509 – You Can’t Go Back: 16


Today’s blog is the start of something a little different. Twice a month I’m going to be writing posts having something to do with the actual game of D&D. These posts will be collected and kept in a separate area of the site (in addition to being in the regular blog area) for the convenience of gamers who want to read about D&D stuff. I like writing about D&D, but I don’t want to turn off the folks who show up here for a non-D&D blog… so I figured twice a month was a good compromise.

Layering Your Mysteries

Running a D&D game has often been compared to herding cats. Frequently players want to run off in their own directions, and more times than not, it isn’t the direction you were hoping for. One cause of this is a world that is so deeply steeped in the unknown that it reduces the players’ buy-in. You want to give them all these great secrets to figure out, but the players feel like they know so little about the world that they are apart from it. That’s a bad sign. Once the PCs don’t feel connected, there’s nothing to hold them to the plot of the game.

Clever DM’s (like you!) who want to create investment in their players can create several different layers of mystery in their game. For instance, begin your campaign planning with the big one, the game ender. The Princess hired the dragon herself to kidnap her, in order to throw the feds off of her trail when her boyfriend the mind flayer killed the rightful heir to the throne. Later Princess framed the king for sleeping with the finance minister’s six year old son, leaving her way clear to the throne. While this mystery may get some teasers and foreshadowing, it should remain relatively obscure until the end of the campaign. This is kind of thing that should reveal who is behind the dark forces crawling through the world, and should as well represent an ultimate-type goal for the characters.

Next come the milestone mysteries. The relatively big deal items that mark a special place in the game when the players figure them out. You want several in a campaign, but (relatively) evenly spaced out so that everyone remembers them as something special when they happen. This is the stuff like finding out that the wolf attacks that have been ongoing since the beginning of the game are being led by the town’s werewolf bartender, or discovering that it was one of the PC’s family members that introduced the zombie plague into the city high school, or the fact that the city guard have always hated the PCs because the leader of the Thieves’ Guild has been paying the guardsmen to try and keep the party out of the way while they rob the churches blind. The key to these mysteries is that they are active and ongoing. They will be a thorn in the PCs’ sides until they dope them out, and the discovery should lead to some kind of concrete action the players can utilize to resolve the issue. (That’s what makes it fun!)

Finally come the everyday mysteries. Now these can be big things or small, “everyday” doesn’t have to mean unimportant. But they should be things that the characters can discover in less than one session of play… if they’re looking. If you just give all the answers away the players will stop trying to solve the problems, but if it takes too long to find out that the goblin who stole Mrs. Machickchucksenson’s tomatoes has a den north of town… then they may stop trying, or worse yet, simply become frustrated, angry, and sullen. Your goal with everyday mysteries is to give the players a relatively constant stream of rewards for making the effort. Everyday mysteries add up to lots of little feathers in a player’s cap, and bring a lot to his or her sense of place in your fantasy world. Plus, should a party of PCs choose to ignore an everyday mystery for too long, it might decide to upgrade itself to a milestone mystery.

Finally, once the mystery has been popped, one of the best things you can do for your game is to decide how to deal with the information and who knows it. Consider, players spend a great deal of time walking around asking NPCs about the world they live in. It makes it easy to feel that everyone in a game knows more than the PCs — this can also lead to players feeling pushed out of the game world. But… what if NPCs were coming up to PCs and asking them questions that the PCs actually knew all about? This gives the players a sense of place, whether they choose to answer the questions or not. (But it’s even better when the PC is friendly to the player and you get to hear some aspect of your game related back to you. That could be an article all by itself!) Now it’s the players who know more about the world than the NPCs. It’s a very empowering tactic, and one almost any player will appreciate.

Layering your mysteries requires a little bit of thought and planning on the DM’s part, as well as a willingness to trash whatever mysteries he has created and go back to the drawing table when the players destroy some aspect of the game in favor of a murderous pub crawl through a neighboring orc nation. But these things will begin to suggest themselves as your game progresses, and it’s easier to do than you think.

After all, who would have suspected the princess of kidnapping herself other than the leader of the Thieves’ Guild who was only doing a job for that tomato eating goblin in the woods north of town…

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22 Responses to 509 – You Can’t Go Back: 16

  1. Very nice article. ever consider grouping this game design advice into easier to browse tabs? I love the comic too, but find your articles are at least as interesting.

    • Yeah. I’m going to make a separate section that you’ll be able to navigate to from the top just for straight Dungeons and Dragons stuff. I’m going to try and entice some other writers and designers to add to this section as well.

  2. You screwed this one up. Enkidu is out of focus in the second picture and Bunker is out of focus in the last picture. Even Order of the Stick does their artwork better than this.

    (And that art is a joke. Funnier than this though.)

  3. What is a lesbonian whore? Sure that is a typo, however, I am only 12 so I may have made a mistake on this…

    I like the look of the D&D series, I would like to see more real examples from games that you have run / been in, rather than a general description of an idea.

    I know most GMs have their own ways of making adventures, but I would like to see some of the plots that you come up with so I can steal them take inspiration from them for my own campaigns.


  4. Yeah, the irony is that I really enjoy Rich’s art. (The dude can draw, BTW.) OotS art is all about design, rather than detail, and because the characterizations are so good, the blank(ish) faces increase people’s ability to relate to the characters and see themselves in them.

    A lesbonian is what a jackass calls a lesbian, Alan. And no fear, I will be including much material from my own games later in the series. First I want to talk a bit about process though. It’ll make more sense later when I’m talking about my game if we do it this way. 😀

  5. As a roleplayer I just discovered your comic and I have to say I enjoy it immensly. Reading all the way from the first comic I am currently at comic 337. It’s nice to see how much your characters have developed both as well… drawings and most of all as people, with quirks and issues. I intend to finish up the whole archive tonight. I do have to say it’s a little harder to get all the jokes at the moment on account of the smaller type used in the 300+ comics, but heck, it isnt your fault I can t be bothered to get some new glasses for myself ^^.

    I read your blog as well, and I have to say I do agree with most things you try to point out to the readers. Just wanted to comment here that your 3 part explanation of the economical crisis was, in fact, the most spot on I have ever read. You sir, must have a wisdom score of at least 19. And yes I know you did some research and worked it into a context people would understand more easily. It s just that I find it hilarious that in all this time not a single news station in Holland has been able to achieve the same. I mean, these people are college graduates with actual salaries and many recourses at their disposal. And even then, they re just eating your dust. I salute you!

    • I’ve made a minor hobby out of collecting these explanations… which page(s) had your encapsulation(s)? I can’t remember if I’ve read it (or them) or not.

  6. Well, feeding Trolls or not, I would like to point out to Dick DoGood that the focusing “issues” you have pointed out are the artist’s way of getting the reader to focus on the key speaker in the panel. That way you don’t get confused as to who the little speech bubble is coming from.

    Looking forward to seeing more from Enkidu and the lesbonians. And finding out who the red-head in the tavern is. I like the idea for the d&d blogs. I don’t really play d&d anymore, but I still play Warhammer RPG and Star Wars and others so the ideas for game hooks and mysteries is still handy. Looking forward to those two times a month when you post those blogs.

    • The big problem with the focus is that it wasn’t done to completion. In photography, you can get this sort of focus by fiddling with the apperature settings. It can be quite striking (in fact, look at what people are doing these days with digital versions of manipulating focus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilt-shift_miniature_faking — which *CAN* be done entirely with a lens if you have the right set-up). The problem is that you alter the focus of the speakers but not the background. It should be fuzzy in both cases…..that would add more realism to the effect.

  7. Very effective and not very difficult to plot out usually.
    I most often tried to go for what I’d describe as a neo-sandbox method: Create a system of politics complete with varied actors with agendas and pools of extras that are varyingly aligned. Works nicely if you’re up to that level of work, especially if you can keep re-using the same setting and politics. Most GMs don’t have a gift for running and integrating the results of dozens of different actors worth of motivations simultaneously though–something absolutely necessary to avoid accidentally corrupting things. I suppose you could get by with spending lots of time charting out everything and trying to write out predictions and contingecy reactions but ultimately it’s all about knowing your NPCs well enough that when the players zag you know what the immediate reactions will be and also have the list of countermeasures/responses ready (in order of increasing desperation) for when shit really happens.
    When doing this I rarely bothered with deep mysteries: Most powerful actors/groups are too tied down by everyday concerns or trying to enjoy their power and wealth to do much which is unusual. With a milieu of sufficient population to breed emergent weirdness the major plots need to be decipherable (or at least second-guessable after some trial-and-error) or else the players are forever walking blind into death-traps: More of a problem in cyberpunk than in D&D since in cyberpunk traps tend to start at groups of thugs with guns around a corner, pre-positioned snipers and landmines and go up in probable lethality from there. Even with a bit of GM-contrived luck my players can miss important details that end up reaching out and try to turn the PCs to paste, leaving my players to compile lists of clues missed and mistakes made in the post-mortem.

    • I find that the bit of training I got in “method acting” comes in very handy for this. Basically, spinning of a thread of personality in my head that -is- the other character, and hence reacts as that character would. Rather than having to plot out reactions for every contingency, they just react, and talk to me much the same way the players do (albeit, only inside my head). Remember, it’s only crazy once you stop being able to tell the difference between the imaginary voices and the real ones; having a “personality construct”, for lack of a better word, running around in your head isn’t crazy, just eccentric. And really useful. Definitely not everyone -can- do this; not everyone who can, should, for that matter. But for those who have the talent, and the mental stability to pull it off without losing themselves, it can be extremely helpful.

      I think this may be along the same lines as what authors are talking about when they say the characters take on lives of their own, and just won’t do what they had originally been supposed to, necessitating rewrites…

  8. I tend to find that despite my best efforts to plot out a good mystery my PCs are always of the shoot/stab first, don’t bother with the questions at all variety. When confronted with an overwhelming force that is standing far enough away that the PCs would have to rush them to get into sword range, and also have crossbows pointed at said PCs, they always choose to fight. It isn’t until one of them gets shot in the head that they decide maybe it would be better to just give up and see if they can escape later. Which of course they could if only they would pay attention to the words rickety chair, tough hemp rope. They just kept trying to break the rope! Never once tried to break the chair. *sigh*

    • I find that with players like that the only thing to do is subject them to highly violent cyberpunk stylings where failing to pay adequate attention leads quickly to death. I don’t know how I’d try to handle this in other systems/genres.

    • I think sometimes it pays to be a little more forthcoming and/or flexible than you think you ought to be. For instance, in the above example, you could have described the obvious strength of the rope, along with a description of the chair swaying and creaking under the character’s weight. What I probably would have done would have been to ask myself how it would affect the players’ enjoyment to let them break the rope instead of the chair… and then probably just let them break the rope instead. Sometimes it doesn’t have to make the most sense, it’s just about making the players feel good about themselves.

  9. Sometimes, trying to break the rope -will- break the chair, too. After all, the character would mostly be flexing the same general muscle groups, and doing lots of general squirming… If the players just don’t get what you’re offering them, sometimes giving a “booby prize” along the lines of what you were aiming for gets them thinking in the right direction.

  10. Actually, I hadn’t noticed the background was not out of focus until someone pointed it out. I focus on the characters that I automatically ignore the backgrounds. You can tell as most of my backgrounds suck-ass…

    I liked the use of the focus to pull us into the proper character. Nice job! Did/do you do any photography? That will help with the depth of field concept. I taught photography courses in the early 80s and NO ONE got depth of field fully.

    Anyway, good job and I’ve been busy but I’ll try and catch up.