Mess with Your Players’ Heads — RPT#455
From: John Lewis
While it would be great if players naturally wanted to be drawn into the campaign, it rarely ever works out that way. It takes a DM to consciously create an evolving world and story that compel players to invest their attention, energy, and creativity into the shared experience. This is much easier said than done.
I try and accomplish this through the use of in-depth verisimilitude, character driven plot-lines, and a well-developed setting. All of these things work well, but they all take a lot of time, energy, and planning.
If you don’t have a lot of extra time, or find yourself already in mid-campaign and need a quick boost, I offer the following few tips to get your players thinking about the campaign.
The main thing to remember is that nothing draws in players like curiosity.
1. The Unusual and the Odd
I like to add quite a few unusual locations and odd circumstances to my campaigns. These are usually simple things that may or may not prove to be of any significance but still pique curiosity and interest.
There many things that can fit the bill on this technique: objects that don’t seem to fit in with their surroundings, unusual rumors, and inexplicable locations all strike a player’s interest.
More examples I’ve used over the years:
- An ancient monument of gigantic floating stones in the middle of the woods.
- An otherwise innocuous arm band that detected as magical, glowed slightly, and could not be removed after it was put on.
- A group of mysterious strangers that gather every new moon at the heroes’ favorite inn to play in a private, back-room dice game.
- A mundane animal (such as a dog, cat, or raven) that is frequently spotted by the party outside an inn, at the city gates, on the road, near an ancient ruin, etc.
- A crumpled-up piece of parchment that resembles a wanted poster. There is a portrait of one of the heroes on the poster.
- A small shrine along an infrequently traveled trail dedicated to some god or deity the heroes have never heard of. On the ground in front of the shrine is a brass bowl of semi-coagulated blood.
- A bunch of dead cows in a field. They don’t appear to be injured, just dead.
- When the heroes arrive in a new town and check into an inn they’ve never been to before; the innkeeper tells one of them he has a package for the character. The dust covered box has been here for months, maybe years, and contains a few mundane items.
Any of these things might turn out to be relevant to the campaign, red herrings, or just odd occurrences that never are explained. Regardless, they will all keep your players guessing and interested in the world they are in.
2. Too Good to Be True
Every once and a while I like to have a patron offer the heroes a reward that seems way out of proportion to the task at hand. The players always expect there’s more than meets the eye and that’s a classic story hook, but I like to let things go off without a hitch.
This breeds wonderful paranoia. I’ve seen players go so far as to quickly get rid of their treasure for far less than its worth for fear of it being cursed, or worse.
I also like to pull the old “Indiana Jones and the Golden Idol” maneuver. Leave some great treasure in a place that seems like an obvious trap and then let the heroes simply walk off with it, no strings attached.
I stumbled upon this by accident recently when I realized I was a few treasure parcels shy for the characters at their level. It had been a few encounters since the heroes had acquired anything valuable, so I decided they would come across a few nice items in an out of the way part of the ruined crypts they were exploring.
I described what appeared to be the site of a long-forgotten battle. Skeletal remains and the signs of a fight were everywhere. Amongst the battle-scarred remains I left three magic items, a map, and some incidental monetary treasure. The players spent nearly an hour in the room looking for traps, an ambush, invisible chupercabras, ninjas, you name it.
Eventually, the party decided to leave everything alone without touching it because some sprit had generically warned the party to “not disturb the halls of the dead” earlier in the adventure. I don’t like to argue with player decisions, so they left without any treasure and I left with a new method of messing with their heads.
This is another technique that gets players to think about their surroundings and question the events and circumstances of the adventure. Remember two important Dungeon Master keywords: paranoia and curiosity. These are the words that suck players into your world.
3. What’s in a Name?
I’ve always been sure to give proper names to the NPCs the characters interact with. Most of us remember to name important people like nobles, guild-masters, and major antagonists. We also tend to name people the characters interact with frequently, such as a favorite inn-keeper, blacksmith, or hireling. But that’s where it ends.
In my current campaign, however, I’ve begun naming everyone. I mean absolutely everyone; especially combat encounter NPCs who won’t live to see the end of the encounter. If you want to see one of your minor encounters become a big deal to your players, have one of the enemy shout out to another by name.
The very first encounter in my current campaign featured a group of goblins ambushing the heroes. It was a simple 1st level, nothing-to-it encounter. During the attack one of them yelled to Gratz, another goblin, by name.
The mood around the table changed instantly. Suddenly the players were unsure of the encounter; characters hesitated. Perception checks were made, defenders guarded against an imagined counter-attack, and Gratz was approached much more cautiously. By the time the encounter was over Gratz lay dead and paranoia was alive and well.
The effect was unexpected and totally unplanned, but the intensity of the encounter completely changed. The players began asking questions and getting drawn into the goblins’ world. They were no longer simple goblins attacking travelers.
The players wanted to know who they were and where they came from. They wanted to know whether or not anyone else knew of these goblins or recognized their banner. Almost by accident the nature of the campaign changed. Since that time everyone in our campaign has a name, even NPCs whose names might never be heard.
As a final note, when the heroes in my campaign fought some other goblins a couple of levels later, one of them attacked yelling they had killed his brother Gratz. It was a great moment at the table as I watched the players begin thinking more in terms of cause-and-effect and the big picture, instead of looking at the world as a random string of encounters.
All of these techniques lose a little shock value as they are used over time. But if you keep using them, your world will become more vivid and real and the players will find themselves more immersed in the campaign. That will add a new level to your role-playing experience.
A Brief Word from Johnn
Combat Hazards Contest Ends Very Soon – July 21
If you haven’t entered the contest yet for a chance to win prizes, time is running out.
How to Enter
Email me [[email protected]] interesting combat hazard ideas. Multiple entries are welcome and each gives you a chance to win a prize. Winners will be drawn at random.
Feel free to let me know your prize preferences as well.
Contest ends July 21, 2009.
* Malevolent and Benign in PDF by Expeditious Retreat Press http://www.xrpshop.citymax.com/catalog/item/3906568/7057115.htm
Mythic Design presents:
- Tribes of Danu: Heart of the Neolith
- Adventure Art Issue #1
- Adventure Art Issue #2
PDF and print version of each are available http://www.mythicdesign.com/
War of the Burning Sky #1: The Scouring of Gate Pass by E.N. Publishing
Your choice of 3.5 or 4E version in PDF
Obsidian Portal 6 month memberships
In total, there are 18 prizes up for grabs.
Entries will be compiled and given back to you for free. Thanks for helping other game masters with your combat hazards!
Email [email protected] your entries right now.
Mega-Interview with Kevin Siembieda
Palladium fans will be quite interested in this interview over at RPGBlog2. Zachary has actually done a series of Palladium interviews in the past week.
Interview with Monte Cook
Recently I had a chance to chat with Monte Cook. He talks about the RPG industry, his new Dungeonaday.com service, his writing methods, and more. http://blog.gamer-lifestyle.com/entrepreneurship/gamer-lifestyle-interviews-monte-cook
Questing for Pathfinder Adventure Path Modules
If you have any Paizo Pathfinder stuff lying around unused, drop me a note as I’d be interested in buying them from you.
Lands of Darkness #1 up for Best Adventure!
Lands of Darkness #1: The Barrow Grounds is nominated for Best Adventure in the 2009 Gen Con EN World RPG Awards (aka the ENnies). Pick up your copy on sale at our on-line store for $8 or the electronic version for $3 at YourGamesNow.com. Voting takes place on-line July 24- August 1 at the ENnies site: Ennie-Awards
Lands of Darkness #1: The Barrow Grounds: http://www.yourgamesnow.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=2411
Let It Ride
A Technique for Entertaining Sessions
As gamemasters we have a responsibility to provide players with the best experience possible. What does it mean to provide a quality game? How can we as a group gain more fulfillment out of our hobby?
To be a good GM you have to be an entertainer, which means recognizing what your audience needs. While players often voice what they think they want, what gives the players the greatest enjoyment is achieving the fundamental need of all roleplayers. This need is fulfilled only when you let go of your game and “Let it Ride.”
What every player truly wants is to feel as if they have helped in the production of your story. If this need is met, a player will be satisfied from a game session, even if everything went wrong for that character.
This is different than having their characters central to your story. All stories are centered around the players, but not every story engages the players.
Engaging players is about making them want to be proactive in a story. Players want to believe the story could not have happened without their characters. When a player ends a session, they yearn to walk away with a story of how their character did something that changed the course of your story.
The problem is how do you engage your players? A good gamemaster is aware of the unvoiced wishes of their players. These wants and desires are demonstrated in the actions of the players and their corresponding characters.
These actions have the greatest potential for development into an amazing plot device. In one section of the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about how improvisational actors make snap judgments to entertain. He states they follow one rule, “accept everything.”
In theater, the simple act of never refusing something another actor says or does allows the troupe to keep the conflict going and seem fresh.
In a role playing game your players are the actors. To allow a game world to always seem fresh, alive and full of conflict, accept everything your players do.
Accepting everything doesn’t mean having no will or not making decisions. It means letting the troupe have the freedom to surprise you.
Real power comes from taking those surprise actions and twisting them. Everything your characters do should be followed by the question: “How can this go wrong?”
It is so fundamental to having a good game, I almost titled this article with it. While accepting actions your players make allows them to feel vital to the game, twisting their decisions and turning the outcomes to your own will is the driving force of your world. This in turn makes the players feel like their actions have made an impact on the larger world. And this makes them feel as if the world you have created is an alive and growing.
This unpredictability is often destructive. When you accept everything your players do you find they end up faster in unscripted portions of your game, or worse. They threaten, if not destroy, the continuity of your game story, world or cosmology.
This is when the GM as an entertainer begins to shine. Let the players destroy that continuity. It opens plot devices we never would have thought of otherwise. Enjoy the chaos of creation your players can create.
Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” (Thanks.) The same can be correctly said about all aspects of your well-planned stories and players.
To gratify the last and greatest desire of the players, a GM must be willing to forgo their own ego and let the players drive. We provide the framework their car is in, but the players are in control beyond that.
Sometimes players will drive the game right through the continuity of your world. Sometimes accepting what your players have done will destroy the finely designed cosmology that took months to figure out. I say “great” because that disruption causes tidal waves of conflict to erupt all over. It forces you out of a seat of comfort and into a state of growth.
All thought and work done before a game is worth sacrificing if it will keep the story pace moving and your players captivated.
So your players are gathered around the table. Bets have been placed on the quality of the entertainment. The stakes are high. And when the characters’ actions threaten the dice, remember, let it ride.
Strolen’s Feature Article
Use of Constellations
The skies tell the tale of the living and the dead. The honored and the worshiped. What do the stars tell in your setting?
I feel constellations are an overlooked resource to add flavor to a successful game that screams to be used. Constellations are not just stars in the sky. They are the story of myth and creation. The harbingers of prophesy. Constellations were used to tell stories about gods and warriors, beasts and monsters, and to associate the mortal world with the heavens.
The most obvious reason to use constellations regularly is the use of them for prophecies. This overlaps with the use for quests and omens as well. Use a player’s birth or description, and tie it in with the rising of a constellation to send them on fun-filled adventure that they can blame on the gods.
2) Creation Myths
The myth of creation has been around since the dawn of understanding of mankind and mortals. This is seen as more of a religious aspect and might not see as much light in a role playing setting, unless a member or members of the group are religious or the setting has a high religious flavor.
Very similar to prophecies, omens are used to tell grim tales of the goings on of the world. Tales and signs of ill and good omens can happen all the time under the signs and faces of the constellations.
Just because it is an omen does not mean it is initially bad. An omen of the coming of a savior of good will be rejoiced at by an ill-treated populace. However, it bodes ill for those in power.
Again very similar to the prophecy and omen section, although changed a little bit to suit individual campaigns instead of a broad stroke of a world. A sage or teller of fortunes could tell of a godly quest that a person of a particular birth and sign must complete. This can be helpful to get the players on the track you wish them to be on.
5) Local Culture
Each culture could have differing views on the constellations in the sky. This could bode ill for someone who does not know a particular culture’s beliefs regarding the sky, and could be put in a bad way for inadvertently disgracing their beliefs.
6) Reason for Harvest
As the title says, some cultures use the constellations to determine when and where to plant crops, when to harvest them and what kind to plant as determined by the constellations and their position. Pretty simple really, and not used often for role-playing.
7) Birthing Signs
One thing seldom used is the sign that one is born under. Is it seen as good or bad to be born under the sign of the thief? Would nobles hide the fact that their children were born under the Dark Sister or the Hag if it were seen as an ill Omen? Or is it good to be born under the sign of the Warrior or the Moneylender?
In many cults, groups, religions, and other fanatical or misguided people, the stars are used as a guide them in their summoning rituals. These rituals can be used for good or evil.
For example, the summoning of a spirit, a demon, a powerful being or, other uses, such as a ritual of protection, or of longevity. Each one might only be possible when a certain constellation is visible, perhaps even only during a certain astrological event.
History of Constellations
Early cultures looked to the heavens and saw their gods looking down on them, and they created the constellations to put a face to their names. As time progressed, their heroes and enemies because taking form as well, and in some cases, taking the place of their once deific counterparts.
Some tell of individuals, while the whole tells a story. It could be the story of life, or the story of a king.
Constellations are more than just a navigational tool used by ships to travel the sightless oceans and not get lost. The stories are both true and myth. In some cases, they are a way for cultures to relate themselves to the world around them and their gods. Different cultures have viewed the constellations differently throughout the ages, but story after story have been similar in the end.
The constellations can broke down into a few categories:
- Major Constellations and Minor Constellations
- Deities and Heroes
- Mortals and Monsters
Major Constellations are seen all year and do not set below the horizon. They are always seen at night and can be counted on for reliable navigation while at sea.
Minor Constellations are seasonal. They seem to only appear during certain times of the year or only during certain celestial anomalies. These constellations are by no means less important, they just do not have as much history behind them, nor are they seen with as much appreciation as their major counterparts.
The same can be done with deities and heroes. Deities are seen all year round. They are the highest and lasting images in the sky that never set and never change, while the heroes come and go with the seasons.
New GM Advice @ CampaignMastery
Read the blog of Johnn Four and Mike Bourke that discusses game mastering advice and techniques.
I highly recommend this for GMs building up to a villain final battle. A recipe for campaign build-up and structure; should the villain pull his punches to let the PCs win; how to plan the final encounter; should you plan for PC defeat?
GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre.
This book will make a difference to your GMing.