Sunday, February 18, 2018

Robur's House

The following sequence arose from events associated with the Campaign Senex, played April 19, 2010.

The sequence relates to a number of events surrounding a mystery the party has only just understood ~ that being, that there doppelgangers slowly taking over a town in Germany, replacing town officials one by one.  The clues for this have led them to a name: Robur ... and then to the discovery of Robur's house.

At first they don't even see the house, which is part of the plan.  My goal with deconstructing this incident is to discuss revealing a scene, in order to freak the players out a little.  Remember that this has to be done without any pictures whatsoever, just as if I were describing this at a gaming table.

Note that out-of-campaign comments being made by the players will be shown in brackets: [*] and not in italics.  To focus on the main purpose of this post, I will be editing bits and pieces from the original post-and-comment stream.

DM: ... it is just two miles from the Ingolstadt-Nuremberg road that the party stumbles across a disturbing scene.
The first sight is not wholly informative; where the road takes a dip and turns to the left, about twenty yards beyond - below a stout apple tree, and partly concealed by it - the party can see the torn body of a horse. It appears to be quite dead. Just beyond, there is a body hung over a fence stile, on its side and facing away from the party. The body is covered with blood, but there is something familiar about it.
Now, it should be understood that all is relative silence. There are a few birds, and a gentle wind, but no indication at all that anything has happened, except for this awful sight.

This is all film-making 101.   The party can see the initial unpleasantness at a distance.  To press home the point, we emphasize two things: first, that the bodies are in a very unnatural way, even for something that is dead.  "Hung over a fence stile" implies that something really energetic happened, even if the players do not consciously make this connection.

Second, we emphasize what the players can feel.  Any time that we give a description of anything, we always want to list off the five senses.  The first three can be told at a distance: what does a scene look like, what does it sound like, what does it smell like?  We can cheat with touch and taste by describing the way a character suddenly feels ~ a shiver, a sense of their palms sweating, that they are conscious of freezing in place, that sort of thing.  With taste, we can describe the metal taste in the character's mouth (fear, adrenaline) or a sudden dryness.

But we want to pick and choose!  We don't want to load up too much imagery, as that only shows the player we are trying too hard.  Here, I went with the sight and the sound of the birds and wind.  It doesn't have to include more ... but we could have gone with other options (and we will, when we need to do a different scene some other time).

Note, too, that the "sound" here isn't weird at all.  This is what any scene would sound like ... yet mixing it in with the appearance of the horse and body makes this quiet feel disturbing.  But, in fact, only because I take the time to state it.  When we highlight the weird with the normal, the end result is always sort of creepy.

And, of course the small mystery of the "familiarity" is an extra little hook I've added.

Delfig: I'm loading and half-cocking my crossbow.  "Let us send one person out to look at the person.  Andrej?  Avel, you and I should stay on the carriage and be watchful."
Andre: "Hmmm.  Watchful.  Yes."  Andrej will cross himself and draw one of his maces with his off-hand, keeping his primary hand close to the other, stuck into his belt.  He'll cautiously approach the body sung over the fence, once Avel and Delfig seem ready."

Mmphf.  I just love how players go straight into cop-mode when they see this sort of thing.  They're not wrong to do so.  There really is the chance that something might be still happening.  In fact, in keeping with my agenda to let the reader know what I know as I'm reacting to the players, there is no threat here at all.  The whole point, however, is to make it look threatening, so as to entice the players into the scene and get their blood racing. We don't want, at any time, to give them the least sense that they are safe (even though they are) ~ and so, with our words, and our voice, we want to take it every bit as seriously as the players do.  We CAN'T laugh or make a face when we see them react.

DM: The quiet is very disturbing, although it isn't complete. Upon moving down the slope of the road, Andrej can see a second horse, standing near the decimated remains of a small brick-and-timber house. The horse is alive, but its flanks are soaked in blood. A leg, detached from a body, hangs in the horse's stirrup.
The house has a facing of perhaps twenty-five feet, with a door in the center and two windows. The door has been ripped off its hinges, the bricks on either side of the door have been - to some degree - torn out. One window is broken, and an arm hangs through it, and a stain of blood shows on the wall beneath.
The odor, the color of the blood ... Andrej understands at once that whatever happened, it was within the last hour. He moves forward, and looks at the other side of the body hanging over the stile.
It is wearing the livery of a soldier of the Palatinate of Upper Bavaria.

Okay, so I've satisfied the first mystery.  The body looks familiar because of the livery ~ and because the players were aware there were ...

The continuation of this post, all 5,500 words of it, can be found on the Tao's Master Class blog, along with the other two deconstructive posts I have written, which can be read on the Tao of D&D blog here and here.

Unfortunately, the Master Class blog is available only to those who have pledged and successfully given a $3 donation on my Patreon account in the month of February.  Truth is, these posts are draining and exhaustive to write; they are as long as two university term papers, each; and they use every ounce and vestige of my long-acquired experience in running as a DM.  My feeling is that not only does material of this kind not exist anywhere else on the internet, it can't exist anywhere else ... because in ten years of writing this blog, I haven't met or seen anyone capable of deconstructing their own thoughts and motivations to the extent that I am able to, nor are there any continuous online blogs existing anywhere with eight years of available material that can be deconstructed.

So, yes, I am sorry, but I'm going to put this material behind a wall.  $3 is very, very little to ask, for two such posts per month (I will put up another on the 28th of February).

You can, if you wish, pledge $3 to Patreon and see all material to date when March comes, or you can use the sidebar to dedicate $3 to me right now, which will bring you on board with all those who have already supported me in February.

Guys, I don't know what to tell you.  This sucks.  Please, however, overlook my miserly approach to monetizing my expertise and read the rest of this post.


connor mckay said...

I can only say that I support your decision to do this.

I also want to say that the setup was very well done. And the irony of doing this in a post about how to reveal a scene is wonderful.

Can't wait to see the rest of this on March 1st.

Maliloki said...

You shouldn't feel bad about this. You give a ton of stuff away for free and people can read the campaign blog and see everything except your thoughts during the game. You are basically giving lectures with these posts and most people who do that EXPECT payment. The fact that it is so cheap gives any who would complain no leg to stand on.

As a side note, when you get enough of these completed, you could quite possibly collect them into another book to sell.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

I will read this for sure, once my donation processes in March.

Vlad Malkav said...

Hello all !

Having read the whole post, I can confirm that it is, indeed, long (more than 29k characters), and what you've here is only a fifth, a sixth of it.

And it rocks. As promised, the deconstruction brings much of the inner workings in front of us, in clear view, very nicely weaving the example, the deconstruction, and elements you could have read in "How to Run" but never realized how they could be used in your game.


Zilifant said...

Alexis, I am a long-time reader of your blog and I have purchased all of your books. I just subscribed to your Patreon to give a little bit back for all the content you publish on your blog, and for all the inspiration you've provided me. I will surely bump my contribution higher when I'm able. Thank you for being such a great voice in a web-o-sphere that is filled with so much garbage regarding the game we love.

Question for you: From time to time I have a D&D related topic on my mind that I'd love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on. Are you open to receiving suggestions for potential future blog post topics, and if so what is the best way to send them to you?

Thank you again for all you do. Keep up the fantastic and innovative work!

Alexis Smolensk said...


I am usually willing to answer a pointed, interesting question, politely asked. I tend to bristle at phrases like, "You should write about ..." or "Why haven't you written about ...?"

Like any person, it is really how I am approached. Between campaign, blog, issues with the wiki and the podcast, time is getting to be a premium, so if I'm going to spend half an hour answering a question, I like to be asked kindly.

I'm very glad you've enjoyed my contributions, and thank you for your pledge! Go ahead and ask a question ~ I certainly owe you an answer now, nyet?

Zilifant said...

If either of us "owes" the other one anything, it is certainly me that is indebted to you for the free content you've provided over the years! I don't have any specific topics at the moment, though I sincerely appreciate your offer. Thank you again!

James Clark said...

I remember this scenario very fondly. It's emblematic of one of Alexis's greatest in-session strength's as a DM: The deliberate. Parsing. of information. Creating. almost by itslef. the desired... mood.

Alexis, if you or some readers recall the scenario in Germany when the cleric NPC was assassinated and the party awaited an audience with the nearest town official, you effectively kept us marinating in our impatience and built an all-together different sort of tension with some of the same techniques.