While I find it impossible to manufacture those moments, I have found three things that help nurture the environment that helps to create those moments.
– Don’t twist the story/setting/moment to fit your wants or character build.
– Understand character’s strengths and weaknesses.
– Keep the other player’s wants in mind.
To better explain, here’s an example of one of those moments we had at our table:
Six of us (the GM and five players) were playing Vampire: The Masquerade. Our team of five tracked down an ancient sarcophagus to an underground missile silo. Against all odds and with a great many joyful screw-ups, we infiltrated the silo. A new problem arose when we learned the sarcophagus was in a room that had only one entrance, and the room leading to it had around a dozen vampires in it that would no doubt kill us on sight. We were young, low-level vampires. We would struggle to survive a fight with just a few of them, let alone twelve. In addition, only one of us was any good at fighting, and the sneakiest out of all of us had one rank in stealth.
So we couldn’t fight our way through and we couldn’t sneak our way past them. We were a group that focused on subterfuge and theatrics, two things that you usually have to make contact with someone to use. Together, we devised an effective plan that was as enjoyable to plot as it was to execute.
One of us could use magic to create very convincing illusions. He used his powers to make it look like one of the other vampires in our party was on fire. The flaming vampire kicked in the door. He screamed that the rest of the compound was on fire and that all fire safety measures failed. The vampire that cast the spell came in after him, shouting orders on how to evacuate everyone. Both of them had to make a roll to convince the enemy vampires that the flames were real and that they were all in danger.
While they did this, the remaining three of us slipped through amid the chaos to get to the room, managing to quickly and quietly take out one of the vampires that didn’t believe the place was on fire. The three of us made it into the room and the other two made it out of the silo as they sent the enemy vampires into a panic (the end).
First: Don’t twist the story/setting/moment to fit your wants or character build.
The world (in and out of game) doesn’t revolve around you, so don’t expect the game world to do that. Instead of trying to make a situation perfect for your clever plot or to best fit your particular skill set, think about what you can do in the current situation, even if it isn’t the thing you’re best at.
Nothing about that mission- from the beginning up until that point- ever worked like we thought it would. However, working together and using what we had, we managed to pull off the mission and succeed… mostly (but that’s a long story for another time). Rather than focusing on what we wish we could do, we used the tools and skills available to us. It all could have failed, but we had a few backups in case that happened. The vampire we set “on fire” was the toughest out of us. If he failed, he stood the best chance of tanking a few hits and still making it out alive (or still undead since he was a vampire). The three not involved with causing the panic had the element of surprise to take out nonbelievers. We knew it was a risk, but it was the best option we could pull off together at the time.
Second: Understanding character’s strengths and weaknesses.
Using the same example, we focused on what we were best at: deception and theatrics. We used confusion, vampire’s natural fear of fire (it does aggravated damage, which is worse than normal damage), and acted like we wanted to help them escape without presenting anything that appeared threatening. For a group of looney vampires that loved using dramatic interaction, surprises, and charisma, it was the best and most enjoyable solution we could think of.
Third: Keeping what the other player’s want in mind.
This group enjoyed high-risk, high-reward scenarios. We liked bonkers ideas that- while they are not usually the best idea- are unexpected enough to keep our opponents on edge and guessing. We wanted to try new things. While none of us wanted to lose our characters, if we were going to die, we wanted to do it in legendary or hilarious ways.
That’s how our group was, and because of that, this scenario worked for us. I’ve played with other groups that were great but would have not understood or gone along with this plan. And in those groups, if a few players forced them to play along, it would result in people not having fun. Knowing what the players want and doing that helps bring those moments to life.
Related Post: Steal My Idea: Learn from My Failure