Monday, January 2, 2017

How to prepare and run a better adventure! (or: The Secret of Escapism, Part 3B)

First post this year! Let's make it a big one, shall we? It is the last part of a series about escapism I started way back last year (December). I tried hard to make this a three-parter, but I ended up with way more (as usual, I'm afraid). A lot has happened since that first post and I'll try to catch you (and myself) a bit up to the argument I'm making here before I start to expand on it once more, bringing this whole hot mess to an end (of sorts, as it never stops ...). So what should you expect? Going by the title, advice to plan and run adventures by using assumptions about escapism.

Basics (a collection of established points)

What follows is a summary of the ideas discussed in the previous posts. I'm sure it'll offer new perspectives on some of it, while neglecting other aspects (because I forgot). I'll naturally just name things here, the proper arguments and research are in the original posts, so feel free to read up on them. That being said, I'd like to add that all you need to know is right here in this post. On with it!

Part 1 illustrated how we needed escapism for our well-being and personal development in general and connected it through stories and day-dreaming to our great hobby. The gist of it is that the weird adventures we experience in our games have a purpose beyond the fun time they provide. Knowing that is the first step in providing a better adventure for your players, because it reveals general patterns of how our brains are wired to stories in a way that, if done right, allows us to make stories in fact satisfying on a more subconscious level.

The subconscious ... [source]
Part 2 dealt more with the "why this works"-aspect of the whole idea and why it is about stories. There's an unlimited supply of stories surrounding us, with more already forgotten and still more ahead of us. And yet, there are patterns connecting all of them and you will find (without searching too hard) formulas for writing successful tv shows, theses about the structures of novels or genres and lots of fantastic research about what happens with us when we consume good stories and why.

This being about inducing the possibility of escapism in our adventures, it's important to look what happens with us that makes us enjoy a good story (regardless of the media used for the consumption, actually, could be a movie, a book, or whatever your brain can come up with). Turns out, the one thing they all have in common, is what we experience as The Flow. It's a state of mind where we let go and immerse ourselves in the story. We all know that one. What most don't know is that there is some serious research done how that Flow is achieved. Here is an example for watching a movie (from part 2):
  1. We need a sense of competence in executing the activity (seeing a movie, you know movies);
  2. there's a requirement of concentration (sure, you pay attention so the story can do its thing);
  3. clarity of goals of the activity (genre and duration of the movie are known or assumed or guessed soon enough);
  4. immediate feedback from the activity (you pay attention and it pays of ... scares, laughs, emotions ... you know the drill);
  5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity (you know, if a movie gets to you, you'll be along for the trip);
  6. sense of control in completing the activity (tricky one, but most people know not to drink too much before and during, smoke a cigarette before the movie and put their mobile in sleep mode ... you know what to do when you're going to see a movie);
  7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity (if things go as they should, you'll lose yourself for a while);
  8. sense of time is truncated during the activity (and time flies ... we all now that one).
The important bit is that if it's true for watching a movie, the same goes for playing a role playing game. We can lose ourselves in the activity, that's the major appeal of the whole endeavor. And when preparing or running an adventure, we really should consider some of the consequences resulting from those insights. Which leads to ...

... Part 3A and the First Layer of Escapism, which is discussing what good story are made of. It's basically a collection of points we should consider when creating adventures for role playing games (beforehand or at the table, it doesn't matter):
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. 
2. Use known story patterns, communicate them ... then break them (but always within expectations).
3. Give them something to talk about and give them room to talk about it. 
4. Give closure. 
5. Give rhythm. 
6. Always say "Yes, but ...".
Again, there are several ways to handle stories and we are merely scratching the surface here, but by keeping the above and its implications in mind when creating or running our adventures, we most certainly end up with a solid frame for the story we want to tell. The main point here is that it's not the amount of great ideas that make an adventure work at the table, but how you present those ideas.

As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that poor execution killed more than one great adventure before it even started, or made it a very dull and boring exercise to get through. Because lack of proper execution will deny players (and DM!) the flow. They'll question what happens and their competence handling it (or any other of the points above, really) and then they are just sitting it out.

Seeing it from this perspective means accepting that one of the most crucial aspects of creating a successful adventure starts way before you even think about what actually is going to happen. In effect, stories are nothing else but properly arranged set-pieces of interesting events. They are not secondary, but complimentary to the patterns we use. I feel that's an important distinction.

Escapism ... [source]

And yet, there is one last thing to write about: what stories should we actually tell?

The Second Layer of Escapism

That first layer has been about how to use the patterns of entertainment and already covers a lot of ground. In a way it functions very well on it's own, depending on the participants competence in what he likes. In other words, someone really into horror movies might enjoy a "bad" horror movie because he adds what it's lacking through experience or (just as important) he finds enjoyment in knowing the patterns and seeing the mistakes (yeah, being analytic about those things can have its own kind of flow).

The second layer is far more elusive than that, but just as important. It's what's lacking when you do all the above and the players just don't care enough to invest in a longer adventure, not to mention a campaign. In a way it touches on the spiritual aspects of escapism and why we are able to immerse ourselves in music or, for that matter, meditation. It's about how we resonate to abstract paintings ... In a way it's all rooted in our sense for beauty and peace.

You might think now I went in all kinds of wrong directions with this one, but part of this series about escapism is actually exploring this very aspect. It's how we see ourselves as heroes (exceptional beings) in our daydreams or the books we read but refer to ourselves as "adventurers" (those taking a chance) in role playing games. It's why successful stories always, always have the main protagonists in exceptional and novel situations. It's about what makes a nice evening or how we emotionally connect to the things surrounding us. Beauty and peace.

Think about playing D&D in a crowded subway and you know what I mean. There are conditions for this to work, like the friendly banter about all kinds of topics before or during a game, a warm (but not too warm!) room, indirect lighting, snacks, drinks ... that's all part of the experience. Or rather, helping making it happen.

How systems will affect the mood ...

The mood you create is important, I think we can agree on that easily. Where it gets tricky is when we go for our adventures. Ever wondered why buying stuff in or the bureaucratic aspects of rpgs never turned out to be that popular? It's what we perceive as chores in general. A character could do days of research in a library, reading thousands of books, making notes, going all in and no player would care or see it as chores. Why? It's "just" a roll of the dice (or whatever you use) and you get what you want or not.

So there's a system side to this and solutions exist (random item cards, adventure packages, that Dungeon World concept where you have 5 items in your backpack and call them as you need them ... the list goes on). For DMs when running an adventure it's important to remember that chores will kill the mood. Always. Don't give them huge lists of things unless they want them (and if they want them, don't let them use them during the game ...).

There's a difference, though, between getting what a character needs to survive and giving a character some kind of bonus (like choosing new abilities for a level advancement or because of a successful quest ...). It's a bit related to Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory, which basically says that employees on the one side expect certain aspects as given in their work environment and a lack of those "hygienic" factors will demotivate them, while there are on the other hand aspects they'd perceive as bonus in their work environment and getting them will be motivational.
Looks a bit like that ... [source]

Apply this to the moaning you'll get when players need to go through the equipment lists to buy their necessities and the joy they show when they can go through the same amount of tables to advance a character. Same difference.

So yes, system choice or choice of rules in general will have an impact on your adventure creation and it will impact the game. But it's still not talking about adventure design proper.

How to set the right mood for a story ...

Chores are still the core argument here, but now applied to a story. Remember that we like to be seen as adventurers in a social context and why that is, remember that we like to immerse ourselves in stories where the characters are experiencing something new and exceptional. Make it so.

Again, this is not so much about the patterns that make stories entertaining (as described in part 3A), but about our reasons to get emotionally invested and stay it, too. It's the buy-in and you need to evoke that as often as possible. See, most adventures will be played over the course of several sessions. Every time people have to arrange time and place, every time they'll bring different moods and impressions of their day to the table. It's a DM's duty to find some sort of balance, to get all participants on the same level.

Some of that is discussed above, by setting the mood with the surroundings, for instance, but there's another dimension, something you can't buy in modules: the art to set the right mood within a story in the beginning of session. Using stuff like cliffhangers between sessions is, again, discussed in part 3A ("giving closure" and "yes, but" would be the points here). But getting the whole table immersed, activating every player, that's not only about triggering some patterns, it's about making it emotional.

In most cases a DM will remind the players of the emotional state of their characters and the last scenes of the previous session to kickstart a new session. For that you need to set emotional anchors, so to speak, throughout an adventure. It's not so much what happens to a character, but how lasting a memory you can inject in a player. Strong emotions are always a good starting point, be it humor, horror, uncertainty or really anything you can connect to what's happening in the story will help you getting the players back into the mood.

The techniques named above and discussed in the previous posts will help you make this happen, of course, but what you'll also need to do when setting up and running an adventure, is a couple of ideas how you'll get an emotional reaction out of the players through the story. I think it's an important distinction, actually. A character might be afraid of his life in no uncertain terms and the whole table is laughing about it ... that'll be something worth triggering. A player doing something stupid and the whole table is laughing about it ... not so much.

All you need is a couple of impressions you think fitting for the part of the story the characters are in right now, a table of noises, something disturbing they hear, see or encounter. You'll see on their reactions what works and what not. If it works, go with it, enhance it if you can.

This should do for a good moment or two ... [source]

So whatever story you aim to tell, key to making it an immersive experience is anchoring it somehow emotionally in the players. You don't want the king ordering (or even forcing!) you to do a quest for him, you'd want him to need your help. Or: it's not about the money, but because that whole village of nice people had been so distraught because of what had happened. The list goes on, variation is possible (see above), but keep it adventurous and exceptional. 

It's not the premise, it's how you sell it.

And always remember: Don't panic!
In a way it's important for a DM to realize that he's merely providing a platform for the players to deploy themselves. So if a story is to resonate with them, it needs to provide the room for projection like that. Be specific to pose a problem, be vague to let them fill the emptiness. In other words, by deciding what you emphasize and what not, you also decide where the players get to fill the gaps. Easiest way to see how this works, is leaving the characters for the players to develop (instead of forcing "story" on them, for instance). You may give them options to go certain directions, but it's for them to decide what happens (otherwise you'll end up with them feeling like doing chores again).

There's lots more along those lines, but I'll leave it at that for now. Know your group, offer dialogue and see how they react to what you came up with. Go where group and story take you, enhance the experience where you see fit and do everything you can to allow them access to the Flow of the game.

A word on commercial adventures

How to exactly write a module or adventure is a matter of debate. That's not a big surprise, the hobby being as young as it is. There was no need for books like that before the invention of D&D and the need (urge?) to commercialize is really more of a hindrance to actual invention than anything else. So the jury is still out on this one. 

What we can assume is that writing an adventure is opening something like a didactic dialogue to potential readers. You want DMs to read it, making as much of it as possible stick in the process (pretty much following the argument above). Usability is also an important aspect of such a work, but that actually starts with what the text is able to deliver before anything else.

What a DM needs, in my opinion, is as many impressions as he can get. Evocative texts, good imagery, anything that makes a DM think "Yeah, I have an idea what I could do with that!". Other than that, I'm at a loss. Most people will take from an adventure what they like unless it's really popular and they want to go for the shared experience ...

There's a couple of publishers out there able to produce content like that (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Hydra Corporation and some of the the stuff by Venger Satanis are those I'm aware of, please add more like it in the comments if you have them).

As good a point as any ...

I think I need to find an end here. This has gotten too long as it is. As always. Anyway, it's all there, to one degree or another. To prepare and run an adventure is a very private and individual exercise. Different groups, different games, different house rules, different characters (paper or not), different locales, it's all over the place. But there are general mechanisms underpinning the whole affair and however they manifest individually, you can always assume that those simple insights have value to some degree. Just go from there and see where it takes you.

Well, I'm still not sure I said all the important bits or anything that is not obvious. That whole spiritual aspect of escapism is worth some more writing, I think. It's not so much about how to manipulate or maneuver the players into some strange ideas or concepts, but rather something we do anyway. It comes with great potential and risks, if we want to or not. If you read the above, you should have an idea why all this works us on a level we might not be aware of.  

It's save to say that it is still incomplete and consists of my opinions and conclusions where I don't quote others. I'll admit that it is more a process than a guideline and that works for me. I'm sure there are other ways and if you do it any different way. So if you are willing to share, I'd be happy to read about it in the comments.

What? He's just disoriented :D [source]


  1. Yeah, that was a bit long, but it was good. I was quite surprised to see Herzberg's motivation-hygiene theory in there but it does fit. It makes me wonder about systems which deal with XP and level advancement verses those where a character is simply a character and doesn't change much.

    In thinking about it, I am impressed by how level systems can use achievement to keep people entertained even though they are basically performing the same chore (monster hunting) over and over through endless dungeons.

    And yet, some of the most interesting adventures I've ever been on have been played with level-free systems where, since you don't have to care about character advancement, you are more free to think about everything else that is going on. Maybe it's not enough just to escape reality but there could also be a need to escape the self-centeredness of running a character too.

    1. And still so much too say ... :P I know, I get carried away. You are right, it's quite easy to manipulate player motivation with advancement like that (give xp for monster hunting and they'll hunt, give for exploration and they explore ...) and games without much of advancement systems will tend to focus on stories instead, with the players all having some form of narrative control.

      But I think it gets more obvious with the high numbers of xp you'll get in D&D compared to the rather low amounts (often with to the same effect!) of other systems. I'm starting to believe that those high numbers are purposely that high to enhance the feeling of getting rewarded (somewhat connected to our western perception of worth?). In other words, it's just as important to make players feel like they got more than what it's actually worth (in D&D usually high numbers with relatively low value). So it's again some sort of emotional anchoring from the system. And yes, taking this away will produce a gap that need to be filled. The motivation needs to arise from something else if it's not rooted in the character ...

      Damn, that's worth another post, I guess.


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