Like my previous post about illusionism, this is a reflection on the refereeing style I used for the last D&D birthday party James and I ran. To recap, the kids in my group rolled a wandering monster, which I decided to use to provide them with a map leading to the location of two magic items, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. James and I had prepared what these items did, but not where they might be found or what was defending them.
When the griffon-riding adventurers reached the hilltop where I’d told them the map said the horn of the valkyries was located, I used a wipe-erase board to present the players with a situation map. “At the peak, you see a pair of standing stones, with a third stone laid across the top,” I said, drawing as I went. “Surrounding that is an area that’s scorched and burnt, parts of it are still smoking. You can see some dead bodies lying on the ground in this burnt area. Over here are trees that weren’t damaged by whatever happened here.”
Given that all of this was off the top of my head, what was I thinking? Here are the principles that I was using:
- Make it concrete. Drawing a map bought me a little time to think, but more importantly it gave the players a specific set of elements to work with – the trilithion, the burnt area, the zone of safety – each with a graphic reminder that these are the things we’re going to be interacting with in this scene. Vagueness is the enemy because it allows for an overwhelming number of possibilities; pinning myself down to these few elements was important for the same reason that improv actors start a sketch by having the audience provide them with a name, sentence, or concept that they’re going to riff on.
- Focus the mystery. The players’ goal is to snag the horn of the valkyries, but when they arrive it’s nowhere to be seen. That sets up a puzzle, which is great, but it also takes away the obvious path to the goal that’s motivating their efforts. I used the standing stones, a genre icon of the mysterious and otherworldly, to quickly suggest a new motivation. Without this hook, the search for the treasure might have become diffuse and frustrating.
- Set the stakes. The presence of the dead bodies establishes that something here is deadly; it sends the message to the players that they need to proceed with caution. (I’ve learned not to use the term “skeletons” when playing with kids, because that sends a different message: there’s something here to fight, yay!) I think it’s a good idea to signpost dangerous traps even when they’re planned ahead of time and thus somehow existing independently of me, but since I’m making this all up as I go along, I’d feel like a jerk if I just up and decided that touching the stones zaps you dead. Showing that someone made a wrong move and suffered lethal consequences lets me introduce consequences into play with a sense of fairness.
- Establish the limits. As a referee, I’ve learned that putting trash on the staircase will throw players into a frenzy of trying to figure out what’s going on. This can be useful when I don’t know what’s going on, because it buys me at least fifteen minutes to think and also spurs the players to generate lots of conjectures which I can use as inspiration. However, that kind of threat analysis can be paralyzing if it spins out of control. By drawing a perimeter of untouched trees around the area, I was signaling that this much at least is safe, you can get this close and try things out without fear, in order to forestall an ever-widening panic zone.
So even though many of the kids in this group had never played D&D before, they immediately start thinking like adventurers, eagerly grappling with the problem of how to extract the maximum loot at minimal risk to themselves. Meanwhile, I’m improvising the situation, letting my reactions to their actions and ideas define what’s going on in the world we’re all imagining together.
- Kids: Is there any writing on the stones?
- Me: Yes, as you fly over them you can see runes carved into the front of each stone. This is a no-brainer – it’s impressive how many conventions of the fantasy genre are already known to nine-year-olds – but I draw a sketch of the stones and rune-writing to make it concrete.
- Kids: Can we read it?
- Me: I don’t know, why would your character be able to? Throwing questions back is a good reflex for an improv referee. Apart from just buying time to think, it gets the players involved; few will pass up a chance to fill in the details of how and why their character is capable of fantastic deeds.
- Kid #1: Because I’m a magic-user! As noted previously, we didn’t have the kids do the character generation process that, from edition to edition, has made sitting down to play D&D ever more like filling out a tax form. However, it seems the basic ideas of classes are also part of the conventions third-graders have absorbed.
- Me: You can tell that it’s magic writing, the kind that’s used in spells, but you’re not sure what it means. This is because I’m not sure yet either, but we’re closing in on the writing being part of a magical lock or trigger.
- Kid #2: Let’s send the hippogriff we found down there and see if it gets burnt up!
- Kid #1: No, it’s an animal and we made friends with it, we can’t make it get hurt! Although Kid #2 clearly has enormous natural potential as a D&D adventurer, I’m impressed by Kid #1’s convictions. Alignment is another thing we haven’t introduced, but this kind of morality is something I want to encourage and explore…
- Me: The letters on the top stone light up with a red glow. So now I’ve decided that the trilithion is a gateway. Only those who prove themselves morally worthy will be allowed to pass through to the Rainbow Bridge, where the Valkyries wait to give the horn to true heroes.
- Kid #2: Oooh! OK, I want to look at the dead bodies on the ground. Can I tell what killed them?
- Me: You see the charred bones of humans; some are surrounded by melted metal that might have been armor and swords. These are mingled with what look like the bones of lions with wings. Reincorporation – taking things that have been established before and tying them back in as the story unfolds – is a powerful improv technique for creating meaning, depth, and coherence.
- Kid #2: Hey, this is what happened to the rider of the griffon we captured! Those guys came here with the map to find the treasure, but they did something wrong and only that griffon escaped! This is good adventurer thinking, of the less morally-questionable variety that I want to reward…
- Me: The letters on the left stone light up!
- Kids: All right! What if there’s an item you’re supposed to put into the stones? Someone should fly down there and check it out. Not me, though, I don’t want to get burned!
- Me: The letters on the last stone turn dark. Now these two are glowing red, but these are a deep black. I’ve decided that the last virtue the gate is looking for is courage, and am signifying that the players are displaying its opposite.
- Kid #3: I’ll ride my griffon between the stones and see what happens! This kid also has a great D&D career ahead of him, although he’ll roll up a lot more new characters than the guy who herds livestock ahead of him into every potentially dangerous situation.
- Me: As you bravely descend towards the stone, the runes on the last stone change from black to red. Your griffon soars between the stone, and everyone else sees you disappear! What you see is a rainbow stretching down from the clouds. A knight rides a horse down the rainbow, and as she draws near she takes off her helmet so that her long hair blows in the wind. “You have passed the test and proven yourself worthy of the Horn of the Valkyries,” she says. “You showed Compassion when you chose not to send the griffons to their deaths. You showed Intelligence when you learned from the mistakes of those who came before you. And you showed Courage when you approached the gate despite the danger.”
One definition of illusionism says that
In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same.
I don’t think this kind of illusion of choice is what’s going on here. At some points during the discussion, the kids talked about just flying away from this situation and seeking out the cloak of shadows instead. If they’d done so, the consequences would not have been the same; the scenario didn’t require them to get either magic item, and I would have been just as happy to see them go flying around at random capturing Pokemon and beating up wandering monsters.
However, we are in the realm of “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players dream up,” which some of the commenters on the previous post had problems with. Justin Alexander said:
I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”. I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.
And Stuart concurred:
Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.
I would be psyched to have Justin or Stuart playing in my game, so I want to figure out how I could keep them from getting so annoyed they would quit! Let’s first address the issues about honesty and disclosure by imagining that I was explicit about this at the start of the campaign: As you decide where to go in this sandbox, sometimes you’ll encounter pre-planned adventures I’ve placed in a location: modules prepared by others, or less often, completely written out by myself ahead of time. In this case, I’ll pretty faithfully stick to the text to decide what you find when you go there. Sometimes you’ll go places I haven’t prepped for, so I’ll use procedural generation and improv tools like wandering monsters, interpreted on the fly, to decide what you find. And sometimes, to give meaning to things that come up in play and to advance my own DM agendas, you’ll encounter the edges of stuff I’ve just made up, or for which I have some pre-existing ideas about what’s going on without having decided on all the details. I’ll do my best to conceal from you that this is what I’m doing because I want you to engage with these conspiracies, NPC machinations, events in the world, etc. in the same way you would if they were part of a pre-planned adventure, and because I want you to experience your character’s unraveling of this situation as if it were a discovery of something that existed in the world of the game even though it’s really an improvised co-creation.
For Justin and Stweart, and folks who share their feelings: Would this be the point at which you’d say “this isn’t a game I want to play,” or would you get annoyed only if the illusion kept slipping and making it apparent when the content was improvised? And do you foresee that becoming apparent because improvised stuff was annoyingly more shoddy or awkward than the stuff prepped ahead of time?
I feel like, for my style of DMing, the only way I’d include puzzles like the example above is to have them be more or less improvised. The closest approximation I can envision to the situation Stuart describes – wasting time solving a mystery that has no solution – sounds to me like what I fear would happen if I pre-scripted puzzles: wasting time trying to solve a mystery that has no solution that makes sense to the players. One great advantage of improvised mysteries is that they are guaranteed to have solutions that exist in the player’s minds, and specifically the best solution that evolves through play.
I have relatively little experience designing pre-planned adventures, and when I do they don’t tend to include mysteries and puzzles. Presumably if I did, I’d have more of a sense of how to set it up so that the players found their way to the designated solution without getting frustrated or feeling railroaded. As it is, I’m much more comfortable letting both the puzzle and its solution arise during play. The balrog random encounter referenced in the last post became an awesome moral conundrum: will the players decide to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation by sacrificing innocent henchmen to demons? Trying to set up dilemmas like that seems better suited for games with our Indie Filth tag, and even there I often feel claustrophobic when gameplay always gets re-focused on building to the next opportunity to test the characters’ beliefs.
I’m happiest when unplanned elements suggest ways to create puzzles, because I feel like that way the context is appropriate to the situation they’re placed in and the content can reference stuff that we all obviously care about and have in the forefront of our consciousnesses. The fact that these puzzles will usually start with a great lead-in, but not know the great solution ahead of time, seems to me like a small price to pay. But I dig that folks I respect may feel differently, and am eager to understand why.