Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Call to Action

So, it seems that one advantage of doing a two parter is that I get some very prescient comments about what the next pat will do. If you haven't. You absolutely should take a look at the comments on yesterday's post. Some good stuff there.

The trick of the tableau is that you don't want a tableau at all, you want a call to action. That's a very grand sounding term that really means you want to provide your players a compelling reason to act. Easy to say, but you don't want to force them to do it - that's as bad as using heroic logic tol ead them by the nose. No, instead you want to create an opportunity that is resonant and urgent. Something that makes them want to act, and act now.

Such as situation is composed of three parts: an opportunity, a reason, and a consequence.
The opportunity to act seems like the easiest of the three. After all, players can always act, right? All they need to do is say they want to do something, right?

Well, yes, that's technically true, but it's not necessarily useful. You don't want the players to take any action, you want them to take an action in response to the situation.[1] That demands that there be something specific for them to react to, usually some sort of action. A little girl standing around looking lost is not much of an invitation. The same little girl getting kidnapped is another story.

This leapfrogs onto the third point: Urgency. An important part of the call to action is that there is a clear consequence to inaction. The consequence need not be to the characters, it simply must be a change that will happen if they do not act. Ideally it's a change they don't want to have happen, but that depends a lot on how you sell it to them. In the previous example, there might be some long term consequence to the girl being lost and alone, but there's an _immediate_ consequence to her being grabbed. The window to act opens, but it does not stay open indefinitely.

You can actually get by with just clear opportunity and consequence in most situations. As long as the consequences are undesirable, that can be enough to spur action. But it's really the absolute minimum, and it's thin enough that it's a poor thing to rely on. As such, if you really want to close the deal, you need some reason why the characters (or players) actually care about what's going on. There are several ways you can do this, so let's look at a few of the more reliable ones.

Most powerfully, you can make the events personal. Tying things directly to the characters gives them immediate stakes. As an example, why put a stranger's child in the center of things when it can be someone the characters recognize, if only through business done with their family?
You can also make things indirectly personal. Well constructed characters have any number of buttons and issues that were put in explicitly to be drawn into situations like this. Do they have an enemy they hate? That's who's grabbing the girl. Do they have some idea they're attached to? Tie the kid to it through dress or action. You know how to do this if you stop and think about it, so do it![2]

A somewhat more shameless trick, one that is directed at the players, is to let them see someone getting away with something, ideally something which they would get in trouble for if they tried. This won't work for every group, but if you've had to do things to keep them in check, I assure you that nothing will drive them to violent indignation faster than someone getting away with something.

Another trick, and again, this one speaks to the players, is to make things anomalous. Look at the scene you have in mind and try to spot your assumptions. When you think about the cute little girl in braids in trouble, the image is almost certainly human, to tweak that. What if she's a dwarf. Or A Goliath. Or a Warforged? Challenging assumptions are more likely to give the players pause and make them think about the situation.[3]

In all of these cases, the trick is to get the players to _want_ one outcome over another. If they want something, and there's a clear opportunity for action in front of them, everything else takes care of itself.

1 - There is a temptation to want them to take a _specific_ action, and to funnel things down that path so its the only valid option. However well intentioned, this is a bad plan. It's railroading, and no one benefits from it. Concentrate on trying to get them to respond, but leave the manner of that response up to them.

2 - Of course, the reason you won't is that you're afraid it will appear contrived, forced, or like you're overusing those hooks. You're not. Not any of that.

It is a rare game that overuses the character's hooks. If you hit them more than one every session they MIGHT start wearing thin, but the reality is this is what the player _wants_, and using them is validation, not a challenge to credulity. And heck, if you've used them enough times to be worried, then you should have a whole backlog of past uses you can draw on to make things a little different.

Consider, for example, if you use a character's interest in the ladies quite often. You could keep throwing in new damsels, but if you're worried it's wearing thing, then why not bring back one of the previous ladies. Or perhaps her very angry sibling? Or her kid. It creates a personal tie _through_ that important character element without triggering it directly.

3 - Don't rely too much on this one though. It can easily turn into another variant of heroic logic

UNRELATED PLUG: So, I said something on twitter the other day. Daniel Solis turned it into something lovely. So I have done the only reasonable thing, and opened a Cafe Press store for it.


  1. Do warforged have little girls?

    I want to comment on the "wearing thin" bit. I want to reiterate Rob's point that this is probably bullshit.

    First, leaning on a particular character's button grants that character spotlight time. Since spotlight time is pretty crucial to player enjoyment and involvement, it will always be a good thing.

    Second, players put those hooks on the character sheet because they want them to be pulled. They indicate the kinds of stories they want to tell.

    Third, your players are likely used to games that are much less personal. Either they are generic, in the case of published adventures, or the characters are simply plugged into the GM's story, in the case of a railroad. Even if you are overdoing the hooks, it will still be different enough from past experience to be novel.

    If you really do feel like the hooks are wearing thin, though, it may be a symptom that you're using them wrong. Are you always leaning on the same character? That's a spotlight sharing problem. For a given character, are you always leaning on the same hook? That probably means that either the character is under-developed, or you haven't paid enough attention to the character. Read the character sheet again, or maybe even break down and talk to the player. Does the player seem to resent the hook? Then they probably feel like you are using the hooks to railroad them into something they don't want to do. Definitely talk to the player, because you likely have different ideas of what the hook is. Does it feel to you like you are warping the setting to fit the characters? Then you likely either made the mistake of allowing characters that don't fit the setting, or you are holding far too tightly to some idea of the setting that your players aren't into.

  2. @Marshall I have no idea, but the idea is jarring enough that if I saw one, I would definitely look twice!

    Beyond that, excellent points, and i think you're very much going to dig tomorrow's post.

  3. Of course, if I saw a *Warforged* I'd look twice...

  4. So, how does a Call to Action differ from a Kicker, if at all?

  5. This is assuming that your players actually give you hooks. Mine typically don't, even if I explicitly ask them to. It is a source of endless frustration.

  6. @eynowd Please don't mistake what I'm saying as an attack, but perhaps you're not looking hard enough. I have experienced (I believe) what you are saying, where you ask a player what they want and get that extremely frustrating shrug with an "I dunno", and 10 seconds later they're bored to tears by what you thought they wanted.

    The key is that you have to ignore what your players say, sometimes. Often players, especially those that are unskilled at expression of their character concept, are not sure in so many words what they want, aside from to have fun. Look to how they play.

    D&D and similar games do not require you to have these concepts in place before play begins, but instead encourage the character picture to come out in play. When they do something, try to understand why, even bluntly ask it. If they shrug and are uncomfortable, fine, let it slide, turn to the next player and proceed. Never force your players to provide this! Some never will, and that's okay. If you force it you're not "helping them", you're serving yourself.

    As a GM your job is not to "tell a story" but to sacrifice your high ideal of a story to make sure everyone has fun.

  7. Then rely on the two of the three method, develop a history over time, and once you have that history, recycle and reincorporate elements from it. That's making use of hooks that emerge in play rather than pre exist.


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