Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Tableau

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]

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.


  1. I'm going to take a couple stabs at your likely answer.

    1) Make it personal. Look at your characters' backgrounds and pull images from them. If you want to play really dirty pool, look at your players' hot buttons and lean on them. (I've known a couple of players that would jump in whenever an animal was abused, or a child abandoned, or a woman badly used by a man. The character wouldn't matter so much.)

    2) Make the scene proactive, aimed at the PCs. A child wailing in the marketplace is heart-wrenching. A child walking up to the priest and asking what happened to her mommy is engaging.

    3) Try and engage emotions other than outrage and pity. I thought your Twitter idea of making the girl a goliath to pique the players' curiosity was interesting. Easy to overuse (and exchanges the glow of "heroic logic" for the glow of "that which is different is important"). But, scattered in with other techniques, and using different emotions, I can see it really working.

  2. Just don't run a game like this. "Heroic logic" is just another term for "railroad." At the very least, you have to make the scene compelling to the player's characters, if not to the players, themselves. That brings up another issue of knowing your players well (as Marshall mentioned), but that's it's own beast.

    The way you make it compelling to the pc's is to hit what's SPECIFICALLY important to them. That's why you need some form of aspects, BIT's, or a tangible concept: it's the players' way of saying "give this to me!" Then you're delivering and engaging, not railroading, because a railroad is what the GM wants.

    The other thing is that you don't write THE STORY, but rather, prepare a world and numerous hooks. There are obviously certain hooks that are avoidable, like hooks that seem to be somebody else's problem (this lost little girl). Those are sidequests, weak hooks that act as setting whether the players take them or not. One way or another, you're establishing that this is a world where X kind of thing happens.

    If it's a hook that is important to you, it needs to be a hook that was explicit in the pitch or character creation, or set up earlier in the game.

    And keep in mind, if players don't take a hook, you can still make it part of the game. Have the event progress whether the players are there to witness it or not. And, when appropriate, slip in information about that event they missed. Not only do they discover something you wanted them to know, but a breathing world generates investment, which can make compelling hooks easier to author.

  3. I'm going to disagree with a few of Paul's comments.

    First, "heroic logic" is not just another term for "railroad." It's just a flag saying, "Hey, guys, the adventure is this way!" Most GMs need to have an adventure planned out. They also need some way to introduce the characters to the adventure. Heroic logic shortcuts that process, by allowing the metagame to bring everything together. It only becomes a railroad if ignoring the crying girl means that nothing happens for the rest of the session.

    I'm also going to disagree with the idea that the GM should not prepare THE STORY. Having a sandbox setting full of potential plots is a great way to play. It certainly maximizes player empowerment. However, playing through an actual plot can be extremely fun and rewarding, too. The GM just has to do a little more work to get the players and characters engaged with the plot. (And he has to be able to roll with the plot going awry, but that's a whole other topic.)

  4. If you have to bother to tell your players where the story is, you have written it poorly. And a shortcut to writing it well is utilizing what you know is important to the players and their characters. You give them hooks that they wouldn't consider avoiding instead of hooks that need a big flashing sign, requesting their cooperation.

    Done right, this makes "sandbox" play indistinguishable from a more rigidly-written game. The difference is that the GM has written the game with some level of consideration for his players, and the players actually experience decision-making beyond the choice to step on the plot conveyor belt.

  5. I think that you are making a rather circular argument there. "You shouldn't need to make your hooks interesting, because if you wrote it well your hooks are already interesting." Part of the point of this post is helping GMs not write it poorly. Just because your techniques are already developed well past this peak doesn't mean that notes on the peak are invalid.

  6. I don't want to turn this into an everlasting back and forth. And if that's actually what it sounds like I'm saying, then I apologize for not being clear enough.

    What I actually mean is that if you are trying to improve, writing with the expectation that players will or ought to behave according to heroic logic sets yourself up for more problems. If you are not yet good at writing compelling hooks, you should stack the deck in your favor: don't lean on heroic logic, but, rather, use the other tricks I (and Rob) mentioned.

  7. Thanks for the great post Rob! Yeah, I was more thinking aloud when I posted about the girl to twitter. I have the problem that most of my game stories are more morally gray and so I'm trying to figure out how to make them a little more clear cut. But I'm so glad my comment led to this sort of advice.


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