Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fish Hooks

From the 10,000 word post:

"In order to inveigle the interest of a party, it is necessary to produce enough information to prove that knowing is in the party's interest.  If you as DM produce some weird, strange, apparently impractical device that inherently shows no personal gain for the players, they will look at it, shrug, yawn, and move on - no matter how really queer and strange it is."

There is a trope that is called 'genre savvy' ... wherein a character is so familiar with stories and plots of a particular kind that they aren't affected by them.  My own quote above is nearly the same as this, from TV Tropes:

"They can tell fairly early that the strange old man who's offering free lollipops is probably best avoided.  And they've seen enough Horror movies to know that when there's an ax murderer on the loose, the last thing you want to do is either split up, boink your significant other or investigate strange noises in the sinister subway ..."

The plot "hook" is so named for the method by which one catches fish.  Depending on how smart the fish is, the angler has to be one degree smarter - and so goes the sport.  Take note, however ... the best and most dramatic fights the angler experiences rarely wind up a good thing for the fish.

You want to hook your players.  You want to give them a fine hunk of meat, you want to bury the hook deep into it, and you want to play the hell out of your players as they fight bitterly for that meat without getting taken.  If you're very clever, they won't see how nasty and deep that hook is until it is buried deep in their jaw ... by which time, it may be too late for them.

This is fine drama, and it makes for a good running.  It can also make for hard feelings, since we ARE talking about the prospect of deception on the DM's part.  Even if that deception is forgiven, in the long run the effect will be to make your parties wary and distrustful.  If you react to that by getting more and more deceitful, your parties will grow so wary that you'll have to railroad them just to make them take part in one of your adventures.

One way in which some campaigns handle this is to make clear the hooks right from the start - and for the players to willfully adopt 'genre blindness' in order to have a 'good game.'  They deliberately carry the idiot ball around with them, usually because they don't care if their character lives or dies, just so long as they can get some fightin' in before the night is out.  So they run blindly down corridors, jump into pits without hesitation, attack the biggest monsters by the straightest route possible and never, ever identify anything before trying to use it.

Its a sort of joke campaign that thrives, so long as no one wants to break the mold by being savvy at the game.  Anyone viewing their character as precious is soon labeled the table malcontent, and usually mocked for being a "sissy" or such.  Why anyone plays in a campaign like this is beyond me ... but then, I'm far too serious to comprehend how much fun spontaneous emotional insults and bullying can be.  Probably, the best moments in these campaigns are likely to occur when everyone is on board with the program - and the DM too, with fabulous rewards in the one hand and a stack of ready-made character sheets in the other, to keep the fun rolling along.

I don't think the game need rely on deliberate ignorance in order to encourage enlivened play.  An intricate hook does need to be constructed by the DM to make the best possible 'play' for the character, ensuring that the fight for the reward is long and realistically possible, no matter how ruthless the deception on the DM's part.  It is, in effect, the difference between creating a horror movie that is deliberately camp and ridiculous - where everyone can feel superior over the stupidity of the genre blind, while enjoying the genre savvy - and creating a horror movie that is actually brilliant in construction and therefore terrifying.  Comparatively, to create camp is easy ... which is why so many producers rush for that means to make money at the box office.  A particularly genre-savvy film, like Cabin in the Woods, can do remarkably well, simply by stapling together bits and pieces from other movies with a rather remarkable stapler (sorry, no spoilers, but the means of stapling the movie tropes together was clever).

On the other hand, actual fear in a horror film is nearly impossible.  I haven't experienced it in ... well, let's say a long time.  I have nearly given up on the genre altogether.  It takes a lot of hard campaigning to make me watch anything at all.

And this is the trouble with DMing, too.  Any fool can produce a module full of genre-blindness dependency, so long as there's a few cheesy time-wasters for the party and some nice dressing of the walls and furniture.  For most folks, this will be GOOD ENOUGH.  They don't know there's another way to play, and since most players don't get to play as much as they'd like, there isn't TIME to get bored with it.

My feeling, however, is it reduces the DM to a sort of number cruncher, where he or she tosses out the monsters like crumbs to the goldfish, that being the only dynamic.  There's no one upmanship, since the DM's JOB is to see to it that the players have something to swing at.  The DM should not emotionally upset the players by throwing them something other than the crumbs they expect.  The crumbs most certainly should not include hooks the players can't figure out at a glance.

Admittedly, the goldfish are pretty and it can be amusing to throw them crumbs for awhile.  But marlin fishing ... now that is something else.  But that takes a boat, a big boat, along with the means to get where the fish are, the tools to catch the fish and the will to hang on for hours while the fight never seems to end.  For that, not only does there have to be a hook, but it needs to be a BIG hook ... and you know how damn hard the fish is fighting not to be taken.

You want your players to get hooked; you want them to fight so hard and so long against it that they are virtually guaranteed to get that meat and leave you with a broken line ... so long as the players keep fighting for life, and they don't give up.  I'm not talking about a game where when a player dies, you hand them paper with scribbling on it.  I'm talking about a game where when a player dies, you hand them a tissue.


  1. "to get that meet" = "to get that meat"?

    I fail to see how can any player not be completely thrilled to be intellectually defied by such a GM. You can win... but you're going to fight hard and long for it. The GM cares to provide a worthy challenge: not one you're guaranteed to conquer, just to survive... and only if you play it well. I love it.

  2. In the spirit of roleplaying, I'll often have my character do things that I know not to do. But there's a fine line between roleplaying with deliberate genre blindness, and roleplaying as a kamikaze pilot.

    Paranoia! was a fun diversion but I can't imagine anyone deliberately playing AD&D that way.

  3. That's funny, because I've only met several dozen such people.


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