I’ve been playing in a Call of Cthulhu PbF over the last several months based on the Blackwater Creek adventure originally published as a companion to the 7th edition GM’s screen. It’s a fine little adventure, but playing through has left me with a bitter taste. It’s not that the game is poorly run or that the players are bad (it’s well run and the players are quite good) – it’s that the characters aren’t bad!
Perhaps I should explain that. In Blackwater Creek, all of the player characters are criminals – thugs, embezzlers, murderers, etc. Yet over the course of their mission (I’ll avoid spoilers), they’re placed into situations where they’re expected to act like heroes without any reason other than bad things are happening. This we should not abide! An entire crew of hardened criminals shouldn’t turn into knights in shining armor just because they’ve encountered something worse than themselves!
So let’s take a look at some of the mechanisms we can use for building a campaign around the concept of the redemption arc:
- Play on Dependents – Nothing brings about a slow change towards the side of the angels like the need to rescue, save or avoid disappointing a dependent close to the character. Take that dependent and put them into a position where their mental or physical safety is dependent on heroic action on the part of the character. This is a really common movie trope (e.g. Hitman with a Heart of Gold) and works particularly well in games where players are encouraged to take NPC dependents as part of character creation.
- Free Agency – Most criminals aren’t at the top of the food chain. For every Kingpin, there are a thousand Wesleys. But everyone wants that sense of independence – so make the characters play the good guy in order to get it. Perhaps they have an opportunity to off their boss, but they have to foil his evil plot to do so. Maybe they even turn state’s evidence!
- Exploit Loyalty – Roleplaying is an intensely social activity and players often override their character’s nature in the name of group cohesion. So why not take advantage of this? Put one of the characters in such serious danger (physical is fine, but bigger picture danger works better – incarceration, bankruptcy, impending “doom”) that the other players rally together to help their teammate out.
- Put a Gun to Their Head – Hey, it worked for the Suicide Squad… The first volume of the Suicide Squad comic had some great redemptive moments for characters like Deadshot while allowing others to wallow in their own selfishness (Captain Boomerang). Try putting your characters into a situation where they have no choice but to work for the greater good and see how they react!
One thing that all of these ideas have in common is that they don’t necessarily force the PCs to turn to the light. And I really don’t think you wan to. It’s important that players have the agency to explore a change if they feel the situation and character warrants. But by putting characters into a situation where bad guys doing good is plausible, you create the opportunity for richer roleplaying and maybe even some redemption.