Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bad Advice We Don't See

"Think of a corresponding plot hook ... you need a good, strong, easily read plot hook, because this is supposed to be an all-inclusive full arc story in a single session.  You don't want your party wandering for half of it wondering what the hell they're supposed to do.  Now find a way to have the meat of the story grab them early with a strong inciting incident.  For instance, as they are drinking in the tavern ... Boom!  The western wall explodes in a shower of splinters as a massive, insane [garbled] bull begins goring the customers with its horns.  After slaying the creature, they discover a series of strange markings in the normally docile beast.  They appear deliberate, arcane and recent.  Who could have done this?  Any why?
"Or, during a celebration surrounding the maiden voyage of a major trade ship, an assassin attempts to slay a member of the party, as well as two other officials involved in the trade ship's company.  When the chaos dies down, a ring on the assassin's hand holds the crest of a particular noble house."

Let's deconstruct a little.  To get the full impact of this post, I strongly recommend watching the entire video.

Why This Seems to Work

At most game tables, particularly those of a convention, where strangers are expected to play with each other for a one-off adventure, such as described here, the players usually don't have an agenda.  From my experience, most don't know they're allowed to have an agenda.  Thus, a DM can usually be sure that the players are waiting for the DM to tell them what they're expected to do, as the text above indicates.

When the incident begins, it seems very exciting.  The wall has just blown in!  There's a bull!  Or an assassin!  Do something!  Fight!  Run!  The response expected from the players is crystal clear; the players don't have to argue or debate about what to do ~ it is very obvious, so that everyone is immediately in synch.  The party, then, acts together ... and this helps bind a party, particularly a group of strangers at a Con, together.

Would-be writers are often told that they should begin a story with something exciting:
"As Jeremy threw himself to the sidewalk, the house of his birth exploded, scattering the neighborhood with brick, plaster and children's toys ..."

You'd read the next sentence of a book that started like that, right?  And so it seems like a good start for a game adventure.  Grab the players, get them working together, provoke their curiosity.

Why It Works in a Story

In a story, there's no question about the characters being interested and concerned about the event.  As the passive audience watches the film or play, or reads the story, the characters do the next obvious thing: they find the ring and recognize the noble house, just as expected.  Becoming curious, the characters investigate, make inquiries, talk to other characters who have the necessary information to move the story steadily along towards an exciting and interesting climax.

At no time in the story do the characters question the initial motivation.  They were there when the incident occurred, that is enough motivation to carry them through the rest of the story.  We wouldn't expect the characters to grow suddenly disinterested in the story.  Poirot does not realize he's on a train full of murderers and decide to get off, to reveal the truth to a group of police officers.  Luke doesn't listen to his uncle.  Deckard doesn't off Rachael.  Everyone does exactly what we expect of them, in the way we like it ... or else we would be unhappy with the story.

With a story, the writer carefully constructs all the characterizations so that this makes sense.  Deckard is given a specific set of traits and behaviours that make his falling in love with Rachael, whether or not she is a replicant, full believable and desirable to the reader.  Luke is depicted as an awkward, strongly romantic and anxious, so that it's impossible for him not to follow the plot as expected.  Poirot's ego is so immense it needs a train car of its own: and therefore, when he confronts the murderers, we're ready for it.

Additionally, take note that none of these characters has any real interest in doing something else.  Poirot exists to solve crimes.  Luke is bored on the farm.  Deckard is eating when he's interrupted; he doesn't seem to be on his way anywhere.  What else would they be doing?

And thus, each dialogue and interplay follows a carefully constructed format, in the writer's imagination, with characters who live to follow this story.  We accept this because we're not personally involved.  We're listening to the story, interested in what happens next, enjoying the characters we like explore their surroundings.

Why It Won't Work in Your Game

Very well, the players have killed the bull, or the assassin, and discovered the markings, or the ring.  What happens next?  Why, they'll investigate, right?  They'll immediately commit themselves to going from place to place, seeking out the people who will give them the next important clue, so they can find out who the assassin is and why the bull was so marked.

And my, how boring that will be.

See, finding out those details, to explain the puzzle, is a lot of dull exposition that the players, unlike book characters, will have heard before, in a hundred other stories they've already read.  Yada, yada, yeah, the noble's heir wants the throne, the cult is marking bulls all over the country, blah blah, sure, just tell us where the heir is or where the cult is and gawd, let's get past all this mystery shit so we can go kill something else.  Please.

No matter how good it sounds in a story, your character really isn't that interested in having the argument with Luke's father, or all that motivated by finding your parents are roasting skeletons in the desert.  Oh, sure, you might get to raise your fist in the air at your gaming table and shout "NO!" in an affected, dramatic voice, but everyone is going to laugh and make jokes, and let's be serious, it's the affectation of the emotion you care about, not the actual deaths of your fake parents.

You're not really interested in conducting a dozen interviews with strange characters, one by one, parsing for the painfully specific detail that will finally let you point a finger at everyone.  And while you're more than ready to take out a gun and kill replicants, what is the chance that you give the remotest of shits for this scene at Tyrell's office and the 100+ questions you have to ask Rachael before you know she's a replicant.  How much interest do you have in explaining to her in your apartment that she is?

You're not.  Mysteries, as role-playing games, are actually pretty dull.  If you run a lot of mysteries as a DM, chances are you have one player who gets off on this stuff and four players who sit quietly and ask a few questions, while they wait and wait and wait for something to happen.  Or worse, you, the DM, are the only person who actually cares, while the party waits and waits and waits for you to squeeze out the details one by one, until you deign it is time for something to happen.

Worse, It's a Railroad

Once the bull appears at the tavern, the rest of the adventure is set in stone.  The players are expected to kill the bull.  What happens if they don't?  Well, obviously, that's impossible.  If this is a one-off we're running at a convention, we can't just have everyone roll new characters, so that bull has to go down.  Already, we've eliminated any real concern.

Once the bull is dead, the explanation has to follow.  Whether or not the players agree, or investigate, or do anything at all, the explanation will have to be forced on them, as npc's appear to make declarations until the players are fully informed about their next expected action.  There's no way this bull can just bust through a bar without there being a reason.  Someone has orchestrated it, and that someone must be brought to account.

Otherwise, really, who cares?  An assassin has randomly attempted to kill a party member in a game at the beginning of the adventure.  We're already being told there will be other assassins, so we'd better do something, or we'll all die.  The extortion is clear and heavy-handed.  The DM might as well pull out a pistol, point it at the heads of the players and announce, "You will play my game, or else."

Thoughts on Advice

I would think that if we're going to give advice on how to run an adventure, whether it is a one-off or a long campaign, that the advice be less glib and better thought out.  It isn't enough to tell people, "Have a hook."  What's needed is to explain to people, "Decide on a motivation for your players, then fulfill that motivation."

It is true.  We need a good, strong, easily read plot hook.  Let's say the players would like to be richer:
"As they are drinking in the tavern, one of the players happens to know that three days from now, there will be a celebration surrounding the maiden voyage of a major trade ship ... and that the officials who will be overseeing the celebration are extraordinarily hated men, particularly by certain guilds who are being made bankrupt by this company.  Perhaps those guilds are looking for a few assassins, and perhaps they would be willing to pay a lot of money ..."
Or let's say the players would like to have more status.
"As they are drinking in the tavern, one of the players recalls that several bulls have recently gone mad, apparently because of runes that have been carved into their flesh.  Perhaps, if we unearthed the cult responsible for this, we could make ourselves famous in this very grateful, very generous town ..."

In other words, rather that force an event on the players, have the players simply "know" something ... and let them decide if that's something that might interest them.  Then, if it doesn't, the players can hear the pitch and answer, "Nah ..."

Like adults not forced to play someone else's game.

We can even jump past the boring.  The players, agreeing to be assassins, are informed by the DM, "If you're willing, after three days, with talking and whatnot, you've been contracted by the baker's guild to off Henrich and Albert, provided they both suffer painfully before they die.  Is it agreed?"  Then, with only three hours to play, we've dispensed with all the bullshit of negotiation and finding the right people with the baker's guild, which none of us honestly care about, and we can start with the planning of how to kill a few officials on a dock in the midst of celebration, and get away with it.

Or we can say, "The truth is, you know exactly where the cult is.  As you share information for a few minutes, it turns out that the cult must be located near or perhaps underneath the abandoned windmill a mile west of town.  Would you like to see if you can find it?"  Then, if they agree, we can dispense with all the bullshit of querying people and guessing which of the fifty buildings in town might be the right one, and go straight to equipping ourselves to go slaughter some bastard animal torturers.

Why is this not the obvious solution to the "plot hook?"  Why must everything be outlined in this needlessly dramatic story-telling device that is, basically, designed to make you buy a theatre ticket or purchase a book?  We're all here to play, aren't we?  We've already bought the ticket.  Can't we get past the sales gimmicks and get straight to the part where we're in control of the agenda, instead of being the victims waiting around for something to happen?

The problem with bad advice, like the above that started this, is that it often looks like good advice to people who don't know any better.

And it is part of the question I keep asking, when I hear people tell me that Matt Mercer of Critical Role is the best DM they've ever seen.  Does Matt actually know better than he's telling, but he can't find the words for it or he just doesn't think he can convey a more complex idea in under 7 minutes, or has he just never heard good advice?

Does anyone know how to play this game?


  1. Following from your previous post regarding modules, mainstream running advice seems to equally subscribe to the 'Xtreme' marketing formula of the nineties.

    I like ham-acting more than some as you well know but being strung along a succession of familial deaths is off my motivational grid entirely (seduction being another stumbling block).

    You once validated only greed/accumulation of power as motivator, with which I stand in full agreement: characters aren't ever authentically motivated, players are. And greed is the truest way to do it.

  2. This is a really well-constructed and persuasive post (I'm already on board but it struck me as a particularly strong argument against the errand-running Mercer discusses).

    On the subject of Mercer's video, I found it puzzling how Tip #5 (or thereabouts) talked about designing a set of intermediate NPCs to fill in the middle of the story and provide more information. This narrative style definitely appears to be a source of annoyance more than excitement for most players I've run in the past, mainly because knowing about the world is often seen as the DM's job: the players are at the mercy of the DM to know where they should go, who they should talk to, why they should do it, and so on. I like how this post, and some others you've written in the past on providing players with opportunities -- rather than coercing them -- counter that argument by presenting hooks for free.

    As well, I would think a better method from Tip #2 (determining the style) would be to incorporate your ideas on player motivations, rather than genres. Choosing pirates over ninjas doesn't make as much of a difference to players as choosing magical power over social status.

    I would be interested in more deconstruction of the stages between the players taking the hook and the players finishing the adventure. Points like those you've made at the end of this post on skipping the boring point to the fact that there are certain storytelling tropes that many players will want to skip over (searching for information being a prime example, since the DM just gets to watch the players bumble about until they ask just the right question). I'm sure I can list a bunch myself if I gave it some more thought, but I'd expect you've picked out a few bad ones in particular over the years.

  3. Alexis,

    I want to say thank you very much for doing this particular post's worth of deconstruction (and for its follow-up, too.) I can see in it some of the failures that I experienced earlier this year while running my game. To be specific, instead of taking opportunities to hand my players the information they were clearly looking for, and put them in positions to act (or not) on that info, instead I drip-fed it to them at a rate which was too slow to maintain their interest. That was my fault.

    I would not say that I forced the players into a passive role, so I avoided the embarassingly stupid and contrived kinds of scenarios written by Mercer at the beginning of this post. But I gave them a space of options that was too wide-open, with not enough feedback or context to know when they ought to make decisions, and not enough mounting pressure to force them to act. So, it is not enough, at first, to just to say to the players "do whatever you want!": the specific scenario (e.g. the bakers' guild example you gave) is what is needed to get things going at the beginning of the campaign. If they accept it, then fallout from their decisions becomes the seed for the next round of offers from the DM, and away you go! If they reject it, try a different tack and quickly -- hell, ASK THEM what they want and propose things they might do to get it until they decide one of those sounds good.

  4. Funny enough, the obvious solution you offer to the "plot hook" is exactly the kind of hook found in most of the original Old School adventure modules: Giants have been raiding civilized lands, here's their fortress, go kill them (Against the Giants). You found this map to this mysterious island, there's supposed to be a lot of treasure there, do you want to outfit a boat (Isle of Dread). These slavers have been capturing people, can you go liberate them and shut-down their operations (Slave Lord series).

    This "plot hook" idea (or "story telling device") has been evolving since 1983 or so...ever since adventures started being cinematic/novel walk-thrus (the Dragon Lance series of modules, Ravenloft, etc.). Thing is, over time, dramatic "epic" character development/motivation can occur in a standard D&D campaign (with the rightly inclined players), but someone decided they didn't want to wait for it to occur and wanted to force the issue, making characters the protagonists in a heroic "story" from the get-go. Whether or not you are in favor of such a thing, the REAL unfortunate bit is that they could only think to do so in the clumsiest of ways. What this guy is describing is simply the (current) culmination of this heavy handed concept.

    I'm sorry you're subjecting yourself to this stuff, but I appreciate you doing it and poking holes in this unsound theory of running games.

  5. Clarified some things that were hazy for me. I'd noticed this kind of thing was a drag, but didn't have a clear solution, so just tried to breeze past it quickly. Skipping it entirely is definitely a better option, though.

  6. I'd like to do more of it, honestly. So long as I can keep myself from ranting; the kind of cogent argument above is better, I know it is better, so I should just do better. Ranting is easy and fun, but it's something I've got to stop doing. This sort of post could be good practice for me.

  7. Would you be okay with having the options presented (such as giving the outline of the crazy bulls ravaging the town to the players and waiting to see if they are interested in investigating) be done during a session 0 (or via some email conversation, or any other mean to get player feedback beforehand) rather than at the actual table?

    This way, you (the DM) don't need to invent a whole cult, and start creating stat blocks for the rune-stamping wizard and his 3 acolytes, when in the end that whole story will remain background noise if the players prefer to just go hunt owlbears in the forest for a week.

    (However, you could still have them return to town and find out all the china shops were destroyed by rune-bearing bulls in the meantime; even better: a group of heroes rose to the occasion and already captured the evil cult while the party was scouring the woods!)

  8. All that sounds fine to me, Fran├žois. So long as we don't have an enforced mystery, in which the players are expected to care about some clue inserted by the DM.

    Consider that the bull scene could work fairly well; the bull breaks into the bar (by the door, more realistically), creates the combat moment ... and then immediately after the battle, the bartender and several patrons apologize to the brave and hearty adventurers, thusly:

    "Great work, and thank you. This whole thing is the fault of this terrible cult, which creates runes on these bulls and drives them mad. We're virtually helpless to do anything about it ..."

    And there we are. No long, drawn out investigation needed. Shock, combat, result, direct information, player decision, move onto next scene. There's nothing wrong with a shock encounter - it just shouldn't finish with non-information, like such-and-such a rune and no one knows why. Kills momentum.

  9. Ah, I have played in this kind of game before.

    We were contracted to clear out some rubble (why was my wizard getting into construction. Damned if I know). We were attacked, and killed our attackers. They had a Mysterious Train Ticket. We took our pay, and left as a party.

    One of the party members scalped the mysterious train ticket an hour into a four hour game. That was that. I tried to go shopping after that, but there was no allowance for the desire to purchase something with our pay, so everyone just left early instead.
    (That game was ... not a good game, either the system or the GM. Not terrible, but had a thousand little issues).

    You make some good points - I might try to use them the next time I have to run a One-Shot.


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