Archive for the 'advice' Category


character development: gaps, buttons and flags

The Chinese say an urn’s usefulness is in its emptiness. When developing a character, look for their gaps or wants.  Take the rugged loner, someone without family (in RPGs some tire of threats to family so their relatives die peacefully to stop this plot being used) and some games masters either comply or escalate with a manipulative response.

These gaps (or voids) are where a story can fit in.  For our loner, stories about isolation, friendship or relationships may resonate.  Here Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides fuel and ideas and those with input into characters do well to consider how choices leave future gaps.  Stories may be positive resolutions or threaten to widen or deepen the gap.

A character without flaws in physical or psychological or spiritual makeup is difficult to relate to.  Even The Man of Steel has limits and carefully cultivates a fallible identity in order to fit in. People are drawn to gaps, needs and vulnerabilities and this attraction can be used to give characters empathy – it is desirable but not essential.

Some make it easier by giving characters hot buttons, using the risk principle ‘If X, then Y’ where ‘X’ is a situation and ‘Y’ is an action or behaviour. This compulsion may vary in intensity from irritant to obsession and forms a contract the behaviour will take place at some point – otherwise why bother?

Hitting the hot button repeatedly can lead to fatigue where the audience doesn’t give a damn or worse, turns the character into a cliché.  Timing and the rhythm of a story is also a consideration as hitting the hot button at the wrong time may get in the way of or worse still, derail a story completely.

A character without hot buttons is concerned with editorial or self-control.  If nothing provokes a reaction the character disconnects from the story.  The hot button isn’t critical, it can be interesting if used well and can present dilemmas where the behaviour can set them up for risks or sacrifice for a reward – fulfilling for both the character and audience.

An alternative to the hot button is the flag.  This signifies a character’s story needs to go where the flag indicates – suited to aspirational goals (“Kill Bill” or “Escape from New York“).  Like all journeys, there are beginnings, waypoints and a destination.  Using the flag forms an implicit contract that the journey will feature and eventually be resolved.

Reverse plotting from the flag leads to story hooks and situations which may need to be signposted. Individual audience members may feel the plot is being railroaded or led by the nose.  Again, over-use weakens its impact.  Throwing in distractions or curveballs can give the audience a holiday.  Remember to make it fast and come back to the story.

A character without flags has no positive goals or desires.  They just float through life, reacting to events and trying to deal with their flaws.  It may be nice if you’re in a 90’s sitcom or soap drama but is it adventurous?  Is it heroic?  And would you engage with a character that laissez-faire or passive?  Few people will enjoy the vicarious feeling of helplessness even if they bond with the character by other means.


campaign branding: making magic items memorable

There are ways to make a game come to life.  Campaign branding is about making a particular game have it’s own distinctive feel. Whether it’s the flash on your magic, the genre conventions you’re working with or down as deep as explaining where all the diamond and silver dust comes from, essentially setting fluff that impacts directly on the characters that help make a setting memorable. So let’s start with a popular one.

Gamers lament the generic nature of magical items (given how most RPGs treat them, this isn’t surprising) and have correctly identified a little detail goes a long way.  Doing it is it’s own artform.  Which do you prefer?

A +1 long sword with a ruby in the pommel
A black +1 long sword with hazy red edges and a glowing ruby in the pommel.

Six more words.   Mechanically identical, aesthetically different.  Keep additional fluff to fewer words than the original description and use enough to make a difference or three from the base item. Short words help to sell this idea and as someone once said, if you can’t show, then tell but do it quickly.

You’re right – I prefer ostentatious magic.  Having seen sword smiths working and the effort it takes to make a normal blade, why not give magical blades cantrip-level bling?  Do you want them to know it’s magical? And magic need not be glowing.  They can emit a bitter scent, twitch like rat’s noses or even scream when wielded.  And that’s just weapons.

Armour may shift through many colours, robes may be seamless, rods may be inset with gems that twinkle like stars.  Exotic materials may be used in construction (and if magic is involved usually are) or manufacture and this is the beginning of the level of customisation you can aim for.  That black and red sword can have a lot more about it than just being a magic sword with a Sith colour scheme.

Additional decoration in the form of maker’s marks, insignias, religious markings, mystical runes and more suggest additional stories as well.  This is before we get to decorations like dragon’s head pommels which can be applied to non-magical weapons as well.  Stories you can use to give the game new directions – triggers for bringing a game to certain parts of the campaign world even…

Those craving subtle magics can find them and use them if they so wish.  A nondescript dagger may reveal lethal magics only spotted by those looking for such. As long as form follows function it makes some sense.  A dagger makes a good assassin’s weapon, a flamberge less so (even if it’s effective, sheer size makes concealment tricky) – it depends on the enchanter.

You can omit mechanics and reveal the modifier only if someone thinks they’ve missed.  Doing this in isolation or solo play is fine.  Doing this for a group of four to six people with different weapons may slow things without some preparation so it comes down to preference, adjusting player combat rolls or more gameplay with players who know what they’re doing. I prefer the latter myself.


toolkit: antagonist

As conflict is a key element of most stories and games, it is worth considering the role of whoever or whatever opposes to the protagonist.  What are the defining characteristics of an antagonist?

The antagonist is an opposing force to a character.  This may be a physical opposition but more often an opposition of ideology, philosophy or paradigm; in Gladiator, Maximus and Commodus are polar opposites; one a family man, battle-skilled general and highly principled while the other kills or imprisons his own family for power, has no experience of war outside training in personal combat and exemplifies decadence.

By the end of the story, the protagonist and antagonist need to have resolved a significant issue, which usually is a win for the protagonist.  The root of interplay for protagonist and antagonist comes from the Greek play tradition of agon – where each side responds in an argument with the chorus as judge and the second person to speak traditionally wins for they have the last word.

An antagonist also embodies the internal conflict of the protagonist.  In The Dark Knight and Batman comics, both the Joker and Two-Face show aspects of Batman; the former his outsider status and capacity for violence, the latter his dual identity and sense of vigilante justice – it’s a measure of Batman’s complexity as a character this actually works without seeming like an excuse to pile on villains for the sake of it.

If you prefer the Bard, Hamlet and Laertes are another example – the latter shares the former’s passion for justice and obligation to family and the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia set these two on a collision course played out in the duel between them in the final act.  The two tortured characters are mirror images of each other and it’s this similarity that makes the inevitable tragedy poignant.

An antagonist must also prey on the weaknesses of a character, be it the protagonist or another character known to the protagonist.  Lex Luthor makes an effective foil for Superman by access to kryptonite while Hannibal Lector exposes and exploits the psychological foibles of both Will Turner and Clarice Starling as well as his numerous patients.  Having an inactive antagonist doesn’t do very much for anyone.

There are many ways an antagonist can work to further the plot.  Not all need to be villainous, Lieutenant Gerard from The Fugitive is one example of a noble antagonist – others exist where moral ambiguity exists in the plotline or the character needs to develop before facing off against a more threatening and definitely villainous antagonist or a mutually destructive situation.

A good antagonist has these traits and others that help make them admirable, if not sympathetic.  They need to be given some depth to engage the audience and this means development and more than two-dimensional plotting of the character.  It’s said that the measure of an individual is by their enemies, ensure the protagonists are getting their money’s worth and your audience will surely do the same!


the push and pull paradox

I’ve been thinking on player-referee dynamics, how some games or stories engage an audience more than others and ways of handling different levels of involvement.  The resulting headache forced me to take a break – which led to my mind being blown by the concept of Crow (a game of Ted Hughes style slam poetry?!) and a discussion on push-pull communication and it got me thinking…

Here comes the terminology.

Push is where you tell an audience information.  This may be in the form of exposition, narrative or handouts to provide information to interpret in real-time. It must have intrinsic value to induce involvement and be paced to prevent information overload or boredom.  The audience can respond passively or actively, according to their perceived circle of influence or whim.  This is followed by more information – act and react.

Pull is where you elicit a response from your audience and then act on it.  An initial source of information is provided (so push elements exists in every pull) and offers (by soliciting input) a negotiation on the authority of that information. The audience must respond and this negotiation ends up creating collaborative scenes where participants are involved.  A passive response implies no opinion is needed or will matter to the audience.

A level of rapport or trust with any audience is implied.  Building trust is based on a three-step process of tell me, show me, involve me.  By words and actions, authority is built or diminished.  Key to building trust is a healthy dose of acceptance. Where authority and acceptance conflict, outcomes may be positive (willing suspension of disbelief) or negative experiences (You’re dead! No I’m not!) for the audience. 

Rhythm in communication is useful to build expectation, to maintain focus and prevent boredom. The salient question here is are the audience’s needs being met?  Is the horror story actually managing scary?  Where are the pay-offs in this moment – are they visceral? vicarious? voyeuristic?  A mixture of anticipation and frustration can build tension and lead to those pay-off moments, making the communication rewarding.

Note individual audience members may have different levels of trust and expectation of rhythm, knowing what is needed and then delivering it may be a process that needs investigation.  The teacher’s mantra of tell me, show me, involve me is mirrored in ARG and game design by it’s mantra of exposition, interaction, challenge. This too requires a combination of push and pull communication.

Enough theory.  Here’s a framework (borrowed from the US Armed Forces) for you to use.
Plan what you’re trying to get across.  What payoffs and value are there?  Fix the problems. When is it done?
Decide on your approach.  Push or pull?  What are your audience’s needs?  What are your strengths?
Execute with confidence.  Bring in your strengths and smooth out bumps.  Meet needs and make pay-offs.
Assess if it worked.  Check if clarification is needed or if further input is desirable.  Know when it’s done.


flow state

Flow as defined by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes an optimal mental state someone where a person is totally occupied with a task requiring active concentration that matches their skill, being neither too hard (leading to anxiety or worry) or easy (leading to boredom or apathy) for them.  To achieve flow, a majority of the following must be true.

  1. That the activity involved is challenging but the individual has a suitable level of skill to perform well; that there is balance between the activity and the competent performance of it.  Too little skill leads to anxiety and apathy, too little challenge leads to apathy, boredom and lack of engagement.
  2. That the activity has clear goals and is inherently rewarding.  Feedback is immediate so the individual can change their approach or behaviour.  The individual knows what is expected and what to do next.
  3. The individual feels a sense of personal control over the activity even though they are not necessarily in control of the events around the activity or it’s dependencies.
  4. Action and awareness merge so that individual focus is restricted to the performance of the activity leading to a loss of self-consciousness about external presentation.  The activity becomes autotelic, it is done for the sake of the activity rather than focusing on an externalised goal.  It is what it is.
  5. Concentrating on the activity prevents external events from distracting the individual – unease leading to anxiety and potential depression caused by these events cannot enter while focused on the activity and hence there is no sense of failure, just a sense of what needs to happen next.
  6. A change in how subjective time is perceived by the individual performing the activity.  Time will often pass at an accelerated rate during periods of flow activity.

Often flow is accompanied by a sense of personal enjoyment and as the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding, it will encourage people to come back to it.  Building flow into a play environment was one of the original applications Csikszentmihalyi envisaged using the following things:

  • Charts and graphs – Including those showing flow and generally processing information.
  • Project summary – Purpose and intent.  Why are we here again?
  • Craziness – You have to have it to work here.
  • Safe place – Where all may say what is otherwise only thought without comeback or recrimination.
  • Result wall – Where it’s going.
  • Open topics

This sounds like a modern forum or bulletin board rather than a playground yet I can see how flow would be promoted here. Inhibitors of flow state include anxiety (blocking focus by eroding confidence and aptitude) and impatience (blocking focus by – ooh shiny!) which may explain why some people have difficulty getting into a game-flow or have difficulty following certain stories.  Achieving flow requires time and patience and finding the balance between balance and aptitude is going to vary for different people.


toolkit: projection

To project the deepest, darkest fears of a character into their world and to force them to deal with it is a time-honoured tactic of storytellers.  This is a point of no return for the character, forcing them into a crucible where they can either deal, suffer or curl up and die.  The character will not (and should not) be the same after this experience – it is a literal test of character.

To have this work, a character must have buttons to press.  One reason that Jaws was so effective was the character of protagonist Martin Brody, a man afraid of the water – home turf for a great white shark.  For him to be on a boat hunting a shark raises the stakes – when the Orca is sinking, it’s a truly desperate situation for him.

Psychologists note projection of discomforting emotions, wishes or ideas onto others is a psychological defence mechanism.  In extreme cases, these issues may present a character confronting the event as either antisocial, paranoid, narcissistic or psychopathic which can colour their relationships with other characters or the society they are part of.

To adequately deal with the situation, a character must learn and use an apposite response.  This could be done by altruism, anticipating and handling it, humour, identifying with or adopting a persona or archetype, sublimating fears and hangups into positive change or keeping a lid on the problem to deal with it safely later.

Other endings are possible, ones where a character suffers to survive; from repression (hiding the issue) to rationalisation (justifying the wrongdoing) to reaction formation (behaving in the opposite way to the situation) to fantasy or denial of the situation’s reality.  These alternatives have ramifications on the story and also on the audience itself.

The projection option is one that is easy to abuse and best saved as part of a transformative sequence or as a setup for a climax to a story.  Done well it can illuminate the character and provide fulfilment to the audience so it’s worth doing groundwork on the character beforehand and looking at their options but also at how the situation may play out in context of the story.


tangled threads and too much information

This month’s RPG Carnival is about roleplaying mistakes and thinking back, I’ve made a few howlers.  My last old World of Darkness Mage game folded due to a mixture of factors, players disheartened by escalating odds and their conflicting goals but the killer was it seems too many plots.

That’s not to say the plot threads weren’t linked – a resurgence of the conflict between Hermetics and Tremere tied to a conspiracy of vampires and mages trying to cure vampirism through certain rites with dire consequences (as the characters learned) and drew the attention of powerful mages.

In the background were plots leading to mass Ascension.  The Technocracy sought to contain multiple threats and launched surgical strikes using intel from Nephandic sources but were losing control as the Avatar Storm was breaking down the Gauntlet and Oracles were walking the worlds.

The group of players were all seasoned roleplayers (about seventy years of gaming experience around the table) with a working knowledge of the World of Darkness; armed with handouts.  The clues were there but the players were drowning. Where did the pieces go? Was this even the same jigsaw?!

Eventually we had to fold the game due to Real Life ™ but it was still a blow as I spent over a year running it and the same prepping for it.  That said, it’s taught me a lot about organising game events; the need to recap information and using NPCs to prompt for and to summarise essential plot arcs.

It’s also taught me you sometimes need to tie off loose ends in a way players can trust won’t come back to bite them in the backside; you can work out a way to bring plots back if need be.  Keeping things open can distract player focus – you can’t look forward while looking over your shoulder…

I’m going to post some plot threads in future posts here so you can use them; after all, I’ve done the groundwork for it.  In the event the game comes back around I’m not going to post threads they were directly involved in but this won’t diminish the amount of material by that much.