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.