To paraphrase Bill Cosby, "I told you that story so I could tell you this one..."
The high point of our Firefly campaign was an episode where I stole a riff from the classic TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street. At the conclusion of the first story arc on that show, which had focused on the investigation of a young girl's murder, the detectives finally had a suspect in custody. The evidence was shaky, though, so Detectives Bayliss and Pembleton (the latter played by a young firebrand who went on to become one of the great actors of his generation, Andre Braugher) dragged the suspect into the interrogation room for an extended interrogation. For the characters on the show, the interrogation went on for hours; for viewers, it lasted almost the entire length of the episode. An hour of TV with three characters attacking each other verbally and mentally, breaking each other down in the most vicious ways imaginable. It was both great, landmark TV drama and a potent message about the potential abuse of police interrogations. By the end of the episode, we're not sure what the truth might be. And neither are the detectives. The suspect walks free, and the case is never closed.
Although the campaign, up until that episode, had featured some dramatic scenes and intense moments, I intended to turn the knob up to '11'. In this episode, I intended to have the PCs captured by a crimelord who planned to break the Underground Railroad that Megan's character Lena was part of. Like on Homicide, the crimelord's interrogation of the PCs would take up almost the entire three hours of the play session.
I knew this was a huge risk, because it flew in the face of one of the first things that young GMs learn: players do not like to be captured, and they sure as hell don't like to feel helpless. I knew that I was in dangerous territory, because I certainly didn't want to deprotagonize the characters, so I had to tread carefully. I set some ground rules for myself, one of which was that since I was already "cheating" them into this situation, I had to "play fair" during the interrogation. The villains - no matter how vile - could never resort to physical torture or the tyranny of dice rolls to force information or concessions out of the characters. They could only mount attacks that were psychological, pushing pressure points on the PCs' values and broader vulnerabilities.
I knew this episode could either be the high point of the campaign or a disaster. I worried about it for days, asking myself if it was really a good idea or whether it would sink the Firefly game... and maybe upset my friends, who I love. By the time that game night rolled around, my gut was tied up in knots.
I prefaced my session with some fumbling words about how we were going to try something a little experimental and new, and that it was going to be intense stuff. I told them that when we got into the intense scenes, we would switch back and forth between the players from time to time to give people a breather. If a player was feeling like the scene was getting to be too much, and they needed me to switch out to someone else for a bit, they just had to signal that to me with a hand wave.
There was a look of dread on my players' faces. Did I really just say that this roleplaying game came with a safety word? They didn't know what I was up to, and they weren't sure they liked where this was going. I could see that right away.
But we did keep going...