Thursday, June 2, 2011

Guest Lecturer: Intriguing Play

Today's entry is a guest submission by frequent reader/commenter Emmet. In it, he talks about ways to compel intrigue in your game, to hook your players and keep them coming back for more. So, grab your chair and take up a glass, and let's see what Emmet has to say.

This is a subject I've been thinking about. Bloggers often discuss engagement, but what is engagement? How does a starting GM engage their players? In order to be engaged, the players have to be intrigued by the story. I worked on teasing that thought apart and this is what I came up with.

Intriguing Play
It is the GM's function (and also the Game Designer's) to create or direct games that are intriguing. Think about that for a moment, intrigue. A state where the player's mind in wrapped up in the game. A state that they don't want to leave. Intrigue.

There are many ways to create intrigue. GM's everywhere pull from stories that they found interesting. Some in books, some on TV, movies, video games and occasionally even music and paintings. RPGs have drawn from nearly every other media and adapted it to a game, and many of the adaptations have gone well. They created intrigue. But how is intrigue created? Let's look at four possible elements. Not all games need all four, the best games use most of them.

Making a compelling story in an RPG is all about a challenge. Creating a challenge in a PnP RPG is an interesting problem. It has to be tailor made to the characters or the setting. If it's not and the hurdles the PCs have to overcome are too high or too low, then it ceases to be a challenge. It's either a cakewalk or a brick wall and neither of those are interesting. I will admit that on occasion a cakewalk can be fun but it's not the main reason to play.

The challenge compels the PCs to action. If they don't take it up, then something they care about won't happen (getting paid, seeing their friends again, the world is destroyed). Without the player's taking up the challenge the game runs into railroading.

The reason that creating a challenge is an interesting problem is because it's not about challenging the character. It's about challenging the player. You aren't going to be challenging the player physically (probably not even when LARPing). It's all about the intellectual and social challenge of the game. The barbarian horde outside the gate isn't the real challenge. It's player figuring out how they will arrange resources so that it becomes likely their character can defeat the horde. This is important to remember when trying to run a game, challenging the character leads to a dice rolling game. Challenging the players to arrange their resources (stats, equipment, abilities, NPCs) so that it looks like they have a good chance of winning is what will intrigue them. It's best to keep a little uncertainty for the dice to resolve (if your game of choice uses dice) just to keep the tension up. Otherwise, there's no point in playing things out once the resources are aligned.

The social challenge is how the players work together. This may be the most naturally handled part of a game. Leave it alone and it can be interesting, mess with it and it's interesting (although possibly disastrous). Trying to stir up the social order of the group is probably not a good idea until a group has had time to find itself. It's usually best done just before the group gets too comfortable with their roles.

Sometimes the death or absence of a leader makes a group have to adjust. This can be a trying time for a player group and is likely to generate a lot of awkwardness. A PC is usually chosen as a leader, not because their character is the strongest or the smartest but because the player is the most charismatic. Getting another player to take up that mantle can be a difficult thing to do, if they fail the group will probably loose interest in the game. However, it is a challenge, that if handled correctly can make for very interesting play.

To charm the players is to delight them. This can be done with mechanical awards of equipment or bonuses or it can be accomplished through story elements. For example, finally finding the children taken by the kidnapper and having them cling to the PCs and occasionally giving the player a card from the child saying thank you maybe even months or a year later.

Charming the players can be a odd thing to wrap your head around as a GM. We get used to being fair. Fair is satisfying but it doesn't delight. Gritty is the buzz word, realistic is the buzz, not charming, not delightful. Most of the time the GM lets Players provide the charm by joking around during the game, sure the GM jokes too but the charm could be part of the game.

So how do you use charm in a game and keep it real and gritty? Remember the adage "a little goes a long way." A bright spot in a dark world can be immensely compelling (back to compelling?). A teenager that looks up to the PCs whenever they come into town (and doesn't get in the way) maybe eagerly helping them by offering information on what's going on in the area is a great way of forming an attachment to that town. Imagine your players hearing that trouble is headed for the town that Jimmy is in. You'll be sure that they'll do everything they can to head off that trouble.

Even without using the things that the players love (not just a character note on their sheet) as a plot hook, adding charming elements to your game makes the players part of the story. In fact creating a charming story element just to use it as a plot hook is commonly the pitfall that GMs fall into. Players recognize it and defensively choose to not get attached to anything, preventing the GM from actually upsetting them when it's gone. Most players are so weary of this that they look at anyone being nice to them in game as a liability that will eventually hurt them. They cease being charmed. To prevent this, players have to be allowed to have many things they love, many friends that the GM will never use to betray them. Don't be quick to turn charm into challenge.

Collectible card games do 'new' really well. There are always expansion packs and new series of cards to collect. Video games do it by introducing a new game element (bad guy, tool, technique, etc.) every level or so. Even changing the color and making the monster tougher works. Even starting GM's usually understand 'new' pretty well.

Starting a new RPG or Campaign is usually one way to keep things new. A new big bad, a new city, a new ride for the players to get around in helps keeping things fresh. In an RPG adding a new element to the game every few games is a good way of keeping the players intrigued. This can be done with story elements or with new game mechanics either from the designer or homebrew.

It's really hard not to slip right into 'new' when trying to do 'unusual'. Unusual can be done with all the normal elements of a game but in a way that the players aren't familiar with. I'm going to define this as not introducing any new game materials, only rearranging them or presenting them in a different way (so yes, that is technically new, just a different kind). This usually falls to the enemy using different tactics than they have in the past but there are many other ways to do unusual. Most of those ways are story based because, remember, we're not talking about adding something new, just different.

Unusual has the effect of disturbing the player's notion of how things 'should' be. That has a large emotional effect, even when the change is minor because the players no longer feel like they have a solid grasp of things. Unusual can really stand on it's own in grabbing the player's interest. When the creatures the PCs have been battling, show up on their doorstep and beg them for help, the player's world view probably just got turned up side down. If the enemies start to pretend like it they didn't see the PCs slipping in through the gate, they start to worry if they really want to break in.

Now that I've split the ideas up let's mash them back together, 'new' in a game can go hand in hand with unusual. As I said charming elements can be used to compel the players. The promise of something new can compel and unusual things can be charming. There's any number of ways these elements of intrigue can be combined. As an extra credit challenge, try and make a game that doesn't overtly use compelling and still have the players intrigued

What elements would you like to incorporate more into your games?


  1. "If the enemies start to pretend like it they didn't see the PCs slipping in through the gate, they start to worry if they really want to break in"

    I'm stealing this idea sometime. It's a really cool idea that intrigues me(there's that word again). Awesome post overall. You make some great points. I usually fall into the compelling and new categories.

  2. Like I said in the email, this is a good post with a lot of insight for planning out games. I'm going to have to keep this open while preparing for my next session of table top.

  3. BF - Feel free to steal it! Even better, try and come up with something unusual for your next session. Really, almost all of the Sherlock Holmes stories are heavy in the unusual because they had to use common elements the reader could understand but be arranged in a way that doesn't seem to make sense.