Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to prepare and run a better Adventure (or: the Secrets of Escapism, Part 3A)

Here we are, finally talking about how to exploit the principles of escapism for some successful adventure design. I have to admit, it's a high order and definitely a challenge and many a word have been written to get to this point (Part 1, Part 2, a piece by +Vb Wyrde you can read here and a piece by +JD McDonnell you can read here). That being said, I'd like to add that although the underlying argument is quite complex, deserves even further exploration and will help to find an understanding why I believe it can be used like I'm about to propose, the advice itself can be applied (or read, for that matter) without all that. Let's get on with it, then.

What kind of design are we talking about again?

To a degree, all of it, I think. Because advice like that is by default more on the universal side of things. The focus here will not so much be on the material we use for our games and more about how to present it. Because here's the thing, the best premise can be screwed at the table. It's an area we don't talk often enough about, I believe, as we just assume that people have no problems using what they are given.

As a matter of fact (and this is something that got substantiated in Part 2) it's not quite that easy. We are all prone to escapism, but the techniques used to create a platform for or with a couple of other individuals to create and effectively share a fictive world, be it in writing or as a DM in a role playing game, need an understanding of the whole process and training.

Some will do this instinctively or come to the same conclusions on their own (and I'm pretty sure that many DMs out there already work or write following pretty much the same insights, based on the same theories or not), but again, the "why" might be just as interesting to find an understanding and a foundation to further build on.

The only thing I can say with a certain amount of confidence right now is that those things do work and that they are done all around us all the time. We just need to see them for what they are.

First Layer of Escapism

This should be self evident: good stories are entertainment. We love to be entertained. To make a story a "good story", we need to consider a couple of things about properly planning, communicating and navigating stories in general:
1. Stories have patterns and we need to trigger those patterns so that other participants get an idea what is happening or, in the case of role playing games, what might happen and/or what is expected.
Imagine a Benny Hill skit with horror music in the background. Or the other way around, imagine a video with a brutal car crash and funny music underscoring it. That's you recognizing a pattern and expecting something. The Benny Hill sketch will seem brutal, the car crash funny just because of the presentation. And that's what you should do in your games. Not necessarily with music (which can be fun, too!), but with words.

The easiest way to do so is by actually narrating what is going on, not on a visual, but on an emotional level. Imagine the group encountering a Kobold. The Reaction Roll of the Kobold comes up with "friendly". You should use that, of course. But how you do it will set the tone for the rest of the encounter. You could say "There's a Kobold around the corner! What will you do!!?" and you'll see player going for the dice fast, murder on their minds.

Or you could do something a bit more subtle, like: "You see a Kobold around the corner. He's in full tribal regalia, bones, tattoos, barbed spear ... As he sees you, he shows you the insight of hands and his sharp and yellow teeth, making a noise like 'Yak, yak, yak!'. What do you do?". The players will know something is up (the DM took too long to describe the scene ...) and will most likely not attack right away, but act (if with caution).

OR you could go all nice and fluffy, making it something like: "So you see that little Kobold around the corner, wearing one of those tool kits you have seen them wear around the dungeon. After turning to you cautiously, he seems to relax pretty fast, waving his hand enthusiastically and showing a very toothy grin. What do you do?". The DM here is signalling that all is good (might still be a trap, though) ...

See? The premise is always the same (encountering a friendly Kobold), but how the DM handles it is crucial for the players to get hints what they are supposed to do. Not because of what is said, but how it is said. So when you prepare a dungeon or an adventure, spend a few thoughts on how you will present it to the players and what mood (among other things) you want to achieve.
2. Use known story patterns, communicate them ... then break them (but always within expectations).
Patterns always emerge from building expectations. The players need to get a fair chance to see a pattern change coming, so they can accept it if and when it happens. Our example here could be a femme fatale assassin, aiming to off one of the characters. The course of action is clear: seduce the guy and kill him when he's most vulnerable.

This is actually one of the rookie mistakes out there (definitely something I've seen happen), as it is easy, of course, to lure the player into thinking he's just having a dirty little episode with an NPC and then giving him a "save or DIE" (if at all). The fallacy happening here is to confuse the player with the character instead of giving the player a chance to make that decision for his character willingly.

That's what a typical player reaction
should look like ... [source]

I mean, the short of it is "always make a thing out of it". You have a femme fatale, describe her, give subtle hints, like how trained she is or a scar the skilled eye could see ... Give the player an impression he can act on and let him decide what he wants to believe it is. There's still a lot of wiggle room regarding the how, but the ambiguity must be there. It prepares the twist of her being an assassin.

Let's say the player not only survives the attack, but also manages to catch her alive. It is established that she's a stone cold killer. Torture won't crack her, but magic reveals that she's, indeed, forced to do this because Big Boss 09 is holding her son as a hostage. The ambiguity here is that people who do evil don't necessarily are evil (it's a classic and you know it ...). 

Going further with this little sob story, you could have her use it just as fall back maneuver, another lure for the characters to fall for. But here is the tricky part: you either have to know it up front or you need to give the room it needs to build up the ambiguity. In this case, it had been established that the characters found out by magical means that her son is a hostage and that should be the hinge here. Say the wizard is pretty sure, but give the smallest hint of doubt right there. Make a thing out of it, give the impression that there might be more to know, but they just can't get there right now ...

And that's how you plan or improvise and adventure. Always try to think a step or two (or more!) ahead. Because what you know will always inform what you describe (or avoid describing) and always remember, if it's established, you can twist it.
3. Give them something to talk about and give them room to talk about it.
Also pretty obvious, I think. But the reason may be not so obvious. It's exactly those emerging story patterns and the need of a group to negotiate a common understanding, because that's what happens. I'd argue that that's all role playing games are about: negotiating the ins and outs of the story that is experienced. The deeper reason might be seen in the fact that we don't all have the same story competence, or at least not equally strong in different areas. Groups compensate by exchanging knowledge and finding common ground to act upon.

So give them stuff to talk about, give them reason to ask themselves what the fuck it could mean. For anything, actually. In that regard it's pretty much the concept of "making a thing out of everything". You don't explain, you give feelings and impressions, because ultimately that's what it means to let the players experience a world through the eyes of their characters while giving them the room to debate what it means and act on those conclusions.

The fringe benefit here is that you, as a DM, get lots of free time to plan even further ahead, once you got them discussing what's happening and why. Simple things can do that, random things in a dungeon can do that (and that's basically the reason that those dungeons have random strange things to discover in them ... players will take the time to check them out ... if they are connected, all the better!).

To achieve this, you need to give them information. Lots of information. And detail. Some of it random, some of it fitting, always with an emotional touch of sorts (fear is an emotion, for instance, amusement, too ... it's a broad palette) and always, always in uncertain terms but with enough information for them to have a chance to piece it together or make educated mistakes.

Usually it's enough to give them the shovel,
they'll do the digging all by themselves. [source]
4. Give closure.
This doesn't mean that you explain them anything. It means you give the players an out if the story needs or deserves it. In a sense it means regulating the results discussed above and it can be as clear as "No, that's not what that is/means/etc ." or unclear as "You won't come to a conclusion to this right now, but [insert plot device] is about to happen and you should move/act/etc..". It's also, in a sense, the use of patterns to allow the players some room to navigate. Stuff like: "You guys are pretty tired and it's about to get dark.". It gives clear hints what's about to happen and that there will be consequences if it's ignored.

Most of the time you'll know time and place to change pace, usually in situations like the end of a fight or a session or after searching a room or when a discussion goes on for too long. Usually I'll ask the players how long they imagine they'll be busy with what they are doing then and there. Then I'll check the chances of something happening or wrap the scene when I think the time is up.

As far as adventure design is concerned, you should always keep not only (1) track of what is happening, but also of (2) what is about to happen or (3) might happen. Those are the three main sources for the story patterns. Again, you as a DM need to know it to let it inform your choices, not to directly tell the players. Make a thing out of it. You know they are heading into an ambush? Describe how a flock of birds is scared away for unknown reasons further up the road. Stuff like that. It's a story (not a roll on perception or wisdom, for instance ... although that might come in handy later on, too). And with all that in mind, give the players outs in the same way. Closure.

Closure is important ... [source]
In a way this is describing transition points between scenes or chapters of the narrative during an adventure. If you want something new to happen, something that'll change the course of the story, you need to bring to an end what has been happening. Again, this doesn't mean the players won't leave unsolved strands of story behind, just that they have reason to leave them behind.
5. Give rhythm.
Pretty much the same as with closure. When you plan an adventure you need to plan how long things should take. Is travelling something that just happens or something that'll be played out? Same for dialogue or stays at the inn or shopping or (for that matter) combat. During preparation and during the game those decisions will have to be made and they'll shape the experience.

This is, again, framed by using patterns. A bit like deciding between the intermission with the plain flying across the globe in the Indiana Jones movies or going all Snakes on a Plane on the players. We already talked about escapism in rpgs means exploring shared platforms for our imagination. As a DM you decide the size of that platform.

Rhythm in connection with closure should make for a pretty natural flow at the table, but you could always expand on that by using established story patterns for movies, tv shows or books (which are a plenty online or just use what you know and like). While closure is the transition between scenes, rhythm is the decision when that transition happens. You want tension? Short scenes, with lots of stuff emerging in short succession (because remember: things don't just happen, they announce themselves). You want an relaxed atmosphere? Take your time and describe more scenery, give the players room to do stuff and talk. Vary as needed, pace as needed (goes for planning and improvisation).
6. Always say "Yes, but ..."
In short: learn to say "No" by saying "Yes, but ...". Always. It's the "Making a thing out of it"-concept again, but it'll grease your story like nothing else as you constantly expand it through the ideas and questions the players bring to the table while giving it a positive spin as a bonus. There is no fair question in a game you couldn't answer in one way or another with "Yes, but ..." (unfair questions would be those where the players know the answer must be no ... but they won't be surprised about the answer then, either).

This is also where preparation comes in. The better an adventure is prepared, the more likely you'll have an idea what that "but" could mean.

And that's that. There's a myriad of ways handling all this at the table or during preparations, but if you want an in depth example how I do this right now at the table, you should check out the Random Narrative Generator I describe in this post (if you haven't already). I roll it very time I think the narrative needs an impulse and improvise the ins and outs from the information I get ...

Second Layer of Escapism ...

... will be about the kind of stories we need to tell to trigger our urge to let go and immerse ourselves in it, now that we know some of the techniques to make it work. It also has to wait for another day. This is already too long as it is and I need to do other things today, too :)

I hope this hot mess was already somewhat useful. It sure all is important to give a game some flow and it's connected to the first two parts with the whole "story pattern" angle of escapism (see what it needs to generate "The Flow" in Part 2), but it really is only half the story. The surface, if you will.

It's also where it gets a bit more abstract, as it's not necessarily the content of a story that doesn't work for us, but the presentation. Some of it is already here and yet ... you can read the rest of it in Part 3B!

It's family time and all quite busy, as you might imagine. I'll try, though, and wish you all a good time until then :)


  1. Some really good points here. I am definetly going to describe things in terms of mood in my next game (well I'm going to attempt to)

    1. Thanks, Scotty! Please do :-) And happy holidays!


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