What do you do when players make an in-character location that lets them avoid the game world?
You are running a game. Maybe it is a LARP, or an online game, or a tabletop. A player comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d like my character to set up a keep/club/house/ditch in the road that is “safe” and no one outside of the group knows about.”
This is a reasonable request, certainly. After all, every great hero has their home base, away from prying eyes. And like most things that go terribly wrong in game mastering, it starts with something that seems so reasonable.
Be warned. Your player may be showing the first signs of Fortress of Solitude Syndrome, and it is going to cause problems.
Why is this a bad thing?
Some players have a tendency to think defensively. They know the game world is dangerous, as are the inhabits that might be looking for them. They want to preserve their character against death, or just inconvenience, and want to be able take reasonable precautions to make sure their characters have a safe, often secluded, often heavily protected or at least secret place where they can do whatever they wish without worrying about the armies of darkness showing up at their doorstep. However reasonable this move, these ‘fortresses’ can be major problems with the game master if the players begin to overuse them.
Players invest time and effort into these locations, and expect them to be preserved. So, you cannot violate their Fortress of Solitude lightly. But, think back to your favorite television series or movie, where the heroes had some clubhouse or home base. How long did it take for the screen writers to violate that space? Batman didn’t go three movies without the villains tossing around explosives in the Bat Cave. Buffy’s living room, despite vampires being stopped at the front door, is practically a four lane highway for monsters and magic. Violating the character’s home and sanctuary is an easy way to investing and engaging the character against an enemy. But when dealing with a player that invested time and effort in creating their character’s entrenched position, they might find it hard to accept that effort (and often even points spent) being cast aside.
They lead to boring play if overused. For the reasons above, you cannot have the plot trounce into the fortress without creating a sense of betrayal. Also, it makes it very hard to threaten the player characters directly with force. The idea that Jimmy the Fish will be very disappointed if they don’t get him that wetware package before the deadline is hard to make threatening if your cyberpunk operatives can go to their Caribbean island base patrolled by attack drones and wait for the thing to blow over. And that sort of play, while ‘smart’ from a strategic perspective, makes the game crawl and lack tension, danger and conflict.
In larger games, exclusive locations can split the game up and break apart the social web of the game. Especially in large games such as LARPs, these fortresses will often also exclude other players, breaking the game into in groups or out groups. And the situation can quickly become Balkanized, and not in a good way.
Remember, a Fortress of Solitude is not just a location that the players have, but one they expect to be protected and safe.
Dealing with Fortresses of Solitude
1. If they haven’t already made their home base, be honest about what they are getting. If a player wants to set up their ninja mountain castle, just be honest and inform them that while their ninja castle will certainly be useful, it is not impenetrable. Indeed, the very existence of such a place is a call for their enemies to undermine and subvert it. Its servants can be infiltrated by rival clans. It can be besieged (with difficulty) by the Shogun. All sorts of things can happen, and while you are not saying no to having it, you should be upfront as a game master that all the planning in the world from the players will not make their location unassailable. The world is inhabited with foes just as clever as they are looking to get at them.
2. The solitude cuts both ways. Make staying turtled up have a cost. Isolating yourself from harm also means isolating yourself from critical information and resources. Make it clear through roleplay that staying bottled up is allowing the situation to get worse and keeping them from getting what they need. The ninja fortress does not get regular mail service, nor is it easy for even their allies to get to. Being in a place secluded enough to be safe is being in a place isolated enough that they cannot help their friends.
3. Give them concerns on the outside. Batman might have the Bat Cave, but he is not protecting just the Bat Cave. He has all of Gotham to protect. The reason the Bat Cave can exist is that Batman can easily be drawn out of it by Joker and Two-Face taking a few hostages. The ‘distress call’ only works with some types of characters – heroes such as Batman with a cause – but there are other ways. Have a huge castle? Give them a fief to go with it, one that can be harassed by bandits and monsters, villagers who count on their new lord to keep them safe.
4. Nothing is free, you know. Most Fortresses of Solitude need hard cash, or its equivalent, to keep running. Otherwise, the castle stores get emptied, the power gets turned off or the engineers keeping the nuclear plant running stop coming to work when their paychecks bounce. In one game I ran set in the Battletech Universe, the players were running a mercenary company where they had an extravagant defensible home base, but that Fortress never became a problem. Why? Because the contracts needed to keep the company afloat were out there, on other worlds. The home base was a place to regroup between missions and store their spare mechs – retreating back to it wasn’t an option most of the time, and wouldn’t get them the credits they needed if they did.
5. All else fails, have the big violation of the Fortress be a major turning point. If you feel up to it, and want to dispose of the Fortress completely, turn the anger and surprise to your advantage. Have the fact that someone got in after all this time and blew up Moon Base Alpha be the start or turning point of a major storyline. Taking away something that the players invested so much effort into can make it personal, and if you try, you can transfer that anger onto the in-character villain instead of you as the game master, so that the players will not miss their old toy as much as they enjoy the new plotline.