Thursday, September 30, 2010

A *Great* Campaign

Talking about this with my partner last night culminated in her hitting me in the arm repeatedly ... because she still has not forgiven me.

If I could explain.

When my party discovered a huge carved stone in the shape of an altar (though it wasn’t one), part of the description was that the word ‘Xalmoxis’ was written on the stone 22 times. In the course of puzzling out the meaning of the stone, naturally someone – my partner as it happened – locked onto the ‘beetlejuice’ theory. That is, “What if we say Xalmoxis twenty-two times?”

To which I answered, “That’s an idea.”

This was enough to get everyone interested, and my partner thus launched into repeating the word twenty-two times, out loud of course, as the party counted ... and when she got to twenty-one, pleased that it was done, she paused and said it the last time with dramatic effect. During this whole time the room was quiet, waiting in anticipation for what might happen when she was done.

But nothing happened. That was good for several minutes laughing, conjecture and puzzlement, in the middle of which I said, “You did pause, right at the end.”

Which, naturally, encouraged her to do it all over again, without the pause. And as she did, I was thinking to myself, I bet I can make her do it a third time.

Because still nothing happened.  It was never my plan for anything to happen that way (which is why I say a DM has to be principled), and so the player, my partner, was left with egg on her face, which explains why my shoulder hurts this morning.

I have tried to explain this before by declaring myself an asshole, and saying that I like to fuck with my players heads.  But in truth, what it really comes down to is teasing the hell out of people, and doing it in a way that will drive them crazy.

When I said, "That's an idea," I meant literally that.  It was an idea.  That's all it happened to be, but a player will read into something like that and believe, with faith, that I wouldn't say it was an idea unless it really mattered somehow.  And when I said, "You paused," again it was assumed, the DM wouldn't point that out unless it was absolutely relevant.

I am always careful to say these things in deadpan mode.  No expression, no change in voice, no inflection, no indication whatsoever that I mean anything except the literal truth of the words I'm saying.  It isn't easy.  It takes practice.  But the art of inscrutibility will pay off in D&D (and in poker).  You've got to bluff your players, and you've got to resist grinning in sheer pleasure when they're running around, chasing their own tails.

I have mentioned withholding information in the past, but most of the time with reference to macro-information - wide lens campaign stuff.  Withholding micro-information is equally important.  Someone a hundred yards away stops, kneels, and takes something out of his backpack.  "What?" asks the player.  "You can't tell."  "It is big?"  "No."  "Can I tell anything about it?"  "No."

The guy could be taking a comb out of his pocket.  If you say, "He's combing his hair," the player will relax and the moment is gone.  But if you say, "He's passing his hand repeatedly over his head now, and seems to be in deep concentration," you will now spend the next twenty minutes listening to the party talk about there's no damn way they're going anywhere near that guy.

This is the principle of terror.  That we fear what we do not understand.  More precisely, we fear stimuli to our senses that we cannot reconcile with the world as it appears.

You wake in your own house and for no immediate, apparent reason, the bedside light won't turn on.  Naturally you think, power outage.  We're familiar with that, and it doesn't terrify.  But then you see the lights of the house across the street are on.  That's weird, you think.  You go to the window to increase the angle of your view and look around ... all the lights on the street are on.

Okay, wait, you know what it is.  It's the circuit breaker.  You have no idea why the circuit breaker would be off, since no one's up ... but it has to be that.  You look for a flashlight and the battery's dead.  There are candles downstairs.  No problem, you go get them.

Lighting a candle, you descend to the basement.  You're noticing noises all around you.  It's only the house settling.  You hold the candle up to the circuit breaker and see that every circuit is on.  That's odd.  You stare intently, doubting your eyes, doubting the available light from the candle.  No, they're all on.

Then the basement door slams shut and you jump straight out of your skin.

Some moron at the power company turned your power off by mistake, because you have a similar name to someone who didn't pay their bill (it's happened to me) - and your wife, hearing you get up, has come downstairs to find out what's going on.  She walks into the basement door, which you left open.  But now you're downstairs, the candle is out, its pitch black and  you'll be lucky if you don't let out a good shout.

Whereupon you'll hear the basement door open and your wife ask, "Ned?"

Which will really scare the shit out of you because your name is Joe.

I'm building this narrative to explain how the order of information, and the amount, is absolutely important to the way a campaign is delivered.  It's no story if the phone rings and the voice on the other end tells you your power is out because the company made an error.  It's no story if you tell your players the massive, elegantly dressed fellow coming down the middle of the street with an entourage is the local Count.  Don't tell them. 

Unless they're from here, don't tell them it's the Count's insignia on the bodyguards, just tell them it's an insignia.  Don't describe the Count as regal or imposing ... describe him as indifferent and inconsiderate.  Don't describe the good things the party sees, describe the flaws - one of the horses needs a new shoe; some of the guards seem unhappy to be there; between the peasants cheering are certain artisan types who are deliberately looking away, or walking away.  Give the information carefully.  There's more story in the old man bitterly watching the scene with his arms crossed than there is with the gorgeous woman on the Count's arm looking adoringly at him.

And don't be obvious about involving the players in the scene: don't have the soldier push a player out of the way ... have the soldier push a little girl out of the way.  Don't hire the players to kill the count - hire the group of adventurers at the next table.

Does this jumble of advice seem, well, jumbled?  Of course it is.  Dungeon Mastering is not a science.  Take it from the fellow with the maps, the tables and the rigorous systems for trade ... the actual mastering of a game cannot be broken down to figures.  It is temptation, the art of waving suggestive images at a party in such a manner that they feel fear, distrust and a breakdown of personal control.  When done right, a player will feel brave when they dare to take on the challenge; they will feel triumphant when they beat the odds; they will feel downcast when the price has been too high; and they will feel a rush of hatred when they've been swindled.

Whatever I wave at them, be it a bar of gold under their noses, or the promise of greater
riches, or a real threat that worries them - it is up to them to calculate their risk.  I am only here to say, "There are people who hate the Bishop;" or, "I have six wands here ... you can have your pick if I can count on you;" or, "It's unhurt and walking away ... but you could easily catch it."

Other people call them rumors; I think the word temptations are better.  The better I am at drumming them up on a moment's notice, the faster my world moves and the more levels it moves upon.  I never have only one plot line running - there are at least six or eight unresolved issues that stem from previous adventures - when successes were achieved or mistakes were made.

All I need do is invoke one of them at the start of an evening and we're off and running.

Now, if you can't do this, and you're wondering how you can, I have a straightforward recommendation.  Become more worldly.  Travel, adventure, soak in knowledge, study things, study your fellow human, be introspective, gain insight.  View your players adroitly and accurately and play to their strengths and their weaknesses.  You may not see how to do that now, but if you take my advice about becoming more worldly, you will.


ChicagoWiz said...

Awesome post. This, IMO, is a keeper. Yes, you do a fantastic job of what you describe. I'm not ashamed to say that I've picked up that trick from you and others and have used it myself.

In my online game right now, the players have spent an inordinate amount of time on what appears to be a deserted homestead because the central building keeps creaking and groaning. We're two weeks now in what has been about 4 hours gametime and they are still poking around.

Have they found the source? Or will it finally come to light? Who knows... but the ride there has been a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. While a lot of discussion has taken place recently on why RPGs can't successfully simulate fiction in terms of story arcs and what have you that the DM hatches alone... this aspect of tension, suspense and even fear I've always found to be foundational to a good game. I like a good knock-down, drag-out fight... but its resolution is so much sweeter... so much more meaningful in the context of it resolving tension. In this regard, good RPGing has a lot in common with fiction.

Ian said...

Thanks for answering my question, Alexis. This was exactly what I was wondering and gave me a lot of great ideas. Some of the things you mentioned I have been doing in my home game (having several--5 or 6--unresolved issues running simultaneously), but this post included ways to take them even father (firing the group of adventurers at the next table).