Wednesday, December 12, 2018

20th Class: Application

With our last class, we finished by talking about the repetition.  Briefly, let's look at the arrangement of scripts as they occur in typical game session.

Most commonly, game-play begins with a script where an authority or better informed entity gives the players the adventure, either extorting the players or bribing them with promised treasure or moral responsibility.  This is followed by a script where the players purchase gear; sometimes this includes a script where the players bargain with a storeowner.  The next script will be journeying to find the location of the adventure, then a script where the players enter a dungeon or other edifice.  Scripts follow relating to battling monsters, solving puzzles and overcoming difficult obstacles.  This continues until all the scripts for the adventure are completed, whereupon the players return home and receive their rewards and potentially their next adventure.

Take note of the linear arrangement of these scripts.  Each follows in order ~ and for the most part, the players are in control of that order.  Occasionally the DM will interrupt the players with a traditional story twist, such as a surprise attack, a turncoat or an item that serves as a gotcha!  Even then, these scripts are timed by the DM to occur at certain points the players reach when moving through the linear story ~ so in effect the players, by agreeing to move ahead, unlock these scripts as they go.

The expectation that forward movement unlocks scripts is understood and accepted as a fact of gameplay.  However, as the linear quality of unlocking scripts becomes first recognizable, then predictable, the excitement of unlocking a script wanes.  Because of this, we want to understand why some scripts continue to possess fascination despite repetition, while others grow wearisome almost immediately.

Let's compare again the experience of going to a restaurant with the experience of commuting to work.  Clearly, the restaurant experience remains a pleasant activity for decades, while commuting loses its appeal almost immediately.  The differences are obvious, yes; but let's try to identify those differences so that we can see more plainly how the different scripts affect our engagement.

When dining, we expect to enter a pleasant, warm, eye-catching environment, one that is clean, peaceful, unhurried and attended by people who seem to care about our presence, even if they don't.  We are given a selection of foods; the food itself is designed to produce a pleasant response; we are amused by the company that comes along with us, by the newness of the restaurant if we haven't been here before, or often, and the knowledge that if something isn't to our liking, we can complain and expect to be heard.  The overall experience encourages us to indulge ourselves and feel pampered; and for that, we're willing to part with a significant amount of money.

Of course, some restaurant experiences are less pleasant, but there the benefit is that we are eating to save ourselves time, the food and surroundings are less appetizing but, in turn, it costs less.

Commuting, on the other hand, is not optional.  We must go to work. We may control the atmosphere of our vehicle, but we do not control the environment as we get to work and we know no other driver cares about us.  Commuting can be tedious, confrontational, occasionally dangerous (as we are reminded when we pass accidents) and is a method by which we spend money so we can go to a place to make money.  We cannot change our route except at the expense of time and money, so we don't.  If we are not alone, we are imprisoned with others in a poor mood.  In general, no one is made happier on the journey as the workplace is neared.  There is no reward for commuting except that we count it as the first part of our day being done.

Some experience a better commute; some ride transit rather than drive, saving money and putting up with strangers in order to reduce the pressure of having to concentrate on the road.

Very well, what key differences vastly improve the dining experience?  Choice to start, closely followed by company and the knowledge that your wants and concerns matter.  The company ensures a positive, associative conversation that might freely go anywhere, without the encroachment of anxieties or upcoming responsibilities.  Let's draw the line there.

Within any of the scripts played during the course of an adventure (and we may choose to see the whole adventure as a large single script if we wish), there are elements of choice, company, attention for the wants and concerns of the participants, opportunities for pleasant conversation and the relief of anxieties.  There are also conditions that make parts of the game tedious, that can make a given part of the adventure an unpleasant slog, the feel that time is being spent without much return and moments when we are trapped with others in a poor mood because of how the game has gone for them (or their attitude in it).  These are mixed together and, unless managed, pleasant, positive aspects of the game will be distorted and undermined by negative, unpleasant elements.

Nothing is here by accident.  Considerable thought has
gone into every element.
It isn't enough to build a setting or hold a session.  Like managing any space or experience, the players have to be settled in their places and addressed with concern, adjusting their focus deliberately and patiently, not suddenly commanding their attention and creating unwanted resistance.  The first moments of the session have to be presented with the attention of a server, asking the diners what they want for dinner.  The players must be given time to shake off their everyday lives; then we can read them the menu.

We don't make a setting based on whatever works or what's recognizable any more than a restaurant serves "food" that's "cooked."  Specific ideas are chosen, enormous effort is taken to identify every single nuance of the process, including the DM's presentation, the surroundings, the method by which the fare is delivered to the participants and an honest and sincere concern if the players "like it."  To ensure the best possible experience, we return again to our preparations.  Have we researched this?  Do we know what we're talking about as we describe a castle, an underground vault, soldiers readying to fight the party, the likely presence of magic and so on.  Are we just throwing shit in a bowl and calling it a meal, or have we legitimately invested ourselves into creating this sumptuous ten course meal with consideration and effort?  Have we planned more than just what we expect the players to do?  Do we have a plan B?  Or have we only one food on the menu?

Have you pulled every resource available?  Because if you haven't strained yourself, gone all out to create this experience, re-examined the various elements to predict the player's responses, you're not ready.  Talk about the adventure with a third party, someone who won't be playing and get their take.  Then change your approach to fit this new knowledge.  Find a degree of flexibility you haven't had.  This isn't your experience, it is theirs.  Don't presume that because you like it, they will like it.  You'll never get a meaningful experience off the ground that way; you'll be closed in a week.

Are you practiced?  Do you know what you're doing?  You need to be confident that the players are properly prepped and ready themselves, before this thing gets started.

It isn't enough to say these things.  Proper script-making expects that we should be versed in what's being presented and how each tiny element of that presentation matters in the overall scheme.  To elucidate on this, let's look again at the linear group of scripts we quoted at the start of this class:

Start game-play by selecting an authority whose presence adds more than the adventure's initiation; create in the authority some motivation that: a) is neither pure benevolence or villainy, but seems completely believable given the authority's position in the setting; b) assign persons of interest to the authority ~ family, friends, employers, enemies ~ whose presence will later become important in the whole campaign and may temper events happening in the immediate future.  Encourage the players to find their own personal reasons why they should be interested in the adventure, asking directly why they would enter into any adventure and how they would hope to be compensated, without deciding these things for them.

Create an environment in which the players can equip themselves, which determines what is available for purchase, why it is available, where it originates, why it is here, how does the seller justify these prices and how the seller may wish to influence the players in order to make them better customers and not resentful.  Create gear that will empower the players without overpowering them.

Create a journey to the adventure that is not a line on a map, but rather a physical and emotional experience, with NPCs, informers, enemies, shared information, hints, warnings, kindnesses and new friends that will inform the players about the setting by making them more familiar with that setting.  Give opportunties, and time, for players to investigate side quests without requiring them to do so.  Concentrate on describing these side quests as a future catalog for player interest rather than actively planning these quests out from start to finish.  Players will remember these places and will return willingly to what interests them without being asked.

Give more history to the place of the adventure than it's convenience as a place of adventure.  Space the history or detail out, so that the players collect clues as they go.  The history should have absolutely nothing to do with the actual adventure, but rather act as a mental side-quest, one that has completely escaped the present denizens.  Envisage this additional bonus knowledge as a means of creating interest in another adventure or as a means of maintaining the players' curiousity as clues arise.

More than creating a collection of monsters that differ by species alone, assign purpose to the monsters as well.  With intelligent monsters, assign specific motivations within the setting that these monsters would possess if the players were not present.  Determine what this place is like when it is not being attacked by players and then use means to pass this information to the players, so they can identify plainly how their presence is doing more than merely clearing rooms ... they are actively sabotaging active lives that were lived for a reason.  This level of detail will better measure the impact of the party's actions, creating further sources of knowledge, interest, curiousity and moments of clarity.  Where possible, the monsters' purposes can be vague, even strange or weird ... only to fall into place when more information is gather.  This creates a problem-solving feature to the adventure that increases the players' attention.

With the completion of the adventure, then, we will have learned about the place of adventure, we will have a better conception of the setting, we will have additional quests the players can research, the originating authority will be more human and therefore more accessible and the players will begin to motivate themselves towards actions, rather than being told what to do.

In creating any application, we want to do more than have the application perform a given function.  We want that function to create a behaviour in the user that serves our needs as designers.  This is the symbiotic relationship we want ~ therefore, we have to give that function additional levels of interest if we want to arouse the user's investment.

There will be one more lab in the course, then we'll turn our attention to creating rupture in the course of game play, afterwards discussing how to use that rupture to encourage players to build better characters.


Drain said...

Excellent, excellent post, especially the second half.

Vlad Malkav said...

I concur with Drain, very good post. Not much to add, and a lot to take in.