Hooking players into an encounter is a little bit of an art, and I had an interesting discussion about just that today on Twitter. The idea that started it was an image: A little girl in tight braids and well-kept but not fancy clothes calling out for her mommy and daddy in a crowded marketplace. Described well, it's a heartbreaking little tableau, the kind to tug at the heartstrings ofan audience and quickly draw the players in.
Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work that way.
The rub of a tableau like that is that it's equally likely to invite snarky comments, especially from players who either are playing their characters a certain way or are, to be frank, the kind of players who are inclined to be a little snarky. Given that this describes much of the gaming populace falls under this description, what's going to happen when they come upon this tableau?
Unless your players are feeling difficult, then they'll eventually engage the little girl because heroic logic dictates that they must. Heroic logic is, of course, the player's awareness that the GM is shining a light on this particular character, and clearly that is where they must go to get the ball rolling. It is not quite a glowing exclamation mark over the character's head, but it's close.
But the problem is, GMs are not always aware that they're doing this. When they craft very descriptive tableaus, it's very easy to get attached to their own prose and think that the players are responding to the quality of the writing and the emotional engagement of the situation. The reality is, they probably aren't. They're responding to the direction you're pointing.
This is harmless enough on its own, but it can be problematic over time. First and foremost, your players are aware of the use of heroic logic, even if you aren't, and every time they have to use it, their patience frays just a little bit more. This may never really reach a crisis point, but if it does, that's no fun for anyone.
Of more immediate concern is the possibility that the day may come that your player's miss the point. You expect them to engage with something, but they've picked up the cue that they're supposed to be observing. This will be frustrating, but you can deal with it. You just need to pull out the stops, and make the tableau MORE compelling, rich and heartwrenching! And when that doesn't work (because that isn't what they were responding to in the first place) and you redouble your efforts all the more, you're going to get frustrated. There's no way, you will think, that your players could be MISSING this. They're just being a bunch of jerks.
At which point you flip open the Monster Manual to find something disproportionately ugly with which you will wipe the imagines smirks off their faces. And it just goes downhill from there.
Bottom Line: Friends don't let friends depend on tableaus.
But then, if you can't depend on the tableau to spark action, what _can_ you do? Sounds like a job for….Tomorrow!
1- Dirty pool, I know, but I'm intentionally experimenting with terser posts. I've tried this before, and it never sticks, but it buys me more time to read the new Dark Sun guide, so it seems like a good cause.