Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wonder (Thought Eater)

Next pair of entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Achieving Sense of Wonder for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "WONDER1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Killing the Pig

For the last several years, all the DnD campaigns I've DMed have been with a party of 5th graders. I run an after-school "Games Club" with several other teachers, which is really just an RPG club.

It's very rare that any of these kids have played or heard of DnD before, and watching the game click in their heads is the best part of the job. The first half-hour or so is full of questions on what they are allowed to do:

"Can I run away instead of fighting?"

"Can I see what's inside that house?"

"Can I kill that weird pig that keeps following us around?"

But at some point you can see it click, where they realize that they can try anything, and the DM will just make up a ruling to cover it. And then, quickly afterwards, the second realization hits that all actions have consequences, consequences that are quickly catching up with them.

That sudden insight, "I can try anything, and the world changes based on what I do," is a moment of genuine wonder. You can see the players' perspective suddenly shift, as they begin imagining everything that they could do, and what might happen as a result. That experience was Dave Arneson's central innovation, and it's a feeling you can only have playing RPGs.

 I don't think that wonder is something you impose on your game, through elaborate descriptions, byzantine plots, or "epic" scenes. All of those things are dead on arrival unless you are constantly feeding the engine of choice and consequences that lies at DnD’s heart. That cycle is a thing of wonder already, the hard part is letting it out.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "WONDER2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

A “Wand of Wonder” for Adventure Design

Think back to the first time you played a role-playing game… 

You probably had only the most tenuous grasp on how the rules worked.  The dungeon around you was dark and terrifying – and you had no idea what might be found within.  You didn’t really know what your adventurer could do.  A 20’ x 20’ room with an orc and a locked chest?  That was a crazy-new situation you’d never faced before.  Could you kill the orc?  Maybe.  But you really had no idea what that beast could do to you.  What was in that chest?  It could be almost anything.  Everything around you was new and mysterious.  And, if you’re like me, every situation you faced filled you with an incredible sense of wonder.

Now, fast forward five, ten, twenty, or even forty years later.  You and your players are still having a great time playing these games – otherwise, you would have moved on to a different hobby long ago.  But somewhere along the way, something changed.  Something was lost.  A little bit of that old magic is gone.   

I’m not always a huge fan of Adam Smith, but I think his discussion of “Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration” in The History of Astronomy nicely captures the challenge GMs face.  Smith also earns bonus points for starting his discussion with what makes a “monster” inspire wonder:

Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration are words which, though often confounded, denote, in our language, sentiments that are indeed allied … What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder; what is unexpected, Surprise; and what is great or beautiful, Admiration …. 

These sentiments … mutually support and enliven one another:  an object with which we are quite familiar, and which we see every day, produces, though great and beautiful, but a small effect upon us; because our Admiration is not supported by either Wonder or by Surprise:  and if we have heard a very accurate description of a monster, our Wonder will be the less when we see it; because our previous knowledge of it will in a great measure prevent our Surprise.

- Adam Smith, The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy (1795).

To paraphrase Smith, then, Wonder arises when we experience something that is new and unique, which disrupts the equilibrium of our imagination.  Intrinsic greatness or beauty (Smith’s “Admiration”) will enhance and greatly amplify our sense of Wonder.  But experience, forewarning, repetition, or predictability – these reduce our Surprise and, in turn, our Wonder.

I’ll tell you a secret:  there is no single tip or trick that is guaranteed to bring Admiration, “greatness,” or “beauty” to your games.  There are just way too many variables, including the individual tastes of the participants, at work.  That’s why even the best GMing advice tends to boil down to:  (1) “here’s an idea that worked for me in a particular game, with a particular group of players”; (2) “here’s something you may not have thought about, but maybe should, when running games”; or, at the very best, (3) “here’s a theory for why certain things seem to facilitate fun at my table, which may suggest a way you can have more fun at yours.”  

But Smith’s other contributing factor – Surprise – now that is something we can fix.

Obviously, if your players have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of every monster, spell, and magic item in the books, both Surprise and Wonder are going to fly right out the window unless you change things up.  But if you are reading Zak’s blog, you know this already.  Grab a copy of Jeff Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator, or pull up Zak’s own series of articles re-imagining classic monsters from the Monster Manual.  And you can mine the internet for more unique magic items and spells than you will ever need. 

But what about HOW you run the game?  The particular kinds of adventures, scenarios, and situations you choose to present?  As GMs, we tend to run a lot of games for a relatively small group of players.  Those players will inevitably come to know our GMing styles, and the kinds of adventures we like to run, very well – particularly after they’ve been playing “in our heads” for years.  If you are looking to revive your players’ sense of wonder, you need to shake up your adventure design too.  You need to, at least occasionally, run games that are completely different from your normal, regular style.

My own solution is to keep a running list of plot twists, reversals, and other surprises.  They can come from anywhere – books, movies, blogs, or playing in other people’s games.  Anything that surprises you, the GM, is worthy of inclusion, because that means it is coming from a place outside your normal thought process.  Now dump all those into a random table and number the results.  Then, after you devise your next adventure idea – like “the town’s mayor hires the PCs to stop goblins from raiding the town” or “the high priest sends the PCs to get an artifact from an evil lich” – roll on your table, and twist, flip, or embellish your idea according to the result.  

Why a random table?  Because randomness pushes us outside of our comfort zone, and forces us to reach past our default, natural, and often predictable impulses and assumptions.  Dice and random tables have been a staple of RPGs since their inception for precisely this reason.  If something works well, it is very tempting to keep doing things exactly the same way.  But staying in our comfort zone leads to predictability, the enemy of Surprise and, in turn, Wonder.  

To get you started, below is a table I put together this week – a Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design, if you will.  Take it, add new entries, and make it your own.  And the next time you or your players seem a bit too comfortable with the scenarios you are running, grab yourself some dice, expend a charge or two, and see what happens.  You don’t need to do this every game – total chaos doesn’t create Surprise or Wonder.  Just often enough to keep that “excited uncertainty” alive in your player’s minds. 

Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design
(roll 1d20, apply result to your adventure idea)

Roll Change-Up Your Planned Adventure By…

1 Peripeteia, a/k/a “the Old Switcheroo” — In classical Greek tragedy and comedy, a peripeteia is a sudden reversal or change in the circumstances or core assumptions of the plot.  Take your planned adventure and build one of those in.  Maybe those goblins raiding the town have repented their ways and given up violence.  Now, the PCs are left between a tribe of peaceful goblins and an angry mayor who wants the goblins dead – and if the PCs won’t do it, he’ll hire some other adventurers who will.  Or, upon breaching the sanctum of the evil lich, the PCs find her beaten and distraught.  She is evil, sure, but was tasked eons ago by the gods to guard the artifact – which was recently stolen, and now endangers the entire world.  Instead of fighting the lich, the PCs must help her track down and return the artifact before it is too late.

2 Boss For a Day — Keep your adventure setup exactly as planned.  But the mayor, high priest, or other quest-giver does NOT want the PCs to handle the job themselves – oh no, they are far too valuable and important to ever risk on such a dangerous and/or minor mission!  Instead, the quest-giver wants the PCs to track down, hire, and supervise other, more-expendable adventurers for the task.  Now, the PCs get to experience all the joys of “middle management.”  They have to round up and supervise a bunch of morally ambiguous murder-hobos who will, of course, demand ridiculous amounts of treasure before lifting a finger, burn down the inn, pick fights with the locals, loot and pillage everything in sight, and ultimately screw the job up royally – leaving the PCs to pick up the pieces and finish the task.

3 Start in Media Res — Jump right past the adventure idea you had, either to the middle of the action, or to its aftermath – right where a new, more complicated story is about to begin.  Start the game with the PCs already battling the goblin king in his lair.  After the battle, the PCs discover that the real adventure is just beginning – deciding how to deal with the surrendering goblins, figuring out a way to haul their cumbersome treasure back to town, getting the mayor to actually pay out the extravagant reward he offered.  Or start the PCs in the lich’s sanctum, while the now-defeated and slowly disintegrating lich cackles and taunts them.  It seems that the artifact is sentient, and is already telepathically summoning every powerful evil wizard, cleric, and monster in the region, all to ensure that it never reaches the high priest who can destroy it.

4 Bring on the B-Team — When the players show up, hand out character sheets for their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends.  Then inform them that their regular characters embarked upon your planned adventure several days ago, but have not returned.  Not content to wait any longer, their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends have resolved to retrace the PCs’ steps in the hope of rescuing them.  It is up to you whether the PCs were actually defeated or captured, and really need rescuing, or whether the PCs just got side-tracked, decided to stop over in a brothel, are planning a surprise party, etc.

5 Shift Genres for a Night — Take your adventure idea and rework it to fit within a completely different genre.  So, if your adventure is a standard heroic fantasy quest, take all those same elements, rework it, and run it as a horror story, or a pulp romance, or a murder mystery.  Maybe those goblin attacks are all the work of a single, deranged goblin serial killer (a short, green “Jason”?).  Maybe that lich is happy to do anything you ask, but only if you can solve her latest love-triangle dilemma (Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, but Edward is a red dragon and Jacob is an unusually handsome mind flayer).   

6 Make the Bad Guys “Good” — Keep your adventure exactly as planned, but replace the opposition with traditionally “good” monsters.  Then devise a plausible, justifiable, and reasonable explanation why a good-aligned creature would engage in the otherwise villainous activities.  Instead of goblins, the village is under attack by normally peaceful wood elves.  Are they being controlled by some evil wizard?  Have greedy loggers from the village ignored the elves’ pleas to stop?  Or are both sides arguably in the right – e.g., the villagers need to continue logging to survive, but the land is sacred to the elves.  Or, instead of a lich, the PCs find a silver dragon guarding the artifact.  The dragon explains that she has been posing as a lich for hundreds of years because it helps keep the riff-raff away.  The dragon confirms she has the artifact wanted by the high priest, but is afraid she can’t bear to part with it for at least a few hundred more years.  Now, the PCs must decide what to do.  Do they fail their quest for the high priest, who urgently needs the artifact?  Do they battle an otherwise friendly and good-aligned silver dragon?  Try to steal it and return it?  Something else?

7 Break the Rules (Or at Least a Key Assumption) — Change one of your game or campaign world’s default assumptions for a night, but NOT in a way that screws over your players.  Maybe there is a planetary alignment that greatly strengthens magical spells, allowing even apprentice-level wizards to draw forth vast amounts of power.  Maybe the gods themselves have placed a wager on the outcome of the PC’s quest, with some providing boons and advice, and others placing new and surprising obstacles in their way.  Maybe the god of death himself is taking a holiday, so no one – not the PCs, and not the monsters – can die regardless of their wounds.  The change be temporary, but fundamentally alter how the PCs approach the problem.

8 Unlikely Team-Up — Choose one (or more) of the PCs’ most hated and feared adversaries.  When the PCs show up to accept their quest, they find the villains already present.  It seems that the villains have also agreed to undertake this mission, and work with the PCs, for reasons selfish, altruistic, or entirely unknown.  Can the PCs work with their enemies?  Do they use the adventure as an opportunity to settle old scores?  Or will they grudgingly come to respect their former foe? 

9 Reverse the Plot — Take the adventure you had in mind and reverse as many parts of it as possible – including, but not limited to, the quest-giver, the goal, and the opposition.  For example, instead of being hired by the mayor to stop the goblins, maybe the goblin king sends an envoy to hire the PCs to stop (through diplomacy or combat) other adventurers and townsfolk from making repeated attacks on the goblins’ lair.  This can lead to a fun “reverse dungeon,” where the PCs are planting the traps, setting up guard rooms, and organizing and training the goblins.  Or, instead of being hired by the high priest to assault the lich’s lair, maybe the lich wants to take a vacation, and is willing to trade away powerful magic items in exchange for the PCs serving as “guard dogs” for her haunted castle during her absence?

10 Too Much, Too Fast — The adventure proceeds as you planned, but the PCs’ employer gives them way too much firepower for the task.  Complete overkill.  Perhaps the mayor offers to loan the PCs a (recently confiscated) Staff of the Magi or other powerful magical item.  Or perhaps the high priest agrees to bestow upon one of the players the full measure of his own mighty power for the duration of the quest.  The goal is to give the PCs so much raw, uncontrolled power that the real challenge becomes restraining themselves from blowing everything around them sky high.  When the mission is done, do they return the incredible power they have been loaned?  Or do they betray their employer and try to keep it?    

11 All Too Easy — Keep your adventure the same, but today is the PCs’ lucky day.  Downgrade the opposition until it is almost laughable.  Maybe a plague has recently ravaged the goblin tribe, and the handful of warriors they can muster are sickly and weak.  Maybe the “lich” is really just a human charlatan, relying on ghost stories and folklore to scare everyone away.  The adventure is not a test of the PCs’ prowess or cunning, but of their moral character and mercy.  How long will they slaughter hapless, plainly overmatched foes before their conscience retrains them? 

12 Toolbox Changeup — Pick one or more of the “tools” that you regularly use in your game (miniatures, maps, handouts, pictures, wandering monster tables, a GM screen, pre-prepared notes, character sheets, initiative rolls, dice, or whatever) and put them away for a night.  At the same time, pick a tool that you almost never use and try to work that into this session’s game.

13 Freaky Friday — The adventure proceeds as originally planned but, early on, the PCs stumble across an old skull, a mummified monkey’s paw, or some other obviously magical item.  The item is cursed and, when messed with, causes all of the PCs’ minds to jump to a different body.  Ask everyone too pass their character sheet to the player on their right.  Now, the adventure just got much harder, as our heroes must complete it while still in the “wrong” bodies.  The means for removing the curse are up to you.  Consider awarding bonus XP, hero points, inspiration, or your own preferred “player treat” for roleplaying the voice and mannerisms of the player/character whose body they are borrowing. 

14 It’s All About the Competition — Keep your adventure setup the same, except that the quest-giver has decided to use the threat or problem as an opportunity to learn, once and for all, who are the greatest heroes in the land.  All of the PCs’ rivals show up to compete.  The group that solves the problem will be the toast of the town, and lavished with praise and gold.  The losers will become a joke.  Now, the PCs must rush to accomplish their goal, while facing sabotage along the way.    

15 You’re (Probably) Too Late — Everything in your planned adventure is true, but change things so that, part way into the game, the PCs suddenly discover that they have much less time than previously thought, and are perhaps already too late!  The villain’s nefarious plan came to fruition early.  The goblin camp is mostly empty because they have already departed to raze the village.  The lich has already activated the magical artifact, triggering an imminent apocalypse.  Now the PCs must scramble to come up with a new plan on the fly, or maybe just find some way to mitigate the impending disaster.

16 Swap Your “School Of Magic” for a Night — If you are running an “old school” game, switch it up by injecting some “new school” mechanics for the night.  For example, you might use something like John Wick’s “The Dirty Dungeon” (link: to let your players build the goblin tribe’s dungeon at the start of the session.  If your regular style is more “new school,” give Matthew Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” (link: a read, and try to incorporate as many elements as possible in your next game.

17 False Flag — The person giving the PCs the quest is not who they think (because of mind-control, illusion magic, intellect devourers, he took a bribe, or any other reason) and his or her motives are different than represented.  Maybe the quest-giver is really just a villain in disguise, hoping to lure the PCs away before launching his latest scheme, lead them into an ambush, discredit them, or use them to destroy his villainous rivals.  Maybe a group of doppelgangers wants to assume the PCs’ identities once they are outside of town.  Or maybe an old boyfriend is trying to stage a heroic rescue, in hopes of reconciliation.  

18 Uh, What Did We Do Last Night?” — Think Memento the RPG.  Begin the session just as the PCs approach the main villain of your adventure.  Unfortunately, a curse or magical mishap has just wiped out all of their memories for the last few days, and now they don’t remember where they are, who hired them, or what they are supposed to do – they need to piece all that together from clues and interrogating monsters they recently defeated.  At least one clever villain with a plausible, but utterly false, story about why the PCs are here is recommended.

19 No, You Do It” — A couple days before the game, give your notes to one of your players (the one with an interest in GMing) and ask him or her to run the next session.  You play one of the group’s hirelings or followers – preferably someone who is dumb and generally just goes along with whatever the PCs decide.  Play dumb and reveal nothing about the adventure – the goal is flip your perspective, and see how the adventure you wrote and planned to run feels from the other side of the screen.

20 And Tonight’s Guest Star Is…” — Grab someone from outside your regular group and ask them to “guest star” as an NPC for the session.  Tell your guest star in advance that they cannot personally hurt, kill, or steal from any of the PCs (to avoid hurt feelings), but that otherwise they should make life as difficult for as possible.  VIP protectees, local guides, and villains who talk a lot, but hide behind and army of goons can all make good choices for the NPC.

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