Triage 101: Five Ways To Get Players Unstuck
From Anson Brehmer
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #692
Getting the PCs to do things is like herding cats. It’s hard to get them all pointed in a single direction, and sometimes they get lost and confused about what it is they should be doing. If you’re trying to give guidance to the group, but don’t want to put them on the Plot Express, here are a few things you can try.
Remember Chandler’s Law
Raymond Chandler, a pulp novelist, devised a way of working through writer’s block:
“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
Have something proactive happen the PCs can see and interact with. An ambush, an explosion, a magical happening…whatever it is, it should get attention.
It doesn’t need to be a threat to their lives. But it should be a situation loud enough to grab their thoughts.
Escalating the situation can work, too… the next stage of the villain’s plan is set in motion, along with some consequences that show why this plot needs to be stopped. That can provide a much-needed kick in the pants to a stalled game state.
Once the situation is resolved and the characters are catching their breath, you can use the opportunity to introduce a clue or two. Speaking of which…
Provide Lots Of Clues
This article by Jason Alexander provides a wonderful idea:
“For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.”
The rule of three is a powerful force in human psychology. Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a pattern.
Sherlock Holmes was a brilliant detective, but even he needed multiple pieces of information he could piece together to form a conclusion.
You can go further with this. For any choke point problem (a problem the PCs need to deal with to continue the adventure), consider three solutions, and then make three clues pointing to each of those solutions.
More clues are always better. The more clues you provide, the quicker the PCs can catch on, especially if they’re stuck.
Know What Resources NPCs Have At Their Disposal
Knowing what the antagonist of the adventure has available will make your life easier. Create a toolbox of resources to see what the Big Bad of the situation can bring to bear, and thus what you can create clues about.
Resources can include:
- Personnel: People the antagonists have at their disposal or who are tied to them in some way (employment, blackmail, coercion, family ties, friendship).
- Equipment: Various important arms, magical items, food and comfort items, luxuries, currency.
- Locations: Physical places such as bolt holes (for hiding), fortresses (for protection), laboratories or recruitment centers (for getting new resources).
- Information: Various pieces of useful information, such as contacts, connections, blackmail material, magic rituals, knowing where the trap triggers are…lots of potential here!
- Intangibles: What does the antagonist bring by himself? A keen intellect, superpowers, charisma, a reputation, the ability to regenerate, a destiny, an important bloodline…again, this is a broad catch-all.
You don’t have to nitpick about what category a particular resource falls into. This is just a loose guide.
Once you know what the antagonists can do, you can figure out how they might use these tools to accomplish their goals. That provides things you can create clues for, and also opportunities for Chandler’s Law.
Know What Motivates The Players
Not the characters, the players themselves. There are a finite number of ways that players interact with the game. These aesthetics of play are a fundamental draw, and what you see as “confusion and disinterest” might mean there’s a disconnect between the game you are running and the game the PCs think they’re in.
You’ve probably heard of Robin Law’s list of Gamer Types. Here’s a quick summary:
The Power Gamer: Wants to get more powers and use them often and efficiently.
The Butt-Kicker: Wants to let off steam by kicking butt and taking names.
The Tactician: Wants to beat complex situations through thought and planning.
The Specialist: Wants rules that support a particular style of play he enjoys and opportunities to show off his specialization.
The Actor: Wants to immerse himself in a persona and act in character.
The Storyteller: Wants to experience a fun narrative through his character’s thoughts and actions.
The Casual Gamer: Wants to hang out socially with the other players, sharing the energy of the group rather than focus on the game itself.
And to this I’d like to add:
The Troublemaker: Wants to express dominance by creating in-game trouble without real-world consequences and possibly subverting the group dynamic.
The Explorer: Wants to discover new elements of the game world, learn lore, and see what can be seen.
The Problem-Solver: Wants to solve puzzles, mysteries, and riddles, and enjoys a mental challenge.
All of these play styles overlap. But, in general, players look for a particular play experience. If the group is bored and confused, you might want to look at what has been going on and then switch it up by catering to a different play experience for a bit. Perhaps you’ve been leaning a bit too much on combat recently, or haven’t given the players enough chance to do some socializing with the barkeep.
You can use the previous tips (Chandler’s Law, The Three Clue Rule, and NPC resources) to mix up the encounters.
And don’t just focus on the macro level. If the players seem stuck, ask them what they want to accomplish or what they think is going on. You aren’t a mind reader, after all. Feedback is important to the overall health of the game. Maybe they missed a vital clue or aren’t quite invested in the situation.
If the game has become hazy and has ground to a halt, there are techniques you can use to focus the PCs and give them a signpost to follow:
- Remember Chandler’s Law
- Provide lots of clues
- Know what resources the NPCs have at their disposal
- Know what motivates the players
Figuring out where the problem lies is the first step to solving it.
Hopefully this has given you some ideas. Do you have your own techniques for getting a game out of the mud? Share your tips with Johnn!
Brief Word From Johnn
What’s My Favourite Mega-Dungeon?
I love and hate mega-dungeons. I love the idea of them and have bought many over the years. There’s an entire shelf in my bookcase beside me right now dedicated just to my precious mega-dungeons. My pretties.
Early in my GMing career I ran several few mega-dungeons. But I did not finish any of them. Parties got TPK’d or we’d stop playing for one reason or another. Wait, I did finish GMing one, now that I recall. And it happens to be my favourite mega-dungeon of all time, though not just because the party survived to see the light of day again.
The biggest reason I don’t run mega-dungeons today is I get bored. The endless corridors, mapping, and combats. Bleh. And with a bi-weekly gaming schedule, it takes forever to finish one. These days I’m all about maintaining momentum with finishing campaigns by making them shorter or breaking them up into seasons. Finishing something always feels rewarding.
Yet, they beckon. They draw me like a wizard to a scroll. Their glittering treasure hoards. Their bricolage of monsters. Their promise of exploration and adventure.
So I sit here rubbing my chin and twisting the ends of my long, curling moustache, musing with greedy eyes caressing the spines and boxes on my shelf. What if? What if?
While I ponder I shall share my favourite mega-dungeon of all time. But let me first tell you the runner-up. This one I started twice but did not finish. The first attempt was via a lunch game at work, but conflicting schedules foiled that game, and were I to feed & foray again I’d aim for something less cumbersome to set up. Something without maps, minis, and a massive book.
The second attempt was an online game via forums. But something was lost with text-only crawling. For forum gaming in the future I’d also aim for more narrative, no tactical fights, and no mapping.
My #2 favourite mega-dungeon is The World’s Largest Dungeon. It’s massive. And it’s got factions! My favourite way to game these days. Lots of roleplay and intrigue and mission-style gaming comes with factions. WLD also has several distinct sections, so the environment and atmosphere is always changing, keeping things fresher than endless corridors.
I’m holding the massive 840 page book in my hands right now. Must. Resist.
Phew. It’s back on the shelf again. Let my wipe the beads of sweat off my forehead with a dice bag.
My #1 favourite mega-dungeon of all time? The classic T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. Four diabolical dungeon levels brimming with evil clerics and demons, with four more dungeon demi-planes for high level hijinks. It’s maniacal. It’s dungeon. It’s dungeoniacal.
I’ve started TOEE 9 times. Most recently in the mid-2000s. Finished it once. Marathon sessions one summer during school with my friend Eric where I played DM NPCs got us through all eight levels and munchkin PCs. It was awesome.
So that’s my favourite mega-dungeon. What’s yours? Drop me a note, say hi, and let me know.
The Hidden Structure Of Russian Folk Tales: Vladimir Propp Part 1
From Phil Nicholls,
At the heart of every GM is a storyteller. This trait appears both when structuring the plot before the game and improvising at the table in response to player actions. Therefore, a GM should be familiar with common story structures.
This topic has previously been addressed by RPG writers elsewhere, but it also pays for GMs to be familiar with some literary theories of story structure. Star Wars and Glorantha, for example, both embody the writings of Joseph Campbell. This essay introduces another story theorist: Vladimir Propp.
Russian Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (1895-1970) is credited as the father of structuralism. Born and educated in St. Petersburg, he eventually became a lecturer at the renamed Leningrad University. Propp’s ideas influenced such giants of European literary theory as Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss.
Overview Of Propp’s Work
His most famous work is Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), in which he systematically analysed the structure of Russian folk tales. Propp examined 100 different folk tales, carefully picking apart the recurring scenes and characters found in these stories.
As a result, Propp identified a sequence of 31 functions, or common scenes, within folk tales. Not every tale featured every scene, but these scenes were so common that Propp defined them as building blocks of story. As noted on the TV Tropes website, this made Propp one of the first critical “trope-spotters.”
Propp also identified seven, or perhaps eight depending upon how you count them, recurring characters in the folk tales. The combination of the two concepts broke any story down to an amalgamation of iconic components. A GM can order these components as desired, adding genre and character, to form any story. Many generic RPGs make similar claims.
Propp And The GM
I see two main reasons why the work of a Russian folklorist is relevant to GMs. First, Proppian theories speak to the storyteller in every GM. Propp outlines the building blocks of story and the basic scenes or characters fundamental to these ancient stories. We can apply his understanding of story structure to help our games resonate with players.
The fact that Propp analysed folk tales is particularly relevant to us. These were oral stories, handed down across the generations and told around the stove on long winter nights. Clearly RPGs are the next generation of oral storytelling. These folk tales are the distant ancestors for our hobby, not least for their strong fantasy roots. It can only benefit our stories to learn more about the structure of these old tales.
Propp’s 31 Functions
Propp recognised 31 functions, or scenes, in folk tales. We need not follow the exact structure Propp lays out, for that would create repetitive and restrictive games. However, many of these scenes are staple encounters in RPG scenarios. Here is a brief rundown of Propp’s functions:
The Initial Situation
The setting before the story begins. This is your campaign setting before the players have any effect on it.
Somebody leaves or dies, often a parent, changing the previous status quo. Sometimes it is the hero who leaves his hometown.
An important rule is established, such as, “Do not touch the spinning wheel.” This statement might also include a dire prophecy if the rule is broken, thereby setting the stakes for the hero’s struggles.
Inevitably, the rule is broken. Following the principles of Chekhov’s Gun, if a prohibition is presented in a story, then somebody will break it later in the story. See RPT#679. Whereas Chekhov expected a period of tension, where the audience waits for the rule to be broken, Propp sees the violation following swiftly from the establishment of the rule.
Usually, the villain spies on the hero, often in disguise. The presence of the villain or his agents so early in the story establishes the focus on the struggle between hero and villain. As a GM, this also provides an opportunity for the players and a disguised villain to engage in banter without the encounter immediately descending into violence.
The searching party discovers useful information as a result of the reconnaissance. In many of the folk tales this is a map, which resonates strongly with RPGs.
Using the information gained, the villain tricks the hero, again using deception. Players are unlikely to react positively to this tactic, so use this encounter sparingly.
The hero is forced, tricked, or influenced to aid the villain. This is the payoff for the villain for scenes four to six. As an encounter, this probably works best in a campaign where morality is more “shades of grey”, rather than the standard high fantasy game.
Villain performs an evil act. This scene is the high point of the villain’s success and should have a significant impact on the setting and the hero.
Hero uncovers the actions of the villain. Now the hero learns what has really been happening. This scene works a little differently in stories, where the reader may know more than the hero. Many RPG scenarios begin here, with the villain’s plan in motion, and the hero learning about it.
The hero prepares to undertake the quest. Here is an RPG or action movie cliché as the hero puts together the required tools for the forthcoming quest. Yes, those lengthy visits to the armourer and weapon smith are part of Propp’s model.
Start of the adventure proper, as the hero leaves home. With the hero finally in motion, there is greater opportunity for player agency from this point forward.
First Function of Donor
Hero meets the donor, a source of magical aid for the quest. However, the donor first sets a test for the hero.
The hero undertakes the test, and passes. This is clearly a side quest embedded in Propp’s structure.
Acquisition of Magical Agent
Having passed the test, the hero gains a magical reward. Usually this is received from the donor, but any special reward acquired on the side quest qualifies. This series of scenes, numbers 12-14, is broadly similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, where the hero undertakes a perilous quest for some tangible reward. In a sci-fi game, the magical agent is replaced by a piece of advanced technology.
The hero travels to a new place. Propp’s journey takes the hero directly to the final confrontation with the villain, but this need not be so with an RPG. Many scenarios involve repeated scenes 12-14, gaining magic or knowledge, before advancing to the climax.
Hero and villain fight. This is the climactic struggle, the classic “boss fight” scene.
Hero is marked or perhaps scarred by the fight. Primarily this is some sort of physical scar, but emotional damage is also possible. Sanity loss from fighting Lovecraftian monsters works in the same way.
The villain is defeated, as always happens in a good story. This is less certain in an RPG, but it is the most likely outcome. Subsequent scenes assume the villain flees or escapes with his power broken. This contrasts with RPGs, where the primary aim of the players is to kill the major villain outright.
Earlier misfortunes are reversed. This scene does not fit so well into an RPG, where the narrative is typically more linear and focused on the actions of the hero. A cut scene is needed here to show how the defeat of the villain changes the situation elsewhere in the setting.
Hero returns home. This is another travel scene, which could be handled by the GM as a montage.
However, the journey is not without risk. Here the hero is chased by a foe, possibly the original villain. A chase scene is an interesting non-combat challenge for the hero.
Hero escapes or thwarts the pursuing foe. This can be a simple escape, trapping the foe, or another fight scene.
Nobody recognises the hero. There are interesting roleplaying opportunities in this scene, allowing the hero the chance to interact with characters unaware of the nature of the hero.
A false hero has stolen the glory, explaining in part why the hero is unrecognised. This false hero may even be the villain. Again, this scene presents another interesting social situation, but probably not one to repeat too often in a game.
A trial to identify the right hero. This test for recognition can offer the GM an opportunity for another non-combat contest. The trial may be a traditional test of arms, but it could also be a vehicle for some lesser-used abilities. Debate, hunting, or even the ability to cook a trademark local meal could be tested here.
Inevitably, the hero wins the trial. Once again, in folk tales the hero always wins, a trait not always true in RPGs. One way to prevent the players growing tired of a repeated structure is to explore some unconventional outcomes. Where does the story go if the hero fails this test?
Hero receives due recognition, having passed the test. Fame, glory, and monetary rewards are the likely result here.
The false hero or villain is revealed. Just as the hero won, the false hero lost. Now the players gain payback for all the indignities suffered in scenes 23 and 24.
Appearance of the hero is improved, typically undoing the branding from scene 17. Divine healing or the lifting of a curse would be common RPG equivalents. Alternatively, it could be a transfiguration of his wealth, as the material gains of scene 27 take effect on the social standing of the hero.
The villain suffers. This scene supposes the villain was not killed in scene 18. For the folk tales, this is the scene where the villain is permanently punished.
The hero marries or receives similar social rewards. A classic fairy tale ending: the hero marries and secures everlasting happiness. This works as a perfect ending to a campaign, where the hero secures a happy retirement from adventuring.
Using The Functions In Your Game
Propp’s breakdown of story into 31 functions, or scenes, is a little restrictive for modern gaming as a single sequence. However, these scenes can be taken out of sequence and used by GMs as options for RPG scenarios. Think of them as a deck of cards. You could deal out a set of five, and then weave them together to make the classic Five Room Dungeon structure.
Alternatively, prepare a few Proppian scenes as standby encounters in case the current challenges prove too simple for the players and the session is about to finish early. Finally, this breakdown of scenes found in folk tales provides GMs with another model for structuring their own scenarios. Integrate the ones you like, perhaps repeating or shuffling the order for variety.
On More Propp
The work of Vladimir Propp has great application for GMs. I shall return to this topic several times over the coming months. Part two looks at a few of the functions listed above in greater detail. The third essay explores the archetypical characters Propp identifies in folk tales. Finally, I will bring all the threads together into a Five Room Dungeon.
The work of Vladimir Propp is very relevant to GMs. Propp analysed the structure of Russian folk tales, a storytelling tradition with similarities to RPGs. Without following his exact patterns, GMs can add a lot of variety to their games by understanding and using these iconic scenes.
Put some Propp into your next session.