Thursday, January 19, 2017

Be Capable of Harm

I was recently asked a question by a DM about his not being able to get his players interested in game hooks.  Whatever he tried to entice them with, they weren't buying.  He didn't know what to do.

I have posted this scene before, but that was four years ago so what the hell.  It's good for another go around:

On the other post that I wrote, brief as it was, I got a great comment from Yagami, whom I haven't heard from for a while:

"It seems to me often that these people have little experience in leadership roles. I have managed in my life...and it is a difficult role. And it is made difficult by the fact that people do not, generally, take seriously someone they do not find to be capable of doing them some sort of harm. Harm, in this case, of course meaning repercussions of a negative kind, not physical injury."

This is followed by a bunch of supportive statements about working and my blog that I don't need to repost here.  The key is that a DM must also be a threat.  If the players are not finding the obstacles to be, well, big enough to stop them in their tracks, then the DM has missed the object.

I have found three ways of making obstacles big and frightening.  I've written some about all three of these, but it doesn't hurt to cover the basics again.

First, make the obstacles BIG and FRIGHTENING.  If the party is walking by some great plot hook on the road, with a "ho hum" attitude, then the obvious failing is that this particular plot hook did not bash the players over the head.  This has to happen!  A bunch of big, nasty things step out on the road and no, they're not going away and no, they're not going to be ignored.  They've been paid to be there, to take care of this party, for gawd knows what reason (think of something!).  They've seen the party walking along and those look like real nice weapons and that looks like real nice armor, and those packs are nice and full.  And yes, we're going to take them.  And no, we're not a bunch of little goblins.  We're big, frightening bugbears, with axes twice the size of ordinary, able to do twice the damage, we smell, we're unhappy and yes, that is a baby's head on a chain hanging from the leader's ear.  And there are a lot of us.  More than there are of you.

Second, make the obstacles UNCERTAIN.  Don't paint up all the details, make sure that there are plenty of very disquieting things about this situation we've stumbled upon that suggests that we'd be stupid to walk away from this.  Use all the senses.  Far too many DMs are concerned with just two things: what the party sees and what the party is told by NPCs.  These things are nice but they won't carry all the water we want to carry.  The party should be hearing things that aren't seen, that are making noises that suggest, "Oh Shit, this is bad.  This is very bad."  The party should be smelling things that are just plain bad.  The party should be quietly munching dinner after dark, only to have something move wrong in their mouths, to make them look down and see that they've just bitten through a dark green worm with unpleasant red veins.  What does that mean?  Omg, we don't know, do we?  We better do something about it, but we don't know what, so I guess that means we're in pretty deep already and it is dark.  "Holy crap, something just walked across my foot!"

Finally, make the obstacles INSURMOUNTABLE.  This is key.  Create one, perhaps two obstacles that are so big, so massively connected, so well resourced, that no mere party of characters will ever be able to take them on.  The party's only chance will be staying out of sight, staying out of notice ~ and occasionally, that will mean killing a witness that might just walk back and tell the huge, terrifying, unknown enemy that we're in this town, on this day, staying at this inn.

I have several ways of creating this last entity.  I want some big, faceless organization that has nothing specifically against the party, except that the party just happens to be in the way of their plans and, well, it's nothing personal.

I want some very high level person who just happened to have something invested in that group of orcs that the party killed four months ago, that were carrying that pretty yellow stone that the party got ten gold for.  Unfortunately, the yellow stone matters, it's location matters, and the only group of people who have any idea where that stone is right now is the party . . . who foolishly got rid of it, not knowing how important it was to She Bitch of the +5 Strap-On.  Whoever the hell she is, wherever the hell she hangs her hat, whatever the hell she might have against the party for some reason.  Whatever it is, it is very definitely personal.

Finally, I want some miserable little bastard with a grudge, an unreasonable grudge, the sort that he's willing to grind and grind for years at a time, at just enough of a distance to steal things out of the party's kit, to add things to the party's kit, to spread rumours about the party and do whatever he has to do to just makes things a little harder.  It's personal for him, too, and best of all he's not interested in telling anyone.  One thing the party will eventually realize; someone has it out for them and it is getting awfully annoying and utterly impossible to ignore.

If we're offering ideas that the players scoff at and shrug their shoulders at, then we're not digging in.  The players aren't scared.  They don't think the DM is a threat.  They see the plot hooks a mile off and they can see there's no teeth in them.  They're walking all over the DM because they know, deep down inside, the DM is the sort that can be gotten around.

The obstacles are too small.


AHunt said...

Good post. Good things to keep in mind. Some of this was half formed for me, so this really brought it into focus. The threat part is second nature, but I've spent years leading people and the best way to do that is to earn their respect, which encompasses a certain amount of fear. I'm currently playing with making the characters fear goblins. They are high enough level that they can one shot a gobbo, and kill one or two each per turn. Now that they're getting complacent I want the gobbos to change tactics. To go guerrilla warfare on them. We'll see if I can pull it off. I want them to learn to fear even the easy simple things they take for granted they can kill.

Netsuye said...

Steal their shoes while they sleep. I't impressive how personal shoes are, and how demoralizing and humiliating it is when they are taken away.