Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why Are We Even IN Here?

This came up when somebody (can't remember who--Alexis from Tao of D&D maybe? Too lazy to link.) ran James Raggi's Death Frost Doom adventure (still too lazy to link). (Interested parties too lazy to find them over on the right there know my pain.)

Anyway, idea is James' module starts with all kinds of ominous signs of spooky death. Gnarled trees, gravestones, a crazed hillbilly saying "Don't go up thar!" etc.

And so the DM's players were like "Ok, so let's not go up there." And, knowing their DM had prepared a whole complete rest of the world to romp around in, wanted to go somewhere else.
Now it should go without saying that a lotta other players would've wanted to go into the dungeon on account of the ominous signs of spooky death.

Here we have an issue of calculation, where the player weighs:

A)His/her interest in keeping his/her PC alive

and, possibly...

B) His/her interest in playing his/her PC in character--(unless the PC's so greedy or curious that s/he would want to go in there no matter what)


C)His/her desire to go where the DM had something interesting ready to go.


C is seldom spoken of but it is a powerful motivator. Players want to play, and while DMs talk frequently amongst themselves about the merits of funneling or corralling or railroading or cajoling their players into going where the fun is, players (if they were as chatty as DMs) could go on for just as long about how they do things because if they didn't they'd worry they wouldn't be actually playing.

I mean, sure my PC could go pick beets instead of duel the wicked Archbaron but that doesn't mean the DM has an awesome beet-picking adventure ready to go, or that s/he should feel any compulsion to invent one.

A variation on this came up for me while playing during the first session of our Rolemaster campaign. I was playing, essentially, a kind of investigator, looking into some sort of mysterious culty activity.

Our boss laid out that there was this Source of Chaos somewhere, and then there was this Possible Pawn of Chaos (a high level NPC) and this pawn was located in the Thieves' Guild, and that there were 3 NPC Contacts who could help us get to him.

So, naturally, here's what I'm thinking: The Source of Chaos is where the fighting of the craziest monsters and seeing weirdest stuff is in this game, so I wanna get to that as soon as I can. Today, if possible.

I know where The Possible Pawn is, so let's call up these NPC contacts and tell them to get the lead out and get us over where he is as soon as possible so we can get this shit started.

So I go and find the first Contact, get him to take us to the Guild, ignore all the scenery/plot hooks and immediately head for the Pawn and offer this guy (turns out to be a crimelord) our services.

Now I chatted a little, out of scholarly interest, with DM Darren about the adventure and we discussed the sandboxy nature of the campaign.

Quoth he: "You went way faster than I expected--you didn't investigate the Contacts to find anything out about them, you didn't check around for info on the Thieves' Guild before going in, and there were lots of other ways of investigating The Pawn other than just walking right up to him and offering him your services, and there's a million other things going on in the Thieves' Guild."

Sayeth I: "Yeah, but, I figured that guy was where the fun was--he had a name and everything (all the other characters were spot-named after drinks--Gin, Manhattan, Lime Rickey--my character was named Jagermeister. It was all Connie's idea, I think.). I might've checked out the Contacts if they were the only people I knew about in the game, but the way it was set up, they just seemed like road bumps on the way to my objective."

DM: "He is pretty dangerous."

Me: "Good! We kept not fighting anybody. I wanted to get to somewhere we could use the Infamous Rolemaster Crit System until we met him--we only got into one fight all night and it was a random encounter with a bunch of thieves. The Pawn seemed like he might know where some monsters were, or at least some puzzles."

Now, really, DM Darren has got stuff ready to go in every direction--but he has a great pokerface and so there's no way of knowing that when he says "Well you could go meet the guy or you could do something else..." that there's just as much crazy madness behind the Something Else as there is behind meeting the guy.


Point is, the DM sometimes inadvertently draws your attention to things (I know I do it all the time), and some players will just move toward these things because they are there and have a name and therefore the player expects things to get exciting when they get over there--even if that's not what the DM was trying to do.

I mean, all of Call of Cthulhu works on this premise. It's called Call of Cthulhu, so the player knows that Cthulhu is over there somewhere and therefore s/he will have his or her PC do pretty much do whatever it takes to get over there, self-interest be damned. People make certain decisions because it's Cthulhu and so they think the game will be dull if they don't. In a game of sandbox D&D (or Rolemaster) this attitude can result in the PCs, in effect, railroading themselves right past a lot of options they could've had fun with.

So, yeah, if the PCs start to think the game is called "Call of The Very Dangerous High-Level NPC" then it take skill and effort to assure them that things other than The Very Dangerous High Level NPC are interesting in this sandbox. And to flag these things up a little, because, really, not everything a PC could do should result in a crazy adventure. Otherwise there'd be no point to making choices.


P.S. If you're wondering how we fared playing Rolemaster I'll talk all about later. Short answer: It was fun and we liked.


  1. I'll admit that I've often played this way. I figure either it will kill me or it will be exciting. If I'm going to die, at least it won't be out of boredom.

    As to the original question, why SHOULD the PCs want to go there? I'm less of a sandbox GM and more story based but I never want to railroad the players. Instead one of the first things I do is figure out what the story would be if the PCs don't get involved. That way when something bad happens it will intersect with the PCs in another story they're involved in. This does tend to limit me away from Doomsday plots... but not always ;-)

  2. I'm okay with the "this sounds interesting, let's check it out" but less okay with the "well, the DM planned for us to go here, so guess we'd better check it out"

    I'm very contrarian, though, and hate being railroaded. Others may go along for the ride, since they've got nothing better to do.

  3. Glad to hear you had fun playing Rolemaster. I'm looking forward to hearing about the game session.

  4. @paladin
    "well, the DM planned for us to go here, so guess we'd better check it out"

    If you think anyone's saying that, you've completely missed the point.

  5. A lot of the player's attitude towards going towards or away from obvious horrible peril is going to be determined by the overall tone of the campaign (duh). If you are super-invested in your characters, and you know that death is cruel and likely, then you may avoid that stuff.

    In our online OD&D game, I have a back-up character and an inquisitive spirit...

  6. I had the exact opposite at the last con I ran Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhutech at. I would throw out ideas and scenery which was heavily loaded with "OMINOUS DOOOOOOOOM," only to have the players not really sure what to do. I would have thought it would translate better from D&D to other games (even with people virgin to Cthulhu), but not really. Even putting in "The Book To Be Burned" didn't get them to pay much attention.
    At this point, I've gotten to where I have basic idea/map pairs which I can insert randomly so that, if the players go off on a tangent and don't follow the main story trail, I can pull something outta my folder and let them get diverted for a game or so. A few times, I've been inspired with a better hook to pull them into danger than what I had originally thought up. A few of them have set locations, so if the characters wander the wrong way, they find something at the end of the journey, but not anything terribly useful to them.
    Then again, the penchance for players to walk into obvious danger also gets weighted with how much they think their DM will delight in their gruesome demise. My good friend in high school usually had hideously creepy shit happen, but nothing physically threatening, so I went into every nook and cranny I could because his ominous stuff was just so damned GOOD. One of the other DMs I played with was just malicious and brutal, so I said bollocks to most shadowy glens.
    He'd then magic my ass into the meat grinder anyway. I kinda miss that....

  7. Yes, possible, but I think it varies enormously depending on the playgroup. I might even guess that you, Zak, are kind of far out on the "find me something interesting now" tip. (e.g.: skip the linking).

    If we take D&D's fundamental brilliant invention -- leveling up PC's to greater power -- then I think a lot of playgroups will go in the direction of "whatever gets me levels and magic with least resistance". So admittedly that won't ever be beet farming. But I've definitely had a playgroup turn away from the Temple of Elemental Evil in order to become brigands themselves, for example.

  8. I think another lesson - touched on in the other comments - is that Locations of Interest need several hooks of different types. Spookiness is interesting in a meta-play way but also a put-off, as you described. If you want to get past that then the PCs need another, more mundane motivation. Give them a really good reason to go there -despite- the spookiness, not because of it. That makes it a lot easier to stay in-character and makes for more horror atmosphere.

  9. With A & C, the player in question can simply invent B, a motivation for ones own character "My ex girlfriend that I've been searching for is in the haunted house! Darn it!"

    She doesn't even have to actually be in there (sorry mario, the princess is in the other freakin' castle...). Just the idea, so the player self motivates the character.

    But it takes a player with an inclination to do a smidge of work, instead of just turning up to play what's already there and not adding to what will be played. Though granted many a GM doesn't want a player to add, either, even if it's the mere suggestion an ex-girlfriend NPC is in the spooky house.

  10. @Callan
    Sure, but the question isn't how to motivate the player or PC, it's simply about how and whether to bother managing the player's attention to make whatever happens fun.

    Anyone smart can think of reasons to go into a spooky house all day long, but sometimes that's just not the most fun option for the people involved.

  11. Hmmm *shrug* I don't think the *most* fun option automatically matters. As long as it's mildly fun, consistantly, it's okay to miss out on the most fun option sometimes. Gaming doesn't have to be crazy fun all the time (as long as it doesn't fail at being mildly fun, consistantly)

    Especially with traditional RPG's, I don't think the player can do just anything they feel like fun it'll work out or that a GM somehow manages the whole thing. That's what I meant by work before - sometimes the player manages things, a bit.

    It's one model you could choose to work by, anyway. The GM doing 100% of managing the players attention? Just seems too exhausting. But that's my estimate.

  12. @Callan

    The GM has a limited amount of time & energy, yes, but notifying PCs of what's in the landscape takes no more effort than notifying them of what's at the end of the rainbow.

    If you think I'm suggesting that "the GM doing 100% of managing the players attention" then you aren't getting what I'm saying.

    It's not the quantity of attention i'm talking about--it's the GM paying attention to what his or her words communicate unconsciously about the features of the scenario to the people playing.

    In the example I give above, I am a totally motivated player willing to supply my own PC motives, but the question of -where I think the action is- in a given scenario still affects my thinking on the subject in-game.

  13. it's the GM paying attention to what his or her words communicate unconsciously about the features of the scenario to the people playing.

    That's what I'm talking about when I posted - I'm right on that. I'm just reading you saying the GM, just him, paying attention to that. When that double check could be done by both player and GM a bit. Like a player saying "Hey GM, it seems like that high level bad guy is the adveture - is that right?"

    Or it depends - if players just wanna go for whatever, without thinking about/checking whats going on back stage, I can get that. That second guessing can end up getting in the way of, like, actually playing. However, in such a case I'm not sure about the GM second guessing the effects of his own words, either. Indeed I've done alot of second guessing in prep in the past, as a GM - it ends up not that fun.

    That's what I'm reading, anyway. Can't blame me for thinking if I read 'it's the GM paying attention to what his words...etc' it's just the GM doing so.

  14. @Callan S.

    Whether or not the player ALSO should be paying attention is a matter of great philosophical debate.

    However, I am of the opinion that:
    - the DM should be paying as much attention to as many things as s/he can during a game,

    and that:

    -that is fun.

  15. Zak,

    I don't know about 'should', I only know what terms I might set if someone wants to play in a game I run. 'Should' is a funny word. Anyway, I get that it's fun for you.