Wednesday, April 7, 2010


It’s been a wild four days, and what with the online/offline campaigns, there hasn’t been much chance to work on the traditional blog posting ... but it isn’t that I don’t have things to write about. I certainly do.

The offline campaign just finished a ‘quest’ ... if you want to call it that. They managed to complete a small task that they had taken on, and they were rewarded for it - and for a week now they’ve been trying to decide what to do next. They have, I think, settled on a course of action, the one which I confess was the one I would have preferred myself. And so this gets me thinking about solicitation in a sandbox world. Yes, that’s right. I’m a hooker.

Last week I wrote that it did some good for a party to be bored once in awhile, and I stand by that ... although it can be particularly brutal if the party is so used to being led around by the nose that they’ll gladly have the piercing done for the nose ring and tie off the lead themselves. It takes a decent period of practice for a player to get used to following their own lead, without going nuts from the boredom.

The other side of that, something that’s been far more prevalent with the online players - because they can’t see my face, or hear my voice, as I’m describing things - is the concern that they are getting into something that’s going to kill them. Thus, when I establish a hook, I have to be careful to keep it as ‘friendly’ as possible.

I did not master the art of hooking through RPGs, but almost exclusively through the writing I always did alongside participating in D&D. Without question, the latter took its cues from the former. Writing is the practice of creating more than just one hook at the beginning of the story ... but other hooks, thrown in as often as possible without overwhelming the reader. Every character is a hook; settings are often hooks; and of course the antagonist’s actions are meant to pull the protagonist along until the story reaches a conclusion (where the hooks are resolved, hopefully).

Applying that art to D&D is a snap - if you understand that human curiosity needs far, far less to arouse its interest than the sort of blatant, obvious hooks which are to be found in common action movies - and RPG modules. You do not need the government or some rich fellow to recruit the players; there need not be some unlikely mistaken identity; the characters do not need to find themselves in the middle of a firefight (though I did that in a novel once, shame on me) ... these things may work for early Eastwood and Connery films, but honestly they’ve become so anvilicious they hurt when applied to a subtle sandbox campaign.

The more subtle you can be, the less oppressive the hook is ... particularly if it is sold very strongly on the privilege of the player to say no. “Do you want to follow me up the mountain?” as a question asked by a passing stranger is much more preferable to, “Your king has sent me to demand that you must go up this mountain.” Get rid of the taint of authority; change demand to request (and mean it!); exchange the word ‘must’ for the word ‘can.’ It is as simple as that.

Anvilicious approach: the players see two men in the street exchanging a package, with one saying, “Don’t let anyone see this - the Queen’s life depends on it!” The other man mounts his horse, and heads pell mell down the street.

Subtle approach: the players see two men in the street exchange a very small handshake - one has a small, open cut on the back of his hand, which drips a single drop of blood onto the street. No one else seems to have noticed. As the bleeding man walks away, he limps.

The first is so clear that the DM wants the party to follow that they roll their eyes, anticipating the planned event which is sure to follow. The second, they can lean back in their chairs and ask, what was that about?

Even at this, I’m being heavy handed. It wouldn’t be necessary for the party to see anything more than a dried blood stain on the back of the man’s knee, as he limped away. From that simple premise, I can add clue after clue until the party HAS to figure out what the hell is going on. Eye rolling is kept to a minimum.

In just this way, with waving a small white flag instead of a giant red one, I can often manoeuvre a party towards a particular goal ... always remembering, as it is my philosophy, that they can let the bleeding man walk past, turn to their buddies and ask instead, “Anyone read a good scroll lately?”


Zzarchov said...

I must say, this post covers far more full material than I had hoped.

How do I know what type of whore a player encounters? Should there not be a chart from aging toothless gutterwhore to royal courtier?

That aside, a useful post.

G. Benedicto said...

I expected something about ladies of the night, but instead got some very useful advice.

Steve L. said...

Bravo and amen, Alexis. In my opinion, this post of yours is by far the best advice you've given on your already-thoughtful blog. It's gold to any RPGM (role-playing gamemaster; hey, did I coin a new acronym here?), not least because it ties in with your earlier post about the importance of involving the players' emotionally--the holy grail of RPGs.

Your post made me recognize that "subtle hooking" is the storytelling philosophy I've developed, somwhat automatically, over the 29 years I've been playing AD&D and other RPGs (almost as long as you); this new awareness can only help me fine-tune my approach. Until now, I would have described my DMing style as introducing clues of a subtlety sufficient to conceal from the players whether I am using prepared material or am running off-the-cuff. (I can't take full credit for this, as my two primary players and I would take turns DMing our own respective campaigns, and I suppose we evolved together). To this end, for example, I would always have a few names set aside to avoid giving away the ad hoc nature of a given encounter (this appears to be a common tactic among DMs in general, but perhaps not for the same purpose of disguising the "seams" of the campaign).

A new wrinkle for me is your down-scaling of the alleged importance of adventuring hooks. I confess that I tended to have PC parties recruited by various nobles and other elite personages; it simply didn't occur to me explicitly that players can be as motivated by more modest concerns than, say, saving the kingdom.

P.S. You wrote, "Get rid of the taint of authority; change demand to request (and mean it!)" I am not sure what you intended by "and mean it!" Were you referring to the attitude of the NPC or the DM? If the latter, are you advising the DM to avoid railroading and/or avoid getting irritated/angry, or did you mean something else?

Alexis said...

I mean that if the players say 'no,' the DM should move on and drop the idea.