With my last post
, I agreed to explain how to invent stories and know which are the best in a given moment. This post will attempt to do that. However ...
I have no means of providing the reader with an imagination. Nor can I come around to the reader's home, roll up my sleeves and do the reader's thinking. If I propose research or exercise, I cannot come round and find the books for you, read them aloud, or stand with a board of education and make you practice. Even if, technically, I can do these things, it would cost me a great deal of time and expense, would wear pretty heavily on my family and get rather in the way of my vocational responsibilities. What's more, you're just one person. In all fairness, if I did it for one person, I'd feel that I owed it to everyone. It would bother me if I didn't make good on that.
So. As much as I feel for you; and while I have plenty of empathy for why it's difficult to do research and practice things, knowing how little time you have in your life ... there's only so much I can do to help. I hope you're able to understand that. It's just that whole limitation of time and space thing. All I'm saying is that you're going to have to do some of this yourself.
Okay. Whew. I feel I've cleared the air now.
Let's start by recognizing that the brain is a muscle. Before it can do heavy lifting, it has to ... wait. Wait a minute. I've written that post. Okay, okay. We'll try something else.
Telling stories takes practice, but thankfully the readers here have been doing it their whole lives. Unless you spent the day in silence, chances are you've told a minimum of three stories today ... and probably more like six to ten. "Stories" include any speaking pattern where you explain something that happens — could be something you heard on the news that you're relaying, something that happened at work, or explaining what happened to someone else, or something you saw while taking out the trash. It could be a joke; it could be the answer to your mother asking what you did this weekend. It could be something that happened to you long, long ago, maybe a place you've been or a thing you saw, that you're telling your children or your neighbour. You can't tell me you don't know how to tell a story. You've been telling them since you could string words together. When you were three, your mother asked, "Where's your hat?" Your answer, "It fell off," was a story.
Good, that's out of the way. Let me ask: are you a liar?
I assume you have lied. Maybe you presently have a stick up your ass about it, but if you tell me straight, right now, that you've never lied about something important in your life, you're lying. Lies are stories we tell about things that didn't happen. To tell them, we have to work a little harder, since everything that's part of the lie comes from our imagination and not reality. That means telling lies has been better practice for your running D&D that telling the truth. Honesty is not always the best policy. The fellow who said that first was lying.
I like the quote from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta:
"Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself."
The invented stories I told yesterday about Molly and the Marshwarden (there's a trashy romance novel) weren't "lies," as usually a lie is told to deceive someone about something that's real. But fundamentally, the part of my brain I use to create fictional stories is the same as that I use to invent lies. Moreover, in the story with Molly's tree, I do actually lie to the players ... twice. I said, "the tree on the left makes a little movement." And I said, "From the corner of your eye, you see the branch above you shift." I fully expected someone to call me out on it.
The light from Simone's lantern, on the other side of Oscar from the tree, makes a shadow pass over the tree that makes it appear to move. And unless the night is perfectly still, and there are no night birds or bats around, it's perfectly possible for a branch to shift ... without the tree being a treant. But I didn't say there was a bird. That was a lie of omission. Oscar didn't see the bird. He saw the branch move. But I am still definitely saying things deliberately to deceive the player characters. That being the case, no matter what I say, no matter how I couch the words, I'm definitely lying. I'm even lying when I say, "A treant this big would have a lot of hit points." That is factually true. But I'm saying it at a time and in a manner that means to deceive. I could have easily said, "If this were a treant, it would have a lot of hit points." But I didn't. I said it in a dirty, sneaky, underhanded, scheming way.
This kind of lying is an art.
For those who may be shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, yes, sorry, my deepest apologies, but I am advocating this as an art you ought to acquire. However, I will stress that if you do, you must use this power for good. With great power comes great responsibility. As anyone with a brain muscle can see, people are enormously stupid and gullible, even when the liar is flagrantly telling a barefaced, impudent, shameless, undisguised and obvious lie. "Enormously" stupid is underestimating it. So, be warned.
Isn't this the same thing as fudging dice? Now, that's a good question, B.R. of Tacoma Washington. Yes, after a manner, it is. However, while fudging dice breaks a game rule, there are no game rules that say the DM or the players are compelled to tell the truth all the time. To some here, that may seem a fine distinction, but in my defense the non-lying rule is hardly practical ... or psychologically possible. In any case, fudging dice is done to remove consequences accrued by the player, or insert the DM's will over the dice ... neither of which allow the player's participation. Verbally lying to the player, on the other hand, requires the player's participation, as the player must judge whether the DM can be trusted. Some players are awfully credulous, it's true ... but so long as we're lying in a manner to make them attack harmless trees, and not so they can walk into situations causing certain death, I feel we're on the right side of intention.
Okay. Homework. This is a book by Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time. The first 41 pages are free, online, with the exception of 24, 25, 31, 32, 38 and 39. It's a very good book, very easy to read. If you want the whole book, it is not expensive. READ IT. You have no excuse not the read the parts that are free. Aside from talking about lying, it talks about being an imposter. A DM is an imposter; we have to pretend to be all kinds of people we're not — kings and captains, murderers and midwives. Get educated on how that's done.
Then ... practice lying. Pick a partner who loves you, explain that you're trying to be a better DM and that this nutjob online suggested an exercise where you deliberately lie to someone who knows you're lying. Have the partner name a situation and give you a profession or a role ... yes, just like an improv performer. Your brother has just been in a car accident, which you witnessed. Go. Tell the story. That kind of thing.
Do it until you get sick of doing it. Then do it some more.
Some of these things, you have to accept on faith. I get nothing out of sending people into the world so they can practice lying to their spouses and friends, and maybe the grocer or your doctor (oh, don't tell me you haven't done that before — I don't believe you). So you've got to trust that there's an insight here that can't be expressed in words, that you can only grasp by doing it. If you don't do it, or you haven't got the wherewithal to do it long enough, or you haven't the imagination to do it, that's fine. I lose nothing. I've tried to help. That's my end.
Let's take up this other issue: what lies — er, stories — should we tell?
This is a somewhat more difficult question to answer. There are elements having to do with the game setting and what priorities you have as a DM, what the players are likely to go for and where your particular talents lie ... but let's shelve all that for now and keep with the fundamentals.
In describing your game world, I recommend wholeheartedly that you adopt a policy of inserting motion into your description. If you describe a dungeon room that's totally empty, with not one thing in it, say that while the players enter the room, their shadows in the torchlight or lantern change against the wall as they come through the door. Or say there's a three inch long centipede that disappears into a crack. Have something move, no matter what it is.
In dynamic settings, like a city street, leave off the description of buildings or people and concentrate on the movement of wagons, walkers, vendors waving their arms, a prostitute winking at a player, someone sweeping the street ... anything and everything to compel the players to think of your game world as something in continuous motion.
This may seem inconsistent with the subject at hand, but I'm going somewhere. The best stories are about things that happened. Building up a setting where the people move about with a purpose, and concentrating some of your focus on defining that purpose habitually as you describe each scene the players enter, will help spur your imagination towards the right kind of stories. Telling the paraty that the bartender and his mate are shifting an empty barrel out of the room, while the friar is offering them a job to protect a group of pilgrims over the next sixty miles of road, reminds the players that they're in the middle of events going on around them, all the time. It helps meld the stories they're hearing with the events they're seeing, in real time.
The measure of your DMing depends on your ability to put yourself in the space. Don't visualize the dungeon room, the tavern or the road with the peasants like a distant object you're viewing from on high. Picture yourself in the dungeon room, with the player characters, like a homeowner showing his property to guests. "Over here, there's the body of a goblin, laying next to the open door. You can see the hall down there; up until it gets too dark to see, you can see the hall curves to the left. And over here — this is something I really want you to see — there's a pool of blood that doesn't look like a goblin's. The water from the ceiling is dripping into it, so it still looks fresh, but it's probably a couple of hours old."
If you're in the bar, pretending to be the friar, you'll look around yourself to see what's moving; the other patrons, the bartender taking out the barrel, the serving girl ... and you'll think to include a little tidbit about the girl and insert that in as you talk: "Yes, I hoped we'd leave tomorrow ..." voice trailing off. "Look over there, at that serving girl. She came to me for help last week; her mother is ailing. As a man of the cloth, I felt duty bound ... and now, as a man of the cloth, I'm asking the members of your party to do this thing for me, just as I helped her."
You can train yourself to invent phrases like this in seconds; I did it myself as I wrote the above. I thought in my head, "now, how can I connect the girl with the players taking the friar's pilgrims out ... ah, just the thing." It's a matter of putting yourself there; and then thinking about what a serving girl's life must be like; things that matter to her; and why in heaven's name the friar would even know her — and there it is. Comes right together.
Picture someone else in a tavern, invent a past meeting or relationship between the friar and that person, then explain it as a story in a sentence; then figure out how that story is a reason the players should help the friar. It's not easy, but it's the right direction.
Let's talk about another angle on this problem. Imagine that — in some small way — every person going around doing their daily activities are themselves following story hooks. I'm not sure that's clear. I'm saying every NPC has a motive for their behaviour. And that "motive" surely follows the same principle as the motive for the player's behaviour. Think about it.
The players see A., or learn about A., and decide to act on that piece of information. Likewise, the blacksmith is doing blacksmith things, when he sees B. go by; B. owes him money; B. is a "plot hook." The blacksmith leaves his work, goes after B., demands his money; B. refuses, there's an argument; the blacksmith pushes things and B. runs away. It's not much of an adventure, but it IS a story and it started with a plot hook.
Okay, let's take "B"; call him Baren. Baren can't pay the blacksmith because he needs the money to pay off his property taxes. He runs away, turns a corner, and slams into C. — another plot hook. Hurrying along and slamming into someone is constantly being used for all kinds of reasons: crashing into your bookie when you're trying to avoid him, crashing into your boss when he's already thinking of firing you, crashing into Anna Scott and dumping orange juice down her shirt so she has to enter your house ... it's a classic plot hook. Who has Baren run into? Make something up.
We begin to realize you don't need to give the players a plot hook ... they can be hooked by watching a plot hook happen to someone else. They're walking along when they see Baren crash into someone. The ensuing scene plays out for the party, making sure they hear Baren's name but without in any way involving the party ... but the scene, invented as you see it, could get the party interested in actively engaging with what's going on. A savvy party might guess that you've set up the scene for their benefit, and thus they may stubbornly refuse to get involved ... but when, thirty seconds later, they meet the blacksmith, the man they originally wanted to see, only to find out he's pissed because Baren hasn't paid him. So pissed, in fact, that no, he's not seeing customers today. Oh, but the party just saw Baren ... maybe they'll think of getting involved now.
This string of events can go on and on, rubbing the player's face in this Baren person in different ways, learning how Baren did this, how Baren went by here just five minutes ago, seeing Baren's name scrawled on a dungeon door two weeks later ... you can get the party going crazy with this stuff. It's fun.
The "right" stories should reflect the present events ... just as they usually do in your own life. When you see something happen, it reminds you of a story. This can happen as organically in D&D, only it's the NPC telling the story that occurs to you, the DM. Understand, however; I'm not saying you should have the NPC suddenly explain how the party should open a dungeon door or give some kind of pertinent exposition. I'm saying the story being told should feel like the kind of story the NPC, or you, would tell if you saw such-and-such happen. "You know, the sound the goblin made before he died reminded me of when my sister's dog was hit by a wagon ..."
This is flavour. This is context. This helps explain the nature of the game world. And occasionally, we can insert something critical into a story like this and see if it blows right past the party. Were they paying attention, or not?
Surprisingly, someone in the party almost always is.