Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Hook, Tale and Sting

An all round excellent book and
instructive for any Dungeon Master
I'd like to start by referencing events that I wrote about earlier, associated with the post, Who is Responsible.  One of the players foolishly attempted to cast an unknown spell inside a Merchant's Guild, which ended in his being taken off to prison.  Things looked certainly dire; the scene can be read on the first resource post from the Senex Campaign.

While the scene did not play out well for the player, as a DM I had no intention of executing the player for a simple mistake, which was reasonably a matter of not clearly understanding the rules.  Unless a player is deliberately obtuse, I consider it my responsibility to rebuild the situation into one that the player can rise out of ... and so I contrived a court scene that would end with the player character, Tiberius, receiving his freedom.

My perspective is that player foolishness is usually an opportunity for further events, which can set up a twist ... or, to see it another way, a sting.

In many ways, Dungeon Mastering is a confidence game.  The way in which con artists used to describe the process of fleecing their mark gives us the terms we still use in storytelling and in role-playing games.  The con's mark is given a "hook;" the hook is followed with a "tale" that baits the hook, encouraging the mark to want something so badly that they're willing to expose themselves. When the con artist takes advantage of that exposure, it is called the "sting."

For example, you're a mark; and you want to be very, very rich.  Being rich, however, is something hard to accomplish, so you're always looking for an easier way. This is what makes you a mark: your willingness to look for shortcuts.

The hook is the demonstrate that a short cut exists.  And the tale is the way that its revealed that you, if you're smart enough, and willing enough to break a few rules, can take advantage of this short cut.  And when you do try to take advantage ... I sting you.

That's what the Nigerian Prince is all about.  It's what most phishing scams are built around.  It's the tale behind Amway and most pyramid schemes.  "Do this, it's really easy, just get your friends to join, and once they get their friends to join, and so on, you'll be rich!  And in the meantime buy these products wholesale so you can make money off them, too!"

People believe because they want to believe.  Because they are desperate to believe.  Because the idea of not believing they can be rich fills them with angst and sorrow.

Role-players are excellent marks, because they have deliberately put their blinders on for the sake of enjoying the fantasy and taking risks that they wouldn't ordinarily take as real people.  They don't need much of a hook or a tale ... and though they are often doubtful, now and then they can be sweetly and beautifully stung ~ though personally, I like to do it in a manner that enables a continuing, satisfying and steadily profitable experience for the players.  This post is to explain how.

Of course, it's always possible to find some hook that can be baited for the player, but if we take a situation like Tiberius getting himself arrested, that's not necessary.  The player is already good and hooked, because the player is at the NPC's mercy.

I invented Johann Mizer carefully, on certain tried-and-true principles.  First, he had to be an important enough merchant that his word would be recognized by the Judge of the Court and be good enough to exonerate Tiberius:
Johann Mizer [known at this time only as a 'Gentleman']: “Your honor. I was present at the dinner in the Merchant’s Hall when this man’s honor was astoundingly and insultingly impugned by the action of the Hall’s concierge. The very idea that this man could stand in a public place and prepare to throw a spell in such a manner is utterly ridiculous and fully fantastical. This man is a well-known figure in the business world in Graz, in Syria, and is in the employ of the Baron von Furstenfeld, an upstanding gentleman and one of the Electoral College of the Empire, your honor. His faithfulness to the crown, to the well-being of his fellow man and to God is indisputable. I demand that compensation be made for this unforgivable attack!”

First and foremost, all of this is a lie.  The player behind Tiberius knows it is, but who facing a prison term would say so?  Obviously, if Tiberius did say so, as DM I would throw him in prison and ask him to roll a new character (for being deliberately stupid).  Secondly, the lie is ornate, excessive and full of names and details that I can advantage because my world is based on the Real Earth.  This is south Bavaria in the 17th century; Graz is an important trading city, there is an Electoral College in the Holy Roman Empire and Furstenfeld was a legitimate name of nobility.

Moreover, the details here took advantage of a background I gave to the character before the game started.  I did not create the background with this purpose; I didn't know the player was going to get thrown in jail so quickly.  But once I did know, I searched the background to find what I could exploit.  So that is Key: use the player's background, if there is one, to create a hook.
For Mizer's lie is a second hook, in that it leaves the player to wonder, "Why is this stranger lying for me?"

Connecting Tiberius to Mizer, as someone Tiberius knew once upon a time, helps create the hook we're going to tell.  The tale is this: Mizer always liked Tiberius, Mizer is rich, Mizer has power, Mizer has Tiberius' best interests at heart ~ and concordantly, the party's best interests also.  The virtue of the tale is that it helps convince the player, "1) If Mizer likes me, he'll help me. 2) If he's rich, he can help me with money.  3) If he's powerful, he can connect me with other people who can help me. 4) And he'll do all this because he likes me."

To make this work, we've got to be subtle and not heavy handed.  Mizer will help, but not now, because he's busy, he has to go talk to really important people.  Meet him tomorrow at a reputable place so we can talk about stuff.

Mizer's lack of availability sells point (3), as does the fact that the judge believed Mizer.  The importance of the people Mizer meets helps sell point (2). A public place suggests he has nothing to hide and helps sell point (1).  And 1 + 2 + 3 helps sell point (4).  We can do all of that with so little.

The story in the past that I gave was that once, Tiberius' master sold Mizer a blind horse; Tiberius was present as a stable boy.  Of course he wouldn't have dared, as a boy, speak up; and the player accepts that immediately, when Mizer says,
Johann: “You sold me a blind horse! Well, the Baron did. I think that’s the last time I did anything very foolish. Have you had a decent meal? Do you have somewhere to stay?”

The words are chosen very carefully!  He brings up the horse; he exonerates Tiberius in it, and Tiberius naturally assumes this was because Tiberius was just a stable boy.  And Mizer seems very content about it, blaming himself.  What a good guy this Mizer is!  And generous, too ... the generosity following immediately after the concept of blame/self-blame.  Look at Tiberius' response:
Tiberius: I laugh uneasily at Johann’s small joke. “My jailors treated me remarkably well. Food, water, a place to think. All well and good, considering.” Tiberius informs Johann of his accommodations at The Pig. “If I might ask, what brings you to Dachau? Besides helping an old acquaintance out of an unfortunate scrape?”

Hook taken.  Tiberius reveals his abode without hesitation.  Ask yourself as a person: how quick are you to tell near strangers where you live?  Tiberius the player trusts Mizer already.  As a DM, it is my role to figure out a way to transform that trust into a good game experience.

continued elsewhere ...

As it stands, the above would be a post on its own; it makes a relevant, legitimate point, one that I hope most DMs will embrace.  I continue to make an effort to provide content both for those people who support me monetarily and those who do not.

There is more, however, that isn't said above.  This is the second of two such posts I have written in the month of June for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found for free, here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, but you must do it soon. Patreon will account for all pledges starting in just two days; and any pledges made after July 1st will not be processed until August 1st.

Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.


James said...

I think it is very easy as a player to focus on the wrong things.

Like this week in your game, in retrospect we never should have attacked the two-headed bear. It was perfectly clear the town should be allied with us, and we never really thought through "even if we kill this thing, what next? Now this town hates us."

I can't speak for everyone else, but I just never considered any potential allies could be down there. I also think my lack of knowledge as to how froglings came about led to many incorrect conclusions.

Silberman said...

For anyone who has been enticed by the teasers for these masterclass posts, but hasn't pulled the trigger on a subscription, I want to assure you that they are well worth the $1.50 a piece. Each is significantly longer than its free preamble and they do differ from Alexis' free material in significant ways. That is $1.50, roughly half what you'd pay for a cup of coffee where I live.