|Elder Scrolls Online ... plots that hurt so good.|
Well, no, but as always the devil is in the details.
I've been accused of being an "evil storyteller" on several occasions, not in connection to anything but just as a vague reference. While I've always found the phrase distasteful, they actually mean it in a complimentary manner in connection to my dark fantasy and horror vibes and assure me that it's because my campaigns hurt so good. Since I have no actual horror players among them, I still eye the title with caution and don't wear it with pride (as some others do), but I mention it here since "hurts so good" is the name of the game and I thought I'd mention my rules of thumb in keeping my players happy with the pain.
So whenever I have a nasty plot twist or intense piece of drama in mind, I quickly pass it through a few tests on a semi-conscious level before fielding it. Then tests include:
Does It Add Anything To The Story, Really?
You'd be surprised by how many things can fail this litmus test. You might think that kidnapping a PC's child and leaving a ransacked room behind will add to the tale but in reality it might not. Are you really prepared to weave a story out of that kind of tragedy? Or are you using it as a cheap hook when any stolen stereo would do? Worse still are when a beloved NPC is summarily killed off for drama but unless the next few adventures are going to involve funerals, shockwaves through the community, and changed relationships between the various characters, you're really just killing story options rather than creating them.
If you have any punishing story element that doesn't go anywhere, you're not adding to the tale. And yes, that includes mugging the PCs for an overpowered loot item and then having the thief get away. If there's no thrilling What-Happens-Next element, it's pointless story-wise. This can involve putting it through a television show test ... if the target audience would rage at it's inclusion, then it's probably not a good inclusion. Figure out something else.
What Do The Characters Get Out Of It?
There should always be an upside to any punishing event. It may not be equivalent in overt value, but it should give the suffering meaning. The less inclined your players are toward horror and tragedy, the greater the upside. If you steal away their sword, ensure that following the thief will take them to a treasure hoard. If you give them a disapproving sire who downplays their every achievement, dangle the opportunity for either revenge or redemption in that sire's eyes. If there is no joy to the situation, and no escape, then expect to have a very small target audience that probably doesn't involve your players.
Oh, and if your players are smart enough that they do something which would undermine or remove that great big negative, let them. Don't just flex your godhood to keep things on the tracks. If they would catch and knock down that thief, then preventing it through GM fiat will not be worth all the treasure chests in the world. Let the players have their wins.
Ensure that every dark spot has a bright light at the end, and the players will crawl toward that light secure in the knowledge that it will be worth it in the end. Naturally this means that the carrot must be visible and occasionally grasped pretty frequently for most players lest despair and apathy set in.
If you're anything like me, you can spend freely with your good elements and moments of happiness because when you're dealing with the darker genres, the light enhances the shadow anyway. Without the light, it all becomes irrelevant and you're just punishing your players for playing.
Would Your Players Actually Enjoy This?
When in doubt, leave yourself an out. If the player grows stony-faced or visibly upset when their PC starts walking through their ransacked house, looking for their missing child, then rework reality and have their kid creep out from a hiding spot in a laundry cupboard. Yes, the players might have eventually come to enjoy the kidnapping plot but often the little twist and the relief that comes with it will foster more attachment and a better storyline. Who wouldn't love such a resourceful kid?
Certain obvious triggers are best left to an out-of-character conversation and a little common sense. Some players don't deal with frustration and uncertainty well, others loathe tragedy. If something would stoke an emotion they're not ready to feel in-game, then approach them out-of-game first and ask them if they would be cool with that. Yes, this does sometimes involve spoiling the surprise but if they were going to have a heavy reaction to an unexpected twist, odds are they'll still feel it when it happens to them, they'll just have more time to prepare.
Remember, too, that the uninvolved players should also have some say in it. One player might writhe with glee at the carthartic sense of terror that comes from a potentially triggering event but including an alien pregnancy caused by a monstrous rape of a PC affects all party members, not just the one you target. Ensure everyone is cool with it and don't just assume consent to those details just because it's the World of Darkness, or even Kult.
If you subscribe to the theory that joining a game like Kult (or the equivalent) means accepting all kinds of nastiness, then fine, but list out those types of nastiness to new players because they might not know what that actually means. While you're thinking in terms of rape, domestic violence and paedophilia, they're thinking body horror and occultism. Make sure you're actually on the same page.
Finally, the question is also of value when thinking in terms of rewards. For one player, the approval of their in-game father might be the best reward in the world. For another, it's fame and fortune. See what makes *them* light up, what they spend their time talking about, and give them their glory the way they most want to receive.
What's your advice?
Naturally these aren't the only rules of thumb you can use but they're the most visible to me and they generally steer me in the right direction. What would you do?