The Ransom Story

"The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king." - Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

Every GM (regardless of the rules system) has to keep a steady eye the plot. The plot creates the cinematic tension. The tension fuels drama. The drama is what makes the RPG a more powerful shared experience than a tactical board game.

Here at "The play’s the thing…" we will examine the basic elements of a generic-but-rich plot-line and examine how to adapt the plot into your RPG session. For the sake of discussion, I will reference the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG line (because that's what I'm GMing now), but the intent is that the core concepts can be applied to any RPG that suits your fancy.

This week we will examine the "ransom story" plot-line. This is an oldie-but-a-goody. The stakes are always high. The bad guys are always extra bad. The good guys always have to make a real decision to either play by the bad guy's demands or stage a rescue (but we'll get to that).

Here are the basic elements of the plot:

Prologue: The Kidnapping

Act One: The Terms and the Threat

Act Two: Pay the Ransom or Stage a Rescue

Act Three: The Resolution


Prolog: The Kidnapping

Someone the characters care about is taken away illegally by force. What most superhero movies have taught us is that heroes create risk for ones they love. Bad guys get this. For you Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (SWEotE) readers out there, a character with certain obligations and character motivations can be brought into who is kidnapped and why the PCs need to even care. Obligations such as: Debt, Dutybound, Family, Favor, Oath and Responsibility can easily be brought into play here.  Motivations such as "Relationship" as well as "Ambition:Love" and "Cause:The Weak" are also good character hooks.

You have to pick a victim that your party will respond to. If you can't think of a good victim, your last resort is to use a player character whose player didn't show up to the gaming session. Then the party has to explain at the next session why they let their buddy's character die (hmm..tisk tisk).

What do you mean by prologue? For this story to work the GM should try to make all of the action of the kidnapping itself to happen "off screen" when the PCs aren't around. This is the type of thing that happens because they were gallivanting off and adventuring somewhere else not paying attention to those they left behind.

Does the kidnapping have take place off screen and out of the view of the PCs? In truth it doesn't have to be.  I would generically recommend that the kidnapping happen away from the PCs for one main reason: the kidnappers will never have to be more powerful than your PCs, they only have to be stronger than the person they are kidnapping if they are smart enough to be three steps ahead of the PCs. If you are tired of making your main "Big Bad Evil Guy" (or BBEG) always more powerful on the battlefield than your last BBEG, then give the wimpy-evil-genius kidnapper a try. If you must show the kidnapping take place in full view of the PCs, the bad guys have to either be faster or more powerful than your player characters. This can be very dramatic and if your PCs aren't used to losing a battle…you might have to watch the table's morale level when they lose.

Act One: The Terms and the Threat

DON'T FORGET: This act is where your bad guy HAS TO SHINE.

Basic Action: The kidnappers must present their demands and demonstrate that the victim is alive and the threat of death is real.

This bad guy must be hardened against being manipulated, intimidated, deceived or charmed. Negotiation skills are paramount. [SWEotE GMs note that a few ranks in "Nobody's Fool" go a long way here). If the "face" of the party defeats the bad guy through talking, you will be missing most of the fun of this story type.

What is the motivation of the bad guy in a ransom story? Money. The bad guy might have a little revenge streak in there too, but if he was consumed with revenge, the bad guy would simply kill the kidnapping victim. So remember that the bad guy wants the highest possible amount of cash he thinks the PCs can provide while minimizing his risk.

If the bad guy asks for an irrational amount of cash, he will force the good guys to stage a rescue and risk his own safety, thereby undermining his greed motivation. If the cash requirement is too low, the players will just pay off the ransom and get on with their day (which is no fun).  Keep this in mind, because the bad guy might start off with a very high cash demand, but might also be willing negotiate down to keep the payment option alive for the PCs. If the PCs believe they can come up with the money somehow, the bad guy is still in business. Here is how Michael Weston of Burn Notice frames this: "A kidnapping is a business deal. The bad guys have negotiating power since they're selling the life of a loved one. But then again, they have a market of one, so they have to work with you."

Time is a key factor. The bad guy needs to own the clock. Usually a kidnapper needs to give the good guy enough time to come up with the money but not so much time that they can go to the authorities or use it to plan a complicated rescue. If your "face" character needs a victory here, give him/her the chance to negotiate for more time.

The threat of violence against an innocent is what makes the bad guy really stinkin' mean. I'd caution GMs away from getting too sadistic here.  The bad guy only has to be believable that he will hurt the victim. If the bad guy inflicts too much misery on the victim, the PCs won't come up with his money. As long as the victim is in the hands of the bad guy, the victim's safety must secured "just enough" while the bad guy has to be crazy/evil/sadistic enough to pull the trigger if he doesn't get what he wants.

The exchange plan has to be owned by the bad guy. The bad guy has to come up with a way the good guys can drop off the cash and pick up a person in exchange. This exchange has to give the bad guy ultimate tactical control of the situation and minimize threats from the good guys or the authorities. This doesn't mean the bad guy's plan has to be perfect by any means, just well thought out enough to challenge your players.

Act Two: Pay the Ransom or Stage a Rescue?

The players have to decide to either play by the kidnapper's rules OR stage a rescue. This is most important decision that will effect how you GM the rest of this session. One way to discourage the PCs from staging a rescue (if you don't want to GM it) is to make sure your bad guy can kill the victim very quickly.  

Example from SWEotE:

Jisela was kidnapped by the Rodian gang lord "Greeko Shiv". Greeko's gang tied her to a swoop bike that Greeko's men controlled by remote. They added some remotely controlled explosives to the bike on too (just in case). They popped a helmet on her head (to muffle the screaming and hide her tears) and then sent her flying through the Coruscant Undercity like a needle in a moving haystack of speeders and ships. The swoop's fuel would run out in 24 hours. If the PCs tried any funny business, she might have an "unfortunate accident".

The Rescue Operation...

Planning a rescue op is good, old fashioned RPG stuff.

1. The good guys need intel: where should we look/recon?

2. The recon: what are the obstacles to the rescue?

3: The rescue op itself.

4: The surprise twist: what did the good guys not know when they were planning the op that threw them a curve ball (make this part fun, not a bloodbath).

Since your bad guy will be motivated by payment, the good guys have to keep the illusion if a food-faith cash drop to keep their loved one safe. The problem is that the closer they get to rescuing the victim, the more likely they will tip off the bad guy that they are trying to stage a rescue and that's might be deadly. So the main obstacle of the rescue is really speed and stealth...not necessarily combat prowess. Remember your bad guy only has to be tough enough to kill the victim quickly, not tough enough to decimate the party if PCs. Here are some more nuggets of wisdom from Burn Notice's Michael Weston...

"About forty percent of kidnapping victims are released safely. These statistics are affected by a number of factors, including the nationality of the kidnappers, the age of the victim, and whether a hostage negotiator is employed. The odds go down sharply if no one has any money to pay the ransom."

"Once a kidnapper knows you're on to him, he'll try to contact his partners, to have the hostage killed. At that point, you have a choice: you can start choosing wreaths for the hostage's funeral, or take a hostage of your own."

"Rescuing a hostage isn't about battering rams and guns. Charge through a door with a gun, and chances are the person you're trying to save, will be the first person lying on the floor dying of acute lead poisoning....If you can't get through a door without attracting attention, the next best thing is to attract a lot of attention. Once everyone is looking at the door wondering what's going on, you can pop in a flash grenade and they won't see anything for a while."

Maybe the PC Want to Play the Ransomer's Game...

If the PCs don't have a decent plan to generate the cash needed for the ransom the GM might need to remind them of assets they hold dear (their ship perhaps) or favors others may owe them.

Once the bad guy believes he is going to paid, he might want to reduce his risk of retribution or involvement with authorities. It doesn't make sense to go to all this effort and risk if you can't get away clean. So "his game" (that is all of the hoops he will make the PCs jump through before they can see their loved one) are about laundering the money, escaping blame, and keeping the authorities off if his trail.

Act 3: The Resolution

This one is up you, GM. When I ran this plot for EotE we had Greeko Shiv ask the PCs to rig a star-fighter race (through an asteroid field) so that the bad guy could place a bet, get paid and let Jisela go free. The PCs went along with his plan. they entered the race themselves and place bets in their favor. Everyone made money and the girl was rescued. They never had to pull a gun on Greeko because they were never in the same room with him. Greeko's Rodian ties to the Yiyar Clan fed into their next big campaign which was the Beyond the Rim published module.

The point is to simply resolve the story in a satisfactory way way and leave a little plot hook for your next adventure.

Anyway, have some fun!!