Friday, June 24, 2005

Pressing the Buttons

There are times in the life of a game where you feel you have to press a player's buttons in order to get them motivated, or in order to get the adventure up and running. One of my least favorite elements of the gamer personality is the tendency to dither and not make a decision until the last possible moment. I remember a time when a group of my friends had decided they were hungry and they were going to order out. By the time they had finished wrangling about what they would get and had laid their hands on a phone book and had made a list of what they wanted, they discovered that all the restaurants had closed. This is not atypical of gamer behavior. So sometime you have to kick them along. It's a simple practice and comes easily with lots of time playing together. But you don't always have the luxury of knowing the interior of your fellow gamer's psyches. This is especially true in a pick-up game or con situation. So you might have to adapt. There are also times when even the best gamer group can be obsteprous in moving along to your story. So here are a few handy things that I thought up to help you work your mob psychology mojo on them.

James Bond Time
In other Crank columns, I have advocated the use of what I call, "The Mortality Warning" which is a heads up to players that bad plans and screw-ups can lead to serious character death. I usually reserve the Mortality Warning for the climax of a particular arc because my players know that I am not one to maliciously slay characters. I'm also not one to allow dice to dictate fate completely.

So I got this new idea. What if you have a point in your game where the players are in no danger whatsoever? Say you have a situation where your players enter the game through an opening sequence like a James Bond Movie.

Start in the middle of a sensitive operation, Have about 40 or 50 mooks on the scene, all of them heavily armed. Make sure the players understand the idea that they are encouraged to wax the bad guys in the most creative ways possible. Maybe even give them some sort of visual cue, like a prop or something. As long as the prop is on the table James Bond Time is in effect. Make sure that there is danger (Just make sure the players also know that largely they can't get killed unless they flatly work really hard to do it.) Have mooks get killed by the dozens. Keep the dice out of it altogether if you can manage it. Have people run and have stuff blow up. Don't let them abuse it of course. The team's accountant should not bust out with 2 gun fury, Chow Yun Fat style. Unless of course, that works for you. It certainly did in Costner's "Untouchables".

"James Bond Time" can be the set up for a much more dangerous operation, heavily action oriented exposition, or even completely unrelated to the adventure at hand. It can be the way the characters meet during the campaign. If nothing else, it is an opportunity for the players to have maximum fun with their characters right out of the box. It can be great way to start off a con game as long as it doesn't take too long.

This may seem like some advanced kind of play but it's not really. It's another form of breaking the linear storytelling form to your advantage. It may be as simple as starting with your Characters at the near end of the adventure and then jumping all the way back to the beginning. Something along the lines of, "What do you mean? Are you sure there is only 2 minutes to defuse the bomb?" and then while the players scramble to try to figure out what's happening. You drop the line on them, "72 Hours earlier..."

This puts the ball firmly in the player court. The players have an idea of what the climax is going to be (Although they certainly don't know it ALL.) They also know that it's up to them to get there and work out how to manage it. Players who are really into the whole storytelling thing will lean into this technique heavily.

Flashback can be used to push emotional buttons too. Once, I began a game with the incredibly dramatic death scene of one of the treasured NPC's of the game. The look on their faces when I said " 72 hours Earlier." was one of unalloyed shock. I made sure that their last interactions with that NPC were filled with pathos and tragedy that would only have been seen in hindsight. Then, when I jumped forward again, They were as fired up as I had ever seen them.

"Adventure Calls...You better answer, asshole!"
I don't know why it is, but sometimes players can get a little extreme in terms of not actually wanting to get involved in the adventure. This seems a bit strange but I've seen many manifestations of it. Characters that demand 3 times the going rate from potential employers and get abusive. Characters that are so paranoid that they are impossible to approach much less get them involved in something. Once I had to explain to a relatively new GM that a Character who was an ex-spook would not take well to being approached and recruited in person. a simple letter in a mailbox would be a better way to entice them into the meat of the story.

This is not helped by the fact that this behavior is reinforced by nearly every Epic that the players have ever encountered. The Hero always seems to be unwilling to answer the first call to adventure. It's a part of the mythic cycle. The Hero must somehow be forced into going on the adventure rather than volunteering the first time. Otherwise, he seems to come off as a thrill seeker. Does Luke go with Ben immediately? No, Only when he returns home and find Olin and Beru horribly slain does he take up the war against the empire. It's the way of things.

GM's who might not be hip to this, might become confused. There is the tendency to wonder why the players are wasting your time with this crap. Don't they want to play?

Savvy GM's can turn these tendencies to their advantage though. If you know they might not respond to the first call to action, You can always work on them by providing them incentives with whatever leverage you have to hand. Perhaps, their mother needs an operation, or their best friend has a gambling problem and their bookie is breathing down their neck. Money might be tight because the new computer has eaten up a huge amount of funds or maybe the last client that you had stiffed you and lack of groceries are preying on your mind. Even if the players are wildly rich you can tie them up too with market fluctuations, recessions, lawsuits, frozen assets, hostile takeovers...Get them off their duff to make them do that voodou that they do so well.

The Shill
Adventure? Excitement? A Jedi craves not these things... Players have a way of armoring their characters against getting into any kind of trouble. This would seem to be antithetical to the idea of playing a person who gets into adventures but it is more about avoiding character death and less about stopping adventures cold. "My Character would never do that." has a way of screwing games before they even get started.

One way to get players involved is to forego the whole idea of forcing their involvement. Make an NPC for the group. Make sure that the NPC has a specific defined role in the group.( So there is less possibility of the players shrugging their shoulders and going, "Oh Well." Having the team medic get waxed is serious business) Make sure that the NPC is the one guy that all the players know and/or like.

Do you have a guy like this? Good. Now make sure that this guy gets himself into really heavy trouble every once in a while. The players will either respond or they won't..Plan for both. If they show up to help, make sure that the NPC is grateful and promises not to get into similar trouble again. (you can always break this promise later.)

If they don't show up to help because they are far to self involved or too cool to care. Have the NPC get waxed and leave behind a note addressed to one of the PC's, saying simply, "You're Next." If that doesn't get them moving...It's entirely possible that your players have de-evolved into vegetable matter.

Sono Finito.


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