Getting your hooks in

This week, we’re talking about making the player care about story conflict.

It’s always tough to make a player emotionally invested in a fantasy world, but that’s a enough material for a whole series of posts, so today the focus is on making threats the players will care about. A villain is no good if the goal of their dastardly plan is to destroy something the player doesn’t even like in the first place, or overthrow a far away kingdom, or raise the price of space beets. The logical solution to this is to threaten something the player likes, but this is not as easy as it seems.

First, you have to actually figure out what the player likes, and is willing to sacrifice for in your game world. A helpful NPC, a kindly old lady, the town the player grew up in, or a relative selected at random are always good choices, but they are also the obvious choices. Players will fight tooth and nail to keep their favorite bar in business, to protect their alma mater from being overrun by demons, or to stop the murder of a government official they actually care about. Make a clear threat on one of these and you’ll have the players up in arms in no time.

Second, you can’t overdo it. Sooner or later, players will stop caring about something if it turns into a constant source of grief. A relative who is always in trouble tends to get ignored rather quickly, kindly old ladies are only worth so much trouble, and that school never washed it’s toilets properly anyways. And then there are the things you can only do once. Only once can you threaten the place the players feel safe, or the NPC the players are truly attached to. This may seem like a hamstringing rule, as what could the players care about more than what is most important to them, but if the players secret stronghold is ransacked twice, or the sweet little girl they take turns babysitting turns out to be a demon and a werewolf, they will never let their guard down again. Which might be what you want, but otherwise is to be avoided.

Remember, threaten the things players care about, but don’t go overboard.


The one you love to hate

This week we’re talking about sympathetic villains.

Making the players emotionally invested in the villain is a tough task. It’s easy to say “Hey, this is the lord God-King of Chaos-Death, and he is nasty and you should hate him”, but nobody wants to punch cardboard cutouts with dastardly mustaches all day, so it’s essential your villains have some depth. One fairly standard trick is to make your villain’s motives and past something the players can relate to.

This is, admittedly, a fairly standard ploy, but at the same time it can be a remarkably effective one. The Necromancer who overthrew a corrupt governor through the only means at his disposal because they were trying to take his daughter away to work in the coal mines is significantly harder to axe than the Necromancer who thought he could make an all skeleton (and one human head) production of Hamlet if he just had a few more helpless villager shaped bodies.

The trick, however, is not to overdo the sob story attached to the bad guy. Preferably, the villain will have been someone whose position your players could see themselves in, and was pushed to the edge and had to make a choice. The absolute best uses of this are the genuinely good villains who were simple men or women caught up in a bad situation, such as the above necromancer. The plot of basically any action movie revolving around someone out for revenge works well for this.

The problem with sympathetic villains is that they are a gun pointed at your player’s psyche, and you need to figure out what you want them to do before you commit one to your campaign. Are they secretly the hero and you want the player to side with them against the evil king? Are they double secretly actually just a villain tugging at the hero’s heartstrings? Are both sides good people but someone is still going to die and it’s up to the PCs to decide who? That’s all up to you, but you better pick one before you throw something like this into a game.

Remember, sympathetic villains are dangerous, but effective. Handle with care and make sure you know why they’re there.

All’s fair in love and game.

Today we’re talking about logic in game progression.

Have you ever been in a game and found you just couldn’t proceed? You hadn’t found the secret code that told you in which order to ignite the thirteen pyres, or you didn’t know you had to use the ball of yarn to pacify the three headed lion, or maybe you just never bothered picking up a silver sword back at the market and now werewolves are eating your face? There’s very few situations more frustrating and less immersive than having to run through your entire inventory twice, before carefully re-exploring the entirety of the game looking for the single item capable of advancing the plot. This is not a situation that can ever be entirely planned for, but there are a few simple things that make it much less likely your player is going to end up running a fine tooth comb over the entirety of your carefully crafted world trying to find the last seal to defeat the god-king.

First, give your players a small toolbox. This is significantly easier in video games, where you can just not give players the option to talk to people, or pick up objects, or attack, or any other action that you never want to be the solution to a problem. An FPS generally doesn’t have to deal with players trying to solve their problems through peer mediation, just like a puzzle game tends not to have players attempting to kill all of the other denizens. Unless it’s Gyromancer or something similar, of course. This can be accomplished similarly in pen and paper games by limiting the player’s access to extraordinary items and abilities. If there are multiple Bid Bads, it is entirely feasible that one super weapon will work for all of them. Likewise, the Space Ranger doesn’t need a gun that shoots fourteen different types of laser, when the only ones he needs are laser and improbable stun laser. The player’s are always going to either fight, talk to, avoid, or some combination thereof every encounter they face, so it’s easier on everyone involved if they don’t have to choose between a hundred variations of each.

Second, remind them how the tools work. If you have a game about shooting people in the face, and inviting others to candlelit dinners to hold urbane conversations, those two mechanics need to be introduced in the beginning of the game, and repeatedly established. If you focus on the candlelit dinner aspect, and it turns out the end boss was susceptible only to bullets applied liberally to the face, it’s going to take your player a few tries to remember gun violence is a viable solution to his problem. It’s important to keep no more than a 70/30, and preferably more of a 60/40 split between the time your player should devote to each mechanic. This is not saying that your combination brawler/egg painting sim should have you kill two people for every egg you boil, but rather the time spent painting your eggs should not greatly outweigh the amount of time spent smashing faces into the ground.

Third, and most important, make sure the answer makes sense to people who aren’t you. Sure, you know the dread lich has always secretly wanted a puppy, and that makes him incredibly susceptible to lies told about the fluffiness of puppies, but how would your players be expected figure that out? A good solution is often just to ask someone from outside your sphere of influence if they will come in and read through what you have. Chances are, someone without your encyclopedic knowledge of your own characters will find at least a few things that don’t make sense, and that’s what you have to look out for.

Remember, give them the tools, make them shiny, and don’t over-complicate things.