Friday, October 26, 2012

The Sweet Spot

From a post last week:

"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."

How do you do that, exactly?

To begin with, you want your players to care about their characters ... to care specifically if their characters live or die, but in the grander sense to care about what their characters have accomplished, and what they hope to accomplish.

Life, if we may step out of the game a moment, is a fairly piss-poor thing by itself.  The very process of human thought has been bent towards the problem of making life something that can be lived decently, pleasureably, with purpose.  Taoism, which lends its name to this blog, is deeply wrapped up in the process of 'detachment,' which is to say the separation of the human being from the desires of the world, desires which you and I are unlikely to fulfill unless we are very lucky ... which would only invoke new desires, and greater unfulfillment, and so on.

It is not much of a leap to comprehend that a group of beings sitting around a table, pursuing a game, are fundamentally in the same fix they are in their ordinary lives.  The circumstance hasn't changed just because they play act options and choices through avatars.  We continue to speak of things we want; we continue to speak of things we can't have.  And the disconnect between the two is played with, by a conveniently designated individual, in order to mitigate the cold, harsh realities of the ongoing world, where no such individual exists (in this writer's opinion).

They want, and the DM is able to award.  If too much is given, the players become detached from what they have and it ceases to have value.  Too little, and the players feel the sting from desires that are not achieved.  Where is the sweet spot in the middle?  Aye, there's the rub.

Figuring out how much treasure you give your players is similar to figuring out how much to pay your gardener for picking weeds from the begonias ... with things that conveniently have a price tag, you can say ye or nay, but when it comes to setting the price yourself, it is more about what you can afford, and what you can get away with.

Judge, then, how your players react at the table to the rewards you give for the pain they suffer.  Ignore the tables, ignore the nonsense spouted in the margins of your books ... watch your people!  Do they treat fortunes that would make their characters boost a level with calm acceptance, even indifference?  Do they spit upon sums a tenth as much?  Do they swear bitterly if there is no treasure at all?  Or perhaps they nigglingly count every fraction of every coin they receive, fighting over who gets the odd one.  Do they treat the lack of treasure with a knowing sign and disinterest?  If any of this is true, you may be missing your mark.

Treasure ... and indeed the whole scale of win or lose D&D ... comes down to offering the player enough to keep their mouth watering, but never enough that he or she is sated.  If your players sit back in their chairs, pat their tummies and say, "That was a good running!" ... you have miserably failed.  It may be enough to send them up a level and it may make them happy to do so, but they should STILL feel that some string is left loose and disturbingly suggestive that all this good fortune is going to come to naught.

That sounds cruel and heartless, but it is the stuff of life, and therefore good drama.  For your players ARE alive ... if you want their characters to live and breathe and be constructed of more than paper, they must behave in accordance to the same rules of living that your players carry in their tissues.  Life is NEVER perfect; it is NEVER a closed loop; it ALWAYS threatens; and however much the moment may feel good, one keeps a watchful eye for the next moment.

Consider this, from the 10,000 word post:

"The game is about obtaining power; power through coin, power through ability and power through influence; if you do not tease your players with the offer of one of these things, you are barking up the wrong tree.  You are a prostitute offering clients the promise to walk their dog."

And what is influence?  It is the means by which your players change their circumstance.  If you are able to follow what I say about treasure, and how its failure to quite measure up to desire is the stuff of life, influence is an order of magnitude higher.

This portion of the long post linked above comes under the heading 'Momentum' ... and the desire for influence is the long suffering key that will ultimately drive momentum in your world.  For here is the equation:

If your world is something that is unchanging, or if that which changes in your world is of no special relevance, that it will NEVER carry any purpose or value to your players.  Your world will be utterly detached emotionally from your players, and your players will never really care about anything they do there.

How do I mean this?  If your world is a collection of scenes - dungeon scenes, lair scenes, treasure scenes and so on ... then none of these 'scenes' is in any way dependent upon those that come before.  "Here we are on the cliff;" "Here we are in the Frog King's toilet chamber;" "Here we are in Jake Flakeless's Magic Cheerio Dungeon" ... and on.  What matters if the Frog King is dead if nothing in the Flakeless world knows or cares if the Frog King ever lived?  We the party drag ourselves from frying pan to frying pan with all the purpose of dishwashers, wiping clean the endless oily residues and for what?  Another coin, another gem, another magic item to throw on the third pile from the left.

I am speaking of the eternal desire of human beings to have resonance ... to cause an outward flow resulting from their actions that sweeps steadily through all the corners of your world, and bounces back at the party to show THEY MATTER.  You are not producing a world of stolid, intransigent stasis ... you must create a world the players can change!  And in changing your world, they produce for themselves the proof of their value, the proof that they can mitigate their circumstances, and the circumstances of others, by trying to do so.

This is NOT something you can give them.  This is something they must be able to take away from you, for the world of yours that they change for themselves must be changed in the way THEY conceive, not in the way you conceive.  If you are your world, then you must give ground when they prove themselves smarter than you.  Not too much ground - it mustn't be easy.  Not too little ground - they must feel positive about their expectations.  Just enough ground that they pay a price to wreak havoc or social justice to the corner of your world they've demonstrated the power to control.

As they go up levels, that corner increases in size.  You need not worry about that.  Change isn't your responsibility.

Flexibility is.


  1. Great post!

    Having and running your own world involves a lot of thought and, as always, not thinking about those things is so much easier. But at the same time so ... unrewarding?

    The group basically has to have responsibility for their deeds. The more complex, the better. Having a world which changes even if you simply remove one stone from the path would be ideal.

    Hitting the sweet spot is an eternal task, but you can always start by using asking yourself how the world or the NPCs would react. Most of the time, the first guess is right, even if it results in damage for the PC.

    I will take your words into consideration while builing my world und my system, thank you!

  2. It's indeed a fine line between giving too much treasure and too little.
    And I try to be as flexible as possible so that the group can influence the world.
    Thanks for reminding me of this.


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