Human Slaves of an Insect Nation, Part 7-The importance of knowing when to shut up.
Previous articles dealt with managing players, the illusion of power and some campaign management details. But this one, this one is special. Because this article deals with YOU, the Storyteller, in a manner that we have not yet approached.
Remember how I told you that you were going to fuck up a lot? Remember how I explained that you may make a ton of mistakes rules-wise and mess up in micromanaging the campaign?
Well there’s also a chance that you’re talking too much. And by talking too much I don’t mean “you do all the funny voices for every NPC” or even “give away too much information” (though this is also a problem that we’re going to cover) but that “you talk so goddamn much that your entire presentation becomes background noise”.
*Fssssss* 3x3 foot room….*ffsss* gold chest…*fsss*IA IA SHUB NIGGURATH*fssss*totally looks like a c-cup
This is a problem that you have caused yourself out of your own volition and mostly because you are trying too hard. You want the players to be immersed in the campaign world by unloading words into their ears, which you know are not necessary and, above all, by introducing details that will either a) go way over their heads or b) will be presented in such a manner that it will only make sense to you and you alone.
The problem here does not have to do with your players (provided they aren’t mouth-breathing idiots or 14 years old). This is all you. Somehow, in a way you cannot quite put it, you’ve messed up the narrative and now you’re reaping what you’ve sown.
How did you do that, you ask? What can you do about it and how can you contain this before your game is reduced to dice rolling and skull-bashing without any hint of plot whatsoever?
Well sit down in that chair right there son and let me show you…
A very basic guide toward learning when and how to shut the hell up.
|Don’t make papa Augustine come over there and slap a bitch.|
Mistake Number One: Too much setting-clutter
Look at your awesomely, painstakingly designed campaign map.
You know, the one where you started drawing then gave up on halfway through, going “no one’s ever going to look at it anyway” so now the entire planet is composed of one forest, one wasteland and a river?
And then look at your notes. You’ve worked hard on both (or so you think) and you know that the sheer VOLUME of information therein is of equal value and importance. In fact, you cannot think of how no-one is interested in the Drow-Duergar Treaty of 1734 that pretty much made them playable races, or the importance of Liver-Bane mead in dwarf culture or even that creepy bit about the reproductive rituals of Half-trolls.
If you still can’t see the problem, let me spell it out for you: this shit is too much. This is a heap of information that you have infused your world with that nobody wants to know or, at the very least nobody wants to know all of it all at once.
Understand this: your players (who exist and act within this world that you have put together) do not care about this extra information, unless it somehow directly affects them or catches their eye. More often than not, your treatises on the religious practices of the Copper Island Tribes will make them groan and roll their eyes.
The awesome funeral of the important NPC or friend that went down fighting the Thing In The Mountain, however, will not.
Same goes for places: your players do not give a shit what the history of the place is, unless presented to them in snippets. Unless they earnestly research the material themselves, you should not go into an hour-long rant on the founding of Darkwoods Asylum in the 1820s, or the story of the tragic death of each of its caretakers.
The process of going into such ill-advised tangents is called infodumping and it’s bad for you. Infodumping is essentially you unloading a truckful of tidbits and stuff that (no matter how well researched or presented) do not interest your players. You end up wasting everyone’s time so you can show off your sick writing skillz, without once considering that this shit kind of takes away all the fun.
That’s not to say that your players don’t care about your world. Matter of fact, they keep coming every week just so they can find out more about it, explore it and carve kingdoms out of the massed corpses of their slain foes.
That’ll teach those fucking yakmen not to abandon the lands of their forefathers when ordered to! Jeffrey! Get me my golden shovel! Imma build me a capital atop their sacred resting places!
So how can you deal with the irresistible urge to vomit history into their ears? Why, by being a slutty little cocktease! Don’t show everything right away. Give them only information. Give them rumors, folk tales, maybe a song or two. Give them a short discussion that quickly escalates into a fistfight between a Sotharan Loyalist and a Sotharan neo-anarchist in their space-bar!
By giving the players glimpses into a living, breathing world that moves all around them, you create the illusion of something far greater than they could ever imagine. But by also weaving these bits of information to the actual story (mixed with the occasional red herring), you get them hooked.
And once they’re hooked, they’re yours.
Mistake Number Two: What are you doing here, Mary Sue? Nobody likes you…
She also farts out lollipops and her blowjobs topple nations.
If you don’t know what a Mary Sue is, go google it real quick. If you can’t even be arsed to do that, you lazy bum, here’s a brief definition:
A Mary Sue is a character who has every superpower ever and everybody likes. She’s also essentially you, living out your power fantasy by slapping your cock all over the goddamn game.
We’re all guilty of Mary Sues in one form or another. For most of us, it’s the 32nd level druid/monk/assassin half-drow half-dragon superwarrior who turns into a bear with chainsaws for teeth and is impervious to all forms of damage because… “he’s uh…got as speshul shield dat blocks all damage!”
Some of us realize that this character is stupid as fuck early on and we give up, devoting the rest of our gaming lives to making amends for our cock-shattering stupidity. Others…
|Others never yield, apologize or surrender.|
Mary Sues come in all forms, shapes and sizes but they all share one trait:
They are reviled by the players and with good reason. Mostly because they know that it is a poor attempt on your behalf to forcefully inject a character hat will steal their limelight, but primarily because Mary Sues suck.
Know this: you are running the story, the universe in which it is set in and the cast of billions that comprise it. You control the weather, the frequency, the length and breadth of the narrative. You are the force that turns sunlight into wine and dead men’s curses into actual perils. In short, you are the God of the narrative.
So why the fuck would you need a masturbatory projection of yourself in the story? If this is an act of pleasing yourself, then you have already achieved hyper-fellatio by creating the world. By making something that is a glorious but shitty rendition of something that the players can never hope to be will only generate well-deserved hate from them and even serve to derail your campaign into a ‘let’s kill the immortal Storyteller pet’.
Avoid any and all presentations of such characters. Avoid idealizing NPCs or picking favorites. Avoid creating campaigns that revolve around them. If you can’t help yourself, then make those NPCs on the same level as the players (or perhaps, weaker than they are), because the players need something they can look down on and protect.
No-one drove all the way to your mom’s basement to watch you jerk off, is all I’m sayin’.
And on a related note: fuck you and your shameless placement of pop-culture characters in your game, dude. I came here to roleplay as Ruth’Malak, the future ravager of worlds and Ravisher of Llolth, not to watch you play out your best-worst Orochimaru impersonation.
Mistake Number Three: Your Presentations Also Probably Suck.
It’s a…bunch of chicks. They’re kinda hot and they’re probably making out under all that shit so you know…hot.
So you’re probably not Homer and your prose may not exactly be Shakespearean. It’s entirely possible that your presentations may not be Harlan Ellison-y in scope or conjure nightmarish landscapes like the ones by Anthony Burghess or speak of the human condition like Kurt Vonnegut’s.
And that’s logical, because this is a fucking game that you run for your friends that come over to be entertained, not to jerk each other off while they compete over chick lit.
|“Don’t you see, you fools? The dungeon is a metaphor for the human condition!” “If I may interject, David, I found the chained demon in level 3 to be a direct reference to the tale of Sisyphus...”|
But that doesn’t mean you have to keep sucking at it. Here’s an example, from the days of my youth, roughly translated into English, to show you exactly how sucky presentations work:
The creature standing before you is huge, around two meters long and three meters high. Its fur is a burnt orange, which seems to shimmer and appears to radiate heat in all directions. On its back, a pair of great leathery bat wings flap, as it slowly tries to rise from the ground with great, awkward strokes. Its three heads (one of a black goat, the other two of a lion’s and a copper dragon’s respectively) spit and hiss acid on the ground, making the forest floor bubble and hiss where they land. With a great roar from all heads, the creature unsheathes its mighty claws as it swoops down on you.
|If you found yourself impossibly bored by the above description, here’s something to ease your mind.|
This description was severely cut down, mostly because it was about a thousand words long, wherein I went into great detail presenting every detail of the creature, serving to both give away every aspect of it to the players, but also make them throw dice at me just so I could shut up. This is a condensed but still shitty version.
Okay, breakdown: why did this description suck? There’s a ton of reasons, but mostly…
-It was too goddamn long.
Nobody wanted to hear what color the creature’s fur was or the color of each of its heads. No one wanted to stick around in a cutscene, as I made the monster fly and charge the party before they could react. My most vivid memory of this description is one of the players going “can’t I skip the goddamn cinematic”?
-The descriptive priorities were shit.
When a 2-tonne three-headed lion-goat-dragon with acid for blood swoops down on you, you don’t notice the goddamn fur or how warm and fluffy it is. What you’re mostly focusing on at the time are its GIGANTIC GODDAMN TEETH and the fact that it is coming at you at 3 meters a second. What I was trying to do here was slowly build up the reveal, creating a sense of anticipation. There was, however, a very blatant problem that doomed my efforts from the very first moment:
I could not have created any sense of anticipation when I just threw the monster in their faces and went “waaaiiit fooorr iiittt”
|Because the fucking thing was already staring them in the face!|
Which leads to the third problem:
-You cannot honestly expect that in-game presentations work like cutscenes:
No matter how good you are at it, or how riveting your prose, you cannot expect that your group of sociopaths is going to sit by and do nothing while a monster is charging them. They’re going to call bullshit and just pepper the fucking thing with arrows and this will be your own fucking fault entirely.
Tabletop roleplaying does not work like a vidyagame. If something bursts from the foliage, no one will sit around and wait for it to roar or hold down L1+R1 till they get away. They’re going to do whatever the fuck it is they wanna do and you can’t stop them.
It’s whether or not you can anticipate these reactions and work around your limitations that will set you apart from the rest.
So with those things in mind, let’s redo my original shitty version of the chimera presentation:
There’s a rustle in the treetops and a shadow on the ground, lightning-fast. Your scout’s keen eyes barely have time to register the hulk whose leathery wings have blotted out the sun; with a cry, he urges you to seek cover, before the three-headed monstrosity descends on you.
This isn’t nowhere near perfect. But no one is going to have time to hate it, as they are attacked by the monster. This generates some much-needed tension, as everyone just rushes to unsheathe their weapons or just hit the dirt, while maintaining the mystery of the creature’s true nature.
tl;dr “Holy shit! Run!” instead of “Oh God, let it end…”
-Same goes for places
|“It’s a pretty sweet crib. Dude that owns it, he’s installed solid gold roofs so you know he’s fucking loaded.”|
In the interest of avoiding further embarrassing myself, I will not post the long, boring as fuck descriptions of places, so here’s a few quick tips:
Places are just as important as people or monsters. They are your campaigns points of focus and deserve attention. Not too much attention or a bunch of unwanted bullshit, but they need to be unique, interesting or at the very least, not boring.
If your players have been cruising from castle to castle for the entirety of the campaign, then perhaps the Edge Keep will not exactly pique their interest.
Makes your places interesting and appealing. Give each of them one characteristic that stands out in your player’s minds. Give them roofs made out of tits, or churches built out of sausages. Go fucking nuts, as long as your world isn’t chockfull of goddamn elves or a uniform goddamn grey!
Mistake Number Four: Nobody wants to ride your story-train
“All aboard the fail-train!”
Railroading (the phenomenon of manhandling your players into following a set story path without any option of straying) is a phenomenon that is a permanent and unforgettable blemish on a Storyteller’s performance sheet. It is vulgar, ham-handed and hurts the narrative.
Also, everyone does it. And I mean EVERYONE.
I did it, you did it and every nerd who’s ever ran a campaign has committed the grave sin of railroading, simply because you think your story is way better than anything else anyone could ever think of.
You probably also like to dress-up as Batman and pretend you’re playing super-clever chess with your housepets.
The truth is this, plain and simple: your story idea (no matter how well-crafted or managed) is dumb, trite and stupid. If you have also tried to make it somewhat more intelligent, it’s pretentious. If you think you can strong-arm your ideas to a group of buddies who comes over to play at being sociopaths for shits and giggles, then you’re also a self-centered idiot.
Tabletop gaming is based on the idea that everyone will fuck up at any time. Now we are going to assume that it’s you who fucked up, by forcing everyone to stand in line and wave their dicks around as a token example of free will.
Railroads infuriate players way more than Mary Sues do. They are clear, outright examples of you attempting to steal their limelight and they won’t let that go until you knock that shit off. What can you do about it?
-Be a fucking adult:
Your mom isn’t going to come over and ask everyone to play nice because it’s not your birthday and you’re not 8 years old anymore. Your friends aren’t going to take it easy on you because they’re your friends and they’re used to giving you shit.
What you’re doing right now, with the whole railroading thing, is essentially crying out for attention in the most blatantly childish, idiotic manner possible. You want people to be swept up in your narrative by sheer virtue of your storytelling prowess instead of an actual goddamn sense of participation.
Nobody comes to your basement just to toss dice and exchange Monty Python quotes. They come here to be entertained. But entertainment is not about just telling as story, as much as letting the audience participate in it, creating a greater whole.
By railroading, you are crippling your story and destroying any chances of salvaging your narrative, for your own selfish sake.
-Let the players carry the burden for your sake:
Give them something to do. Give them NPCs, rumors, brave new lands. Make an outline, not a goddamn plot. Let them run around and get all muddy.
I’m against the idea of sandbox gaming in its current form. There’s a whole movement of Storytellers out there who think that by just laying out a map filled with instances that the players can fuck around with will somehow make a campaign.
But the idea holds water, to a certain point. Instead of sandboxing an entire campaign world, you can just choose to present story hooks. Have the dead DreadGuard carry a mysterious signet ring that seems to whisper something in an ancient tongue. Make the slain messenger turn out to be an envoy of the king, killed while carrying vital information. Turn one of the participants of the barroom brawl into a sleeper agent for the bad guys.
Just throw something out there, no pressure. See if it catches their eye. It doesn’t have to be a plotline in and of itself, but your players are going to make one out of it, by frantically seeking to complete a quest that they themselves created.
Do it right and you won’t even have to lift a goddamn finger. Do it wrong and…
-Prepare yourself for unforeseen concequences:
“So, wake up, Mister Paladin. Wake up and... *smell the ashes*...”
Abolishing railroading does not mean allowing GTA-style sandboxing. You can’t have a game where your players burn cities and loot dead whores. Which means that you need to be smart about it.
Do not attempt to force them into doing something. Placing a thousand space marines in the next city will only make things worse. What you can do is plain old talk to them. Ask them why they think that sinking that boatful of orphans is such a good idea.
If that fails, then sit back, wait and plot.
I’ve met parties whose only intent and focus was to ruin campaign worlds. Out of those many cases of dickery, only one was justified (wherein the Storyteller was living out his little power fantasy with his best buddies and his girlfriend). You know how they solved it?
They waited and plotted. They let the players go around killing shit until they got bored, while testing their strengths and weaknesses and coming up with elaborate payback schemes, just as the players began to grow tired of the massacre and then BAM!
|Mel Gibson kicks the door in and shoots them in the balls.|
It wasn’t so much revenge, as comeuppance. A bunch of assholes that spent their time ruining the world made a ton of enemies, who massed together to plain old kill the fuckers in the worst way imaginable. I was there at the time and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.
But you don’t need to do that. Just the idea that there are repercussions if you fuck with the narrative could be more than enough to sway the tide. Instead of generating revenge characters, show the repercussions on people or places the characters love. Make them feel hounded and unwanted and pretty soon they’ll be busting their asses trying to find a way to make amends.
Because in tabletop roleplaying, everybody thinks he’s a rockstar, unfettered by concequence and responsibility but also showered with adoration. By subtly presenting this, you will have the players contributing without straying every step of the way.
Addendum:Remember how I said most people can't do scary voices for the life of them?
Meet the exception:
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