Pulling off the “Glimpse”

Whether it’s a flashback, a flashforward, or a vision of the present, the “glimpse” can be a useful plot mechanism in a D&D game. Recently my friend Dave asked me about using it in his game. This is the email he sent me.

I’d like to give the PC’s a first-person glimpse of a massacre going on in the next region of my campaign. I have a reasonable idea of how to get their consciousness there. Each PC will inhabit the body of a villager. While in this “dream” (it is really happening) the whole party and village will be destroyed in the name of fear and chaos (in the name of Tharizdun). My overall goal for this is basically to serve as an adventure hook (a call to right the wrong that is happening in that area).

My question is this: I have the option to either make the PCs observers or to actually grant control of the bodies to the PCs. Given that this must end in TPK, I’m worried that giving control to the PCs will be more devastating to the players’ morale than I’d like. Alternatively, it might make the event more exciting.

What is your opinion?

The glimpse can be a tricky plot tool to pull off. One is that it often break the expectations of a normal gaming experience. As Dave mentions, if you give players control over events, they risk becoming invested in what’s going on and being disappointed when ultimately they fail. If a glimpse is only a short narrative that the DM describes to the players, you risk overloading them with information, making the players bored or uninvested in what is going on.

Early in my own campaign, I subjected the characters to a glimpse of the past. As I’ve said before, I constantly subject my poor players to constant gaming experiments. This particularly occasion had them playing level 30 NPCs—a group of heroes that existed 3000 years ago called the Last Company. I employed several strategies to avoid the pitfalls of the glimpse.

1.) Alter Play Expectations: Instead of letting my players use normal character sheets, I gave them NPCs with vivid descriptions and powers. More importantly, those NPCs were formatted as monsters. The players new from the onset that these were different than their normal playable characters (not to mention a new level 30 character would be a lot to digest). These characters were obviously not going to be sticking around. Another way I communicated the different mode of play was on the battlefield. The players’ normal character had not even faced a Huge size creature when I set up the glimpse combat. The picture below is from the glimpse.

2.) Give the Players Some Liberty and Influence: If I had to do it over again, I’d have let my players have more affect on the outcome of the epic battle the characters glimpsed. As it was, the players had some roll in determining the way certain characters died, and the heroic actions they took during the battle. It’s important to let the players play the characters in their glimpse how they want. If a character escapes imminent death or takes an action you don’t expect, that’s okay, because you can probably find a way to tie it back in to the plot. You can provide some guidance, but ultimately the player should be deciding what he or she is doing each turn. That brings me to my next point…

3.) Make the Players/Characters Invested: Make sure that the glimpse doesn’t feel like a generic plot hook. It should be clearly tied in to what is going currently on, and should open up new mysteries and questions. The characters in my campaign triggered the glimpse by tampering with a powerful artifact they’d been carrying around. In the past, their consciousnesses occupied heroes with whom they were familiar. Some of the heroes wielded items that the character had seen or heard of. A couple of the characters from the glimpse were still alive, and the PCs had met them (in fact, one was a relative of a PC).  Although the characters didn’t fully understand everything they saw, there were enough connections to involve their characters in the events.

4.) Cheat the Numbers: Especially in a glimpse, drama is important. In the case my friend Dave presented, I’d have the creatures perpetrating the massacre clearly be more powerful than the defenders. A couple decisive attacks could drop a player character near death. However, when the death blow is dealt, the DM should try to make it cinematic and interesting. Let the characters make Endurance checks to stay alive, or Athletics checks to perform a daring feat upon being struck down. If they’re not playing normal PCs, players will accept different rules of play. If a monster needs to miss a few rounds to ensure a player continues have fun during the glimpse, then let that 20 become a 2. Don’t have one character instantly be struck down in a glimpse while the other players get to keep playing.

5.) Let Them Feel Heroic: This is a piece of a much bigger issue, and something I could probably write an entire blog about. Players are playing D&D because they want to have fun and feel good. Most players want their characters to be heroes, so let them be heroes. Don’t thwart drama and heroism with rules and “no-you-can’t-do-that”s.

I’m a fan of this story-telling tool, because it gives the DM a way to communicate something important and instantly invest the players. If you’re going to use it as an adventure hook, make it more than just a short-term 1-2 session hook. If a group or a single character is experiencing a glimpse, and it’s only meant to be a small fragment of a much greater adventure, then I recommend describing the glimpse in normal narrative. If the dream hag is trying to lure the PCs out into the swamp through visions, then it doesn’t need to be a glimpse that is played out. Then again, you can still give the character or characters some liberty and influence even in a narrative glimpse. Part of it depends on how comfortable a DM is with improvisation.

Have a question you want me to tackle in my blog? Send me an email at greg.eyeofthebeholder@gmail.com. I’ll try to tackle a couple each month.

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4 thoughts on “Pulling off the “Glimpse”

  1. I’ve used monster stat cards for a “glimpse” too. It worked pretty well. When my last campaign moved from heroic to paragon, the character had been scattered far and wide on the high seas. In the first session, every character got a monster stat card for a sailor on a ship. Over the next 2 sessions, the players ran into their characters and learned what had happened between level 7 (where I ended heroic tier story) and paragon tier at level 11. When the players found their character, I let them use their character sheet again.

    I don’t know if you listen to ‘The Power Source’ podcast, but episode “#17 How’s That for a Teaser?” has a great version of the glimpse in the section about Time Travel Campaign Arcs. In one of the described campaigns, the PCs arrive at a ruin where they are seeking a a legendary artifact. They travel back in time into the bodies of people that lived there right before a cataclysmic event. They need to work together to conceal the object before it is lost. Once they are successful, they abruptly travel back to the present time. Now their players know exactly where the artifact is. They just need to figure out how to get there.

  2. I had an idea similar to Greg’s, but was going to use it as a prologue to my campaign. The players would use 30th lvl NPC’s and fight the ultimate baddie of the campaign as the very first encounter, overthrowing him (temporarily) and shattering the artifact that was the focus of his power. Actual play would then commence with the story set a few hundred/thousand years later. I thought this would add some contextualization to the adventures and give them a glimpse of the power necessary to defeat the bad guy. It also gave me a chance to introduce certain artifacts that the players could seek out to utilize or destroy.

  3. I’m about to do something similar in my campaign, with my PCs experiencing (via a shared dream) the events which triggered the Dawn War through the eyes of the exarchs of the gods which the PCs themselves worship. Got all that?

    The PCs will be represented by large minis, and instead of statting out the exarchs completely I’m going to have them use their existing level 2 powers with some tweaks (+20 to all defenses, +20 or so to all attack rolls, all melee attacks have reach +1) with additional powers and abilities culled from several of the epic destinies (Avatar of Io, Aspect of War, etc). In the dream, the PCs/exarchs will be attacked by a huge fire primordial (with associated fire monsters) while their gods battle a host of primordials on an earthmote floating half a mile above them. The dream ends with the death of the god Io, the disintegration (in the dream only) of the PC playing Io’s exarch, and the earthmote falling to the earth and crushing the remaining PC/exarchs. (Rocks fall, indeed.) The PCs awake to find themselves unharmed in their beds with the smell of brimstone in their nostrils.

    This glimpse is the first in a series of shared dreams that provide the PCs with background on their world’s part in the Dawn War and the upcoming primordial invasion.

  4. Thanks Greg, this blog has really helped me to solidify the scene. I love the idea of using monster stat cards; I think that even my more sensitive players will be comfortable enough with the death of their pseudo-character. I don’t expect any players to escape, but I could manage if they did. Also, I think that the players will definitely be invested; they have already heard about the atrocities happening in the region, but I think that experiencing it will be a healthy shock to the story. I hadn’t considered ensuring that the characters die at the same time, but I will definitely work that out.

    If you or others are curious, this is my planned glimpse:

    It will be one maybe two encounters, but the fact that our heroes experience it is not a coincidence. Not very many people on this world know that Tharizdun is attempting to gain power, and fewer (like my PCs) plan to do something about it. Just before the massacre the consciousness of all those who know and oppose Tharizdun are called to the minds of the villagers, made possible by a divine one-off trinket. The bad guys plan to quash the hopes of the heroes and to instill a sense of fear while their opposition is still limited in numbers. To better achieve this they have surrounded the villagers, equipped them and will slaughter them while the minds of heroes are within. This will be revealed to the players, as it wouldn’t be very effective if the baddies didn’t tell them who they were.

    There will also be more exposition about the over-arching campaign story during the encounter, but I won’t go into that here.

    Thanks again for your advice!

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