Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Trick

Ok, I touched upon this yesterday in the footnotes, but I want to call it out here. This is an incredibly useful trick, and it’s one that every GM should keep in hand if they want to make adventures or introduce game elements that are really going to resonate with the players and their characters, even if they give you only one or two things to work with.

Most characters have hooks, interesting elements about them which carry some emotional or behavioral load. They hate orcs. They drink a lot. They have sworn an oath to avenge their father. Whatever. To a GM, these things are pure gold, because they represent a laundry list of cool things that make a game go. The problem is that the list often seems kind of short. If every character has only one or two such hooks, that may end up seeming like a pretty anemic list once it’s spread out over the length of a campaign.

Not so fast. With the right approach, even one or two hooks can be turned into an absolute smorgasbord of elements n a game that directly engage the characters without simply repeating the same handful of plots. The trick, to put it simply, is this:

Don’t tie things to the character, tie them to the things tied to the character.

Ok, that may not make much sense without context, but give me a minute here. Let’s take a sample character, Anna, who has only two hooks – she’s a terrible skirt (pants?) chaser, and she wants to be the king’s Master at Arms someday. If you were to only use those things, then you’d have exactly two plots: The guy she’s sleeping with, and the mission for the king that will get her the position. Sure, you could stretch them out into chains – there might be a series of lovers, or it might be a sequence of missions before the title is rewarded, but that’s pretty much. This is all you have to work with.
But what if, instead, you never touch the obvious things? What if, instead, you presume those things to be givens, and instead focus on other things that connect it into it. Thus, even if we never focus on an individual lover, we might well run into:

  • The jilted, vengeful other lover looking for revenge
  • The wife of your last conquest
  • The partner who gets too enamored and asks his family for permission to marry you. They are not amused
  • The partner who signed her name on his debts. His bad debts.
  • The pimp, who feels you misunderstood the situation.

Similarly, the route to the Master of Arms office is almost certainly dotted with:

  • Other potential contenders for the position about to improve their standing
  • People who would be happy to have the future master at arms owe them a favor
  • People who might have the king’s ear who want things.
  • Alternative (and very sweet) job offers

Even with just this off the cuff list, you now have enough seeds to keep the character engaged for dozens of sessions. And that’s with some very shallow hooks – your players have likely been much more creative.
The trick[1] is to find the thing important to the character, then find the things that resonate with that. Not only do you multiply the number of play opportunities for a single hook, you keep that hook from feeling overused, even if it comes up constantly. Where a string of lovers in trouble might get repetitious, the people connected to those lovers are vastly more varied.

Anyway, it’s a small trick, but when I’m stumped, I find it’s a very useful one[2].

1 – And like all good tricks, it’s utterly obvious once you see it.

2- A similar technique makes for a fast and dirty way to make memorable NPCs. Take an element from one of the players and reflect it in an obvious fashion. If one player was a soldier, make him a soldier on the other side. If one player likes to drink, make him a drunk. Something that seems like an entirely obvious GM trick to elicit sympathy.

Then reflect it again. Discard the first value and use this new one. Instead of being a soldier, he had a brother in the war. He used to drink but is better now. Whatever. Suddenly it’s a lot less contrived, but there’s that root of commonality to give their interaction some resonance.

The Call to Action

So, it seems that one advantage of doing a two parter is that I get some very prescient comments about what the next pat will do. If you haven’t. You absolutely should take a look at the comments on yesterday’s post. Some good stuff there.

The trick of the tableau is that you don’t want a tableau at all, you want a call to action. That’s a very grand sounding term that really means you want to provide your players a compelling reason to act. Easy to say, but you don’t want to force them to do it – that’s as bad as using heroic logic tol ead them by the nose. No, instead you want to create an opportunity that is resonant and urgent. Something that makes them want to act, and act now.

Such as situation is composed of three parts: an opportunity, a reason, and a consequence.
The opportunity to act seems like the easiest of the three. After all, players can always act, right? All they need to do is say they want to do something, right?

Well, yes, that’s technically true, but it’s not necessarily useful. You don’t want the players to take any action, you want them to take an action in response to the situation.[1] That demands that there be something specific for them to react to, usually some sort of action. A little girl standing around looking lost is not much of an invitation. The same little girl getting kidnapped is another story.

This leapfrogs onto the third point: Urgency. An important part of the call to action is that there is a clear consequence to inaction. The consequence need not be to the characters, it simply must be a change that will happen if they do not act. Ideally it’s a change they don’t want to have happen, but that depends a lot on how you sell it to them. In the previous example, there might be some long term consequence to the girl being lost and alone, but there’s an _immediate_ consequence to her being grabbed. The window to act opens, but it does not stay open indefinitely.

You can actually get by with just clear opportunity and consequence in most situations. As long as the consequences are undesirable, that can be enough to spur action. But it’s really the absolute minimum, and it’s thin enough that it’s a poor thing to rely on. As such, if you really want to close the deal, you need some reason why the characters (or players) actually care about what’s going on. There are several ways you can do this, so let’s look at a few of the more reliable ones.

Most powerfully, you can make the events personal. Tying things directly to the characters gives them immediate stakes. As an example, why put a stranger’s child in the center of things when it can be someone the characters recognize, if only through business done with their family?
You can also make things indirectly personal. Well constructed characters have any number of buttons and issues that were put in explicitly to be drawn into situations like this. Do they have an enemy they hate? That’s who’s grabbing the girl. Do they have some idea they’re attached to? Tie the kid to it through dress or action. You know how to do this if you stop and think about it, so do it![2]

A somewhat more shameless trick, one that is directed at the players, is to let them see someone getting away with something, ideally something which they would get in trouble for if they tried. This won’t work for every group, but if you’ve had to do things to keep them in check, I assure you that nothing will drive them to violent indignation faster than someone getting away with something.

Another trick, and again, this one speaks to the players, is to make things anomalous. Look at the scene you have in mind and try to spot your assumptions. When you think about the cute little girl in braids in trouble, the image is almost certainly human, to tweak that. What if she’s a dwarf. Or A Goliath. Or a Warforged? Challenging assumptions are more likely to give the players pause and make them think about the situation.[3]

In all of these cases, the trick is to get the players to _want_ one outcome over another. If they want something, and there’s a clear opportunity for action in front of them, everything else takes care of itself.

1 – There is a temptation to want them to take a _specific_ action, and to funnel things down that path so its the only valid option. However well intentioned, this is a bad plan. It’s railroading, and no one benefits from it. Concentrate on trying to get them to respond, but leave the manner of that response up to them.

2 – Of course, the reason you won’t is that you’re afraid it will appear contrived, forced, or like you’re overusing those hooks. You’re not. Not any of that.
It is a rare game that overuses the character’s hooks. If you hit them more than one every session they MIGHT start wearing thin, but the reality is this is what the player _wants_, and using them is validation, not a challenge to credulity. And heck, if you’ve used them enough times to be worried, then you should have a whole backlog of past uses you can draw on to make things a little different.

Consider, for example, if you use a character’s interest in the ladies quite often. You could keep throwing in new damsels, but if you’re worried it’s wearing thing, then why not bring back one of the previous ladies. Or perhaps her very angry sibling? Or her kid. It creates a personal tie _through_ that important character element without triggering it directly.

3 – Don’t rely too much on this one though. It can easily turn into another variant of heroic logic.

UNRELATED PLUG: So, I said something on twitter the other day. Daniel Solis turned it into something lovely. So I have done the only reasonable thing, and opened a Cafe Press store for it.