Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: Roleplaying Sacrifice

This past week was tough with a lot of real work in my real job, not leaving much space for RPGs. Once I told my friend we were born in the wrong time. With few orcs left to hunt, dragons even more rare, and princesses… On this point I really can’t complain – I have two in my house!

But today I want to share some of my thoughts about sacrifice. I have been working on an indie RPG set in World War II France about the resistance. And a significant part of the game involves sacrifice. Today however I won’t discuss that in particular and will instead focus on “sacrifice” (not ritual, but personal) in the larger context of role-playing games.

In many campaigns, players play the same characters for a longer stretch of time. And even if they just create a character for a specific campaign, it’s very possible the players will become attached to their characters. This is an important aspect of gaming, because along the way players not only develop those characters, but become more attached to their fates, afraid to lose their characters before they reach a satisfactory ending to the story or campaign. Nobody wants to lose their character in their very first adventure.

This “fear” for the player’s character offers the GM more control over PC deeds. The GM can offer a few possible resolutions to a particular encounter and can be quite certain that (most of the time) the PC will avoid the more reckless options. This relationship is another tool for the GM to use to craft a story. Ironically, the more powerful the PCs, the less eager they are to take a risky action.

Continuing this “fear factor,” the PCs usually become more familiar with regular NPCs in the story, whether as individuals or as a group. So the GM can bet, with a good group of role-players, that after some time the PCs will likely treat some NPCs as part of their team. And in critical moments, PCs will fight for these NPCs as they would each other.

Back to sacrifice then… Sacrifice has many faces. It can be part of a story, such as some crucial sacrifice required to save the day at the end of a story or near the end of a campaign. Do you remember Fallout 3? The main character had no chance to “win” the game without sacrificing himself. And in the Return of the King, Frodo was destined to sacrifice himself but just ended up sacrificing the ring in the end.

So at the end of a campaign, we have at least two possible types of sacrifice – a PC’s life (major) or a valuable item (minor). We’ll also add a third one that would involve sacrificing some exceptional ability of a PC (moderate). This sacrifice may be his magic powers or just a part of them, or perhaps one of his senses such as sight.

But remember through it all – whenever you require a PC to perform some major or moderate sacrifice, don’t forget to reward them in some exceptional way. This keeps your players happy and emphasizes a scale of impact made by finishing the campaign such as altering the world in some way or disrupting the balance in the pattern of the universe.

Some sacrifices aren’t only connected to a storyline. Some characters may choose to sacrifice something because of their nature or a connection with something other than themselves. For example, in my beloved Warhammer fantasy RPG (I still accept gifts from 1st or 3rd edition by the way! :) ), there is a particular PC career – Troll Slayer. (Perhaps you have know Gotrek Gurnisson from the amazing series of Warhammer novels and stories by William King?)

Troll Slayers are dwarves with some strange personal psychology that dooms them. For many reasons, usually connected to a code of honor, Troll Hunters seek death. And only their own sacrifice can grant them eternal peace. They are known as Troll Slayers because they “hunt” for trolls and facing one means almost certain death for the dwarf. They are truly ready to sacrifice themselves at any moment.

This is sacrifice - NARA - 535243

This is sacrifice - NARA - 535243 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s also another career in Warhammer with a death wish – Witchhunters. These fanatics hunt for any sign of chaotic influence and are ready to die in their war against Chaos.

However, there is another possibility for sacrifice not connected with a particular PC career. For example, one of my PCs had a daughter in Vampire: The Masquerade. She was not his natural-born daughter – he transformed her into a vampire. And later, from adventure to adventure, he became more engaged with her. When political tension in this domain reached its peak and many vampires were endangered, the PC decided to leave everything to his daughter (she was an NPC) and die protecting her. This was a choice, not something he was forced to do. And he did survive the story – but his declaration that he would do anything to protect his (NPC!) child added a lot of drama to the game.

So now is a good moment to mention something else about these “types” of sacrifice. The above situations – a Troll Slayer, Witchhunter, and vampire – are the “die for something/someone” types of sacrifice. Another type of sacrifice that may seem less dramatic is the “kill for something/someone” option. Why do I say this is less dramatic than the other two? Most RPG adventures focus on the PCs doing a fair amount of killing already. So when a PC declares “I would kill for you,” it’s not all that exceptional because he does it already.

But… If you take a bit wider view of this declaration, it becomes more than simply killing in someone or something’s name. It could become “I would kill / break the rules / or do something I would never do otherwise… for you.” In this case it becomes more a metaphor for violating their own code of honor (or tradition, upbringing, nature, etc.). For example, perhaps our Witchhunter has to decide what’s more important – the life of his chaos-spawned girlfriend, or his crusade against chaos.

A final aspect of sacrifice, after “I will die for you” and “I will kill for you” is… “I will live for you.” I won’t write to much about it and think many of you who read this will understand what I mean. Sometimes life can be the greatest sacrifice of all. Think of a Troll Slayer who’s given up his death wish…

Stay in peace my friends.

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