The Magnificent Seven Samurai Bugs
You've got a group fixin' to take down the villain threatening defenseless townsfolk? Welcome to the the Magnificent Seven trope!
Got a rag-tag group of good-hearted adventures? Check!
Got a big bad guy antagonist who preys upon the weak? Check!
You got a group of defenseless townsfolk just trying to live their lives? Check!
You want combat? Check!
Well, partner, you got yourself the The Magnificent Seven Samurai trope on your hands and things are about to get real!
You may have or have not seen the Seven Samurai or the Magnificent Seven, but I know you’ve seen A Bug’s Life. Even the ¡Three Amigos! recycles this trope! This story can be told a thousand ways. The beauty of this plot is that it is so rock-solid-useful as an RPG story arc; it’s hard to go wrong. This can be a great first adventure a new group forming as the characters are drawn together to and a team is forged through the trial. It can also be very useful for a powerful group of experienced player characters that have to deal large scale combat on their own for the first time.
The basics of the plot beats are very simple:
The good guys (your player characters or “PCs”) encounter weak citizens who are preyed upon by a stronger power.
The good guys win the first small battle and gain the trust of the people
The bad guys escalate the violence and also prepare to decimate the citizens and the player characters with overwhelming power
The good guys must recruit and train the citizens or to have any hope of success
The final battle concludes heroically with the citizens firmly in control of their fates
This story can be held in one session or spread out across a long campaign. Here are my tips and tricks to make sure you get the most out of this story. I just ran a long campaign using this story arc, and I have a few pointers for you.
1. The good guys (your player characters) encounter weak citizens who preyed are upon by a stronger power.
This seems pretty straight forward, right? Why wouldn’t a bunch of RPG adventures not want to get involved in “local trouble”? Well, partner, you may not believe me, but some “heroic” PC groups can sometimes be risk-averse or more concerned with their own problems. For example, my Star Wars Force and Destiny group crash landed on a low tech planet and even as Jedi they were a little more worried on how to fix their ship than the problems stemming from the local baddie.
When you see the group pulling away from the idea of helping, do not waste your breath trying to convince them to to do the right thing. All you need to do is use a small group of thugs to publicly perpetuate as much violence against a weak townsperson as your group is willing to tolerate socially. If that’s not enough to get your PCs involved in defending the weak, they are already the bad guys in this story and the other bad guys should try and recruit them to work for their boss. Your group has to step up to do the right thing despite risks to themselves.
2. The good guys win the first small battle and gain the trust of the people
This doesn’t need to be much, but it should be a good fight. Any public skirmish will do. As a GM you will want bad guy survivors to successfully escape! Don’t forget to do this! Your main antagonist needs information about the PCs and the townsfolk who look up to them. The antagonist should be embarrassed enough by the failures of the lower level henchmen to raise the tension levels. If your PCs prevent any escape, a local citizen who is a loyal spy for the antagonist can serve this function. Just make sure you give your players a lead on how their actions have not gone unnoticed.
3. The bad guys escalate the violence and also prepare to decimate the citizens and the player characters with overwhelming power
The PCs are only a few in number and can’t be everywhere all the time. The bad guys should be able to hit the citizens again where the PCs are there to defend the citizens. This is also where the good guys gain insight into how big of threat they are facing by the main antagonist. If the PCs don’t seem worried, you need to increase the might of the antagonist as he calls in favors from far and wide to marshall the largest force he can and by doing so redefine the word “overkill”. At this point in the story you need to know a secret weapon that the main antagonist has that he will resort to using in the last battle against the PCs. Keep it a secret, but drops subtle hints. Lay the groundwork here so in the final battle it doesn’t look like you are stacking the deck against the players. In my Force and Destiny campaign, the main bad guy had fully maxed out a single Force power that could almost kill four PCs simultaneously in one turn. They were properly surprised by the lethality, but I had built a logical story explanation early on so that legitimized the danger he posed to them so they wouldn’t reject the narrative premise that empowered this evil dude.
4. The good guys must recruit and train the citizens or to have any hope of success
The trick to succeed here is making sure you have one person in the town who is not the traditional leader, but who everyone respects. The traditional leader is usually under the sway of the main antagonist (if not actively colluding with him). This new leader-in-embryo needs to understand the true nature of threat, see and respect the PCs as way to solve the towns troubles, and most importantly can act independently off-screen to form and train the citizen army. This leader can be the country doctor, the shopkeeper or anyone that the people already know well. The PCs need to liaison with this NPC and build a relationship of trust.
Sometimes your players won’t see the potential of the citizen army you have built into the story for them. They will say “everyone in this town are sheep and they are doomed to their pathetic lot in life”. There is an easy solution here too. Introduce your PCs to a more rugged force such as the local miners guild or a rancher with a strong and able crew of “ranch hands”. Once the rugged laborers have joined up, use those troops to recruit other groups your PCs mistakenly ignored (like the sheepish towns folk). Make sure the bulk of the training happens off screen or in a montage-style narrative. This is also the scene where the PCs improve their own weapons and maybe prepare some sort of “new big gun” that the enemy is not expecting (see The A-Team). If you’re in the Star Wars universe, don’t let the PCs rebuild an old AT-AT Walker unless you need to wrap up the story quickly. You will regret giving them the AT-AT unless the bad guys have three brand new AT-AT Walkers (there’s a pro tip for you). The enemy force has to “feel” stronger than the good guys.
5. The final battle concludes heroically with the citizens firmly in control of their fates
Now it's time for the final reckoning. The story works best when everyone feels like they might be making the ultimate sacrifice to win the day. Make sure there are civilian casualties and a few well-loved NPCs die in action (it’s okay, they don’t really exist). They are fighting for their freedom. Here the antagonist uses his secret weapon. Why do I recommend this. If your players are anything like mine, they will have a pretty solid plan of attack and you need to surprise them with something they weren’t expecting. This will water down their perfect plan and really dial up the tension.
These stories always end the same with a grateful citizenry offering eternal gratitude and friendship to the good guys. Ride off into the sunset and roll credits.