I’m changing some things up with the blog and looking at a variety of new and old ideas in gaming. I’d like to spend part of today talking about some recurring tropes and ideas that crop up in fantasy storytelling and how they can be used (and abused) in an RPG to some sort of effect. Today’s volume is going to feature The Vendetta phenomenon. There are a variety of ways this idea can be used to great effect in a fantasy rpg. Let’s take a look at how that can work.
Plot Point 7 Vendetta
This iteration of the plot trap involves a feud, grudge, or conflict between two parties. This can be two warring houses of nobles, a struggle between guilds, or a royal blood feud between neighboring states. The crux of this plot trap involves a transgression perpetrated by one party on another. Honor, legal precedent, and a host of other factors require that this transgression be answered for and compensation be delivered. The quest for this compensation can be the springboard for very personal stories about loss, and the cycle of pain and violence that follow this initial crime.
Person vs. Person
In this iteration of the plot, the quest for revenge is singular and extremely personal. One character (could be an NPC, but it works equally well with a PC) has been wronged (or for more drama, has wronged someone) and for a host of reasons are looking to right this wrong. This is an extremely personal story compared to other versions of this plot, and characters chasing down revenge might do things outside their normal character to see this crime punished.
Clan vs. Clan
In this iteration of the plot, the transgression is between small groups of individuals who share a common bond. This could be noble families, churches dedicated to specific deities, or craftsworker guilds. In this iteration, the transgression is not a personal one, but a broadly applicable crime that targets a specific small group. This iteration looks like low intensity conflicts between the two powers as they struggle to force compensation from their transgressors, but there are potential situations where open warfare and violence are extremely common (especially among mercenary companies, wizard schools, and crime syndicates).
Kingdom vs. Kingdom
In this iteration of the plot, the transgression is on a scale that entire kingdoms or countries are engulfed by the lingering effects of it. Hostilities and bad blood send spies, thieves, and a host of other specialists into conflict in the shadows, and can send armies to war. This level of vendetta is usually hotly disputed by both parties and it’s entirely possible that no one actually remembers what triggered the conflict originally, but they are continuing to take the fight to their ancient enemies.
Why is this a Plot Trap?
This Plot Trap is a Plot Trap because it’s very easy to create a vendetta or a grudge that sounds really cool, but resolution is complicated. What triggered the grudge originally? Who is the wronged party, and who wronged them? What does the wronged party want in compensation? How hostile are the two parties towards each other? These are all important questions to keep in mind when you utilize this plot trap, because most of these questions help you shape the particulars of the plot and can help you build the structure of your adventure, arc, or campaign. Trying to work without these elements makes life considerably trickier, and without clearly defined answers you can muddy up your plot something fierce.
Key Elements of this plot device
- The Crime: Every Vendetta begins with a crime or transgression where one party wrongs another. This is a foundation of the Vendetta and without it the rest of the plot sort of falls apart.
- The Parties: In every feud, there are at least two parties. One party is typically the transgressor (whether or not the actually committed a crime or transgression), and the other is the wronged party. Figuring out who did what to who is essential for this, and it really helps you tighten up your story to look at the initial action and then figure out what events happen in the aftermath. If the two sides refuse to let things go, did they escalate the conflict into more extreme outbursts of violence or are they using other tools at their disposal to prosecute their transgressors?
- The Compensation: What is it going to take for these two parties to end their feud? Is there a value of land, resources, or political capital that will end this conflict? Is this a feud that ends with the death of one side? Figuring out how far these parties are willing to take this conflict is essential for helping decide how this Plot Trap interacts with the campaign. In most instances where the characters in your game are actively trying to end the conflict, you have to know what it’s going to take for them to end it.
There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way. Let’s take a closer look.
The Ancient Grudge
In this instance, the Vendetta has been around for multiple decades or generations (and with extremely long lived races, this can be a long time). The origin of the Grudge is either openly celebrated by the participants or it’s been lost to time and history. In either case, the Grudge has triggered reprisals and escalations on both sides of the conflict and neither side is willing to let it go without major compensation at this point. (A wonderful example of this type of a grudge is the conflict between the Dwarves and the High Elves in Warhammer Fantasy).
The False Accusation
This iteration of the plot revolves around the Vendetta being wrongly applied. Whether it’s a matter of accusing the wrong transgressor or the original crime not being an actual crime, this variation of the plot works a bit differently. The goal of the accused party is to clear their names by either finding the real culprits or finding a way to prove that the transgression is not a real one.
A Matter for the Courts
This version of the plot introduces a third party mediator that has the ability to enforce a settlement. The crux of this plot element is the two parties attempts to manipulate the mediator through a host of methods. Some mediators are perfectly willing to accept bribes, lose evidence, show favoritism and a host of underhanded, dirty tricks. These are almost as scary as the ones that brook no such shenanigans and have to be shown the evidence and rule with absolute fairness.
Vendettas can set up a lot of interesting story arcs and adventure ideas. Settling a Kingdom vs. Kingdom Vendetta can be the basis of an entire campaign but you have to set your plot elements early and this can require a little bit of back work. In some cases, you may want to establish who your conflicting parties are before you establish what their crime is. This can help you flesh out any primary (and secondary) npcs you might need and help figure out what their likely levels of escalation are. Figuring out how they’ve reacted to each other in the past can help you figure out what they are going to do to each other in the now.
I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun. If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen. Game On,
Almost. Like i said above, i’m going to give you an adventure seed for using a version of this plot trap in a hopefully not crazy way.
Adventure Seed: The Starfall Tiara
This adventure seed starts with a crime. The characters are attending a function between two noble houses in the capital of their home country and during the festivities, a precious artifact that symbolized peace between their home country and a neighboring settlement of elves is stolen. The two houses jointly put the festival together and are immediately pointing fingers at one another and accusing the other of the theft. Someone is going to have to figure out who the responsible party is before the Elves arrive to celebrate their good relations with their neighbors.
Part 1: The Investigation
The characters are asked by both sides (they are fairly well known for their ability to solve problems and they have no ties to either family) to find the missing Tiara and return it as soon as possible. Leads point in a couple of different directions, but the salient points for this part of the story is that the Tiara is no longer in the Opera House (the setting for the party), but hasn’t left the city yet.
Part 2: Trimming the leads
There are several leads that the characters are going to have to run down before they can get back on the trail of the Tiara. This is where this adventure seed could stretch into a full blown campaign seed. You have at least two key parties who could be responsible, but my version adds in a couple more options to throw in a red herring or two, and maybe push the adventure into a campaign. Perhaps there is another noble family that is attempting to shame both of the nobles featured in part 1 and has stolen the Tiara to prove them incompetent. Perhaps enemies of both the humans and the elves have stolen the Tiara to weaken their relationship as a prelude to an invasion. Depending on how many leads you have lain for the characters to run down in part 1, you can have several adventures worth of material for them to deal with on the chase for the Tiara.
Part 3: Retrieving the Tiara
The characters have finally found the place where the stolen Tiara has been secreted. The problem is its been stashed in the ancient crypts below the city. With rumors of undead and an incomplete map, the characters have a harrowing journey down below the city to retrieve the crown and possibly find the guilty parties. What’s waiting in the crypts? Can the characters successfully recover the Tiara?
Part 4: In a Neatly Wrapped Bow
The Tiara has been recovered and evidence is overwhelming that one of the two houses is responsible for the crime. Is the evidence real or was it fabricated? Can the characters right this wrong before it escalates again, or will the wrong people have to answer to the elves for the theft of their artifact?
And that’s our 30 minute campaign seed. See you guys next time.