The Rule of Three

September 24, 2011 - Actual Play, Design

One of the fundamental rules behind the games I run is the rule of three – Two opposing characters and a third, undecided character. The opposing characters need the support of the third to defeat each other. This creates the basis of the adventure where the character’s have a goal and an immediate path forward – gaining the loyalty of the third party.

However, the PCs  enter the picture and begin to unravel the plots of the 3 characters, determining which side to support and ultimately which character will prevail. When this happens it is often desirable for the GM to align the undecided character. This escalates the odds against the PCs forcing them to further adapt to the situation.

The 6 step process for creating an interesting adventure using the rule of three is:

1. Create 2 characters who oppose each other.
2. Create a reason why they cannot openly war.
3. Create a third character who has an interest in seeing either party succeed.
4. Enter the PCs
5. Once the PCs have unraveled the opposing characters plots and determined who to support, the third character begins to support the character unaligned with the PCs – if appropriate.
6. Play out the adventure until one of the opposing characters is defeated.

To further demonstrate the Rule of Three, I’ve included the actual play report for the group’s first game, Misery is the Rhyme of the World. The first two sessions of the game have been played out but Alice’s plotting and Montague’s counter still need to be resolved, so there will be some minor spoilers for my players.

The Principal Characters

Alice, a high-class escort. Alice desires to run away from her life as an escort but can’t risk losing everything until she gets that one big score. She uses her sex appeal to manipulate men and has falsely promised her bodyguard, Whiskey Jack that they will run away together. She has recently been contacted by another party to retrieve the data off a client’s commlink without him knowing. This is the big score she has been waiting for.

Whiskey Jack, a retired boxer and Alice’s bodyguard. He has been unable to recapture his glory days after a prison stint cut his career short and his heavy drinking after his release earned him his nickname. Through Alice’s manipulations he has fallen in love with her and plans on following Alice when she runs away. Whiskey Jack has been performing Alice’s dirty work leading up to the big score.

Montague “Monty” Cheswick, Fixer. Montague has developed such an extensive list of contacts through his escort agency that he no longer considers himself a pimp but instead, a bona fide fixer. Alice is Monty’s highest earner and has the most influential clients that he cannot afford to lose her. With his girls being slashed on the street he has hired the PCs to provide additional protection for Alice, along with Whiskey Jack.

In this scenario Monty is one of the character’s contacts and if he doesn’t successfully defeat Alice’s plot to leave his employment then his connection rating will drop. Because it’s obviously beneficial for the PCs to assist Monty and not Alice, Whiskey Jack is initially aligned with Alice at the start of the game.  His reasons for aligning himself are weak and a sufficient number negotiation checks would have him see reason. Another strength of Alice’s plot is Monty doesn’t know about it yet.

The Game

With this in mind, the game started with Monty offering the PCs a job to protect Alice from the attacks that had already been visited upon his other girls whose faces had been slashed open by a straight razor. To assist them with this job he introduced them to Alice’s regular bodyguard, Whiskey Jack. While on the job, Whiskey Jack instructed the PCs in the proper protocols for ensuring Alice’s work wasn’t interrupted or hindered in anyway. It wasn’t until the PCs misread a situation and tried to kidnap the very man Alice was trying to steal data from that Alice was forced to expose her plan to the PCs.

Alice had already determined that the PCs were a capable adversary and she knew how much Monty was paying them to protect her. So she countered his offer and secured the PCs assistance in retrieving the data – now that the man, a research scientist with Shiawase had been scared off.

Unfortunately for the PCs, Whiskey Jack had found out and not wanting to compete for Alice’s attention ambushed the PCs in the barrens but luckily the PCs triumphed and Whiskey Jack now lies dead, two bullet holes through his chest. Alice’s plot continued to unravel when the PCs accidentally alerted Monty to Alice’s plot when they asked him to find out more about the research scientist.

The session ended with the data steal complete but the delivery unfulfilled.  Alice can see the end zone of her plot and has begun making preparations to leave. Meanwhile Monty has begun to expose her plot and is close to shutting it down. With Whiskey Jack out of the picture, the PCs have adopted his place in the rule of three in the hopes of getting paid by both Alice and Monty.

With all it’s complexity, Shadowrun is at it’s core a character driven game and the rule of three brings this to the forefront. It’s especially useful for sandbox games where you can’t predict where the PCs will be but can predict who they might talk to.

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