Thursday, September 25, 2014

Groundwork for Dialogue

Let's be more specific about these three survivors from the last post.  Let's say one is a father, Mazonn; his son, Aulus; and Mazonn's older brother, Vasile.  And let's be specific about the bodies. The first is Vasile's wife, Uta.  Another is Vasile's son Teo and the last is an old man, the pater familias of the family, Ivan, the father of Mazonn and Vasile.

Have that straight?  Well, if you haven't, imagine how the party is going to feel when they meet these people, having no idea who any of them are.  As a DM you're not going to put labels on them - the party will have to learn what's happening through dialogue . . . keeping in mind that the npcs aren't going to introduce the party around like this is a family reunion.  And while yes, we do want to think of the npcs as having their own agendas, there's no point in those agendas existing if somehow they don't conceivably matter to the party.  This isn't a tableau, meant to amuse the party a moment or two before they move on - this is a hook.  We want the party to join in of their own free will.  And, like a mark in a con, we want them to think it is their own idea.

Obviously, you're always going to have a jaded, disenchanted player who sees through every hook - I talked about that in How to Run.  That is not something you need to worry about.  We don't make movies for people who hate movies.  Your concern should be presenting a set of logical, predictable responses that will motivate the party's interest and involve them in what's happening.

Remember that as the discourse between the party and the strangers begins, there is plenty of opportunity for tension and uncertainty.  The party does not know who these people are or what they're hiding!  In representing them, we absolutely want to play up the party's suspicions, we want to make certain the party believes that something isn't being said, that somehow a conspiracy exists to keep the party in the dark and - most of all - that they're missing out on something.

For the love of all that's made of goblin bones, DON'T tell the party that these people lost a lot of treasure that they'll split with the party if the party helps get it back!  There's that heavy hand again, telling the party what to do and smashing the tension all to hell.

Look, let's back up.  The party is approaching these three survivors.  Vasile is beside himself.  He's lost his son, his wife and his father, and he's now the fellow covered in blood beside the body of his dead wife, having removed the spear from her body.  There's a large, recognizable wound in her chest that can be described to the party, for they're all soldiers and they know a spear wound when they see it.

At the same time, Mazonn recognizes the party approaching.  The party plainly sees the father say something into the young man's ear (Aulus is about 16) and immediately the young man rushes - with intent - behind the wagon, out of sight.  He reappears a moment later, without any explanation for what he was doing.

There isn't a party in the world that is going to miss that.  Something has happened and the party's curiosity will be naturally prodded.

The strangers DO NOT speak first.  They don't know who they're dealing with.  It's a good thing to remember that in many languages, 'stranger' and 'enemy' are the same word (the Greek barbaros, for example).  Mazonn will stare at the party with violence in his eyes.  He will beckon his son Aulus to get behind him.  Vasile will look up blearily only at the moment the party actually approaches.  If the party simply clops on by, no matter.  We will have a second plot hook for an entirely different purpose just down the road, perhaps waiting in the next town.  For now, we want to sell this one as hard as we can - so as the party moves around the wagon, be sure they see that there's nothing odd about the spot on the wagon that Aulus had rushed towards; make sure they get another description, more details, of the mess.  Make sure that they see there's a dead goblin laying in the grass where it was formerly not visible.  Then let the party walk right on by.

If they stop, however, and ask the question -"What happened here?" - they're now in the dialogue we want.  Which was the point of this post, even though it took a long time to get here.

We cannot, as DMs, merely look at this dialogue in terms of what would Mazonn and his family answer at a time like this.  We have a purpose ourselves for making this set-up.  There is an adventure behind this, that we want the party to follow - if they're inclined.  We won't force them, but we DO want to give them every opportunity to consider getting involved.  That's our agenda.  We shouldn't forget that.

At the same time, we're not vendors depending upon the buyer picking up the option.  If we fail to ensnare the passerby here, we lose nothing!  Role-playing is not a business - it is an art.  The process of presenting the art is the process of describing the event as it is happening, arousing the player's interest and possibly enabling them to step deeper into the artistic framework we're creating.  In the meantime, every moment within the artwork is precious - we want the players to feel their way, roam around inside the creation and make up their minds.

There is a great deal to be remembered where it comes to dialogue.  Imagine that you and I have just met.  You've read my blog, you have a vague conception of what I'm like, but you also know from experience that people in reality conceal a great deal about themselves.  You would know that, right from the start, I'm not going to tell you all my motivations for writing.  AND you would not tell me your motivations for reading.  You would not disclose most things about yourself, certainly not on a first meeting.  You would not want to be explicit in your opinions, not even about the blog, since you're not sure how I would react.

In short, you would be guarded.  It might take five or six meetings before you began to feel comfortable around me - and if I were not the sort of person you liked, you may never feel comfortable.  On the other hand, if you wanted me to like you, you might find yourself thinking of strategies - stories you could tell, things you felt we might relate on, things that would make you look 'cool' - in order to gain my conviviality.

Even if from the start you hated me, and wished to tell me so, you would do it from a safe distance.  If you were a person who had expressed your hatred for me on the internet, you might refrain from giving me that information when we met.  You don't know, after all, that I won't go for your throat.  I do seem like a pretty emotional fellow on the blog.

This is all going on in Mazonn's head when he finds himself facing the party.  The party might be on horseback, making them more intimidating.  From Mazonn's perspective, he's alone.  Vasile is a disaster and even if his son has some skill, as a father Mazonn is probably more concerned with his son's safety than his fighting ability.

Does Mazonn want to tell this party that goblins have kidnapped his wife Eliska and his wife's sister Marta?  Or that between the attack and the party's arrival, they checked on the family heirloom that they had left out until Aulus resecured it - secretly - in the wagon's hidden compartment?  The magic heirloom?  How is Mazonn going to tell the party that?  Blurt it out?

Mazonn will be guarded.  He may put his hand on his knife and say, "Move on, barbaros."  If the party offers help, he might growl, "We don't need your help."  And if the party presses him . . .

It is very important to make npcs act according to ideals we understand.  All too often, characters behave as though they had no blood, no mental processes, no sense of self at all.  This is what we mean when we say that a character is wooden.  Starlord returning for his walkman in the prison without regard for the reality that he has just escaped from a prison.  What is a more meaningful characterization?  That he got the walkman free and clear, or that he had to walk away from the walkman and accept that sometimes there is loss.  Which allows for a deeper examination of the character's motives?  Which reflects more precisely our own struggles in this real world where loss is a thing we suffer without succor?

Mazonn needs to be a living, breathing entity, not a pasteboard cut-out with the words "fuck off" like a bubble over his head.  It takes an incredible amount of energy to work yourself up to the idea that you, your son and your distraught brother are going to dive into the woods to get your wife and sister-in-law back.  It takes even more energy to face a party that - for good or bad - is quite capable right now of killing you.

What would you do in that situation?  Your stress is maxed out.  Your fears are maxed out.  You've just lost your father, your brother's wife and his son.  You're bloody, you're in the middle of a road, your shit is everywhere and your body is a chemical nightmare.  What would you do?

At the very least, you'd shake.  That would be visible to the party.  When you repeated for the third time to this party that just won't leave, "This isn't your problem!" your voice would strain; it would shake as well; you'd pause between the words 'isn't' and 'your.'  As a DM you want to capture this strain on your face, in your body language, in your presentation.

If you've read the book How to Run, you know what a moment this would be for the introduction of shock or something else that would increase the desperation of all concerned.  I would encourage you in such moments, however, NOT to step on your own set-up.  The players have more than enough to intrigue them.  Having Mazonn - who might be a big man, massive fists, perhaps a stonecutter or a blacksmith - break down in front of the party and sob is a powerful image, supported by his son saying, "Father?" in a plaintive, confused voice, having never seen his father cry before.  That right there is your 'in.'  It lets the party ask the right questions, while obviously the father is holding back out of distress and not duplicity.  From then on, the party will take over the narrative, filling in the blanks themselves and deciding they can't leave this man to fend for himself, his son and his brother, not in these circumstances.

All we have done, however, is draw out the same response any of us would have in an emergency.  And in having that response, the emergency itself is the adventure.  How often have you retold the story of breaking your leg or having your appendix removed?  Was it a boring story, because it did not include killing goblins?  Of course not.

Though, yes, role-playing is better.  Because later we get to kill the goblins too.


  1. Fascinating! Even just reading your description of how these events might play out on the table, my heart was starting to beat faster. I'm excited to try and integrate this kind of narrative into my next sessions when it's my turn to DM again.

    Thank you for all the great tips.

  2. Role-playing is not a business - it is an art.

    Well done.

    On-topic, I find that the process of introducing The Party to New NPCs, contrasted with being introduced to New Targets, is certainly the most delicate and important interaction at the game table.

    You say that the DM loses nothing if the introductions are bypassed, but that's not strictly true is it? I know one must divorce their own hopes from the process of narrating the story for the players, but surely there is hidden disappointment when juicy story hooks are ignored, no? For my part, I attempt to remain neutral and just file away the NPCs and maintain their independent story arc with the hope that at some point in the future of the game the party can feel the consequences of their inaction. This process, of course, depends on vivid descriptions at the very point of the original hook-bypass, in order to incubate the memory in the players' minds when re-exposed to the storyline down the road. I think that made sense.

    How often do you find yourself filing away story hooks, and do you get the opportunity to recycle them as I've suggested above? Do you have a "tell"? That is, can your party rely on effusive descriptions to recognize important moments? I ask because I find that although I could constantly fill and overfill players' heads with descriptions and dialogue, I will often short-change scenes and characters which I feel would serve as fulfilling individual PC interactions but which might not be the very best use of our limited gaming time for the entire party.

  3. Mujadaddy,

    While I understand that the practice you describe - saving hook results for later implementation - is common and even in places encouraged, part of the reason I do not have 'tells' is that I do not invest in the results of my hooks. By not investing, I don't reveal any 'anxiousness' that my players can detect, and therefore no, I don't have 'tells' as you describe.

    This lack of tells, or inscruitability, drives my players right up the wall, so that they tend to perceive that ANY choice they make may conceivably lead to some sort of adventure. Add to this my confidence that I can always come up with something new, and that I will have time between the introduction of the hook and the eventual resolution to pre-design the adventure or whatever before it becomes important (something I hope to write about tomorrow), the players have simply ceased thinking of the game in terms of set adventure pieces that must be completed before the next one begins.

    Try to imagine. Adventuring without the 'adventure.' The party lives in the moment, not worrying if this moment is going to take them somewhere 'good.' As a DM, I guarantee positive, rich, lively, undisciplined, elaborate, intricate adventuring THAT DOES NOT DEPEND ON A GIVEN SET PIECE.

    I cannot stress that enough. I wrote in How to Run that the game is not a play, but a free-for-all. I described the standard adventure structure as a ship in a bottle, then described role-play as a ship on the ocean.

    We must free ourselves from this idea that the game is made of planned moments that happen sometime in the future. Role-playing happens in the NOW - with the continuity controlled by the DM so that events stun, excite, involve and inspire a party to act as they will!

    Sorry, not making an example of your point - it's only that, for me, your suggestion remains old thinking. I hope you can examine what I'm seeing more closely and see a better way to play.

  4. That should read ". . . will lead to some sort of adventuring."

  5. I'd freely concede to having old habits and old thinking; and I wouldn't consider your comments having 'made an example' of me: we're exploring RP concepts intellectually here and I greatly appreciate the gravitas with which you approach the topic.

    The party lives in the moment, not worrying if this moment is going to take them somewhere 'good.' -- Certainly, this is the goal. I think that the point I was attempting to make is that this approach depends on having good players. No, very good players. Very good players will enjoy the spectacle, will take it all in, will take notes and grow as a character naturally by immersing themselves in what you're creating with them. Merely-good players (of course there are exceptions on this continuum) will engage in escapism as it is presented, but might not have the necessary mental agility to wait patiently or to pursue even juicy clues if their goal in a game is just to have fun for the night.

    Especially in groups of mixed ability and experience, sometimes the carrot must be dangled explicitly; not for the DM's ego or gratification, but for the whole group, DM and players together. I feel as if I'm speaking a bit too generally here, as of course flexibility, creativity, and a holistic view of the game world are also paramount. But for the gratification of a varied group, and myself, I find the traditional dramatic structures of Conflict-Increased Tension-Resolution not only produce satisfying outcomes but also produce more concrete memories for both the players and myself.

    I'm not trying to say, "Yes, I'm old school and you can't stop me," but I am saying that the Old Saws are old because they work. I can give players a night of pure in-character discussion of local political trends and future planning, but I've found through experience that by presenting them with a concrete goal, the moments of RP naturally arise between the tensions of achieving it.

    RP IS a ship on the ocean, but it's my experience that the voyage is more rewarding with a port of call than mere pleasure-cruising.

    (Editing and typing in this tiny box is ...something. Forgive me if I've started a line of thought and moved onto another; I'll gladly chat about this at length, to the limits of your patience.)

  6. I certainly don't deny that the Old Saws work. I do argue that 'working' is not a sufficient guideline. Old style telephones work. Vacuum tube televisions work. The fact that something 'works' is not enough of an argument to deny its improvement.

    I disagree on the principle that what I'm arguing needs 'good' players. Once again, that is an argument I've heard many a time before, and it is esoterically viable for most people. My personal experience, however, addresses that two-fold.

    First, I have had far too many totally newbie players who jumped into my sort of game right from the first, not because they were 'good' but because they were encouraged. Specifically, I would argue, by my absolutist stance that the game must be taken seriously and player/player dynamics MUST be polite and respectful at all times.

    My other experience has been with DMs and 'bad' players who were encouraged to be bad by DMs who did not care about politeness, who made ad hoc rules because consistency 'doesn't matter' and who basically did not think it was a serious game. Jackassery then took the day.

    Bottom line, we don't need 'good' players, we need responsible players who participate in a game where respect is more important than 'jackassery,' so that the deeper game can be played by people who feel safe and ready to invest themselves.

    I think if you brought down the hammer on your less serious players, you'd find very quickly that they others got BETTER almost immediately - as soon as they stopped feeling like their every move was subject to someone's judgement.

  7. In all honesty, Mujadaddy, there ought to be a moratorium on any phrase or argument that depends upon the betterment of players.

    I've written a brief position on the subject in a new post. I just can't accept that there's any purpose to limiting the game because supposedly there aren't enough good players. First we must be better ourselves - and then we will teach the people how to play.

  8. Thankfully, immaturity isn't an issue I have to manage.

    However, I'd never conflate RP-longevity with RP-ability; one would just have to look at the WoTC 5th Edition Session video from which you've made much-appreciated hay to demonstrate that.

    "the game must be taken seriously"
    "we need responsible players who participate"

    I would argue that those are the very good players for whom DMs are blessed to run.

    On Old Saws and Seeking Improvement, I hate feeling as if I've presented a bag of cliches and an on-rails evening. Aversion to this feeling comes from having been fed same as a player, not from some sudden realization that I'd been DMing wrongly for years. So I do my damnedest to deliver, to be all things to each player, to guide those who require it toward participation and to reward that participation and engagement with logically consistent results. If my players find themselves on a rail, it's because they chose to travel to the station, purchase the tickets, climb into the cars and stay in their seats. My players have full agency to have the adventure they wish to have: I do though sometimes indicate where they might find the next station.

    I suppose I've devolved here into merely lamenting the high standards to which I attempt to adhere. "My job is hard, commiserate!"

    Outside this specific post today, I've read (pretty much) your entire blog here, and only the 3-4 year age of some of the interesting posts held me back from commenting on them. Today's posts, though, spoke to me and my current situation as I prepare for this weekend's session, so I dove in. Hello, and good luck to both of us.

  9. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This was absolutely fantastic to read. Like the commenter above, I found myself completely engrossed and my pulse quickening reading your description of the scene- this is exactly the feeling I want to inspire. I, for one, really appreciate your taking the time to write on this topic. I don't need to tell you how lacking the current D&D game is in this department, but a scene like this is just what I have always wanted to participate in.

  10. Okay, commiseration.

    I have never been the DM I want to be. There are so many details, so much to do, so many lost opportunities . . . I always feel that, "Damn, I could have done better." If you've read the blog, you know I've written about this dozens of times.

    No one should read this blog and think, "He does it perfectly." I don't. I do believe, however, that I know what I should do, even if I repeatedly fall short of it - and I believe firmly that failing at an ideal is not the same as quitting.

    My players disagree with me. They think I'm a good DM. I don't really trust them; clearly, I've got them flummoxed. The truth is that I'm a complete failure.

    And I intend to go on failing all my life.

  11. Surely self-reflection of this kind is a hallmark of the long-serving DM who can keep his players coming back for more.


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