Just a quick recap: we’ve discussed the expository phase and the use of complications. Now it’s time for the crisis! Technically, the crisis is the event that leads immediately forward on to the climax. While this is sometimes clear, it can be debatable which single event in a complex narrative leads to the obvious climax. In the final season of Game of Thrones – spoiler warning, by the way – for example, the crisis is the sacking of King’s Landing by Daenerys with all of its attendant wanton dragon-induced destruction.
In traditional narratives, the crisis leads to some kind of resolution by the protagonist or protagonists whose determination leads them to succeed against incredible odds. I’m thinking now of The Avengers which features a devastating attack on the helicarrier before the individual members of the team regroup and gather in New York to face the invading hordes led by Loki. The attack on the helicarrier leads directly to the climax of the film, where the avengers ass- *ahem* gather to defend Earth against an alien invasion. Narratively, this all makes sense and follows a familiar arc. Fans of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces will note some resonance here.
But, in a game like Pathfinder Second Edition, what might happen that allows for our protagonists to experience a crisis? It is hard, for example, to have a helicarrier scene when the default assumption of the gaming engine is that the player characters are competent and able to generally handle level-appropriate challenges. Setting the challenge higher than one which is considered level appropriate is one solution, but the risk the game master faces is robbing players of agency.
If a direct challenge – generally combat or something that can be resolved by clever use of skills – doesn’t work so well, what might? Well, for starters the player characters are not omnipresent. Dungeon World includes an idea called Fronts – which I’ll deal with in more detail someday – which suggests that as the villain advances their own goals, there will be more going on than the players can necessarily deal with. Kidnapping a crucial NPC, for example, is a way to have a crisis. Another thing that is quite plausible, particularly in campaigns set in one location, is to have the villagers/townspeople/burghers/city folk/whatevers ask the heroes to leave because their presence has caused an escalation of danger.
One of my favourite short stories is “The Lottery.” This classic written by Shirley Jackson describes a town that has a lottery to sacrifice a member of the village in what is apparently a fertility ritual. The realization that things are not what they seem is a great crisis. In a role playing game, having a similar realization might give the party a chance to intercede in the ritual sacrifice, in which case the climax is an attempt to stop something that has been happening for a long time.
Another way to lead to a crisis is to have the villain make their move. In Hamlet, this is when Claudius reveals his plan to have the king of England murder Hamlet in lieu of tribute. Hamlet is forced to escape via deux ex pirateum (that’s off-screen pirates who save him?) and when he returns to Denmark his revenge plot reaches its logical end. (Hamlet dies. I’m not sorry. No spoiler warnings for 419 year old plays.)
Alternatively, something could happen within the setting that is the crisis. In my former campaign, the crisis was a solar eclipse that allowed the invading aberrations to consolidate their position and trapped the party within the town the campaign was set in. (I’m being vague, so as to avoid invoking too much of the intellectual property of my favourite gaming company.) This helped me to bring everything I needed together in one place, while removing one advantage the players had over the non-players.
The final suggestion I’ll give is this: the antagonist of a campaign doesn’t have to be actively harming the player characters to bring about a crisis. Their actions could be, for example, perfectly legal. Maybe they’ve baked an apple pie. But whatever happens, from a narrative standpoint, it should provoke the final conflict.
In my sequel campaign – I think I’m going to call it Moonfall – the players will realize there is something wrong with North Harbour fairly soon. That’s my complication, however. The crisis will lead into a final confrontation with the Witch-King of Kærth, but I’m going to leave it up to the players to decide how they approach that confrontation. There is also the possibility that the remaining moons will do something magical and potentially world altering, like waking up the dead or causing the entire population of a town to transform into ravenous hordes of werebadgers or something like that. Who can say?
For next week, it’ll be the penultimate installment in this series: Climaxes!