October 17, 2014

Scene Framing

Scene framing is a very hard GM skill to learn.  Most GMs don't master it, because it requires a crack familiarity with the players at the table and their limits and preferences.  It's a skill that requires you to be a little pushy.

At the same time, scene framing is the most basic GM task.  It's the first GM task you learn how to do in the "what is an RPG?" section of every rulebook.  It's as simple as "the GM describes the scene to the players..."

So why is it so hard?

The Fast Forward Button 

Scene framing is basically pressing the Fast Forward button on game time.  At its very basic level, scene framing is used to skip past boring stuff where there's no conflict or interesting opportunities, and arrive at the dramatic challenge.
source: dndclassics

This is the second paragraph of the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules for Players, an example of play given to teach Dungeon Masters the concept of Scene Framing:

Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before you. Crumbling towers of stone keep a silent watch over the approach.  They look like abandoned guardhouses. Beyond these, a wide chasm gapes, disappearing into the deep fog below. A lowered drawbridge spans the chasm, leading to an arched entrance to the castle courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): I want to look at the gargoyles. I have a feeling they’re not just statues. 
Amy (playing Riva): The drawbridge looks precarious? I want to see how sturdy it is. Do I think we can cross it, or is it going to collapse under our weight?

As you can see, the PCs traveled through some craggy mountains along a road, when it suddenly turned, and there on the side of the mountain was a castle.  The GM accelerated the story all the way up to the first real challenge.  After reading this, a GM learns the most basic scene framing skill:

Skip over chunks of time where nothing interesting happens, and just narrate it to the players.

So scene framing is the skill of using the Fast Forward button.  But there's a lot more to it. The most important aspect of fast forwarding is trust.

Assuming Control

When the GM presses the fast forward button, she takes control of the players' characters.  The D&D example, above, has the GM controlling the PCs for days of travel through the craggy peaks.  The players must trust that the GM is going to treat their characters right while she has control of them.

If the players don't trust the GM, here's what could happen.  Now I'm going to edit the D&D Basic Rules text to show how scene framing can go wrong...

Dungeon Master (DM): ...Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): No, no, no.  We know we're approaching an evil castle.  We would use stealth to approach the guard towers and make sure they're empty, so we don't get attacked from behind.  
Amy (playing Riva): Yeah, and maybe there's something in those guard houses we need.  Treasure, or a key, or a monster we can interrogate for information.
Phillip (playing Gareth):  We approach the first guard house using the rocks and brush as cover, until we're just within bowshot.  What do we see?

Or it could have even gone worse...
Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before-
Amy (playing Riva): -Woah!  No way!  We know we're approaching an evil castle on a mountainside.  As soon as it's within view, we should double back and camp the night.  No way we're approaching it with the sun down!  And then I say we go cross country and come at it from the mountain slope behind it, instead of crossing that drawbridge, which is an obvious ambush point.
Phillip (playing Gareth): Why are we even going here at all?  This sounds like a crazy plan - just walk right into an evil Baron's castle?  Let's rethink this.

In the GM world, we like to call this behavior "turtling."

Pacing and Scene Framing

Who presses the fast forward button, and what can be narrated by the GM (fast forwarded past) depends on the group of players, and how much they're willing to hand over control to the GM depends on how much trust they have in the GM as a co-creator of a fun story about their characters as protagonists.  The more aggressive your scene framing, the more your players have to trust that you're not going to hit them with any "gotchas" they won't enjoy, and that you haven't skipped anything interesting or any opportunities to influencce events.  Further, any time you fast forward and frame a new scene, it's your responsibility to help the players put their characters in the scene and give them important decisions to make.

Scene framing can set the pace of the story, just like the other pacing techniques I've highlighted in the past.  When you fast forward up to a point in the story, how close you get to the critical decisions the players have to make determines how aggressive the pace of your scene framing is.

Turtle's Pace
When the players move very cautiously, playing out their preparations up to the last minute before an interesting scene, they're turtling, and moving at a turtle's pace.  This can get dull fast.  See my post on turtling for some suggestions.  My ridiculous third example would be an example of turtling.

Simulation Scene Framing
A simulation (sim) scene is designed to give the players a problem, and let them take creative approaches in a simulated environment in an attempt to solve it.  Some groups have more interest in this sort of scene than others.  Sim scenes can't be framed very tight -- the players need to see all the context approaching the challenge, so they have to have the time before the challenge to explore and hear valuable details about the situation and setting.  The first alternate example I gave would be about where you would start framing a sim scene.

The key to framing a sim scene is to describe the player characters' situation in the few minutes or even hours before the interesting scene starts, and then give the players a reason to start it.  This reason is the hook or dramatic question of the scene.  The players will probably have their characters take all kinds of actions to set things up so that they can overcome the challenge presented by the hook.  Having plenty of time gives them more options than threshold framing (below), so you can expect a lot of activity to go on before they get to the meat of the dramatic conflict.

Sim scene framing was very common in old school D&D, as well as a lot of 1990s games that focused on supernatural heroes in the modern world.  It allows the players to show off cool magic powers that can take over and resolve conflicts, like in a modern fairy tale or occult thriller story.  With the old school revival (OSR) and the return to high-sim encounter design in 5th edition D&D where monsters are given locations and the PCs are able to approach them slowly and cautiously, this style of play is coming back.  Sim scene framing allows the player characters to become overwhelmed quickly if they put a foot wrong.  Consequently, sim scene framing is also great for horror games.  In horror RPGs, the players are conspiring with the GM against their own characters in a way, because part of the fun is reading the ancient tome, opening the sarcophagus, or going outside to see what that strange sound was.

Aside "MACRO_01":  In 2002 or so, I was in a 3rd edition D&D game where the rogue in the group actually programmed a graphing calculator to process the die rolls for all the hyper-cautious tasks you did for every stretch of hallway and every door you encountered.  So now I can't play an old school style D&D game without thinking about "MACRO_01" every time we approach a closed door in a dungeon.  The player just pulled out the calculator and said "OK, I walk up to the door and MACRO_01."  This is the danger of using too many sim scenes:  Typically the stats of RPG characters and even parties are all built to specialize in a specific set of tasks. Once the party determines what those strengths are, they use the same approach to as many different kinds of problems as possible, to make sure they have a system advantage.  This isn't unrealistic:  Real people do this, too.  You play to your strengths.  But it can get repetitive if every scene is a sim scene. 

Threshold Framing
Very common in the post-2000 editions of D&D, threshold framing is when you begin a conflict or other encounter with indeterminate outcomes right before the conflict or complications take place.  In D&D, it places the player characters literally on the threshold.

The example text from the D&D Basic Rules, above, is threshold framing.  The PCs are literally placed on the threshold of a rickety drawbridge.  Crossing the bridge safely appears to be the challenge of the scene.  The advantage of threshold framing is that it gives the players a chance to avoid the conflict in creative ways, but also skips most of the cautious over-planning that can bog down a fast paced heroic adventure if you use too many sim scenes.  But that depends on the group's preferred style of play, too.

The example players could climb down into the gorge, walk a mile, then climb back up out of sight of the bridge and its hidden dangers.  Or they could shout a greeting across, and ask to be invited in.  They could fight their way across, or sneak across, or bluff their way across, or hide and wait for other visitors.

Cut to the Chase
When you skip the threshold and drop the players right in the action, it's commonly called "cut to the chase" or "in media res" (in the middle of things, from Greek theater).  The important part is to skip to where the players are in an exciting action sequence, and the dramatic question is not resolved.  But the chance to decide to avoid the action sequence has passed.  The players are denied that opportunity.

On the other hand, jumping right into the action can be empowering, exciting, and gives the player characters a chance to kick butt without the annoying preamble.  Filmmakers use this technique to grab the viewers' attention right away.  You can use it the same way, in your games.  Here's the very first scene from Skyfall:

Framing that scene for, for instance, a Night's Black Agents RPG, would work like this:

Director (GM): OK, let's get started for the session.  As you recall, you were looking for the thief who stole the hard drive.  You tracked the thief to the middle of a busy Istambul souk.  The target spots your approach and leaps onto a motorcycle.  You can't let him get away with the hard drive!  What do you do?
Daniel (Playing Agent 007):  I draw my gun and look around for a bike to commandeer, myself.  Can I get a clear shot?  
Naomie (Playing Moneypenny): I bash out the windshield of the truck and try to follow, and then I radio back to Vauxhall to coordinate tracking.

Again, using the example from the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules, it's important to make clear the dramatic question, so that the players don't feel cheated out of their agency.  Making the dramatic question of the conflict extra clear signals to the players that they still have a lot of agency here:

Dungeon Master (DM): You're crossing a drawbridge over a wide chasm that disappears into the deep fog below. The road beyond the bridge leads to an arched entrance to the courtyard of Castle Ravenloft, which towers before you.  A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard.
Suddenly, Riva the elf cries warning, and the chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight as you dive to the decking:  Gargoyles!  From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles dive at you, their hollow eye sockets suddenly alight with green flame.  The winged creatures pass above you, and would have toppled you off the bridge without the elf's warning!  They're wheeling about for another pass.  You've got to try to get the party across without being knocked off - but how?  Gareth is the first to recover his balance on the wobbly bridge.  Phillip, what does Gareth do?
The bold section in each example communicates the dramatic question.  The DM is stating it so it's clear that the players have a choice.  Perhaps they'll use magic, or they'll sprint across, or they'll try to scare the gargoyles away, or they'll take out bows, or they'll try to intercept them and force them to fight in melee.  The DM has made it clear there are lots of options, but they have to think fast.

Another important aspect of such aggressive scene framing is that the DM should assume that everything the player characters did while the fast forward button was advancing was a sparkling success.  Note how Riva spotted the ambush in time.

Not for Everyone

Aggressive scene framing is not for every group.  You have to have a lot of trust in and among your players to be able to pull off aggressive framing, and even them some people just don't like it.

If you find you screwed up and framed the scene too aggressively for your players, just walk it back.  If the players objected to the D&D in media res example, the DM might say "OK, so where would you like to start?  How about just before you go out on the bridge?"

Not for Every Situation

Even if your group is a trusting, experienced troupe full of players who like the idea of aggressive "cut to the chase" framing, it's not always the best way to start a scene.  When pacing a session, if you start with all-out action, you can't go up from there.  Some games (Feng Shui, for instance) might work well with that.  But most other kinds of stories need pacing that builds to a fast-paced climax.  You might want to start Act 1 with more conservatively framed scenes, then drop some in-your-face tightly-framed action in for Act 2.

To avoid trust problems, back off and use something like threshold framing (which cuts to right before the chase) for twists, big scares, and tragic scenes.  You never want your players to feel railroaded into those.

October 10, 2014


Turtling is a player behavior that occurs in tabletop RPGs and LARPs.  There hasn't been a lot of theory discussion on the behavior as far as I can see, and definitions vary.  Video and board game designers talk about it all the time, so I'm going to use a definition similar to theirs.

Source: Wikipedia

Turtling is when players become protective of their characters to the point where it detracts from the fun of the game.

In video games and board games, designers try very hard to prevent turtling, because in video games it makes the game boring; and in board games, it detracts from the fun of all of the players at the table.  Tabletop RPGs aren't any different.  I've included three different turtling behaviors in the table below, all of which fall under this definition.

In my experience, turtling happens when the players feel like they don't have much control over the game.  Here's a troubleshooting table of some of the turtling behaviors I've seen, some of the mistakes I've made that caused the problem, and some solutions that have worked for me.  Some of those solutions have inspired previous posts, so check out the links in the table.

I haven't made all the mistakes you can make as a GM, of course, so this isn't a complete table.  Feel free to suggest additional rows in comments!

Possible Causes
The players have a goal but don’t know what to do next.  They spend time asking pointless questions and interrogating NPCs instead of pursuing the plot.
The GM has not provided the players an opportunity to achieve their goal.  Nobody wants to play “hard work and perseverance, the RPG.” And sometimes the players want to pursue a goal different from the one the GM wants them to.  This is likely a failure of power (railroading) or a failure of buy in.  They’ve lost control because they feel railroaded or out on a limb.
In a tabletop RPG, either you hand wave the hard work, and skip straight to the “a problem arises!” scene, letting their goal be the hook, or you skip the hard work and let the PCs achieve their goal through great heroic deeds with hooks.  If the PCs are trying to follow a goal other than the one you want, you need to let them, and run the game they’re playing.  If they’re so far off your goal that it seems like they didn’t read your pitch, you need to have an OOC conversation about the shared premise and maybe end the campaign.
The players are over-planning, and even they don’t seem to be enjoying it.
If all of them are doing it, and not having fun, it’s because they’re afraid of the Gotcha! Making a plan is a challenge that can be failed.  The amount of time the players feel they have to plan depends on how likely they think it is that you have created a puzzle that they will suffer for not solving.  They’ve lost control because they think they’re going to be punished for not outsmarting you.
If the players are over-planning and they all like it, or the ones doing all the planning seem to enjoy it, that’s OK (as long as the other players don’t get too bored).  If you created the puzzle, give them help and hints.  If you didn’t mean it to be that complicated a puzzle, clarify your boundaries and give them hints about your scaffolding.  

And stop pulling gotchas on them, because that could be it, too.
The players are taking undue defensive measures to make themselves invincible in combat.  This manifests in over-preparing for combat, avoiding combat when they don’t feel 100% prepared, and the “five minute workday” in D&D.
They do not feel like bad-ass heroes.  In a game where the PCs are not supposed to be tough action heroes, the players may have a mood disconnect.  They’re trying to get action hero defenses in a dark, gritty or horror game.  In a game where the PCs are supposed to be action heroes, they probably feel weak, possibly because you’ve been “red lining” them.  They’ve lost control because every battle seems to be a close call.
In a gritty game where the PCs are not supposed to be action heroes, consult the Horror-Hunter ladder and make sure everyone’s on the same page about the mood and genre of play.  In an actual action hero game, you need to give the PCs encounters that let them kick butt at least half the time, or they'll start getting hyper-cautious.  If every encounter is super hard, they will feel like it’s their fault they’re not kicking butt, and compensate by putting a lot of effort into system min-maxing.

October 7, 2014

Picking Your Aspects

I have a longer post planned for Friday, but I had to get this one out.  I spent a lot of time designing aspects for my latest Fate character.  I wanted to get my design down in formal language and then share it with you all.  Yes, this is advice for Fate PLAYERS more than GMs, but I suppose Fate GMs can share it with their players at game and character creation.

Fate already does a great job of teaching you how to pick Aspects.  I think this helps players who are trying to pick Aspects that will generate the sorts of compels they would enjoy the most.

The goal of this process is to have Aspects that generate problems for which the solution is the kind of thing you, as a player, like to do in tabletop RPGs.  Do you like bloody violence?  Chase scenes?  Talking your way out of trouble?  The goal is to make aspects that generate the kind of problems you like solving.

Reverse Aspect Design 

  1. List the kind of activities do you enjoy in tabletop RPGs, or pick one kind of activity you want this character to get involved with a lot.
  2. Match your favorite activities with problems your character could run into, which you can solve by doing your favorite activities.  Try to generate more problems than aspects you're planning to take, so you can narrow down later.  Your goal is to list a bunch of problems so fun for you that you would sick them on yourself -- which you can do, in Fate (http://fate-srd.com/fate-accelerated/aspects-fate-points and http://fate-srd.com/fate-core/invoking-compelling-aspects).
  3. Invent catchy phrases that summarize those problems.  You can leave a lot out, because you’re going to explain where the aspect came from to the other players so that they’ll know how to use it.  
  4. Revise your catchy phrase so that it mostly sounds like a positive trait, and make sure that it’s future-focused.
  5. Pick the best ones, but try to pick ones that fit a theme.  You don't want to be all over the place.  Try to invent a story that fits all of them.
  6. Be transparent about this process.  When you explain all this to your GM, explain the activity (in step 1) that you like most, so that the GM can use that sort of compel against you as often as possible.

Here's an example.  This isn't a character I actually created, but it sure would be a fun one!  
  1. I like to get into combat with unambiguously bad villains and their henchmen.  I see this character as the sort of person who has a lot of nasty enemies, who are always setting things up to make his life hard.
  2. I could be known as an enemy to monsters; I could be haunted; I could have something that really bad guys want; or I could have betrayed nasty criminals.
  3. Infamous Vampire slayer. Haunted by evil ghosts. The unseelie court wants my magic sword. I brought down a drug baron.
  4. Vampire slayer.  Last heir of a sorcerous bloodline.  The unseelie court wants my magic sword. Won't rest until I bring down the Altman gang.  I could use any of these in a positive way in a lot of situations.
  5. I need 3 more aspects, so I'm going with the first three, since they all have to do with the supernatural.  Here's my story:  As the last heir of a sorcerous bloodline, I inherited a magic sword, which I was supposed to turn over to the unseelie faeries.  But when my lover was attacked by vampires, I found it helped me slay them, and I began hunting the blood suckers down.  Now the vampires, unseelie court, and ghosts of my ancestors are upset with me for various reasons, but I'm armed with magic and a cool sword.
  6. "Hey, GM!  I really like the idea that my character is always getting jumped by monsters.  When coming up with compels for me, do a lot of that.  Have existing bad guys turn out to be monsters who are at least in part just trying to capture or kill me, have otherwise nonviolent encounters get a lot closer to breaking out in violence because of my aspects, or have monsters randomly jump me out of nowhere, especially when things are already pretty tense."

September 29, 2014

Do it for the Children

I'm running a horror scenario for Extra Life on a team of unsuspecting strangers.  I will be raising money for Johns Hopkins Children's.  Please donate!


Here's the extra promise:  I'm running a horror scenario.  There are 3 monsters, which is enough to force them to flee.  If they don't flee, they'll probably die.  I will add 1 monster for every $50 I raise.

If I raise $500, in addition to having a total of 13 monsters, I will guarantee you I will give these poor strangers a TPK -- total party kill.  Every single one.  They can try to run, but there's no escape.  NO ESCAPE.

So click that link, donate a few bucks, and kill these PCs...  for the children.

Disclaimer:  I highly advise against causing a TPK in the first game you run with a bunch of strangers.  But this is for the children.

September 26, 2014

Conspiracy Quick Tip

Today I'm giving you a quick tip for designing a conspiracy:

You want there to be several named NPC with interesting and often conflicting motivations in the middle management of your conspiracy -- high enough placed that it takes the PCs time and effort to get to them, but not so high that they're the head honcho.

Each middle manager should point to another middle manager, so the PCs experience a feeling of progress disassembling the conspiracy, but in reality they're moving horizontally across it, rather than vertically up it.  This keeps you from building conspiracies that grow more and more grandiose as the game goes on.

The middle NPCs should hate each other, or be jealous of each other, or otherwise have reasons to be in conflict.  This gives them reasons to be leaving clues pointing at one another.  It also lets the PCs pit them against each other and play off their distrust.

Always imply things are much bigger than they seem, so that when you're ready to reach the campaign climax, you can heap a lot of awful trouble on the PCs, reveal the head bad guy, and watch them just barely escape danger and come crashing the gates of the Big Bad.

Also, who says there should only be one conspiracy?

September 12, 2014

Hex Crawling with Icons

I talked about hex crawls before.  Let’s take them up a notch by pumping them full of hooks using icons, an idea borrowed from 13th Age.  I'll discuss how to apply this technique in 5th edition D&D and in Pathfinder as well.

I was inspired by a conversation with a friend about hex crawling in 13th Age, and came to the realization that the bounded number of icons and icon relationships in that game could make for very tight story-focused hex crawls.  By story, I mean the story that develops out of the players’ characters’ actions, as usual.  I also realized that you could get the same result from any RPG (even outside the fantasy genre) by using a technique I talked about last week in my hooks article.

If you’re new to 13th Age, the key mechanic I’m going to reference here is the Icon Relationship.  Every character has three points worth of icon relationships – so they all have one to three relationships of one to three points worth of usefulness – with the thirteen icons in the game.  The icon relationship rules are pretty neat, but you don't need icon relationship rolls to use icons.

Icons are emperors, demigods, great dragons, and walking legends in the setting – not gods per se.  They have real influence over the world and actual plans and agendas.  They also have relationships with one another.  Check out the core 13 icons for inspiration.  I'll also be using them in the example at the end.

You can have Positive, Negative or Conflicted relationships with these icons.  Your relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be with the icon herself; you might just be wanted by the Crusader’s army for desertion, or a sworn deacon of the Priestess’ church.  But there are no limits – you could be the Emperor’s former mistress, or the Prince of Shadows’ twin brother.

Icon relationships are sown hooks.  Last week, I talked about sowing hooks by listing hooks that the players should take for their characters.  Icon relationships give you 39 hooks (three kinds of relationships times 13 icons) into 13 plots (the 13 icons).  If you create conflicts between the icons to drive the story, that condenses it further.  Say you have three conflicts among the icons, and all 13 are involved in at least one conflict.  Now you have just 3 plots with 39 possible connections into them, and every character will have between one and three of those connections.

What if you don’t play 13th Age?

The largest competitors to 13th Age are Pathfinder and 5th edition D&D.  If you play another fantasy RPG, it’s likely what I wrote for Pathfinder applies.

In Pathfinder, you’re going to need to use the sowing hooks idea from last week’s post.  But instead, list a set of factions and icon-style NPCs and ask each player to select between one and three of them and list what her character’s relationship to them is.  Either leave it at that, or reward good roleplay by granting a Hero Point at the end of any session in which the character brought their icon relationships into the story in a significant way.  See more about Hero Points in Pathfinder. 

5th edition D&D uses Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  Players use these traits to guide their roleplay and in turn generate Inspiration.  So they’ll be happy when you ask them to add between one and three new Ideals, Bonds, or Flaws because that means it’ll be even easier to get Inspiration. 

First, create your icons.  Then ask them to write at least one extra Ideal, Bond, or Flaw that describes their relationship with one of the icons.  An ideal might be a goal to destroy an evil icon, or restore a good icon to its former glory.  A bond might be membership in a faction or a feeling of loyalty or fraternity with an icon.  A flaw might be enmity with an icon, or an irrational vengeance or hatred toward that icon’s supporters or minions.

Finally, Fate deserves some honorable mention here.  In a way, Fate already has a system for tagging locations and connecting those tags to the players' characters.  If you play Fate, you already have location aspects.  Just key the location aspects to the PCs' aspects that relate to iconic factions and NPCs in your game.  Use their aspects for awesome compels when they enter POIs that have location aspects that refer to their own aspects.  And remember to change the location aspects when the PCs take actions that change the point of interest (say, by clearing all the pirates and vampires out of a ruined temple and re-consecrating its altar).

Hex Crawling with Icons

In my original hex crawl article, I described putting Points of Interest (POIs) on a map with a hexagonal grid.  Using icons with a hex crawl, you also ascribe icon relationships to each POI.  In the example hex crawl in that post, there are some factions and NPCs, and we can apply the 13th Age icons in relationships with these sites.

As the PCs adventure through the map, they will take actions that will shift the icon relationships on the POIs.  For instance, if the PCs discover the pirate spy in the village and interrogate him, the village loses its Negative relationship to the Lich King.  If the PCs explain what they’ve done to the fishermen in the village, they might add a new icon relationship (such as Positive: Emperor if they work for the Emperor).

And when the PCs shift the icon relationships on the POIs, these interact with their own icon relationships.  Say the PCs capture the spy in the village.  This harms the Lich King’s agenda in the area.  If you’re using the D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder rules, above, any PC with a negative relationship with the Lich King should get rewarded for doing this. 

If you’re playing 13th Age, it works almost in reverse.  If a PC rolls a 5 on her Negative Lich King relationship, she might feel obligated to kill the spy instead of leave the spy alone and feed him false information.  If she rolls a 6, she will get a benefit, such as when interrogating the spy, she will realize that the pirate king has been made into a vampire, from the spy’s description of the situation.

Icon Relationships for the Example POIs

Here are some ideas for 13th Age style icon relationships for the different example POIs (from my original Hex Crawl article):

Village and Wizard’s Tower
  • Positive: Archmage – The wizard who guarded this town was an apprentice of the Archmage
  • Negative: Lich King – They don’t know it, but the pirates have a spy in town, looking for any way to bring them down.

Ruined Riverfront Temple
  • Conflicted: Elf Queen – The Eladrin Lord led the pirate king here to make him a vampire, which would draw the wizard out of his tower and into the Eladrin’s trap.  But despite being given a band of river pirates to serve and feed him, the vampire lord here resents being used.
  • Positive: Lich King – The vampire lord here is loyal to the Lich King.
  • Negative: Priestess – This temple to the Gods was desecrated long ago by the vampire lord.

Abandoned Gold Mine
  • Negative: Dwarf King – This mine was lost to the Dwarf King’s people centuries ago, and was only recently re-opened and populated with lizardfolk.  The lizardfolk don’t want dwarves coming to reclaim it.
  • Negative: Elf Queen – The Eladrin lord has unleashed fey Displacer Beasts, which have taken over the lizardfolk’s hunting ground.

Ruined Coliseum
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Displacer Beasts were brought here from the feywild by the Eladrin Lord.
  • Conflicted: High Druid – There is a portal to the feywild here that was created by druids.  They keyed the door to the Rowan Staff, which is now in the hands of the Eladrin Lord, who moved fey displacer beasts here to keep people away from the portal.
  • Conflicted: Crusader – A century ago, a Crusader build coliseums in populated areas.  The new Crusader seeks to return them to their glory and re-establish gladiatorial bloodsport and slavery.

Mysterious Palace
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Elf Queen’s Unseelie Eladrin Lord caused the mysterious palace to manifest here out of the feywild so that he could take over the valley.
  • Negative: Archmage – The wizard’s familiar, a wily cat, has hidden here and might give the PCs clues for how to get through and reclaim the Rowan Staff.  The cat, the familiar of an apprentice of the archmage, despises the Eladrin lord for killing her master.

September 5, 2014

Plot Hooks

Have you ever had a player wonder, out loud, why her character would take the crazy risks you wrote into your adventure?  

Have you ever sat at the game table with a GM who asked “what do you want to do?” and then just stared blankly at you, waiting for you to find his plot?  

Have you ever run or played an RPG with a cliché story introduction involving a mysterious stranger approaching you in a tavern?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you've seen what happens when a game doesn't have good hooks!

Interactive fiction needs to connect the player to the GM.  This isn't as automatic as it seems.  The players extend themselves into the game world with their characters.  The GM extends herself into the game world with her NPCs and setting.  The GM also presents challenges, and the players have their characters undertake those challenges.

The exact middle of the player-GM relationship is the question of why the players’ characters undertake the challenges the GM creates.  The answer to the question is plot hooks.  

Hooks are where the players reach across the table and write some story into their characters.  Hooks the pieces of story that the players are interested in connecting their characters directly to.  Hooks tell the GM the most powerful way to plug the players' characters into the plot.

Character Hooks

A character hook is designed as a toy for the GM to play with.  Whether you write a 20 page character back-story or a 100 word bullet point list, you should always summarize your character’s background in terms of how the GM can use it to draw your character into the story.  To some players, it may feel like a weakness that their character’s enemies can exploit.  That’s exactly what it is – and that’s such a good thing.  The GM is going to write the next dungeon regardless, so you might as well have it spotlight your character by having the prince she believes to be her real father get kidnapped by the ogres.  I mean, she’s going in that dungeon one way or another, right?  If she doesn’t have any interesting hooks, she’s going in because a mysterious stranger paid her to, and that’s boring.

Character hooks are basically anything that your character cares a lot about.  It’s something he loves, hates, depends on, aspires to, feels part of, identifies with, or fears.  The emotion involved should be more powerful than usual, since your character is more powerful than the average person.  RPG characters should be a little larger than life.  Because RPG characters often risk their lives on their adventures, their hooks should be things that they would fight or even die for.

Take a look at the campaign, too.  The setting and genre usually have a lot of hooks dangling out there for you to latch your character on to.  A game set in a cyberpunk future has a lot of tropes associated.  One common trope is to have the players working as shadowy mercenaries for mega-corporations.  So knowing that the setting rewards mercenaries, you might consider why your character needs the money enough to risk her life.  Does she owe money to the mob?  Does she have a large family she needs to support?  Does she dream of buying an island in the Pacific and living off the grid?  Is she just a greedy sot who lives far too lavish a lifestyle and would rather die than give it up?

Campaign Hooks

GMs create campaign hooks for the players.  A setting hook is designed as a toy for the players to play with.  Like the cyberpunk money trope, a setting hook is a hint that the stories in the campaign will revolve around a particular sort of thing. 

There are different degrees to which you can inject these hooks into the game.  These techniques range from an implied set of setting hooks built into a short campaign pitch to detailed character submission requirements for players.

Building Hooks into the Pitch

At the very least, you should include the best setting hooks in your campaign pitch.  In my pitch post, the example has a lot of hooks implied.  It tells the players that they should think about their characters’ answers to several questions:
  • Why do you have money troubles?
  • Why would you make a good pirate?
  • Why would you be interested in profiting from the intrigues and politics of two decadent nations?
  • Do you have any preference or national loyalty?
  • Why do you want to acquire undeserved lands, titles, gems and jewels?

Question and Answer Hooks

In addition to the hooks in the pitch, you could type up some questions and hand them out to the players. This is somewhat more explicit than the hooks built into the pitch.  Use leading questions, like the questions above, about the example pitch.  When the players email or hand back their answers to the questions, not only do you know they have thought about all the hooks, you have their answers right there in your in your hands (or inbox).

You can also draw out additional hooks by writing leading questions that aren't connected to the plot.  Try questions like "Who is she, and why do you keep a lock of her hair?"  The question seems specific but only the emotion (caring for a woman) is.  I always tell my players they can modify the questions when I use this technique, so they don't feel boxed in or put on the spot as badly.  I also don't like to make them answer quickly -- best to give them a few hours or even a few weeks.  The actual answers can be all over the place, but they tell you what the player thinks would be a good hook for her character:
  • She is my rival, and I keep her hair in case I need to use it against her in a magical ritual
  • She is my young daughter, who disappeared exactly one year ago today
  • She is my mother, who died when the Knights of Neraka raided Pashin.
  • She is my wife, and though my adventures take me far from her, I will always have a reminder of our love.
  • She is me, and I keep the hair to remind myself of my life as a mortal, before becoming a vampire.

Sowing Hooks at Character Creation

What’s more, you can actually create plot hooks and sow them into the characters of the story.  Say you have the following two plots ready to go:
  1. A character’s mentor was brainwashed by an enemy recruiter, and he is losing herself to the enemy more and more every day.
  2. The leader of the PCs’ faction is new, but successful.  However, the will come to learn that he’s maintaining his power by selling his soul bit by bit.

In order to draw the players characters into these stories, you might tell them that you want them to submit character ideas that contain one or two of the following hooks.  All four hooks should be included within the party, possibly repeated multiple times (though the goal to take over would need to be negotiated if two or more shared it!):
  • My character has a mentor he or she trusts
  • An enemy in the rival faction tried to recruit my character, but failed.
  • My character wants to take over and lead our faction.
  • My character has one or more NPC allies who are priests or religious leaders.
Now the PCs will all be tied to one or both of the main stories in the game.  And there will be ties to both main stories within the group of PCs.  The mentor and enemy connect to plot 1, and the ambition and religious allies connect to the soul-selling leader in plot 2.

Game System Hooks

Some game systems have specific ways to build hooks into the stories played at the table.  Games like Vampire: the Masquerade build hooks into every character – everyone has a clan, a generation, a sire, possible other broodmates, coterie-mates, etc.  You cannot make a Vampire character without some pre-installed hooks.  The game tends to be about conflicts between elder vampires and intrigues between clans, so the kinds of stories that the game is best at telling are also the kinds of stories for which your character’s pre-installed hooks are relevant.

Another technique that the World of Darkness games pioneered was flaws.  Now even D&D has character flaws!  Flaws are character hooks that, at the heart of it, represent things your character is going to screw up.  These can include physical and mystical flaws through personal vendettas and psychological flaws.  They give the player permission to have their character screw something up without appearing to be an idiot for screwing it up.  Of course I rushed in to attack instead of sneaking up on the enemy like we planned – I have the Vengeance flaw against them!  They also provide hooks.  The conspiracy leader is from the clique you have sworn vengeance against!

Other games build hooks directly into the character in other ways.  Fate’s Aspects are hooks, and they arise from a game and setting creation system built to give the entire table some say in how the setting and game are designed and how their characters fit into the story. 

GMs should make sure to use these hooks.  They’re there for a reason.  Players should make sure to include hooks over and above the ones the system requires them to include.

Common Problem:  The Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan

Far too often people create a character as a Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan (CBLO) – a badass with no connections in the world for the GM to mess with.  I’m always sad to hear about this, when it happens.  It’s such a wasted opportunity, because a CBLO might actually be an interesting character, but  nine times out of ten, the person who submits a CBLO to a tabletop or LARP game I’m involved in doesn’t have those questions answered and doesn’t want to.  They made a CBLO so the GM couldn’t mess with them. 

If you encounter a player like this, try relating to them like this:  You’re here to go on pretend adventures.  Now, you’re going to go into these dungeons/arcologies/jungles/sewers anyway, because that’s why you came to game night.  You can go in with a character who’s just going along for the ride, or you can go in with a strong personal reason why your character would risk his life here.  If you give your character a soft spot, it’s my job to threaten it, so that your character can triumph not just for some cash, but against something despicable that threatened something he really cared about.

A CBLO can be a fun character, if his reasons for being a CBLO are fleshed out.  Try asking these sorts of questions of the player who submits a CBLO without much to go on:  

What happened to make you so callous?  Are you callous to unnecessary cruelty committed against the innocent?  If not, do you have any innocent groups, neighborhoods, or individuals you watch over to make sure nobody victimizes them?  If not, why not?  What would it take to make you start and what would you need to arrange to make it happen?  

What kinds of cold-blooded things have you done that you don’t want others to discover?  Are you famous (or infamous) for doing some cold-blooded deeds?  Do people call on you when they need those deeds done?  What do they say your specialty is?  What kinds of cold-blooded things are you prone to doing that could get you in trouble in the future?  

Why don’t you trust anyone enough to make a network of allies you depend on or who depend on you?  What did you do to alienate the allies you used to have?  Are you liable to do it again with anyone who trusts you in the future?  

What happened to your parents?  Is there something you need to do to get closure in regards to your parents’ death or disappearance?  Is there some loose end you never looked into, or never were able to tie up, related to their death or disappearance?  

What do you want to see improved in your life?  Do you want to grow tougher, richer and more powerful?  From whom do you plan to learn those complicated skills and get those rare pieces of equipment, from where do you intend to get all that money, and what’s your plan to attain all that power?

A Note to Long-Time Readers

This is a revision that condenses several of my earliest posts on this blog.  You can find all the originals here:
  1. The Case for Hooks
  2. Sowing Hooks
  3. Story Structure and Hooks
  4. Character Driven Storylines
  5. Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation