Five Things Gamers Can Learn From The Princess Bride

Do I need to link back to previous installments? Maybe you should follow my blog more closely instead! Maybe you should be a vet or fly a jet. I don’t know, I’m not the boss of you. But if you like these, keep sending submissions, this one is from Luke Parsons.

1. Don’t Fear The Bluff Check

There’s a tendency for GMs to fear charismatic PCs. There you are setting up an amazingly difficult or complex combat encounter and then one smart-ass in the party convinces the ogre to turn into a mouse and boom, it’s all over – and it feels like cheating. Now, sure you can use the same mechanics for all challenges but regardless it’s important to understand what good bluff checks look like and how they can enhance your story – and how they’re an essential part of picaresque adventure. And Princess Bride is build on amazing Bluff checks that show how it should be done.

It does this first of all by just assuming that this is a standard, not an afterthought: the three trials Wesley must undergo are skill, strength and wits. Building it into the framework means you and your players will anticipate it and use it often, which is the key to not making it feel like a cheat. Good fight scenes appear in games because we do them all the time, good bluffs appear if we do them all the time. The most memorable ones in Princess Bride include Wesley bluffing Humperdink about his strength and bluffing the gate guards with the holocaust cloak, because they have the most riding on them, but bluffs are everywhere if you look. The sword fight between Inigo and Wesley involves both of them bluffing, and Wesley lies to Buttercup to test her love. And the bad guys, of course, lie like rugs. Then there’s the intimidate checks (“I have no gatekey”) and the persuades (“Please, I need to live”), and the bit where Wesley is climbing and can’t trust Inigo’s word because of all the bluffing going on. As you can see despite being famous for swordfights Princess Bride is thick with charisma tests and it’s because they come so thick and fast that they don’t feel like cheats. They feel like part of getting things done. Build them in to everything and they’ll work so much better.

2. Make Your Villains Talented

One of the reason we fear the bluff test is it can make your villains look like punks. It’s a tough road to hoe for GMs – you want your players to kick ass but you want to honour their awesome by making that victory feel difficult. Sometimes a villain can be pathetic like a Wormtongue or a Renfield but mostly we like villains to be spectacular in their own way. Common ways to do this is with the intricacies of their plans and the height of their ambition, but these are often invisible to the PCs since they are caught within them, and even with cut scenes and prologues to let them know the bad guy, you can’t give away too much of the plot or you’ll ruin the game. Princess Brides’ excellent solution is to give the villains great talents that are somewhat tangential to their plots. Part of this is obvious in Inigo and Fezzik, who quickly become PCs because they’re so awesome, but also in the true villains.

Principally among this is Humperdink’s hunting skills. Even the woman who hates him says without doubt that he could track a falcon on a cloudy day. Rugen, meanwhile, is a master of science and technology. Mad science, perhaps, but his intelligence is undeniable. And the two care about each other as only old friends can, which isn’t just a one-off joke but another way of showing the virtues of these men. And when Humperdink’s plans begin to unravel, he shows fear and anger, screaming into Wesley’s face with his rage at her inability to forget her farmboy and love a king, fear storming across his face when Buttercup catches him in lies. He may be a moral vacuum but Humperdink CARES and we admire him for that. It’s even possible that war with Guilder is a good idea for the future of Florin – there’s certainly evidence that Humperdink is a visionary and plans far ahead. And he’s no fool – he triples the gate guard and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and lives as a result. He probably even gets his war. But we still feel he gets enough comeuppance because the heroes get what they came for and get away. Sometimes, as GMs we put our villains up to be killed because our angry players really want that last blow to fall to “win” the game. Don’t do that, at least, not much. Give them other goals that matter more and the villain will resonate more as he lives on to show off more of his great talents.

3. Never Skimp On Your B-Plot

Speaking of other goals, Princess Bride’s A-Plot is, even with its funny twists and turns and genre-subversions, is pretty run-of-the-mill. Dashing young man wants his lady back from the evil king. And sure, it’s B-Plot is not exactly ground-breaking: boy seeks revenge against the man who killed his father. But if you ask anyone what they really remember about Princess Bride, the thing that made the film legendary and enduring, it is Inigo’s story. Inigo is cooler than Wesley but more than that he is more complicated – he is driven by a much darker passion, twisted with frustration and agony, and it has led him into drunkenness and thievery. As much as Wesley claims to be the Dread Pirate Roberts it is hard to imagine him really doing much piracy, whereas there’s a darkness and sadness in Inigo that speaks of terrible sacrifices and black choices. A lot of this comes about by accident (and casting), but a weaker story might have skimped on Inigo’s denouement. At the very climax of the story when they are desperate to get Buttercup and escape, the film takes fifteen minutes to follow Inigo’s plot. And we linger on him at the start as well, his history and background is explored intimately before he even crosses swords with Wesley.

As GMs we tend to want to keep things simple. A good adventure has a single plot line with a clear, obvious goal, so that everyone knows what they’re trying to do and when they’ve done it. We might be tempted therefore, should a player want to fulfill a personal side-quest, to give them short shrift. Don’t so that. Remember time is entirely elastic in fiction, and if your A-plot is as nice and simple as described, there’s no problem putting it on hold for half an hour, those clear lines will make it easy to pick up again. You know you need to get from A to B but you can keep that while still allowing the player to skew off to C and come straight back. So let them, and indulge them. Because precisely because they don’t feel like the A-plot they often have more resonance with the players; they feel more like they chose them and that they define them more. Everyone knows the evil wizard’s going to die but that game where you found your ex-girlfriend along the way may stick with you for life.

4. Death Is Never The End

The other reason I think people like The Princess Bride is it is surprising. It’s a see-saw plot but to an extreme level most people don’t expect: it’s not just that the heroes have successes and failures, they have EXTREME success and failures. Sometimes things are so bleak characters have no option except suicide (with dagger or shrieking eels) other times it’s a delightful romp. Sometimes they get what they want only to lose it a second later or discover it is the same as losing everything. Wesley and Buttercup survive the Fire Swamp only to end up back in Humperdink’s clutches; enemies become allies and Buttercup is constantly having her love and hope snatched away from her. Indeed, in the first five minutes of her story, she goes from haughty mistress to love-struck fool to heart-shattered bereaved. It is the latter, of course, that the story hinges on: twice, Buttercup thinks Wesley is dead and gives up hope, and twice is proved wrong at her lowest hour.

This isn’t just the theme of the film, though, it’s good story-telling in general. Yes, we get sick of bad guys watching the water surface and assuming the hero must be dead, but death not being the end works as a trope because it hits us in our heart of hearts. We know – and this is doubly true in a game where things have stats – that death is the ultimate end. We don’t need memento moris to remind us; death stalks us everywhere. Stories allow us the audacity of hope against that, to believe in miracles, to say to the god of death not today. Can it be contrived? Yes. But even the most impossible survivals can be believed if written well, which is what you see in Princess Bride. We shouldn’t buy for a moment that the deadliest pirate ever lets one man live – but we do, because we ache for it to be true and because Wesley tells it so well. We shouldn’t buy that terrifying life sucking torture is survivable but we do because it’s deliberately NOT a “natural” death. You can use your magic or your superpowers or whatever the same way: set up deaths that aren’t open and shut. Bury the body under an avalanche of rock. Allow for the possibility that they’ve been merely sucked into an alternative dimension or can be pulled out of hell. If zombies and liches exist, then there may be other ways to reverse death. If you build these things in advance, we will buy it when death isn’t the end. And the great thing about doing this is it means when people are really are dead, it hurts EVEN MORE.

5. Make Resurrection Count

The caveat to point four is this one: cheating death is only okay if it is hard. Even in a film as silly as Hudson Hawk, the last-minute resurrection of Tommy at the end cheapens everything because it’s not justified in the slightest. Yes, “I escaped somehow” can work if done at the right time, but not to beat back death. Death is just too important to be cheated like that. And Princess Bride shows there are two distinct parts of this: the buy out, and the cost. Wesley saves himself from death with a plea, but then can’t simply return to Buttercup because he is trapped being Roberts’ valet. The quest to engage Miracle Max brings Wesley back but the cost is his persistent floppiness. For something to hit home as a cost, it needs to both parts of the equation. You also need a time period where people really doubt they can come back, as well, so that’s three parts. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

D&D’s magic tends to invalidate the first one, but almost all games forget the second one as well. Great quests or epic items are required but then things are good as new. You don’t have to come back like Christopher Walken in the Dead Zone but a small penalty to your character’s rolls will make death’s sting so much more real. Something that slows down the whole party is even better, like not being able to cast the spells or pick the locks they depend on quite as much. And this applies on the small scale as well as the large. When someone goes down to zero hit points, leave them hanging for a while before announcing their fate. Move the spotlight somewhere else. It hurts, but it’s the good kind of hurt. And then when it comes to those stabilizing rolls, put the focus on them. Get the players to tell you what they’re doing to bring their friend back to life. Get some blood on their tunics. This is important. Death is important. Most of our RPGs are about fighting for our lives, if you don’t care about death and the reset button, you cheapen every part of the game, not just those moments.

Indeed, perhaps the single greatest moment in Princess Bride is when Inigo “dies” – and then comes back, using just his persuade skill to do it. The ultimate bluff check, perhaps, for the ultimate resurrection, in the ultimate B-Plot, fighting one of the ultimate villains. But we buy it. We buy a man coming back to life and we even forget he’s still holding in his guts when they find the horses. Because it hurts so much when it happens, and the buy out is so tricky, and he doesn’t just spring back to his feet he staggers up inch by inch, building momentum into an avalanche that is one of the greatest scenes in film, because of how it goes from total death to total victory. Make them work for defeating it, and you never need to actually kill them. They’ll remember the work so much more than any fait accompli. They’ll remember a reversal a thousand times more than a simple end.

 

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