Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Trick

Ok, I touched upon this yesterday in the footnotes, but I want to call it out here. This is an incredibly useful trick, and it's one that every GM should keep in hand if they want to make adventures or introduce game elements that are really going to resonate with the players and their characters, even if they give you only one or two things to work with.

Most characters have hooks, interesting elements about them which carry some emotional or behavioral load. They hate orcs. They drink a lot. They have sworn an oath to avenge their father. Whatever. To a GM, these things are pure gold, because they represent a laundry list of cool things that make a game go. The problem is that the list often seems kind of short. If every character has only one or two such hooks, that may end up seeming like a pretty anemic list once it's spread out over the length of a campaign.

Not so fast. With the right approach, even one or two hooks can be turned into an absolute smorgasbord of elements n a game that directly engage the characters without simply repeating the same handful of plots. The trick, to put it simply, is this:

Don't tie things to the character, tie them to the things tied to the character.

Ok, that may not make much sense without context, but give me a minute here. Let's take a sample character, Anna, who has only two hooks - she's a terrible skirt (pants?) chaser, and she wants to be the king's Master at Arms someday. If you were to only use those things, then you'd have exactly two plots: The guy she's sleeping with, and the mission for the king that will get her the position. Sure, you could stretch them out into chains - there might be a series of lovers, or it might be a sequence of missions before the title is rewarded, but that's pretty much. This is all you have to work with.
But what if, instead, you never touch the obvious things? What if, instead, you presume those things to be givens, and instead focus on other things that connect it into it. Thus, even if we never focus on an individual lover, we might well run into:
  • The jilted, vengeful other lover looking for revenge
  • The wife of your last conquest
  • The partner who gets too enamored and asks his family for permission to marry you. They are not amused
  • The partner who signed her name on his debts. His bad debts.
  • The pimp, who feels you misunderstood the situation.
Similarly, the route to the Master of Arms office is almost certainly dotted with:
  • Other potential contenders for the position about to improve their standing
  • People who would be happy to have the future master at arms owe them a favor
  • People who might have the king's ear who want things.
  • Alternative (and very sweet) job offers
Even with just this off the cuff list, you now have enough seeds to keep the character engaged for dozens of sessions. And that's with some very shallow hooks - your players have likely been much more creative.
The trick[1] is to find the thing important to the character, then find the things that resonate with that. Not only do you multiply the number of play opportunities for a single hook, you keep that hook from feeling overused, even if it comes up constantly. Where a string of lovers in trouble might get repetitious, the people connected to those lovers are vastly more varied.

Anyway, it's a small trick, but when I'm stumped, I find it's a very useful one[2].

1 - And like all good tricks, it's utterly obvious once you see it.

2- A similar technique makes for a fast and dirty way to make memorable NPCs.
Take an element from one of the players and reflect it in an obvious fashion. If one player was a soldier, make him a soldier on the other side. If one player likes to drink, make him a drunk. Something that seems like an entirely obvious GM trick to elicit sympathy.

Then reflect it again. Discard the first value and use this new one. Instead of being a soldier, he had a brother in the war. He used to drink but is better now. Whatever. Suddenly it's a lot less contrived, but there's that root of commonality to give their interaction some resonance.


  1. Whew! Good, practical stuff! I need to make sure this stays inside my brain for when I finally get a chance to run a campaign in early November.

  2. This is an excellent idea! I've occasionally done stuff like that here and there when GMing but I hadn't actually thought about the process. I can see how I could get a lot more mileage out of it! I can also see some very interesting applications when combining it with the Law of Conservation of NPCs. :) Thanks for posting this.

  3. Jesus, that's brilliant. You can tell it's brilliant because it's so simple and (as you said) obvious once you see it.

    Can't wait til my kids get old enough so I have time to use this stuff (with them and others).

  4. Great stuff, Rob! If you took it one step further, you could hook one character's ties to another's. Makes me wonder what kind of character dynamics you could create.

    Splitting your example into two characters:
    Anna wants to be Master at Arms. James is a womanizer.

    The husband of James' last conquest is in a position to influence the King's decision on who should be the next Master at Arms.

    Also - what program did you use to create those nifty graphical represenations?

  5. @Sam You're absolutely right: The same logic applies to characters. Connecting them directly is less usefully than putting one or two elements between them in a clear chain.

    And it was Omnigraffle, a mac program that is basically everything Visio wishes it was.

  6. Rob, this is great stuff. Clear and concise. Thanks for posting the series. My groups tend to cover a range of playstyles from very casual to highly involved. It's always a challenge to get material from the very casual players. Part of me feels that if I could find something, I might be able to get them interested in the game beyond the pizza and re-enacting Monty Python skits. (I DM a large group, and play in two other large groups. 7+ people.)

    Any tips on working with such diverse levels of involvement?

  7. @anarkeith The shortest answer is that it helps to play a game where players feel confident enough in their footing that they can entertain themselves. This may mean a super hippie game where players have narrative authority, but it can be accomplished just as well with a well known setting and well-established GM trust.

    The problem is that is players are entirely dependent on the GM to do, say or assert things, then they sit around waiting for the GM's attention, and that doesn't scale up well. If they can't play, they'll do something else, and that's where disruptions start. (Similarly, this comes up with long combat turns).

    The trick (and its easier said than done) is to try to get to the point where everyone is always (or almost always) playing, because once they're playing the problem is solved. This probably merits it's own post at some point, but a few useful things include:

    * Giving players things they control (as in a nobility game) and which other players want. Let them negotiate among themselves.
    * Give mechanical incentive to keep paying attention to what's up (such as the ability to help with interrupts)
    * Give rewards for players having conversations among themselves, and give them reasons to have those conversations.

    Just a start, I know, but hope it helps.

  8. Great Post! All of a sudden I'm bubbling with ideas for my game!

  9. This expansion trick is a great creative approach, and it works for more than just character hooks. Imagine expanding out the ramifications of a particular adventure.

    After the adventures killed the local dragon, the dragon's surviving kobold servants swear revenge, and they raid and burn a nearby town. Instead of dealing with the kobold's directly, perhaps the adventures need to deal with angry townsfolk who want their town rebuilt or a merchant who lost his wares and wants compensation. At the same time, the power vacuum caused by the dragon's death encouraged a tribe of orcs to settle in the area. Now, the adventures need to lend their swords to the baron, who lost so many men fighting the orcs that his barony has been invaded by a greedy neighbor.

    The more you expand, the more depth it adds to your campaign world.


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