Interpretation, pt 1: “What the heck just happened?”

by mshrm

When folks set down at the metaphorical gaming table to play, there isn’t really one game going on. There’s one game for each player, and one for the GM, each one running unopposed in its own home brain. There’s a certain set of shared “facts” in all these games, so there’s overlap, but everybody’s got their own story.

I am reminded of one of the most often mentioned events of the GURPS Old West Knockoff Deadlands Clone game, the time ol’ One-Eyed Pete shot Marshall right in the gut. Both PCs, you see.

The synopsis, if there ever was one, is long lost. It’s been long enough, I’m not sure I recall all the details and background correctly. Here’s how I recall it:  The good guys had been captured by the king of the ghouls and dragged away for a gruesome fate. They were in an unknown, underground location. They were nominally disarmed. (The “nominally” becomes important shortly.) They were surrounded by dozens of man-eating ghouls. Things were looking grim.

When they woke up, they were in a big cavern containing an odd bit of furniture and an even odder inhabitant. The first was a carved stone pyramid, about chest-high, equipped with glowing runes. The second was a half-naked, half-starved, half-crazed Spaniard who claimed to have been captured from Ponce de Leon’s expedition in search of the Fountain of Youth, over 300 years before, and kept as a slave by the ghouls since that time. The PCs didn’t know if they should believe his story or not, but he did demonstrate uncanny healing abilities by repairing wounds sustained by a couple of posse members.

After a short talk with the slave, the master showed up. The king of the ghouls, along with his entourage of three ghouls for every posse member, came out to taunt the PCs. The leader of the posse, Jim Marshall (later known as Marshall Marshall, but that’s another story), was clearly angling towards a desperate last stand. That’s when Pete made his move.

A bit about the characters, first. Marshall was the classic white-hat, straight-arrow law-man, with the twist that he woke up one day with a tin star and no memories. He didn’t quite order milk when the rest of the posse ordered whiskey, but if he had, nobody would have been surprised. As such, he often got on Pete’s nerves. One-Eyed Pete was a huckster, a gambler who would bet his soul against dark powers in exchange for magical abilities. He was rarely sober. He was always well-dressed, but hardly ever clean-shaven or well-bathed. In many ways, he was the exact opposite of Marshall.

One of Pete’s many esoteric abilities was his skill with concealment and sleight of hand. In fact, he had Gizmos. It had been established that he could “Gizmo out” a little pepperbox derringer. Therefore, in theory, he was the only member of the posse who was armed. In a sort of Schrödinger’s pistol kind of way, anyway.

Outside the game world, on the players’ level, there was a lot of heated discussion about how to handle the looming TPK. Marshall’s player had a plan:  Pete would pull out the pistol that he still had, despite the posse having been searched and disarmed, and hand it off to Marshall, the party’s designated gunslinger, who would then lead a desperate charge to bust out of the trap and escape.

Kinda like that, but with ghouls. And a donkey. And not so many guns.

Pete didn’t think much of the plan’s chances of success, to say the least.

Finally, you’ve got to understand the players’ dynamic. The player behind Marshall was the one behind Rho, and Kadabra, and Mississippi Jed (and Bubba, in the Space Cowboys game). The player animating Pete also played D’arth, and Fubar, and TKotBO, and Osolo Solo. These two have known each other for a long, long time. They’ve got a well-worn bicker going on. Tradition demands that I invoke the image of old married couples at this juncture.

There’s a history, is what I’m saying.

So, with all that groundwork, here’s what happened in-game.

As noted, Marshall held out his hand to Pete, expecting to receive whatever smoke-wagon the ol’ reprobate had concealed about his person. As expected, Pete did something quick with his hands and came up holding a piece. Unexpectedly, he then plugged Marshall right straight in the belly!

As Marshall lay dying, Pete started talking fast. “I’m on your side!” he claimed. “I’m a mole, working on evil from inside the good guys’ camp! I never liked this dude! I’m a devil-worshipper, too!  I like ghouls! I’ll take you home, you can marry my sister! Let’s join forces, and we’ll rule this one-horse town like father and son!  Can I call you ‘pa’?”

The rest of the party (aside from Marshall, distracted with the business of bleeding out) looked on in stunned disbelief as Pete laid it on thicker and heavier. The gist of his claim was that he was a natural ally for their captors, and wanted to change teams. More than that, he proposed a plan in which the ghouls would not only let him live as an ally, they would turn the other captives over to him, too! He claimed that only Marshall had a stiff enough neck to cause problems. He could talk the others into working for the ghoul king, as well.

They bought it.

I mean, it took a while. The player himself was in the zone, that day, and the character was a con-artist, and he had the bonus from having just shot his comrade in front of them to “prove” his sincerity. The ghoul king and his court weren’t really all that practiced at the art of deception, either. In the end, they not only turned the posse loose, they also let the crazy Spaniard heal Marshall! (I think there might have been something about keeping him alive for now, so he could be a sacrifice later? Something along those lines, anyway. They saved him from death for a fate worse than.)

The ghouls left everybody back on the surface world, with Marshall bound. The others immediately turned on Pete, of course, but he claimed that his heel turn had actually been the fake-out — he was on the side of the angels, had been all along, how dare they doubt him!

… Have you ever noticed, nobody will suspect a PC like another PC, but they’ll also sometimes believe each others’ stories without question? I’ve lost track of the number of times somebody has made a character with the explicit goal of being a Good Guy, only to have all the other PCs assume it’s all an act covering up some nefarious activity. “A nun who works with poor orphans? That’s gotta be a front….” On the other hand, they’ll accept the most outlandish stories, told to them by a PC that they know to be a liar…

At any rate, they bought it. Marshall had his doubts, but he left it alone. Officially, Pete shot Marshall as part of an elaborate plan to bamboozle the ghouls, knowing that life-saving healing was on hand, and figuring that if they fought, they would all die. Just a bit of social chess-playing.

* * *

(Remind me to tell y’all, sometime, about the time Marshall rolled a natural 3 on a Fright Check in an outhouse.  Or the other time, when Pete got to shoot another PC in the back, after telling him to his face that someday, Pete was going to shoot him in the back. Or the time they air-lifted a suspiciously-intelligent donkey.)

* * *

So, all that long-winded laying of groundwork amounts to “Near-TPK averted by highly-unlikely action taken by PC”. Nothing special. But here’s the thing: some time later, I was talking with the player, and I asked how much of the whole thing had been plan, and how much had been spur-of-the-moment tap-dancing.

No plan, he said. No plan at all.

In the heat of the moment, his thinking had gone something like, “Pete hates Marshall, everybody’s going to die, so if Pete’s ever gonna shoot Marshall, it’s got to be now”. Everything that came after that, he had made up as he went along.