Resonance Part II: How to Create Resonance
Last Musing we talked about how to get apathetic players to care about your adventure by using Theme and Resonance.
Theme is about choosing, designing, and introducing gameplay elements that focus on your campaign goal.
Resonance is about choosing themes that will draw your players in and make them care deeply about what happens during the adventure.
I used to play the bagpipes. (That explains why I’m a big wind bag!) You blow into a bag and the air gets forced through pipes attached to it. Within the pipes are reeds, which are wooden strips that vibrate as the air moves through them. The reeds helps tune the three pipes so they make noise at the same vibrational frequency.
If one reed and pipe are out of frequency, you get distortion. You can hear the distortion a number of ways ranging from a wa-wa dissonance to a weird warble. Though it’s hard to tell when a screaming cat is out of tune, when your bagpipes lack resonance from tuning, the sound gets worse — a lot worse.
Another quick example is from golf or tennis. Hit the ball right and the vibration that goes up your arms is perfect. It brings goosebumps. It feels right. That’s resonance.
Get Resonance going in your game, and your players will start to care. Resonance overcomes apathy.
Last Musing I gave a quick example of a theme: Payback. Let the players get revenge, justice, and payback on abusive authorities in the game as a way to fantasize about conflicts happening in their real life.
Here one way to inject Resonance:
Step 1: Build Your Encounter
Create your encounter using whatever method you use today. (Sidenote: I’d love to hear your recipe for building encounters. If you have a second, would you mind replying and telling me your approach to building encounters?)
Example: Bandits attacking villagers.
Step 2: Polish
Use the Encounter Triangle to spiff up the encounter. Location, NPCs, Plot. Treat the triangle as a quick checklist of three quick ways to spruce up your encounter and verify it’s got good game.
Example: Bandit leader knows a secret. Bandits have names and use them. It’s “Bring Kids to Work Day” so the leader has brought Junior to show how daddy brings home the bacon. And the villager ambush happens in a muddy garden, which has potholes, difficult footing, and some potential fun stunts like, “Here’s mud in your eye.”
Step 3: Tap Into Player Fantasy
Our theme is PayBack. But whacking some rando bandits is ho-hum. This is where apathy comes from.
So we add more nuances and elements to bring in our Theme and hopefully build Resonance.
First, we gotta work backwards and create an element of abusive authority for our Theme:
The village is governed by the evil and corrupt Baron Cerdo. He is loud-mouthed and arrogant. He bleeds his people dry with back-breaking taxes and draconian laws. He always metes punishment far greater than the crime.
To communicate this in our encounter, we portray the peasants as sick, impoverished, starving. PCs hear them praying and complaining as they work. To create attachment, we give them something players will admire. The villagers are proud and generous.
We open the encounter with a trigger of the villagers seeing the PCs. The villagers wave at the hobos with smiles on their faces and welcoming gestures. They ask for news, especially for news about family in other villages. And — the clincher — they offer the hobos vegetables just dug up from the garden. This is food the villagers cannot afford to give, and it obviously cost them suffering in their condition to grow and dig this delicious food. And here they are treating the hobos with respect, friendship, and generosity.
Now that we’ve won the PCs over, and set the stage, let’s look at our bandits.
What comes to mind first is always a connection to another plot element. The bandit leader is the Baron’s eldest son. That gets us PayBack in spades. A direct line between authority and abuse. To stir things up more, the son and friends raid villages for fun because they’re bored and entitled. They don’t even need the food. In fact, let’s not make this about bloodshed….
Our encounter takes place in a large, muddy garden plot just outside a village. The PCs meet the starving villagers, chat, and are offered kindness and food.
Queue the bandits.
In mocking tones the leader appears, dressed in fine noble garb and leather armour. He taunts the villagers and PCs. He runs the bully routine. Meanwhile, the other bandits start destroying the garden. The villagers are terribly distressed. One whispers to a PC it’s the Baron’s son.
Finally, before initiative is inevitably rolled, the overconfident leader calls his young son to the front. He says, “Son, look around you and what do you see? Filth. And animals. Look at them. The ought to worship us! But all we get is trouble. Here’s how we handle trouble!”
Let the encounter begin!
Reel back or amplify the situation as you see fit. But here’s a player fantasy set before them. Whether it’s beating the bandits senseless, getting the upper hand and several good burns during a parley that shames the bandits, or it’s just murder hobo mayhem, the players get PayBack.
This encounter resonates because several elements come together for a wonderful opportunity to roleplay and game out this unfair and depressing situation.
For illustration purposes, I’ve created a black and white, obvious, and direct encounter that speaks to the Theme for maximum Resonance.
In an adventure, I’d use an encounter like this as the Inciting Incident or a Milestone Encounter to bridge acts. Most other encounters, though, would resonate more subtly, reinforce themes, and build up to the Milestone or Climactic Encounter types.