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.”
Earlier in the month, Scott Rehm spoke about the importance of player choice during the life of a campaign. While there is certainly nothing wrong with traveling to a dungeon and clearing out monsters just for the sake of doing it, he emphasized that a DM should ensure that the party is actively choosing their path and making decisions that resonate throughout the campaign world. I have strived for this in my homebrew campaign, but I want to avoid making every decision a moral quandary. If you give players the same moral litmus tests repeatedly, then the campaign will become boring. I’ve been thinking about new ways to develop a storyline for a campaign that includes player choice, morality and potential conflict amongst party members. And when in doubt, I return to my roots in psychology.
While communicating with Sarah Darkmagic and others recently, I had the thought that a DM could benefit from borrowing concepts from some of the most famous psychological experiments to date. A great book for anyone even mildly interesting in psychological research is Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. One of the most ground-breaking series of studies featured in the book was performed by a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s. In his research, Milgram set out to learn more about the behaviors and sense of morality that led to the Holocaust. He devised experiments that examined the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. The results demonstrated that ordinary people were capable of inflicting a great deal of pain on others when ordered to do so by an authority figure. Milgram summarized his work:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
Below, I briefly describe Milgram’s research, and then offer an example of Omar, a well-respected NPC, to demonstrate how the concepts of authority and obedience can be used to engage your adventuring party with real choices throughout the life of a campaign.