Thursday, 14 January 2021

Joining the dots part 2

Some interesting comments and some further thoughts on yesterday's post - if nothing else I surprised some of you by actually posting for the first time since July!

Roger (via email) observes, wisely, (paraphrasing) that even if you're exploiting the players' quest for the interconnectedness of things, you still need to work to preserve the illusion that they are discovering connections that already exist, rather than having the world quietly morph beneath their feet to match their conclusions. Once you've broken the implicit trust that the players have that they're playing in a consistent world, it's hard to re-establish. As I commented yesterday, being able to bluff and keep secrets is a useful skill. 

To expand on that thought further, though: to be able to pull this off well when you have to, you need to earn your players' trust that you're not 'out to get them', to play fair with the dynamics of the story and make sure they understand and enjoy the fact that you are there to facilitate the telling of a story in which their characters are the heroes, with challenges thrown in their way.

Conversely, though, what you'd rather not do is throw your whole story line away because the players join the wrong set of dots - see the cartoon[1] Alan suggested for a rather excessive example. Sure, if the players want to go deal with this imagined threat, fine: but you can treat as a short distraction, or work out a way of weaving it into your wider arc... Or of course, they can just be wrong. I think part of your reaction has to depend on the tone of your campaign and the attitude of the players - if you're telling heroic fantasy and its a genuine misinterpretation by the players that has potential, it might be worth running with. If the players are, on the other hand, just doing it to deliberately derail the game, then maybe you need a wee chat.,., you should probably already have had one, in fact.

Which leads to the next point. Apophenia is a positive asset for a story-telling DM. It's the trait that allows you to look at half a dozen PC backgrounds, and pull out of it both a reason for them all to meet and perhaps give most or all of them hooks into the campaign you're planning. (Remember what we said about how good fantasy novels tie up loose ends). 

I tend to take the paragraph or so I get from each player (or my notes on the session I spent helping them generate a character), and weave a bit of backstory in that ties them into the spider's web of threads that is the campaign. Of course, at that point my spider's web can be a bit loose, with strands labelled things like 'this NPC and this one are connected because of something to do with X', or 'organisation Y is after information about Z for some reason", and my implicit contract with the players is that I promise to tighten it up with facts before it matters. Performing the background exercise with the players also prompts me to create new connections, as well as tightening up some of the loose links that are already there.

My session prep does, to a large part, consist of rechecking the connections I've already got notes on in the light of what happened last week, what's planned for this week, and what bright ideas hit me at 3am. I think my major need is to be able to understand why what's happening this coming week is happening. In addition, there's another unspoken contract I have with myself and the players that I won't retcon things that have in anyway 'appeared on stage' or influenced events on stage (unless it's because someone was wrong in a way that I can rationalise with existing facts, in-character), nor will I break connections even if the players don't know about them yet (especially if that connection is the prompt for an NPC's actions). I and my players have a story to tell, and for me and I hope for them, that story has to be consistent at the time and in retrospect. I am giving serious thought to using mind maps for this - stuff is already in LegendKeeper, which allows me to link things.

I'd be fascinated to know, for example, how far ahead someone like Matt Mercer plans. I'm very much planning the section headings a long way out, the nearest section probably has chapter titles, and the current and next chapter probably have outlines. I also think in, and am inspired by, images a lot, so in some ways the section headings may be more mental graphical storyboards, or scenes way in the future that I think I want to happen. Part of the truck, though, is not to get so wedded to those that you railroad players towards them, and there's an art to dribbling clues so that the party can choose their path based on them.

To wrap up - Phil (one of my players in the email campaign I mentioned a couple of posts ago, as is Alan) has useful apophenia in spades - he has a knack for looking at bits of plot and history and going 'oh, wait, so does that mean'... I love it when my players do this! But, anyway, he provided a quote that suns up, I think, why we play D&D, from the late Jack Cohen in one of the "Science of Discworld" books:

"[...] plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories. That's us: Pan narrans. And what about Homo sapiens? Yes, we think that would be a very good idea."

[1] Apologies but this has a really obnoxious privacy cookie dialogue.

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