Monday, July 30, 2012

Planting the Seed - A DM's Tool

Barking Alien had a post last week that touched on something I have noticed all week. I'm going to take a slightly different tack on it. Let's call it the art of using someone's imagination against them.

"Ah! Theatricality!"

Well no, not exactly. BA noted that the kids he runs for tend to take things as they are while his older players tend to make all kinds of assumptions even when given very little real information. I have noticed the same thing - it's difficult to drop hints with the younger set because they don't have the experiences that drive the kinds of reactions you can get from adults.

Mainly they don't have the paranoia that can make planting a few seeds a lot of fun. You don't drop threats, you give them information - tantalizingly incomplete information that makes them want more - again,you are planting seeds that will be watered by the imagination of your players, for good or ill.

In the real world this is a skill often practiced when dealing with Ex-Wives - well, for some of us anyway.

In a gaming sense, it's the art of dropping just the right name, or artifact, or mysterious signal that sets off all kinds of alarm bells in the players heads or ignites their curiosity and as a result has an impact on character actions inside the game. Now you have to know your players to do this at a fine level with a subtle touch. In a lot of D&D games it's not something that is used a great deal. In games like Shadowrun though, it's a lot of fun. A mysterious katana that falls in their laps ... a strange program ... a shadowy opponent they just cannot catch - how does it all tie together? Does it tie together? Does it mean something?

Done right, it can drive your players crazy and have them thinking about the game in between sessions like you've never seen. It can lead to some really great things.

Done poorly and they will hole up in a safehouse for a year and refuse to come out. You won't win them all ...

It's often walking the fine line between curiosity, greed, and fear, tempting your players with just that extra bit of something that makes them want to extend their characters just that tiny bit more.

One of my best Shadowrun arcs involved a simple mission: drive a truck from point A to point B, wait 24 hours, then drive to point C and walk away, partial payment up front at the pickup site, the rest upon completion. It got more interesting from there:

  • Starting point - the crew guarding the truck says "good luck - snort" as they walk away - immediate paranoia kicks in for some players. What do these guys know?
  • The tuck is towing a flatbed trailer with something under a tarp. The patron's instructions were to not look under the tarp. This practically guarantees that someone is going to look under the tarp.
  • A peek underneath reveals that it looks like some kind of missile ... with a glowing green substance dripping from a crack in the nose ...  which is radioactive ... tension escalates rather severely with each additional piece of information.
  • The patron does not call with the new destination after the 24 hour wait - tension escalates some more. All kinds of scenarios are discussed.
  • All along the way multiple groups have attempted to ambush the truck, helped to stop ambushes of the truck, and offered to purchase the truck and its cargo. The party is not talking to anyone at this point.
Eventually the tension gets to be too much and they end up driving the truck, cargo and all, off of a pier into Puget Sound and walking away from the whole thing. Note that I never confirmed it was a nuclear weapon on the truck - they got there very quickly and upped the tension of situation in a big way completely on their own. Of course, I never denied it either ...

There's also a benefit to the DM in that sometimes your players will put together something more fantastic than you were planning yourself, and if it makes sense to them then you have a green flag to run with it all the way to the conclusion.

Now this almost always goes somewhere interesting with older players, but with kids I have found they just don't care. A simple mystery is fine but they don't care about deep, layered conspiracies or really even gray areas and betrayals - they want to play the Avengers, or the Autobots, or GI Joe, or Aragorn and Legolas - not the X-Files, or the newer Battlestar Galactica, or the Sopranos - save that for later. The tweens-to-teens group in my experience is looking for a pretty clear division of good and evil and a clear opponent to deal with. The closest you might get to the mysterious campaign is in exploring a new environment - wrecked space travellers or fantasy heroes or the like - OR - a Secret Invasion Lite type approach which they were at least exposed to while watching the Avengers cartoon. To me this isn't a problem to be solved - it's a preference to be enjoyed while it lasts!

The Goal
So anyway, there's my thoughts on this particular tool in the GM Toolkit. The different ages do have clearly different preferences in my experience but aside form this different groups have different preference mixes - and tolerance mixes. With my main group too much fuzziness just annoys them, and there is an implied promise that most of it will be revealed in the end to get them to go along with the secrets. It's good to know your group and how they will handle these kinds of shenanigans, but then again, the best way to discover that is start doing it and see where the game goes.


Barking Alien said...

Great post! This one line in particular had me thinking...

"With my main group too much fuzziness just annoys them, and there is an implied promise that most of it will be revealed in the end to get them to go along with the secrets."

I have played with exactly one group that simply didn't want fuzziness. They had no interest in research, investigating and detective work or otherwise dealing with mysteries or the mysterious. They were playing Superheroes with not one of them was a Batman type, nor did any of the players want to play one.

My current group is oddly opposite. They appreciate and even like the mysterious and at least two of them view themselves as the Batman type. There is at least one more who is playing an extremely intelligent, scientist type and the last a military/police type character, though he views his character as a cross between Captain America and Daredevil over Batman.

Now the funny thing is, this is how they view their characters but not necessarily how they actually are in play. Only one of them out right looks at the clues and tries to get more so he can figure out the answer to the mystery at hand. Our scientist focuses on the quickest and simplest way to take out opponents in battle. Our Cap/Daredevil guy is often our field leader, making quick decisions in combat but hanging back the rest of the time. Lastly there's our overthinking, speculative, my-own-view-of-things-supercedes-what-is-actually-happening guy. With him, well, he tries to Batman the mysteries but instead seems to Baron Münchhausen them.

The seeds you plant in an RPG, given the proper care and nuturing by both the GM and players, can grow into beautiful forest of adventure and enjoyment for all.

However, to both carry forth and twist the metaphor, they can also be exposed to the mutating radiation of paranoia and letting your imagination run wild without paying attention to your fellow gamers and result in Audrey from 'Little Shop of Horrors'.

You have been warned. ;)

Jeremy said...

Münchhausen and Audrey... I like the cut of your jib sir.

Barking Alien said...

Thank ya kindly. :)