are your thoughts on using edible props during gaming sessions as part of the story? How would you use liquids or food items in your game?