Looks like Magus managed to worm her way out of last week’s self-incrimination. Good thing too! You’d hate to see the wrong animal-eared hero who fights with piercing weapons take a bum rap.

Anyway, even if Team Bounty Hunter aren’t quite the super sleuths they’re cracked up to be, it’s nice to see the Handbook getting its facts straight. Executions are some of the most pregnant-with-dramatic-potential scenes you can write into a game. Tear-jerker speeches, daring escapes, and last-minute heroics are all part of the fun. (Unfortunately, so are arguments about whether magic missile can damage a rope.) For my money though, the all time best RPG example comes from [SPOILER ALERT] the concluding scene of Edge of Anarchy.

The setup is straightforward. The party have managed to capture a suspected regicide, but they have reason to believe that she is innocent. The poor woman is destined to hang from the neck until dead anyway, and all on account of political expediency. It’s a terrible injustice, but what can the heroes do? They’re low-level schmucks standing in a plaza surrounded by palace guards! It would be madness to interfere!

That, of course, is the moment when the campaign’s mysterious man in black shows up to stage a daring rescue, pinning the executioner’s foot to the scaffold with a thrown dagger, making a revolutionary speech, and spiriting the innocent victim to safety. Or at least, that’s what he’d like to do. If the PCs can’t find some subtle way to warn him about the angry executioner looming behind him, he’s destined to wind up in the palace dungeons.

There’s a lot to object to in this setup. In the first place it smacks of railroading. The module itself actually calls this a “cut scene,” and anyone who’s ever skipped past the non-interactive parts of a CRPG knows much fun those can be. By the same token, if you’ve ever encountered a self-insert GMPC, you know how taking agency away from the heroes and giving it to some other asshole rubs players the wrong way. And yet, the Edge of Anarchy execution manages to work in context. I think it’s worth understanding why.

If you’re going to set your players up as bystanders, it’s important that they have a stake in the events. Aria Stark can’t do much more than look on at the end of Season 1, but her emotional connection to events are the heart and soul of the scene. In the same way, the players in Crimson Throne are fresh from a daring rooftop chase. They’ve presumably caught, spoken to, and built an attachment to the accused NPC, maybe even promising clemency if she agreed to go along peacefully. Watching this NPC being threatened with death and injustice is a powerful motivator, and works to keep players invested in the scene.

Note too that this is a brief sequence. The write-up in the book is just a few paragraphs long, packing a lot of dramatic oomph into a short chunk of exposition. While players won’t sit still for a dramatic reading of your latest short story, they will pay attention to fast-paced events unfolding in front of their characters’ noses.

And perhaps most importantly, there is still a moment of interactivity baked into the scene. Even if the PCs aren’t doing the rescuing themselves, they get to warn the vigilante about his imminent danger. Casting gust of wind to blow the executioner’s hood over his face, hurling rotten apples at the scaffold, or even something as a simple as a shouted “look out behind you!” is enough. The man in black nods in thanks, takes the victim by the hand, and leads her over the wall to safety. In that sense, this is more of a TRPG quick time event than a cut-scene.

When I ran this encounter, the party kineticist opted for the hurled debris option. It helped that the courtyard had erupted into chaos, so no one knew who exactly threw that playing card. It also helped that the character had multiclassed into vigilante himself, and looked up to the resident man in black as a role model.

When it comes to implementing a cut-scene, caveats apply. This is not a technique that I’d use in every session, or even in every campaign. If left unchecked, it’s the sort of GM overindulgence that can lead to actual railroading. (Ain’t nobody wanna watch the man behind the screen talk to himself for half an hour.) But when it comes time to set up a dramatic moment, I do think that the “RPG cut-scene” is worth putting in your toolbox. It’s an emphatic story beat, and so long as you cut back to the players quickly, it can be a powerful way to set up a plot arc.

What about the rest of you avenging vigilantes? Have you ever staged a last-minute rescue at Executioner’s Square? Did you manage to save the victim? Did you get captured yourself? Or did you perhaps biff that all-important “shoot the rope” roll and watch your almost-definitely-innocent buddy swing? Tell us all about your own well-executed execution encounters down in the comments!

 

THIS COMIC SUCKS! IT NEEDS MORE [INSERT OPINION HERE] Is your favorite class missing from the Handbook of Heroes? Maybe you want to see more dragonborn or aarakocra? Then check out the “Quest Giver” reward level over on the The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. You’ll become part of the monthly vote to see which elements get featured in the comic next!